“A sound that makes you tick”: Why Papa Nugs is drawing new energy from ‘90s influence

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I was digging through your mixes and back catalogue for the moment that you and some of the UK breaks and garage scene started taking on European, or that prog/trance, influence. But it struck me that it’s been there in your work even since what I would describe as the 2019-2022 high-point of the new breaks and garage DJs coming through… do you think that’s right?

Yeah, it wasn’t majorly European focussed my sound, I would say it’s fairly down to Bluetoof, I was into electro before and would drop one or two tunes in a set, but when we started hanging out and I moved to London, he introduced me to a lot more electro and that’s when I really started digging more into it.

For me, the major turning point and when I started getting into some of that more European stuff – well we call it European but a lot of those sounds started in Australia, I find – was suki & Sniper1’s EP on Holding Hands, that was my first introduction to it, I didn’t even know what fuck it was when I first heard it. It’s like trance with breaks sections and organ lines – it’s really quick and its really fat and sounds so good on a system, it’s got that oomph that a lot of bass music has, that was my transition and that’s what I was really looking for.

I have a feeling that’s what drew a lot of people to breaks in the first place, a way of keeping the weight of some of the bass music sounds our generation came up with in.

Exactly, and it’s a lot of those same sounds, and just to illustrate this point, for a lot of the younger people that are into garage and speed garage you’ll find the tunes getting played out the most and pulling the biggest reactions are the ones that have those drum and bass sounds.

I feel like the full spectrum of UK dance music is really leaning into some of those motifs of soundsystem culture, you’re hearing four-four house producer pulling dub sirens and little bass synths you’d never have heard a house producer using just a few years ago

It’s all sort of becoming one thing, when I was making my EP ‘Jacky Boy’, I was making a prog tune and then I was like what would happen if this had a bassline sound with a trance rhythm, it’s a tun that has this Champion ‘Gunshot’-esque bassline to it, just at a trance rhythm. A complete accident in experimentation.

I feel like that moment spans a shift in the relatively neat genre distinctions of the early 2010s that dance music writing sought to capture with the now clichéd phrase ‘genre-bending’, I feel that breaks sort of operated as a catch-all phrase as the jungle break got slowed down and caught a rising tide of speed garage and open-minded house crowds.

Exactly, when it combined with garage, that’s how the scene that I started out with and the sound that I was really obsessed with for a long time emerged. There are so many people that I think have really mastered it, I think Bakey has really mastered it Dismantle, Interplanetary Criminal and Main Phase – at one point I just wondered “am I really going to be able to make breaks in the way that these guys are?” – I hadn’t been a producer for that long.

I think that’s part of why I fell out of love with it really. Because these guys had mastered it, every time I’d sit down and try to make a track I’d be working from their tunes and they’d all come out sounding the same. That’s why I moved away from the garage and bassy stuff and I kind of realised that trance and prog suited my production style a lot more and I think that in the end.

What are the moments that defined your dance music journey coming up?

My dad was a sax player when he was younger, he wanted to open a jazz club called Nuggets. I wasn’t actually surrounded by much dance music when I was growing up – at all – my dad loved music a lot but life took over a bit and the same goes for my mum. In the end, they mostly just played CDs in car, rather than going out to see music, as they had busy lives.

I grew up playing the guitar but never really clicked with a lot of the classical stuff that I engaged with in lessons, I then realised I could learn from YouTube and that’s where I really got into rock, indie and pop punk.

My first taste of dance music was back in 2010 with dubstep or brostep coming up on the scene with artists like Skrillex and Flux Pavilion. I quickly got quite bored of that and went back to the guitar music. It was really when I started spending my whole life at the skatepark in Milton Keynes from 13-17, I spent my whole life at the skate park with my three older pals, Josh, Kieran and Luke. They really got me into old school garage, old school jungle, old school trance and a lot of bassline as well.

I started going out with them and beforehand we’d be at a pre drinks, they’d be mixing and I’d be watching them. I kind of watched them from the age of 16 to 18 before touching a pair of decks. That was what really got me into it, so I started collecting loads of music, not buying vinyl but it was all about finding old school stuff on YouTube for me, everything was from the ‘90s, rips of old records.

But I really liked some of the newer sounds as well, I really liked how bassline used these new synths, I loved that melodic bassline note that had a bit of a groove to it, rather than the kind of crazy stuff. I guess that was kind of old as well at the time because that tended to be Niche-era 2007-2010 bassline, it always had to have a bit of melody, a bit of groove to it.

Do you have any standout tracks that define that time for you?

I’ll do one for each genre. One of the first jungle tracks for me is ‘Valley of the Shadows’ Origin Unknown, proper dark side jungle, really sick. It’s Andy C’s old alias before he was Andy C. For garage, AKA ‘Warning’, I’ll still drop it in a set today if it’s more of an upbeat party every now and again. It’s the first garage tune that I found where I was like “Wow! This is sick.” It’s got a great combination of vocals, MCs, great bassline, great drums and not cheesy at all. If you saw it on paper, you’d think it was cheesy, but it’s not, those are the ones I love. For bassline, I think I’d have to go with ‘P’ink Love by H Two O, me and a mate used to be obsessed with this one.

This is at a time when bassline still hadn’t reached that insane level of popularity it would see later in the 2010s, right?

