UHURU are a duo whose music knows no boundaries – even their name means “freedom” in Swahili. Bringing together dance, electronica and R&B, their sound is a vibrant fusion that takes up today’s post-genre challenge to create soul-infused, modern pop equally at home on radio or the dancefloor. “The mix of weird sounds which you can do now in pop really excites me,” says UHURU’s vocalist, songwriter and producer Connor Daniel. “Pop production now is the most exciting I’ve ever heard it.”
Still only 22, Daniel been making music since his early teens, when he began uploading unofficial dubstep mixes of Drake and Usher to YouTube. He now describes the tracks as “awful”, but they showed impressive studio skills, clocking up plays in the hundreds of thousands, earning him a feature on BBC Introducing and, more importantly, impressing his future bandmate Robert Jones when they met on a music technology course in their home town of Southampton.
“When I met Connor at college he was talking about having one of his mixes played on Introducing,” says Jones, “and I was thinking, This guy is big time!”
It turned out Daniel had his sights set well beyond the dubstep scene. His background, too, marked him out from his fellow students. Born in Kenya, Daniel spent his early years in the coastal city of Mombasa before his parents moved to the UK when he was six. “My mum’s family have been in Kenya for generations,” he says. “I’m proud of my Kenyan roots, for sure. I have tattoos to prove it!”
His parents also encouraged an early musical flair. “There’s videos of me when I was four years old tapping along to the beat of a Michael Jackson song,” he laughs. Later he developed into a gifted pianist, with a soulful vocal delivery that elevated early efforts at writing pop songs to echo those he was hearing on the radio.
Jones’s ancestry is somewhat less cosmopolitan – both parents are originally from Wales – but his wide-ranging musicianship has been key to UHURU’s development. Like Daniel, the 22-year-old plays five instruments, having first taught himself guitar as a teenager. “My family’s not musical at all,” he says, adding that he took inspiration instead from Nile Rodgers and Noel Gallagher. “Other than my grandad, that is. He plays euphonium with the Salvation Army.”
Having clicked as friends, Jones and Daniel initially formed UHURU as a four-piece band while still in Southampton. Daniel recalls their live set was mostly made up of “electro house and Chase & Status covers”, and it was only after downsizing to a duo that the current, more complex UHURU sound started to take shape. By the time they’d finished their studies in Southampton, both agreed they should continue working together – especially after being accepted onto courses at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) in Guildford.
“It was all quite natural,” says Jones of the move. “We ended up in this little two-up, two-down and it had a conservatory. We used to practice in there, much to the annoyance of old Richard next door!”
Jones and Daniel, however, quickly impressed their tutors – not least former Prodigy drummer Kieron Pepper who came round to listen in on the conservatory sessions. With Daniel studying Electronic Music Production and Jones signed up for Contemporary Music Production, at this point neither quite knew what UHURU was going to sound like from one week to the next. But well aware that ACM had previously nurtured some major talents (Ed Sheeran is a former student), they relished feeding new experiences and influences into the mix.
“Connor would come back to the house with people that were on his course,” says Jones, “and we’d try and work out this cool new direction he wanted to go in.”
“I was trying to do really experimental, underground, future bass hip hop stuff,” laughs Daniel. “But from there I discovered that you can mix all of that into pop music, which is more what we’re pushing towards now.”
Currently holed up in a studio off the M25 where they’re mixing tracks for a forthcoming EP, UHURU is rapidly evolving beyond an experimental studio project. Attention-grabbing new songs such as Riddle and Thirsty show their ambition, updating contemporary R&B with neon-tinged synthpop and global beats in a way reminiscent of breakout acts such as Bondax and Mura Masa (“a huge inspiration, production-wise” says Daniel).
Daniel insists there’s much more to come – he has hundreds of melody lines and vocal fragments recorded on his phone. He’s also still restlessly seeking out inspiration from unlikely sources, whether it be his mum (she recently clued him into jazz maestro George Benson) or Justin Timberlake. “Songwriting and vocal-wise, I love Justin Timberlake,” he says. “People say to me, Is he a guilty pleasure? But there’s nothing guilty about me loving Justin Timberlake!”
With ideas flowing so fast, it’s not surprising Daniel and Jones are eager to take UHURU out on the road and test their songs on live audiences, not least during a busy summer festival season. But for all the stylish sophistication of their new material, Daniel says his aim remains the same as when they played student clubs in Guildford: to make people dance. “Put us on a stage in front of a crowd,” he grins, “and I think we can do the rest.”
The word is out: UHURU are on a mission to liberate your mind, body and soul.