Exploring the foundations of the thriving new-gen UK label
When James Williams embarked on his drum & bass mission, it was never meant to be as a label owner… Operating under the alias Illusive, his ambition was to establish himself as a producer and DJ.
But, as life often does, a major curveball was thrown his way. After just over year of being part of a collective running Yamatai Records, he was suddenly in the position as sole owner of the label and he had to make some pretty big decisions about how he invested his time.
A year later Yamatai Records is thriving. Alongside a team which comprises the likes of R3IDY, Kalane, Pine and Rockall, James has developed an exciting platform which has become synonymous with new-generation talent. Alongside the likes of Flexout, Overview, Incurzion and Critical, it’s become a check-on-sight imprint where you’re guaranteed to find exciting new names and deep, forward-thinking cutting edge sounds and ideas.
Recent releases have come from the likes of Yatuza, Erotic Cafe’, Leks, Subrix, Resslek, Wallhack and Pine to name a few. Most recently though, the label stepped up once again with Foundations Of Yamatai Vol 1, an epic VA LP that features some of the artists who inspired James back when he embarked on D&B mission… Disprove, Rizzle, Waeys, Kyrist, Creatures, H0ST, Invadhertz and many others feature, all rebooting some of the biggest tracks from the label so far.
As James describes it, Foundations Of Yamatai Vol 1 is their biggest statement piece so far. Plenty more is set to follow in the near future. We called up James to find out more about the label so far and hear how he’s found a passion for label craft that he didn’t even know he had…
Take me back to the deepest foundations . April 2020 and the first Yamatai upload…
So originally it was started with three of us. Myself, my old mate Josh and Corrupted Mind. We started it off and had a good idea on the sound the direction and theme of the label. We were inspired by the Asian style and aesthetic. The style and range of colour’s we could use.
Rich culture to be inspired by. Especially in terms of strong influence of discipline. Japan and drum & bass come hand in hand in that way.
100% agree! Whether you’re an artist, DJ, any type of craft, you have to put your head down and put in the graft to do what you want to do. And also Japan has been a huge dream of mine to visit. I love everything about its culture, style and aesthetic. That was the main inspiration but the discipline is a huge thing.
Yamatai is an ancient kingdom, right?
Yeah but we found it in the Lara Croft series. It’s one of the islands in the franchise. But you’re spot on. I have to say, when we started Initially I wasn’t so involved as I am now. I was pushing more on my artist profile as Illusive. Then in 2022 the other guys stepped back so I took it over. That’s why in 2022 we had a rebrand. I wanted a fresh start.
Ah I see! Take me around the Yamatai universe
When I came to it as a sole owner, the complete direction changed. The artwork was a big thing for me. I wanted real artwork that you’d see in a gallery. That’s how we’ve ended up working with sick designers like Gaijin and Jack Cruz. We stand for hardworking driven individuals who are dedicated to the craft. Also having that family aspect; supporting and guiding each other. It’s been a fun experience the last couple of years… And lot of learning!
Yeah I bet. I love the fact you’re a proper team. The family side is important isn’t it?
Yeah I think so. If you’re going to start a brand it’s a fundamental aspect to have. If you want support and you’ve got a group of you shouting for each other it’s helps you make some type of noise. We’ve got a sick team. Jakob R3IDY and Kalane are our in-house mastering and quality checking engineers. All consistency and quality you hear in the releases is down to them.
Kalane and Kelly Rockall do some label management aspects as well. Then we’ve got the big roster of artists and DJs and they’re all top tier and smashing it. I can’t thank them enough for the amount of support I’ve had. There’s only so much you can present a vision to people, but when you see it happening in real time you know you’re in a good spot.
Inspiring! What does a tune have to do to be a Yamatai release?
The number one thing is vibe. There’s a big emphasis on the mixdown and production in drum & bass right now and I feel that’s taken away the groove factor. So the first thing we look for is groove and vibe. I imagine a lot of labels say that and it’s kinda hard to describe but that’s what we’re looking for… Nice transitions, good progression, sick groove. That’s what we need. And if some additional production is needed with the mixdown then we get Josh and Jakob on it.
