Illyus & Barrientos create timeless house music that transcends subgenre classifications. Since their debut release, “Need Me” in 2016, the Scottish duo have effortlessly moved from strength to strength and released hit records on respected labels like Toolroom, Defected, Ultra, and Armada. Their success is a combination of Illyus’ encyclopedic knowledge of modern music and Barrientos’ technical acumen. Each record is unique but captures something familiar and nostalgic. Their music has roots in the underground but as Illyus puts it is, “Accessible to anyone who has a passion for life.” They just want people to feel good while dancing.
Part of what makes them unique is their compelling use of vocals. They’re passionate, soulful, and communicate the breadth of human emotions. Illyus and Barrientos have borrowed heavily from gospel to achieve their brand of uplifting dance floor heat. Illyus says it’s because of the genre’s ability to communicate the human struggle. “Most of [these songs] are about hardship that rises from something terrible to something amazing. That energy translates so well to humanity.”
It’s as much about creating an emotional connection as it is paying respect to black music Barrientos says. “It’s also about having the utmost respect for black music and black culture. And knowing where that came from. There’s no other music that comes close to the hope you get from that. And we have a deep respect for it.”
Despite their obvious chemistry, they came from distinctly different backgrounds. Illyus grew up on classic funk and soul. “Everything had a rhythm, which allowed me to move into hip hop. She was a massive George Benson fan. And then the legend that was Marvin Gaye. Just very soulful, very sexy. Maybe that’s why I’ve moved into what we do now because it’s all soulful and sexy.”
As a DJ he cut his teeth in the Glasgow hip hop scene. And while he was consistently booked, he felt like there wasn’t much more he could do. “I was getting gigs all over the place and playing hip hop. And as far as my city was concerned, kind of hit a glass ceiling. I couldn't go anywhere.”
He started to imagine dance music as the change he needed when he saw Jazzy Jeff and Ferry Corsten in the same week. Jeff was technically incredible but only played a few self-produced songs. Ferry wasn’t his vibe, yet he was impressed that he could play a set of his music. The crowd hung on every song and it was a revelation. “I could just see the people going absolutely crazy. It was a lightbulb moment. I had to find a way to a faster BPM that was accessible to me and that could still have the influences I want to use.”
He was familiar with names like Armand Van Helden, DJ Sneak, and Daft Punk. Beyond that, he knew absolutely nothing of dance music. He quickly realized that his world and the world of dance were much closer than he imagined. “My thing has always been you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. As I read back on where people like Van Helden came from, their journey, and [them] being hip hop heads (like, Kenny Dope is a massive hip hop head). I realized I don’t need singers or songwriters. I can just create something from me for a dance floor.”
Barrientos on the other hand was raised on obscure classical music and jazz from his father. And samba, cueca, and Latin music from his mother. But his sister had the most impact on the development of his taste when he got into high school, “ My sister was really into heavy metal and goth. I really used to love it. And then she got me into post rock. It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I started listening to Daft Punk, I was very late in the game. I didn’t really know much about dance music at all until I was old enough to go out.”
He says that he fell in love with dance music nearly instantly. “It was genuinely overnight. Daft Punk was playing at a festival in Scotland. And they were the only ones I knew. But DJs like Erol Alkin, Soulwax, and Tim Deluxe were there. And I remember thinking fucking hell that’s so good. I had never heard anything like it. Mind blown!”
Illyus and Barrientos found their footing as solo projects. Illyus had support from Pete Tong on the Dale Howard remix of his record “Not the One.” Barrientos released a few records with Glasgow Underground including remixes for Romanthony and an early Walker & Royce tune “I Surrender.” It was a mutual friend and Glasgow Underground head honcho Kevin McKay that insisted they meet for dinner. He must have known they’d get on so well.
However, it was obvious that they came from different worlds Barrientos says, “We were kind of put together.”
“Like a boy band,” Illyus adds.
“We were on way opposite sides of who we were running with,” Barrientos goes on. “I was running with people who were in art school. And Illyus [knew] loads of people who liked to party and club. Honestly, if it wasn't for house music, I don't think we would ever have met or been friends.”
Illyus agrees that they were an unlikely match. “Ivan had a full-time job and I’m more of a hustler type. But our taste in dance music was so similar, we shared a passion for deep house at the time. Which made it great, because you have these two different people but there’s a common ground.”
Remarkably, two men from vastly different backgrounds found a home together in house music. But, that’s what dance music is all about. Barrientos says, “Illyus is like a brother to me, we speak every day. It was never just about business or writing records. We grew naturally in a way that we could work together.”
Illyus adds, “I could be wrong but when a lot of people start making music today, they dream of the big stages and the party life too soon. And for us that isn’t why we do this. It has to do with loving music and enjoying DJing. You see someone across from you and you don’t have this grand plan. You just do a record and see what happens. It’s a nice journey and the fact that I trust this person as well. When it comes to music there’s no ego.”
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