I first interviewed Nottingham’s Juga-Naut back in 2012 (read here). In his early-twenties at the time, what quickly became apparent during that conversation with the then upcoming UK emcee was that he already possessed an extremely strong sense of identity, which was coupled with a crystal-clear vision of the artist he wanted to be.
Fast-forward to the present day and Juga-Naut has undoubtedly reached the levels of brilliance that were hinted at on his earliest releases, building up a catalogue of albums and EPs which now runs into double figures, becoming one of the most impressive and consistent Hip-Hop figures of the last decade in the process.
Skills, technique and talent aside, the sheer passion Jugz has for his various creative endeavours can easily be felt through his work, whether he’s holding a microphone, chopping a sample, painting or experimenting with ingredients for his cooking business.
Whatever he may be doing, you can guarantee that Juga-Naut will be putting his heart and soul into it.
Shortly after the beginning of the first lockdown last year, Jugz and I jumped on the phone to discuss his then new album “Bem” (read here). At that point in time, nobody could have foreseen that the circumstances we were living in would still be our shared reality over twelve months later.
Staying busy by dropping a handful of projects throughout the pandemic, Juga-Naut added another one to the list this week with the release of the excellent “Smoke Filled Room”, his second full-length collaboration with gifted producer Giallo Point.
In this interview, the Notts representative discusses trying to remain inspired under Covid restrictions, the world of social media and the importance of staying on your own path as an artist.
Let the smoke signals begin.
A lot’s happened since our interview last April with Covid changing all our lives in one way or another. What sort of impact has the last year or so had on you from a creative point of view?
“It’s had a big impact, man. We haven’t been living life in the same way that we were. For me, in my brain, a day I’ve had or a place I’ve been attaches itself somewhere and then when I sit down to write or make beats the influence comes out and you feel inspired. But we’ve not been living the same way, so we’ve not been out having those experiences. meeting people, going to new places, eating something different, having those crazy times that come out in my raps somehow. So I’ve not had that inspiration. So, in a negative way, it’s been hard to be inspired over this past year. But then when I have sat down to write, and a lot of this new album was written during this period, it’s made me have to dig deeper into myself and be more personal because that was the material that I had to use. But yeah, this past year has been hard because we’ve not been able to do shows and be around people and have those experiences, so it has been difficult to feel the fire I usually feel. I mean, I can always work, but I don’t like forcing it. When you force your creativity I think that’s when you start treading water and coming up with stuff that might be just good enough, but you’re not necessarily bettering what you did last time.”
You released the “Bem” album just before lockdown started last year and then “12 Bricks” with Micall Parknsun was released towards the end of 2020. How did you have to adapt to effectively promote those releases and do you feel they suffered because of the circumstances or do you think they perhaps got more attention because people didn’t have the usual distractions with so many of us spending more time at home?
“It was a double-edged sword for sure, man. “Bem” did really well. It came out before the pandemic and I was really pushing it. It also got picked up for a vinyl release on Daupe which did really well for me. I loved “Twelve Bricks” and I pushed it as much as I could when it came out in October last year, but it kind of didn’t go where it needed to go. I also did “Polo Palace” as well last year with Sonnyjim and Da Flyy Hooligan, which again was a wicked album but I think it was affected by the pandemic. There was so much music that was coming out with people putting out more than maybe they usually would have and stuff just wasn’t reaching people because there was this flood of material. Also, and it’s so s**t that we have to think about this, but the internet algorithms and social media stuff has been wild. man. Every single thing you see me do, except for the vinyl drops where labels have partnered with me, I do myself from a grassroots level. So you put all this work in to the music itself and then putting it out, and you’re kinda doing it and hoping for the best, man. I mean, I do a lot of the internet s**t to try and make it work, thinking about the best time to drop, what days, but it’s exhausting and you never really know what’s going to get picked up and what the algorithms are going to be okay with. It sounds so weak to talk about, but it has been a big part of this last year. Especially with some of the big companies seeing how people have been using the internet to their benefit and so they’ve messed with the algorithms which makes it harder to get through. So even though people have been at home more and have perhaps had more time, it’s been difficult to get the music and the videos into the hands of the people on their phones and everywhere else. I’ve got a really good mailing list and I’ve got a loyal following, but it’s getting the music to have a wider reach that’s been difficult.”