Technicals you can teach. Groove is more intuitive. How about the sonic development of the label?
It’s funny listening back to our early releases if you listen to the progression of the sound. Especially Corrupted Mind. His sound has come on so much. Looking back at some of our earlier releases even the Collusion EP compared to the likes of our Genesis VA the sound and quality has dramatically changed. I think as you progress as a label or even a producer your sound will just develop over time. This is normally based on knowledge and techniques, but yes I would say that our sound as a label has majorly shifted over the years and its nice to see all of the artists we work with improving and perfecting their craft. We’re always evolving and we’re still really young. A couple of years ago when I took the label on I knew it would be a lot of work and I wasn’t sure I was totally up for taking it on. But I’m so glad I did.
So when the infrastructure changed it might have actually stopped?
Yeah when that time came realistically for me it was to either purse my production side or put everything into the label. That was the option. It doesn’t work for me doing both. My heart is in the label and giving my friends a platform. It gives me so much more fulfilment than being an artist. When Pine got into the top three on Beatport it was complete happiness. Unbelievable. It’s what I want to do all the time.
Sick. So you’ve sacrificed your artist career and put it in the label!
Yeah the label side gives me much more enjoyment. I won’t say ‘Illusive won’t come back’, I’ve done a few collaborations for example, but it’s not something I’m pursuing. I want to give the label 110% because I can see the potential of what we can achieve.
Sick! That’s really inspiring. And it’s paying off, too. What have been the most significant releases on the label so far?
The Collusion EP where we got our first Vision Radio play. That was the first release I took over on so that was a real moment.
I remember that release well and announcing those tunes. So that was your first release as head of the label and you were getting Vision plays?
Yeah! That was a very meaningful release for me. I’d also say another very significant release was Pine’s Memories EP. The whole story behind it, the time in which he wrote it, the time it took us to get to that point, for that release to do so well and be recognized and to see his emotions… Top tier mate. It was a very, very personal track for him. So personal he didn’t want to give it to me to release to begin with!
Beautiful. And now Foundations… You’ve been plotting this for a while haven’t you?
Ever since starting the label it’s always been an ambition to put out a compilation like this. Everyone involved is an artist I’ve looked up to and admired as I’ve come up through drum & bass. It’s surreal to be working with these guys closely. I get a little star struck when I speak to my idols so it’s been a big learning curve and development for me.
Have you stopped being star struck now?
Yeah over the last year. Maybe there’s the odd weak moment but it’s been a whirlwind. I didn’t think it would be possible to get these producers on the label. Not that I didn’t have faith in the label but I didn’t know how we’d be perceived. Thankfully everyone we approach was up for it and into it.
Amazing. So many great remixes on there. I’m especially loving Disprove’s UKG twist of Xeatis!
I wanted a curveball remix and he came through with that. We didn’t even chat about it, he just felt it was the right way for that remix to go. It’s sick isn’t it?
It really is! Is this a hint at the direction of things to come?
We’ve have actually got a big 140 thing coming but I wouldn’t hold your breath for something else non dnb for a while after that. We’ve got a lot of drum & bass planned for the next year but I might be swayed to release more multi-genre music. There’s a lot going on and that’s inspiring. People get stuck with writers block but having a little exploration of other genres can pull you out of that. So yeah, who knows about the future? Jacob, Josh, Beddy… they’ve all got some other genre things going on.
Can’t wait to hear them. What’s up next?
We’ve got some amazing things planned for next year. Foundations Part Two is already underway, this time it’s the Yamatai family on the remixes. I’ve got a couple of tracks already and it’s sounding hefty! We’ve got a sick MC project coming up too with some incredible talents on there. Also this year we have a delightful soundscape release from Chamba which I’m incredibly excited for! Loads to come…
Great! Anything else the world needs to know about Yamatai right about now?
That Foundations is our statement piece and that there’s a lot more to come. I’ve got big aspirations for the label so keep checking for us see how we progress…