Exactly, for me, anything that’s too overproduced and a bit too clean sounding, it doesn’t really click that much with me in the way the simplicity of the old sounds does, unless they’ve put a lot of work into making it grainy and textural. It’s a bit outrageous and it’s just so melodic and musical.

That said, when I arrive in Leeds I was really into drum ‘n’ bass for about a year, the new stuff. It probably came off the back of my interest in jungle, I didn’t know about too many jungle nights in Leeds at that time and I’d been listening to a lot of Skeptical and a lot of the darker, rolling drum ‘n’ bass alongside some liquid nights.

It came to a point though where I really hit my tether with it. There were these artists whose tunes from 2014 I’d love, but because the trends in the genre move so quickly it had arrived at foghorns and stuff which I couldn’t get into. I was like screw it, I’m going to focus on old school garage, I didn’t hear many people playing it at the time and it’s a sound with so much to explore.

Read this next: How DIY culture is transforming Leeds’ music scene

You move to Leeds for university, my impression is that you hit the ground running there?

I never intended to start an event when I went, I just had a desire to play all of the clubs. I really had to put myself out there in Leeds and a lot of the opportunities that have arisen over the past few years have come from meeting people and just popping to question to see if I can come and play. My first set was an opener and we played to a totally empty room, but I really cut my teeth where me and few mates used to throw block parties in our halls.

We had three floors and shared hallways; we’d go around and ask everyone in the block if they’d be alright with us using the common space to throw a party and if they wanted to get involved. Each floor had a DJ, we’d set up some controllers with a pair of KRKs on an ironing board. We’d ram these blocks with 200-300 people up and down the stairs, all the way to the top with people spilling out of the kitchens of the little flats, it was probably quite dangerous – the security hated us! As soon as they asked who was running it, we’d play dumb and run back into our flat.

I got a set on the back of this, I played twice with Jez Santos, who runs Champion Sound. I played before El-B at this club in Manchester called South, they had two rooms, one with decks out in the smoking area. It was the middle of winter, then El-B came up to us during the set and said it was sick, I was so gassed after hearing that. The next time me and my good mate Miles played just before Wookie which was also great. Those are my first proper experiences playing out at a packed nightclub with people really into the music. South wound up getting shutdown due to noise complaints in the end, which I guess is why you don’t see more speakers in the smoking area.

Then in second year of uni, some kids were running a multi-genre night called Mac ‘n’ Jheeze, it had great decorations and the vibe was great. We had a really nice night. That’s when I noticed that these guys in the year above were doing it but no one in my own year was doing it. So, I decided to start an event. I liked the food theme of their night, I knew I wanted to do something to do with ‘nuggets’ or ‘nugs’ as a play on my last name, Nugent. Yeah… I walked past Papa Johns one day and thought it would be funny. Me and my friend Laura, who still does my graphics for me today, ripped off the logo. It looked crap so we scrapped it and kept the name.

People started calling me Papa Nugs and that was it. The event did well as a sort of resident’s night, word spread that it was a garage night which isn’t the whole picture but it drew attention. Everyone in my extended groups were bringing their extended groups, then I could start booking people so I booked Dr Banana. Him and Oneman were the first to have me on their Rinse FM shows, we were at a 300-cap club on a Tuesday, we sold 400 tickets! It was a roadblock, that’s how I met Sandy (Dr Banana) and now we do quite a lot of stuff together. That’s how it went, I really owe a lot to Leeds and the scene there. I also owe a lot to Sandy, who never stops helping me out!

In my second year I was partying a lot and I started playing the same set at every house party – I wasn’t finding any new tunes. Towards the end of uni I was playing a lot more electro and breakbeat, that was my introduction to a lot of these more psychedelic sounds, a lot of acidy stuff. The crazy stuff. The funny thing is because I wasn’t really aware of all of the crazy other stuff going on in Leeds because I was really just into old school garage. It pains me to think about the good tunes I would have just skipped through because I didn’t hear a 2-step beat straight away.

Is there a moment that marks that shift quite well?

There was this moment where I’d played the same set at four parties in a row, my mates started to take the piss saying they knew every song in the set. I was like “Fair enough!” Then in 2019, I was booked to play before Anz. Anyway, I went for a dig and found a D. Tiffany electro/breaks track, it was still crowd-pleasing but not in the terms I’d understood at the time and I was trying to make a bit more of a journey out of it rather than a super bossy drop.

That’s the first time that I put a set together that was focused on this new sound rather than those old tracks I’d found a few years before. At the time I kind of thought that dance music was drum ‘n’ bass, garage and house, maybe techno? I realised that so much more existed in these grey areas between those, and that was when I really grew into it and realised what I wanted to play and what I wanted to make. I think that this new melodic, fat and trancey sound that was coming out of Australia and Canada, from Suki, Roza Terenzi and D. Tiffany, quickly became all I was listening to and when I was at a festival or a club it was all I wanted to hear.

Very quickly the music I was being booked to play didn’t make as much sense to me, I still love it but my obsession had switched. At that time, I’d started digging through second-hand records as well, this was a big thing in changing my taste, when you’re digging through second-hand stuff, 90% of it is house. I inadvertently go into house. Then you find a slightly quicker trancey one, having that experience alongside the new sounds I was into came together.

That leads into when I started producing as well as I graduated straight into COVID. It was a bit of a pain in the ass, I worked as a maths teacher for a year in Bradford as I stayed in Leeds, I’d really planned to be commit to events full time!

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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