Queen Of The North: Nia Archives Interviewed

“The music I make will always be different because I have a different lived experience…”

Nia Archives is spearheading newgen junglism, matching a deep awareness of the sound’s roots with a clear evocation of its future. One of the most direct, emphatic talents in modern system culture, she’s building her own future, beat by beat.

Within the vast and often undocumented landscape of British dance history, no genre has maintained more unapologetically grassroots ethos than drum ‘n’ bass, a sound that has through it’s communal nature, transcended into a culture. Forged in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was for the most part an underground sound on pirate radio stations until the mid-late 90s when stars like Goldie shone through with his debut album ‘Timeless ’. Blending elements from Jamaican soundsystem culture as well as reggae, rare groove and Detroit techno that was bubbling across the Atlantic at the same time, the genre embodied the DIY nature of its sonic makeup.

It makes sense then, that the self-made success of 23-year-old producer, DJ and vocalist Nia Archives mirrors the DIY nature of the genre she grew up on and leads today. The Bradford-born multi-hyphenate has gone from strength to strength since her debut single ‘Sober Feelz’ in 2020, more recently releasing her third EP ‘Sunrise Bang Ur Head Against Tha Wall’ best described as a blend of neo-soul melodies and billowing breaks which included the bouncy ‘Baiana’, which sampled the infamous samba anthem of the same name by Bahia based body percussionists Barbatuques. In between she’s received every critical nod imaginable, from the BRIT Awards to NME, in acknowledgement of her central role in the revitalisation of jungle and drum ‘n’ bass. She’s played at festivals around the world, symbolically playing her first Glastonbury set in 2022 and being invited back to curate a takeover in 2023. Not bad for somebody who only began DJing a couple of years ago after teaching herself how to produce from YouTube tutorials.

Quite literally born into jungle music – her grandma and auntie ran a pirate radio station – Nia grew up on a steady diet of reggae, disco, and rap. Being mixed race in Northern England was not easy, and she was one of five Black students at her school, including her brother. She recalls being made to feel othered to the point that she never wore her hair in braids again after being bullied after doing so once aged fourteen. However, this never stopped her from being proud of her heritage, not due to her passion for history and reading as a child.  “I grew up with both sides of my family, the British Northern working class as much as my British Jamaican – so I’m proud of both sides of my identity and how both of them have contributed so much to the formation of jungle and wider British music,” she explains.

Growing up in Leeds – a city famed for its proud underground music scene and bubbling student nightlife – she moved to Manchester alone aged 16 and began embracing the DNB scene on nights soundtracked by the beloved jungle she grew up listening to; “there’s a huge raving community in Manchester” she notes of the city that was home to Chase & Status and birthed the likes of Jenna G and production duo Future Cut. Nia credits her Northern upbringing with her tenacity: “there isn’t as much opportunity up North in the same way there is in London where you could go to a party and meet a music exec that could change your life – you have no choice but to do everything DIY”. 

Before long, she moved to London and started a Music Production and Business foundation course at Community Music, during which she applied for a place on DJ Flight’s EQ50 Mentorship Scheme in 2020, a programme aimed at redressing the harsh gender imbalance in the drum ’n’ bass scene. She did so at the suggestion of her then tutor Jason, himself a former acid house DJ in the 90s who still played under the name Warlock. She signed up during lockdown, won a place and was mentored by Flight herself and worked with legendary imprint V Recordings, getting to know the very musicians whose craft she had grown up studying such as Bryan Gee and Roni Size. Soon after, she independently released her debut EP ‘Headz Gone West’ in 2021 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Alongside an innovative DIY approach, representation is a recurring theme in Nia’s career – not only of women within jungle and drum ‘n’ bass but across the wider music industry and its recognition of dance music as Black music. In April 2022, she wrote an open letter to the MOBOs questioning the lack of a dance/electronic category, which contributed to the fact that the last time a dance/electronic act was recognised was in 1996 when Goldie won Album of The Year with his debut ‘Timeless’. Sure enough, the 2023 MOBO’s included a dance/electronic category which fittingly enough, Nia went on to win.

“Jungle is for everyone but the raves haven’t always been a safe space for women – I’ve had my fair share of uncomfortable experiences in dance music spaces but as the type of people who attend and play these events diversifies, it creates a safer space, it’s definitely something I’ve notice in the last two or so years,” she explains. As a matter of fact, there has been an intentional drive from nightlife authorities as well as numerous music organisations and charities, to redesign and redefine nightlife and club culture with the priority of creating a safe space for marginalised genders, with the pandemic and lockdown providing an opportunity for serious reform.

