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

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

Papa Nugs shares an energetic mix and speaks to Fraser Dahdouh about lockdown production experiments and changing up his style with trance, progressive and hard house influences

  • ​Fraser Dahdouh
  • 19 December 2023

Papa Nugs' style is changing. Until earlier this year, his releases reflected a continuity in his dance music journey. Taking his start in Leeds, he found his feet wielding bass-steeped sounds north of 135 BPM, a sound he traces back to days spent at skate parks in his teen years. “I still have a proper soft spot for bassline and all UK music really,” explains Papa Nugs, real name Joe Nugent.

In some ways, he arrived in Leeds fully formed: hosting block parties in his university halls, he honed a sound moving through the high-energy percs of jungle into breaks and old school garage. Organically evolving into running his own nights, he invited the likes of Emerald, Riz La Teef and Bluetoof and billed alongside SHERELLE, Anz, and Dr Banana across the UK.

With a discography dating back to 2020, this story checks out. But as he polished off the self-released 'Endo' – a clean yet euphoric electro and breaks EP brimming with characteristic vocal chops – the second-hand cuts in his record collection led him back to the ‘90s and the origins of his style. Kicking off his Rinse FM residency in February with a 100% own-production mix, Joe rounds off a more familiar first half of his set with a flush of unreleased tracks, heavily nodding to Trade-era hard house and trance.

This teed things up for his recent release from reputed German label R.A.N.D. Muzik and a forthcoming release on his own new label Suckerpunch, as he cuts new futures from the endless well of energies found in those ‘90s sounds.

“Oh, that’s good… this is a bit of a different one isn’t it, not really your classic, East End pie and mash?” queries Joe between mouthfuls, as he applies lashings of chilli vinegar lunch, as we sit down at a local pie house in his new South East London stomping ground. “Not the kind of pie you’d whack upside down – very much the Greenwich version!” muses Papa Nugs. As we begin to trace the roots of his sound, the line between food and music feels thin.

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!

Walk me through how you started producing and how the environment of lockdown shaped that?

I’d wanted to learn to produce for four years before that, I definitely had enough time but I just spent it partying. I genuinely think that if lockdown hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have started to be honest, even if I had I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near as proficient at using Logic as I did. It was basically the first day of lockdown I went to my parents’ house, put my headphones on and paid a friend £20 per lesson for two lessons to show me the basics. I’d used Logic before: I’d chopped up samples and put a drum beat down. But I never knew how to use the synths or properly use the DAW.

I had loads of things that I wanted to make, so I’d ask him “How do I make something like this?” about all of these different tracks. The main creative takeaway for me was that you’re never going to be able to exactly replicate something, I realised that production isn’t about replicating something exactly. You can use stuff for inspiration, but it’s best to try stuff out and experiment. Your taste, that moment you hear something and it makes you tick, that’s what sculpts your sound. It’s just about experimenting and finding those different things.

I put 10 hours a day into it at the time. I had nothing else to do, I’d wake up at 8:AM, start at 10:AM and keep going until 8:PM that evening. I think this is where my undiagnosed ADHD comes into play! Hyperfocus had me not drinking water, not eating for the whole day. The only way I realised was that I wouldn’t need to piss after eight hours and think “Ooh that’s a long time to not piss! Oh shit, I haven’t drunk any water.”

I really became obsessed with production, I was just trying to make garage that as a bit different and a bit weird, incorporating sounds from these other genres that I was turning towards but I kept it quite playful as well. 'Defuser', still one of my favourite tracks that I’ve made, has loads of cash register samples, it adds a bit of bounce but also makes the track a bit less serious. That’s what helped my tracks stand out at the start, there was never this air of seriousness to it, they were just fun.

In some of these genres that you were pivoting towards, there can be a culture that differentiates proper electro and proper house music, do you find that helpful?