A struggle that has no doubt been compounded by the fact that everyone has been trying to do the same thing through the same platforms over this past year…
“The big part for me I’ve noticed is that I’ve always just put music out. I don’t have that thing in me as a person that makes me see everyone as competition. But because of the pandemic I think there’s been a dog-eat-dog capitalistic mind-frame that’s been exacerbated. So any music that’s out, people have jut seen it as competition so there hasn’t been as much sharing of each other’s work happening and trying to get more people involved in it. It felt like there was about three weeks last April when everyone was like, ‘We’re all in this together’, and then after that I feel like everything got real dog-eat-dog. Especially this year, man. I mean, I put out my “Been Away” video off “Bem” earlier this year and that was one of the best videos I’ve ever done. It really encapsulated Nottingham and a lot of effort, time, money, love and pain went into that, but it wasn’t received in the way I thought it would be, which was interesting. I felt a lot of distance which kind of helped me to push even harder, but at the same time I felt a bit alone after that which was weird. So yeah, I think this past year has felt very competitive and I think there’s been a lot of chatter rather than it being mostly about the music. Because we haven’t been able to do shows and connect with people in that way, it feels like it’s become more about what attracts people the most online. What’s the brashest, biggest thing that can capture someone’s attention rather than it being about the actual art, which is hard to deal with. It feels like a selfie of you can get more likes than your album that you’ve been working on for two years.”
We’ll get into social media a little further into the interview because I had picked up on a couple of lyrics on the album about that subject that stood out to me. But first, and correct me if I’m wrong and totally off the mark here, but to me this new album feels like it has a different tone to it compared to previous projects. Particularly with some of the dialogue snippets you’ve used with some well-known individuals talking about suffering for their art etc. For me, it felt like I was listening to an artist who has been perfecting their craft for a number of years now, you’re past trying to figure out why some people still aren’t listening, you’re on a creative path that you’re going to continue to stick to, and this album was about not only reaffirming your belief in yourself, but also about reassuring and inspiring other artists in a similar position to stay true to themselves and push on. Would you say that’s an accurate overview of what you were trying to get across on this album or am I totally wrong?
“That’s pretty bang on, man, pretty bang on. I’m glad you took something away from the dialogue samples that I used because to take it one step further, I used samples from Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Jimi Hendrix talking about being artists. They’re all part of the 27 Club. They didn’t make it to thirty-years-old. But they’re some of the greatest artists of all time and they knew what they were talking about. Now, for some weird reason when I was a kid, I never thought I’d get to that age. I don’t know why, whether it was my anxiety or growing up where I grew up, but I didn’t think I’d make it to thirty. At the end of the first track on the album, the title track, I’ve also got John Coltrane talking about being more lyrical with his horn and pushing himself further, and I wanted to use that bit of dialogue to highlight how I want to become even more lyrical and push myself more. People have often said I’m too lyrical, so I’m saying I’m going to become even more lyrical. Exactly like you said, this album is about me cementing who I am as an artist for myself and it is also about other artists out there who might listen to this album who need that little push to just continue being themselves and stay on their own path. Especially in this day and age when you don’t need to adhere to any of the bulls**t rules about what you look like, where you’re from, how much money you’ve got. All that stuff really is just smoke. It’s bulls**t. What happened for me this past year is that the veil really did drop around all of this industry stuff and all of the bulls**t. It really is just smoke and mirrors, man. I mean, I already knew that, but seeing so much of it unwind on the internet has just been wild, man. But what you said you took from the album is definitely correct and I’m glad you picked up on all of that.”