Where dance music has a long history of using women’s voices in samples, as backing vocalists or as unnamed features, Nia is front and centre stage as a songwriter and vocalist as well as a producer. “There’s a history of faceless, nameless Black women whose uncredited vocals are used in iconic songs that would end up being associated with the often male producer.” Many vocalists such as Kelli-Leigh and Shingai Shoniwa, lead singer of Noisettes, have been vocal about the systematic erasure of Black women’s contributions to dance music through uncredited contributions. However, as Nia points out, the tides are changing for the better, with the drum ‘n’ bass renaissance post-2020 being led primarily by women – venbee, Piri, Charlotte Plank and of course, Nia herself. 

Nia takes inspiration from different sources for each facet of her artistry, “When it comes to producing, my inspiration is a very specific window of jungle music (from ‘92 to ‘96), but I’ve got eclectic taste and take influences from all over indie, R&B, 2-Tone, punk, all over breakbeat. At its core, that’s what jungle is –  anything on a breakbeat.” Although her stage name may suggest an affinity for the past, which would be understandable considering Jungle’s rich and recent history, Nia is determined to face the future use her own influences alongside her nostalgic nods to the past: “I love referencing in my music and will always pay homage to the OGs and the essence of JUngle but the music I make will always be different because I have a different lived experience – I’m not a fifty year old man, I’m a twenty-three year old girl who is living life and using my personal experiences to inform my artistry”.

Looking at the demographic of her aptly titled ‘Up Your Archives’ parties that she began throwing last year, described as a ‘new gen junglist experience’, around 80% of attendees are women under 25, a rarity for jungle raves often populated by middle aged men reliving their heyday. “It’s nice to see diverse crowds and the same people pop up and then go on to become DJs in their own right or throw their own nights. Up Your Archives was the name of my finsta account, I get to book my best friends like (East London DJ and Producer) IZCO and rapper Reek0, as well as people I look up to like Izzy Bossy and artists whose music I enjoy like Cristale. It’s nice to curate an experience that builds culture in the present”.  In a nod to the days of illegal jungle raves, she pays homage to the commitment junglists often had to undertake to attend a rave, “you’d have to listen to pirate radio to get the location, then jump on the motorway to find the place”. 

Alongside co-signs from scene pioneers such as DJ Storm, Congo Natty and SHY FX, she’s found an unlikely fan in none other than Beyonce, being chosen to open up for her at one of her- sold-out Renaissance shows at Tottenham Hotspur stadium in June. With Renaissance revolving around Black contributions to dance music –  both sonically and culturally – it was fitting that Beyonce would shine a light on dance artists in each respective city she visited.

“She read my New York Times interview and her Creative Director got in touch with me – it was all so exciting and I couldn’t tell anybody due to the NDA but luckily my manager is my best friend. After some back and forth I got a call on the morning of the day of the show confirming that I was going to open for her!”

Releasing three EPs in three years, alongside remixing for other artists such as Lava La Rue’s ‘Magpies’ or more recently, Jorja Smith’s ‘Little Things’ is no easy feat, so it comes as no surprise that Nia’s creative process is as eclectic as her schedule allows. “Creativity is like a tap for me; at times when the tap isn’t flowing I need to live life so that I have things to write about ” she notes of her lyrical content. Such content is best summarised as tender reflections on love, life, sobriety and mental health reminiscent of a deep post-rave reflection on life through her lens in the Uber home at dawn. With all these changes that I’m going through, it’s nice to have windows to live then reflect on that in my music. True to the DIY attitude that drove her early success, Nia still finds the most important and stimulating part of being an artist in the seedling stages of a track’s creation. “The real joy and entertainment in music is the process of making it… when you’re on your laptop in three hours for fun! The boring part is releasing it and having to sell it to the rest of the world.” Where she has always worked off her laptop “on trains, planes and anywhere else”, she’s gearing up for her first studio space, which will serve as the backdrop for the creation of her inevitable debut album.

Ultimately, as focused as Nia is on highlighting Jungle’s often forgotten contribution to modern British music, she is leading the charge in evolving and redefining traditional understandings of who makes and enjoys drum ‘n’ bass music. Expertly crafting blends old and new whilst making drum ’n’ bass accessible and enjoyable to newcomers and lifelong junglists alike, the sky’s the limit as she continues to build her name to become Queen of the Jungle.

Words: Rahel Aklilu
Photography: Milo Black
Fashion: Jamie Judd, Alexa Read

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