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Nia Archives: the junglist bringing Black women to the front

The Manchester producer talks her ‘mad’ upbringing, the misogyny of UK rave culture, and her electrifying new EP, Forbidden Feelingz

All Junglists: A London Some’ting Dis is a documentary that charts the origins of the scene in the late 80s. Filled with rippling lasers, MC anecdotes and jaw-swinging kids, it’s one of Nia Archives’ favourite visual representations of the music and its history. “I was at Rinse on Friday because Skibadee passed away, so they did a five-hour live set. Everyone was like, ‘Nia, welcome to jungle!’” she says, with a laugh. “I felt like I was in a documentary.”

The producer, singer and DJ is having the sort of week that would make most artists have a breakdown. While moving house, she’s dropped an EP, edited one of its videos, been in the studio with Katy B, played a livestream, and took home the NME award for Best Producer. “I was just bawling,” she says about winning, describing how she just ad-libbed her acceptance speech (“I fucking love jungle music!”) after not expecting to win. “I had to go and take a picture upstairs, and it took me about 15 minutes because every couple of steps I kept crying. The security came up to Tom [Nia’s manager] because they thought he was roughing me up. They were like, ‘Are you okay?!’”

The EP in question is Forbidden Feelingz, the second release from the 22-year-old following last year’s Headz Gone West. The first was a sunshine-filled, neo-soul and jazz-inflected introduction to her as an artist, while the second goes deeper and darker into her fresh take on the sound, while broaching topics like body dysmorphia and insomnia. Bradford-born and Leeds-raised, before moving to Manchester and finally settling in East London, Nia grew up on the music of her Jamaican heritage as well as artists like Mos Def and Rage Against The Machine. The Pentecostal church she went to played gospel, something she credits for her natural ability to “hear harmonies straight away”. 

“I was a bit of a mad kid, to be honest with you,” she says, describing how she’d regularly attend illegal raves in Leeds. In Manchester, she met a group of people with like-minded music tastes, and she’d jump on the mic at house parties while going to Hit & Run events. It wasn’t until moving to London that she finally got to immerse herself in the scene she’d long admired from afar. “Everybody knows everyone – it’s actually not that difficult to meet the elders,” she says of the capital’s scene. “That’s been so important to me. The validation I actually see is from the elder heads. I know everybody now, but that was so much more important to me than the relevant [new] artists. I care way more about meeting DJ Flight, DJ Storm, Randall, Die, I’m bare shy when I meet them! Everyone’s said to me, ‘We’ve been waiting for you’, because obviously jungle has been around for 30 years, and I’m filling the gap for the younger generation, but a lot of people at the moment are jumping on it and don’t understand or appreciate the history and culture.”

Nia has been producing for some time, first dabbling in Logic aged 12. In a nod to the originators of her genre of choice, she always starts with the drums. “One thing I love about the old school junglists, they all had their own style,” she says. “You knew a Roni [Size] tune, a Remarc tune, Lemon D, DJ Die, just by the drum pattern. I like to spend a lot of time creating an identity for my drums, so there’d be no melody and you’d know it’s my tune just by the kit. I spend hours just listening to drums on loop. I’ll do nine layers of breaks and samples from kicks and snares, I chop it all up so it's really detailed. Then once I've got the drums, I think of a bassline or a melody, might sample something, I just like to try and build around that. I see it as Tetris, stacking all these different blocks to make this sound.”

Some of those blocks contain her various samples, which are all “really intentional”, she says. “Forbidden Feelingz” samples Columbo, the 70s detective show she used to watch with her grandma. She made another sentimental choice in “18 & Over”, which uses the refrain from reggae classic “Young Lover” by Cocoa Tea. “I've never met my dad, he's not on my birth certificate,” she explains. “And it's been a massive thing in my life that I always wished that I had, because I don't speak to my mum, I’ve not spoken to her in six years, and I’ve always wished I could have that relationship. I found this old SoundCloud three years ago and I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s my dad!’, because it’s literally my face, copy and paste. He was a DJ back in the day, in the 90s he was a dancehall DJ on this Bradford radio station. I would listen to his mix and one of the songs in it was “Young Lover” by Cocoa Tea. I’d heard the song as a kid but because my dad played that song in his mix, I wanted to sample it. I’ve never really spoken about that.”

With its glowering Reese bass and liquid breaks, EP opener “Ode 2 Maya Angelou” also pays homage to the civil rights activist who has “a massive place in my heart,” she says. The cover artwork, designed by Nia herself, is a love letter to all the people who have shaped her, from Burial to her grandma Liz. Sandwiched next to Grace Jones, Dot Cotton and her younger brothers, are figures like Angela Davis, Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. “I’m always trying to satisfy my inner child and do stuff for younger me that I would’ve appreciated when I was younger,” she says. “It’s also for an audience that might not have known their stories or those aspects of Black history.”

In the aforementioned jungle documentary, the overwhelming majority of the people raving and spinning in the grainy footage are Black. These days, the revivalist scenes can often be white and male-dominated spaces. “When I first came to London, I went to a few raves, and I had people come up to me and say, ‘You don’t see Black girls in drum and bass raves.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m here, so...!’ There is a really big culture in the DnB community where it is just a bunch of young white males under 24. The lack of Black women in those spaces is really a problem.” Recently she’s noticed more turning up at her gigs, though. “It gasses me, it makes me so inspired because if I wasn’t making music but there was someone who looked like me, loving the music, vibing, I would want to be a part of that as well.” 

When I catch her playing alongside Sherelle at a Boiler Room night, the energy in the room, which has a diverse crowd, feels different to your typical UK dance night. Nia is dancing with a wide smile on her face, arms flinging out to the breakbeats, occasionally picking up the mic to sing, while dropping bangers like Sully’s “5ives”. Yet as a woman in music, she’s had to deal with her fair share of misogyny, and recalls someone commenting “girls shouldn’t DJ” underneath a video of hers. “Yeah, I’m just gonna stop DJing now, I’m gonna give up,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes. “There is a lot of negative attitudes but I just ignore them. Go to your male-dominated raves, enjoy. It’s actually not a vibe, no one’s even dancing! Diversity is so much more fun.”

Where other artists might just focus on the music, Nia looks beyond it and into the culture, acknowledging the importance of history, diversity and representation. As part of the Brighter Days Family collective, she likes to give back to the area she’s in, donating all the release money to Hackney Night Shelter. She’s set on making room for other Black women in the industry, too. “I’m not making music for the moment, I’m really trying to build a legacy and pioneer this new wave of what it means to be a junglist,” she says. “I really hope that other Black girls will see themselves in it and be inspired to take space because it is music of Black origin. All the original Jungle Mania events, they were like white people, Black people, Asian people, gay people, straight people. I think it should be for everyone – it should be united in the music. I hope I can change that.” 

Nia Archives’ Forbidden Feelingz is out now