The way you’ve conveyed those sentiments on the album is just masterful though because you’re not banging people over the head with it or jumping up and down shouting about how people are going to miss you when you’re gone or talking about leaving the game or anything like that. You’re still doing what you do, but there’s just an added layer to it this time around that lets the listener know exactly where you’re at as an artist right now after a decade of releases.
“It can make you crazy and very bitter trying to please everyone so you just can’t do that. Everyone has got a piece of advice or thinks they know what you should be doing. Nowadays, everyone’s an expert except for the person who’s actually doing it. So I’m really glad you picked up on all of that in terms of the tone of the album. But that tone is also partly down to the beats Giallo Point gave me. We’ve got a synergy now and Giallo knows me as an artist after doing our first project together, “Back To The Grill Again”. But he really knew where to go with it for this album somehow and the s**t he sent me, I didn’t say no to many of them (laughs).”
So the beats on this album were tailor made for you?
“Yeah, they were made for me, basically. There’s fifteen tracks on the album, and I’d say that eleven or twelve of the beats on there were ones that Giallo made to send to me. The others were beats he’d done and put little snippets of online that I heard and I was like, ‘Bro, I need that!’ But Giallo is just so easy to work with, man. Like I said, that synergy is there and it’s always a really positive back-and-forth.”
When we did our interview last year talking about the release of “Bem” you mentioned that you didn’t feel embraced by the UK Hip-Hop scene. Do you still feel that way?
“Yeah. It’s hard because I know I’m a part of it, but at the same time it’s hard to feel cemented in the scene and embraced by it and like I said, it’s very competitive and dog-eat-dog. But I’ve got some amazing artists that are around me, some are associates, some are close friends. but they really have my back and I love that. But it’s hard, man. I mean, I hear little things, like people think I’m a problem because I am who I am and I’m good at what I do, but then I don’t get put in the conversations. It would have bothered me more a few years ago, but now I really am just telling myself to keep going with what I’m doing instead of trying to get into the cool kids club. I’ve never been that person, I’ve just always done my own thing. Which was hard when I was growing up, but it’s kind of the same in the Hip-Hop world. Sometimes it feels like being in the schoolyard, man. But I’m just going to be that same guy (laughs).”
There’s a lyric on the title track of “Smoke Filled Room” where you say “The modern age is a comedy script” and you mention Twitter. What are your thoughts on the influence and impact social media has on people in general, and more specifically on artists?
“It’s so hard not to get tied up in the bulls**t rather than concentrating on the art, as simple as that sounds. I mean, someone can put out some really good music that they’ve put their heart and soul into, but you’ll get more attention for talking some s**t about politics, or saying something about another artist. Or someone might misconstrue something that you’ve said. Just the wild other s**t that’s not about the art, man. I know that the simplicity of humans means we all like gossip and we all like dumb s**t, we all do at some point, but at the same time it’s so hard to not get caught up in it. But I just have something in me that says ‘I can’t do this’, all the back-and-forth s**t and putting all my thoughts and feelings online. It’s just such a weird landscape, man. But I think I’ve been able to deal with it quite well up to now, but this past year online has been wild. I mean, the way people judge each other and then will forget about someone in an instant, it’s just crazy. The microscope that we’re under online and the way we’re judged by each other is just so unhealthy. Unless someone has done or said something wildly despicable, you don’t need to be calling people out for some s**t. That energy could be directed in so many amazing ways, but instead we get into the gossip and the bulls**t. It comes down to that same tribal, throwing stones mentality , which is a very old, prehistoric way of doing stuff but people still seem to buy into it so much. The online world is just a strange ocean of information, personalities and egos, man.”
