Nia Archives: “Jungle music has always been a strong sound of the underground”
“Gettttttt outta my pub!”
Nia Archives has gone full Peggy Mitchell. Standing behind the bar of her east London local, The Eleanor Arms, she’s channelling Albert Square’s formidable landlady as she pulls a pint of stout. Given that Nia spent much of lockdown rewatching old episodes of Eastenders on iPlayer, she’s seemingly studied hard for the role. The pub’s actual landlord responds in kind: on the jukebox, he cues up the soap’s pounding theme tune to a roar of laughter. As the Guv’nor leading the charge of British dance music right now, Nia can, seemingly, get away with anything.
We’re here to shoot the 22-year-old’s debut NME cover feature following her astonishing breakout year: one that’s been packed full of globe-trotting DJ sets, and even a gong or two. But it’s the humble pub where she wanted to bring NME for today’s shoot to highlight her “dual British and Jamaican heritage”, which is further emphasised by the Union Jack tee she rocks during our shoot. “There’s definitely crossovers between Caribbean and British culture,” she says. “Maybe you wouldn’t think of someone like me who likes to go and sit in the pub… but I definitely do.”
Walking into the space while the doors are still locked to the drinking public, it’s a classic pub experience: a squidgy carpet can be felt underfoot, while satirical cartoons and historical artefacts – including an eye-catching emerald bust of Mahavira, the supreme preacher of Jainism, that was collected during the landlord’s travels around the world – adorn the walls. Motown music, meanwhile, plays on a loop on the overheard speakers. Being in a charming and characterful boozer like this when it’s empty is an almost haunting experience: without being overwhelmed by the aroma of Dragon Stout and cacophonic cackles of the cheery punters, it’s a bit of a ghost town.
It’s certainly at odds with the rowdy, riotous year that Nia has had. Following the release of her ‘Forbidden Feelingz’ EP in February, she picked up Best Producer at the BandLab NME Awards 2022 a month later. It was with her acceptance speech during the latter where she highlighted her mission: “It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter where you come from: you can do whatever you like and you can make something of yourself.”
“Without jungle, you wouldn’t have drum’n’bass, you wouldn’t have garage, grime or drill”
The aforementioned EP’s titular highlight, as well as the melodic ‘Luv Like’ and naughty raver ‘18 & Over’, affirmed just how worthy she was of the acclaim. A summer full of live dates, including Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and Notting Hill Carnival, followed. When she wasn’t behind the decks in clubs and fields across the land and beyond, she was releasing floorfillers like the skippy Watch The Ride collaboration ‘Mash Up The Dance’ and the funky Brazilian-tinged banger ‘Baianá’, while remixes and collaborations with PinkPantheress, Mall Grab and Danny L Harle were also thrown in for good measure. 2022 will be wrapped up with her latest single ‘So Tell Me’, an ambient jungle track that pushes her sound to its outer edges.
Put simply: Nia has serious clout now. Her first NME cover also comes as an opportunity, she says, to recruit an entire POC crew behind the camera, all the way down from photographer to stylist: “I think it’s not something you always get to see. I haven’t really had the opportunity to do something like this. People of colour need to take up space and have that representation.”
The Bradford-born, Leeds-raised polymath is not only intent on bringing jungle music back to the mainstream, she wants to reclaim the dance and electronic scene from its current white-washed, gentrified ways. Being “a Black woman making Black music”, it’s important for Nia to not only be that representation for Black dance music fans across the world, but to use her power behind-the-scenes to bring about further progression.
“I’ve never really made music for anyone else but myself. I am just my biggest fan”
Her contemporaries Nova Twins and WILLOW have done similar in the rock scene, the latter saying recently how she wants to “continue the legacy” of the Black stars who came before her. Now Nia wants to do the same: “I want to be that representation of generations of Black women in jungle and dance music.”
It’s important, then, that Nia can do it all authentically: she’s a singer, songwriter, producer and visual artist. Letting Nia creatively direct our NME cover shoot was a no-brainer: “I am involved in everything because the more I do, the more me it is,” she explains. “Without great art, videos, music, production and lyrics, I don’t think any of it would work. I really love getting ideas in my brain to come alive.”
Nia was born in Bradford and raised in Leeds, places commonly overlooked by the London-centric UK dance music scene. Growing up, Nia benefited from the prevalent dub and electronic scenes that were already established in Leeds by her fellow Afro-Caribbeans: in the ‘80s, DJ crews like the Ital Rockers and Iration Steppas made Leeds home to some of the best raves where all types of electronic music were welcome. Her parents would go to – and sometimes host – massive backyard parties, and it was here that she could hear an amalgamation of electronic sounds, as well as reggae and other Jamaican genres.
Nia was further inspired by her early love of pop artists like Amy Winehouse and Rihanna, whose 2005 debut ‘Music Of The Sun’ was the first album she ever bought. They were a startling contrast to the sounds playing around the house, as well as the gospel music she heard during her Pentecostal church’s lengthy services. “I’m not religious at all, I had to go along with my family. But I loved listening to gospel music at church for like an hour,” she says. “It was the thing that opened me up to hearing harmonies. It was my real introduction to music.”
Nia moved to Manchester by herself at the age of 16, and the rich musical foundation established in Leeds followed her. In a bid to find her own tribe, Nia would hop on the mic at parties to show off her singing chops. It was here that she’d be exposed to new music, DJs and sounds; a way to network into the local music scene. “I used to pick up the mic because I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “We used to have house parties and someone would be rapping, and that’s how I fell into making music.”
