Introducing: Nia Archives
Introducing: Nia ArchivesMarch 21, 2022
Nia Archives’ rise as one of jungle’s most talked about producers has been nothing short of meteoric. It was only April last year that she released her debut EP Headz Gone West, and already she has collaborated with Congo Natty on a remix of Lava La Rue’s “Magpie” and received airplay from Elton John. This month her neo-nostalgia take on breakbeat won her Best Producer at the NME Awards – a watershed moment for both her career and jungle’s continued resurgence.
Archives embodies a rare combination of producer, DJ and singer-songwriter. On each track, light smatterings of percussion and lush, dreamy chords collide with her own diaristic vocals, which broach topics like body dysmorphia, struggles with sobriety and relationship insecurities. She calls this style “cry in the club music”, where dark themes are couched in deceptively sunny basslines inspired by sound system culture.
Born in Bradford and raised in Leeds, Archives grew up in a musical household that exposed her to a plethora of genres from an early age. Half of her family is Jamaican, so lovers rock was a regular fixture in her home, as were artists like Roots Manuva and Rage Against The Machine. Her step-dad, who was a rapper and producer, introduced her to hip hop, while her Nana played her jungle.
This melting pot of influences gives Archives’ music a distinctly nostalgic edge, particularly when paired with the visual output from her DIY label HIJINXX. Grainy footage captures her and her friends dancing in the city streets, spraying graffiti and exploring abandoned buildings. It could have been shot in the ‘90s, and indeed a bulk of it was captured on a vintage VHS recorder.
But it is timelessness, rather than a simple throwback, that Archives is seeking to emulate. On “Luv Like” from her newest release Forbidden Feelingz, a precise breakbeat mingles with guitar loops and honeyed vocals, signalling a post-millennium twist taken from the indie bands and noughties vocalists that she listened to as a teenager. “I love M.I.A., I love Amy Winehouse, all these amazing women, and their music will outlive them,” she says. “That’s what I’m trying to do with my music.”
Some of Archives’ earliest encounters with music came from the Pentecostal church, where she regularly sang in the choir. “I’ve always sung my whole life. I love singing,” she says, though it took her a while to see herself as any good at it, especially in comparison with some others in the church congregation. “You’ve got real proper gospel singers who can belt out a note,” she says. “I can hold a note, I can play a key, but I wasn’t the strongest singer. But sometimes you don’t need to be the loudest singer in the room. It’s how you sing. It’s what you’re singing about.”
When she was sixteen, Archives moved out of her family home and away to Manchester, where she lived alone in a hostel. In a bid to make friends, she threw herself into the local nightlife, eventually stumbling on Manchester’s flourishing hip hop scene – championed by groups like LEVELZ and The Mouse Outfit – and found her voice as a performer at house parties. “We’d do a lot of cyphers and freestyles, and I would [sing] in front of people,” she says. “That’s kind of how I got into doing music.”
It was around this time that Archives started making boom bap. At first, she was just writing lyrics, but when she tired of waiting for producers to help her develop her sound, she downloaded a cracked version of Logic and taught herself to mix. Writing songs proved to be a kind of therapy, and she ended up producing an entire album of material.
But Archives worried that the music she was making was too moody. “I love hip hop, but with my lyrics, because they’re quite deep, it was just really depressing,” she says. “Obviously I want my music to have meaning and substance. I don’t want it to be shallow. But I want to be able to dance to my music.” To quell some of that melancholia, she sped up her productions to double time, and some of those early hip hop tracks became a blueprint for the jungle she would later release on Headz Gone West. The lyrics on “Crossroads,” for example, came from a boom bap song that she first envisaged when she was seventeen. “It’s funny because hip hop is a predecessor of jungle, so it makes sense that I went down that path,” she says.
Archives’ immersion into jungle began in earnest two years later when she packed her bags again and moved to London for a music production and business course. “That’s when it kind of exploded for me,” she says. “Living in East London, there’s so much history here, there’s so much culture. I’m a bit of a sponge, I’ve just soaked it all up.” Not only was she pounding the very streets where reggae and hardcore first morphed into jungle thirty years ago, but she gained some valuable mentors. Her lecturer Jason pushed her to apply to EQ50, a mentoring scheme for women and non-binary drum & bass producers, and to her surprise, she was accepted. DJ Flight and V Recordings’ label boss Bryan Gee took her under their wing.
“It was insane at the time, because I love Roni Size, love Krust, I love Bryan Gee, I love Dillinja,” says Archives. “It was a dream come true. And meeting DJ Flight – she knows this now, but at the time I was a massive fangirl.”
More than an opportunity to develop her production, working with Flight and EQ50 has given Archives a source of community, which has been key for her as a black woman navigating a scene where male and white-dominated crowds persist. “It’s not easy. There’s been a lot of pushback,” she says. “Obviously it is music of black origin, but it has been gentrified and it has been whitewashed. But it’s nice that people are starting to see themselves.”
There are some hopeful signs of a shift taking hold across drum & bass and jungle, she says, thanks in large part to the increased visibility of artists like Sherelle, Flight, Chickaboo and now Archives. “I played in Brighton on Friday. The whole front was literally, so many black girls. I’ve never seen so many black girls in the rave,” she says. “I feel like over the next two years it’s going to be crazy and you’re going to see different faces in the rave. That’s what I want. I think it should be a mixture. I think it should be white people, black people, Asian people and young people, old people, gay people, straight people – everybody.”
If there’s one word that sums up how Archives wants to be remembered, it’s “pioneer” – a pioneer for young black women who can see themselves in her when she stands behind the decks, and a pioneer musically, whose creations outlast today’s fads.
“People are making songs for the moment, songs for TikTok, and then they forget about it in a year,” she says. “I want my music to be around, you know? I don’t want it to be forgotten.” Rather than succumbing to the latest viral trends, Archives’ focus is firmly fixed on making music that she loves in the hope that one day she’ll land on that elusive classic record. “I love Roni’s & Reprazent’s New Forms” she says. “That’s 25 years old. I’m still listening to it in 2022. I hope that people do that with my tunes in 2050 – if we don’t die from global warming.”
Becca Inglis is a freelance writer living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Find her on Twitter.