One of my biggest frustrations is the amount of time people will spend online talking about artists they don’t like whilst complaining that music isn’t in a good place, instead of using that time and those platforms to consistently support artists they do like who may really need the exposure. Plus, there can be a real sense of superiority involved in the way some people will try to introduce others to music they may not have heard, which I think can in turn actually put someone off checking out a particular recommendation…
“Yeah, man. It’s weird when people position it in a way where they’re saying ‘If you don’t know about this particular artist you don’t about music’ and stuff like that. Also, when people describe an artist as being slept-on or being your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper, I think that can sometimes put artists who’re really good in a position where people look past them because describing them in that way means that they’re not viewed as being fresh or new, so instead it’s a case of ‘Well I should of known about this person so I’m not even going to bother anymore.'”
There’s a line on “Eternal Sky” from the new album where you describe your love of what you refer to as the art life as being your biggest curse. Did you mean that in terms of everything we’ve just talked about and what you have to navigate in order to maximize your art to its fullest potential, or did you mean that being creative is a curse because it just isn’t something you can switch off and step away from?
“Exactly that. man. Whichever way I turn I’m up against it and my art is never ever something I can just drop. I mean, tomorrow I could say that I quit and I’m going to do something else, but I would never be able to get away from it because it’s woven into the fabric of my being. It’s who I am. I love what I do everyday and I include music, painting and cooking as all being part of that art life. It was my favourite director David Lynch who I heard say that he lives the art life. It’s about waking up every day and creating somehow. But it’s also a curse because it’s relentless. My brain is plagued with these thoughts that I need to do more. Or I’ll wake up at three in the morning with a new idea. That’s the art life. I can’t hold down a normal job. I mean, I’m not making the money I might make if I was doing a regular job, and that’s for real. I’m not some rapper that’s out here pretending to be rich. Far from it. I’m a working artist. I sometimes find that really difficult and that’s part of the curse, y’know. I can be around friends that I went to school with and they’re all making triple what I’m making. I’m not afraid to say that. But I have got the freedom that comes with being an artist, even though it’s not all roses. So I do think that deep, deep love I have for what I do, it is a curse, man. My mind is constantly working, creating, tying it all together, and then somehow I’m able to do the business side of things as well. I don’t know how, but I am. But like I said, it’s relentless, and that’s the curse of the art life. There’s a beauty to it, which is that I can wake up everyday and create, but at the same time it’s held me back in certain ways, But that’s the reality and the double-edged sword of what we do as artists.”
Because as hard as living that art life may be sometimes, the alternative of not doing that definitely isn’t going to lead you to happiness…
“Yeah. The choice is either not being happy much but being really happy when great things happen, or not being happy at all (laughs).”
As I said earlier though, what’s so good about this new album is that everything attached to what you do that may be seen as a negative, you’re still able to take that and craft something like “Smoke Filled Room” at such a high level, and incorporate those thoughts and feelings into your music but without it becoming the driving force in terms of your content. It comes across in the music that you’re at a different point now in life and you’re contending with certain things, but there’s still such an elegance to what you do and how you’ve put this new album together.
“Thank you, man. Elegance is such a great word, man. That’s really such a great word.”
It’s the best way to describe how this album sounds and feels to me. I mean, you listen to this album and it literally floats. As I was playing the album, I was thinking, it’s like you’ve been climbing a mountain for the last decade releasing your music. But now you’re at the top of that mountain in terms of the level of skill you’re operating at. There are still clouds around that sometimes can blur your vision and stop you from seeing off into the distance, but they’re just below that peak and you’re still stood on the top of that mountain having achieved as much as you have artistically over the years. You’re above those clouds and whilst your music may touch on certain issues this time around, it’s not weighed down by negativity, complaining or bitterness.