It inspired Nia to begin working on her own music: “I enjoyed freestyling, but I was more so [into] singing. I was working with a bunch of producers, and it was going badly.” They screwed with her time and vision, so Nia took control: “I don’t think people care as much about what you’re doing as you care about it – they were messing me around, so I was just like, ‘Fuck this’ and did my own thing. I got a crap version of [producing software] Logic and just taught myself how to make beats.”
“The new music is less ravey, but this is where I’m at in my life”
This DIY spirit, as well as her burgeoning musical knowledge, permeates Nia’s current work. ‘Baianá’ boasts a samba-inspired beat sampled from the Brazilian music ensemble Barbatuques’ track of the same name. A masterful mix of genres, Nia is already well on her way to emulating two of her heroes, Brazilian stars DJ Patife and DJ Marky.
“They were the original samba-jungle pioneers,” she says. “It felt natural to me to make that kind of music. It just gives me this feeling I can’t describe – I love the way that it makes me feel when I listen to it.”
Jungle music, however, has always been underappreciated in the UK, Nia says. This is despite the fact that you can hear the scene’s influence in so many of today’s pop newcomers, who heavily draw from garage and drum‘n’bass-style basslines: Piri & Tommy, PinkPantheress and Venbee to name a few. It’s not a case of the genre making a comeback, Nia says, but that “jungle has always been around” and is finally being spotlighted fairly.
“It’s always been a strong sound of the underground,” she says. “Without jungle, you wouldn’t have drum’n’bass, you wouldn’t have garage, grime or drill. We wouldn’t have all these amazing musicians that we love without the blueprint that is jungle.”
This blueprint was created by Black pioneers, notably women who may not be as widely known compared to household names like General Levy, Shy FX and Goldie. Older, fundamental British genres like jungle haven’t been documented as extensively as others due to them being considered “street music”, to pinch a term from Nia, and its accepted spokespeople were mostly men.
That’s something that Nia is intent on changing. While guest-hosting Blackout Radio on Apple Music in June, she aimed to boost and pay homage to the Black women who paved the way for her own journey by inviting DJ Flight, a legendary jungle pioneer and personal mentor, and SHERELLE, the speed-raving DJ and producer of the moment, onto her panel. They touched upon the topic of tokenism, a nagging fear for many people of colour: “I quite enjoyed us talking about tokenism on line-ups,” Nia says. “Quite often on line-ups, promoters could be trying to diversify their line-ups. But at some point or other, we’ve been the only Black women on a line-up, and it feels more like a checkbox than an actual pick.”
Despite this increased representation, there is still considerable work to be done. During her first-ever headline Boiler Room set in October, a security guard charged up to the decks to speak to her at the climax of her set. Because they couldn’t hear each other, he then cut the music entirely, bringing the room to a standstill.
“Dance music has had a problem with creating a safe space for women”
She describes that moment now as “horrible” and “an aggressive and intimidating experience”. Once footage of the encounter went viral, Nia was glad that “people can see that intimidation still happens, and when people complain about the issues within the dance community, it’s not just them moaning”.
Nia adds: “It’s not the first time that that situation has happened. I’ve never been stopped mid-set before, but I’ve definitely gone to a club, got to the door and then the bouncer wouldn’t let you in because they don’t believe you’re the DJ. They forget that it’s just pressing a button and playing tunes. Women DJ, and Black women DJ as well. Dance music has had kind of a problem with creating a safe space for women.”
As Nia charges ahead undaunted, so does her new music and overall approach. New single ‘So Tell Me’ dwells on atmospheric piano chords and muted guitar strums alongside her signature jungle bassline; it’s as contemplative and fleshed-out as anything she’s ever done. “I think each of my projects have been timestamps of my life,” she says. “Musically, I’ve just grown up and I’ve had to mature since last year. I don’t think I was immature, but I’ve really grown up this year.”
Awards, packed-out shows and endless industry hype: in less certain hands, the attention could be overwhelming; destructive, even. But Nia is keeping level-headed. “I don’t see myself as successful, genuinely,” she says. “I don’t see it that way, because I’m always thinking about what’s next. I don’t ever want to be content. If I’m content with what I’m doing, then I’ve got nothing that I want to work towards – I’m always that hungry and willing to do more.”
To stay hungry, one must keep satisfying those inner creative urges, and Nia wants to be “selfish” with how she creates going forward. “I’ve never really made music for anyone else but myself. I am just my biggest fan,” she explains with a grin.
“My friend actually told me the other day, ‘It’s not selfishness, it’s self-love’. It’s me being honest and real with myself, rather than me making stuff I hope other people will like and approve of. I do like this new music: it’s less ravey, but this is where I am at in my life. I hope that people can grow with me and get on this journey with me.”
Nia Archives’ new single ‘So Tell Me’ is out now
Photography: Don Brodie (@dbp_)
Styling: Connor Gaffe (@consgaffe)
Make Up: Tasnim Nahar (@tasnim_makeupartist)
Creative Direction: Nia Archives (@archives.nia)
CP Company green Gillet
Vintage Black Cargos
Nike Footwear by Martine Rose
Von Dutch Trucker Cap
Vintage Vivienne Westwood Longsleeve Top
Yellow Military Overalls
Commes Des Garcons Union Jack Tee
Green Flower Jacket by This Uniform
Tartan Red Floral Skirt by This Uniform
Green Reflective Stone Island Jacket
Aubergine Military Overalls
White Kangol Beanie
Black & White Dunks
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