I think that’s great as well, but for me I was always more interested in infusing some fun elements to it, something different I still can’t stop myself from doing it, I’ll ad some old hip house vocals to it and it really brings something alive that wasn’t before. I still wouldn’t call myself the most technically able producer, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know how to do, my sound design is really poor, but I know when to select a specific sample and when something is calling for a fun acid line. I think that sums up the early years of producing, I was releasing stuff since the very start.

That’s such an important part of my career, I started getting booked as soon as lockdown finished because I had all of that output over lockdown. I wouldn’t have been getting a lot of those bookings if I hadn’t been putting my tunes out.

I got my first play on Rinse FM by DJ Redhot after about six months, other than that, the first people to start supporting my tunes were Bluetoof with my 'Milk & Beans' EP, with Dr Banana and Riz La Teef signing tunes from me very early on. The Riz La Teef one is still not out after three years due to pressing delays. It’s a really old garage EP, so it’s going to be a bit random when it comes out as it’s the same label that broke Y U QT and DJ Crisps.

Tañ as well, because she was Leeds-based, she’s the only person I know that has a whole folder on her USB called ‘Nugs’ with all of my tunes, she rates them between one and five! She once showed me and I was like “Is that a three star?” Some of them definitely deserve a bit lower than that… those were the people who really got me out there and it really made a difference at the time. You know, imposter syndrome runs deep! For my first year I really struggled to play any of my own tunes out because I didn’t find they sounded as good as the song before or after. I’ve kind of got to the point now where I can more easily put my own tunes in the set, as I’ve done here.

I think it’s so good to start at the level of community radio as that’s where people have really got their ear to the ground and you know, it’s not like the biggest heads are listening to Radio 1 every week.

How has having your own Rinse FM residency really shifted the dial for you as a DJ and producer?

That was a really big moment for me, I got asked in January of this year on my mum’s birthday. I got a phone call whilst we were out for a meal, she told me to take it. When I first started producing, I had two big goals, to get a Rinse FM residency and to play at fabric. It’s mad really as I never saw myself making it this far in music, when that point came in June it really sunk in. Everything else has just felt like a bonus, this past year, everything else that’s come on top has felt great. Going into the studio, knowing all of the history that’s there whilst working with state-of-the-art-equipment. Getting that residency has been one of the absolute highlights of my career so far.

After tracing the lineage with your productions and your taste in selections, where is it that you’re seeking to take the project next? Does South East London feel like a good home for it?

Nowadays, I only really dig for music in record shops and Discogs. It’s a vein of that '90s influence running through, now it’s just a different style of that '90s music that I’ve been influenced by. I love all of the modern prog and trance, it’s the best way that modern production technology is being used, things sound super electronic and processed but there’s so many intricate layers coming together nicely and it’s all about the progression of it rather than one big impact moment.

I’m trying to combine that more minimal '90s trance and hard house – tracks with really good groove, musicality and melodies, with the new stuff to create something that involves both. A lot of people coming to my events have seen me play before, that’s great that they’re coming back but I see it as more of a platform to say “Okay, you liked that, now take a look at this this.”

An upcoming event has the Craigie Knowes lads coming down, I’ve never met either of them but Declan from Space Dust knows the Craigie boys from up in Scotland. My friend used to live in the same warehouse area as Declan in Hackney Wick, he was one of the first guys I met when I moved to London, my mate sent him one of my tunes and he forwarded it to Simon who was doing the A+R for Alien Communications at the time. They’re going back-to-back with Simon at the Village Underground show, we’re bringing Luca Lozano in as our special guest, then me andKT closing things out.

I’m starting to get a more of those European booking through, its looking like an exciting December – I’ve just played in Amsterdam which was my favourite gig ever, it was at Levenslang – it translates to life sentence. It’s a wicked club, like the older Boiler Room with old walkways where the guards used to be. It’s a 700-cap venue but 500 is all you want. I’ve actually just been booked there to play NYE with DJ sweet6teen – its great we’re just finally getting those European ones through.