“One hundred percent. Thank you, man. That means a lot. I mean, I struggle saying these things about myself, but it’s a conscious effort to not be all those things, like bitter and negative. It’s a process you have to go through and it can be very tiring but I do it because that’s where I want to be. At the end of the day, when someone sits down to listen to my album, I don’t want them to be burdened with my bulls**t. I don’t want people to feel like listening to my music is a chore or a task. Also, can someone who doesn’t even listen to Hip-Hop put it on and be like, ‘Yeah, this sounds sick.’ That’s still always my goal. But it means a lot that you can hear I’ve got to that point on that mountain because getting to that point has been heavy on me. It’s been me climbing that mountain over the years with everyone telling me ‘Don’t quit! Keep going’ but not actually having much help on the way up (laughs). But I kept going and I’m glad I got to this place and you can see it. I feel like maybe above those clouds that are getting in my eyes there’s a very tall, jagged peak that I’ve still got to climb, but hopefully I can get up it. There are eagles flying around and vultures waiting for me to die, but I might get there (laughs).”
You released “Fine Furniture Vol. 1” earlier this year which showcased your beat-making skills. Are there plans to drop any more instrumental projects or produce for other artists?
“That project had to come out. I mean, I’ve been making beats for almost as long as I’ve been rapping. People had been saying to me for a long time that they’d love a beat-tape from me and I’ve always wanted to do it. So it just felt like the right time to put it out and I knew there were people out there who really wanted it. I’d love to get into producing for people more, but I’ve got so much going on, it’s difficult to take on projects. But I’d love to work more with upcoming artists and try and do some stuff. I mean, when I do commit to working with someone, I don’t just throw them something and expect them to work with it. It’s a real collaboration, man. So hopefully in the future when I’ve got a bit more time I can work with some already great artists and also some up-and-comers. But I have got a couple of things coming up. I’ve produced a whole project for Vandal Savage, who I’ve worked with forever and he’s my best mate, so I’ve done something for him which is very interesting. I’ve also produced an album for a rapper named Taja. She’s not put anything out before but she’s amazing. That should be coming out this year and it’s exciting because it’s her first ever project. She was on the last track on my “Bem” album and she really is wicked. I’m really looking forward to that coming out. There’s some different styles on there from me as well, like there’s a house track on there I did for her. But the way Taja’s spitting on there is crazy, man. I loved collaborating on that album and putting it together. I just love collaborating, man. That’s what the art life is all about. Just being in that zone and having that flow.”
How’s the cooking business been going?
“It’s been okay, man. I’ve had a few things on. It was hit hard by the pandemic, with a lot of my bread-and-butter work and normal jobs getting cancelled. But I’ve not been running around trying to do too much. I’ve just been trying to be careful with my family and everyone else. I mean, I could have done some things, but I wasn’t comfortable. But I have got some things on the cards with my catering and I can’t wait to get back into it because I love doing it. Obviously we’ve not been able to bring people together for my normal events like Food & Film and my pop-up shops, but hopefully it will pick back up again.”
So if you were to look back on all your releases so far, would you say “Smoke Filled Room” represents a line being drawn in the sand with you now entering the next stage of your career as an artist?
“I think so, I think so. It’s interesting you said that and I’m really happy you took that in from listening to the album. It’s also the reason why there are no features on the album. It’s just me and Giallo, back-to-back, really just focussing on the music and the message. That’s it. Line in the sand is a great phrase as well because that really is what this album means. This is where I’ve got to, this is the level I’m at and what I’m doing, and I’m going to try to continue going up. But if this was to be the last thing I did, I hope it’s a piece that people would consider as great. I mean, it’s not the last thing, but it definitely is that line in the sand. This is Jugz, full-stop. People in the past have said that they really like my music but that they don’t really know who I am or what I’m about. I kind of addressed that with “Bem”, but “Smoke Filled Room” is really about me digging in and showing people where I stand and the level I’m working at. This is me, take it or leave it. This is where I’m at. If you’re along for the ride and you love what I do, that’s amazing. If it’s not for you, c’est la vie. That’s cool. I’m not trying to please you. I’m never going be in that boardroom where people are telling me they’re going to make me a million dollars. That’s never going to be me and I know that. I’m going to be a working artist and I’m happy about that because it will keep me free to be who I am.”
“Smoked Filled Room” is out now .