When I was transitioning from garage to this new sound, I was trying to show it to people… but I think I was going a bit heavy handed and not playing enough of the stuff they wanted to hear at the time as I was trying to stay true to what I like at the time. I wound up playing more progressive and subtle stuff to a more bass leaning crowd. I had a couple of sets that didn’t go well at all, I was clearing rooms.

That’s a reason why I need to make sure that my releases from now on are what I’m into now and if I do take a gig on the bass music side of things then I need to play a bit of an homage to that stuff I used to love. It’s all about finding that balance for me, I still love to slip the odd old school 2-step or breaks tune into a set. It’s not that I don’t love it anymore, you’ve got to remember I spent the ages 17-24 being totally immersed in this, that’s a long time to be into something without changing. It’s just a different flavour of going out now and I prefer it.

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Finding that tension between the weight and groove?

Exactly. I really like packing some tracks with loads of synths, then the next one, I want to keep more minimal to pursue that '90s sound, drawing on contemporary house and tech house as well, but still keeping those really crispy and clean processed drums. It’s never been a single mission for me, it’s about making songs that I like and make me dance. I know when I’m making a good song because it makes me dance in my seat in my room. I just want to make songs that cause people to dance in clubs basically, gauging reactions and keeping people glued to the dancefloor.

That’s always been the aim, I’ve never had an interest in making downtempo or chilled music for people to listen to. Maybe I will in the future but for me it's about getting people moving. What does that for me is those old trance and hard house sounds that are very UK-oriented, blending that with the modern European and Australian prog sound, with some of those bassy influences that will allow some of those productions to hit like a big breaks or garage tune.

I have should have a release coming out at the end of December, the main track is very hard house influenced from the vocals, major influence form that ‘90s hard house and trance sound, then the second track is taking more influence from your more modern-day prog records, think Spray or Adam Pits, but we’ve dialled it up to that hard house speed they sit nicely aside each other.

Does that allow you to really give some range to the set then?

Yeah, you can be playing technically one genre but with all of these sounds from different places. That’s what does it for me. The odd little thing, it was really cool as well making a sample pack earlier this year because now I can go back and pull from it and it creates that togetherness to a set, even though I’ve worked in almost every genre imaginable in terms of production. Now I think theres still a traceable sound within that.

Phrasing, textures as well as the vibes of it, I think there are specific ideas that pop into my head again and again as I make a tune, similar melodies. It’ll pop in and I’ll put it on top and put it together.

That’s how you’ve approached you Impact Mix, with an emphasis on your own productions?

Well, it’s going to be 90% my own productions and 10% forthcoming Suckerpunch from some other stuff we’ve signed, it was fun checking where the blends would fit and which were in key. Mostly things from me and three or four tunes from the label, showcasing new and unreleased stuff with a few of the old songs I can still play in my sets today and represents the sound I’m playing now, the trancey, proggy, hard house sound; there’s so much energy in it man! I went to this party in Berlin called Fandango, and everyone wasn’t stood around waiting for a drop, everyone was just constantly dancing, the reaction reaches all of the way through with those subtle changes.

I love finding those sounds from the old school stuff, you know, big stabby square waves and weird acid lines that find a way to fit together somehow, simple drums that pop out of the mix – then those hard groove and hip house influences from pulling hip hop vocal samples.

I’d spent so much time with bass music that it was something I’d never even seen before, it fascinated me. I used to think techno and trance was “duff, duff, duff,” very simple, not much changing. But you find those gems, so much groove and intricacies in the drums and the way it winds together. There are gems in every genre but that really opened the door to something else, something I like a lot more.

That’s the thing, you might hate a genre until you hear the masters of a genre, you might hate house until you hear one of Dr Banana or The Ghost’s sets, or you think you hate drum 'n' bass until you heardBridge – there are gems in everywhere.

For me, this trance sound has the speed of breaks and garage, the four-by-four hypnotic pattern of house and techno, it has the vocal chops from other bits — a mash up of so many things that I love.

Fraser Dahdouh is a freelance writer, follow him on Instagram

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