Developing his passion for Hip-Hop in the early-80s, the UK’s DJ Nappa made his name outside of his Luton stomping grounds a decade later, providing the production which would help his crew Phi-Life Cypher grab the attention of heads in Britain and beyond when the group first began releasing wax in the late-90s.
Producing the majority of Phi-Life’s classic 2000 Jazz Fudge album “Millennium Metaphors”, Nappa has spent subsequent years keeping his raw brand of drum-heavy, sample-flavoured beats largely in-house, ensuring the second Cypher album, 2003’s “Higher Forces, was a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, whilst also working on the occasional outside project in-between providing long-time friend Life with strong sounds for his slew of solo albums.
With Phi-Life Cypher announcing their split at the end of 2012, Nappa has remained busy, still digging in the crates, still crafting guaranteed head-nodders and still remaining faithful to the true-school sonic ethics he entered the UK scene with all those years ago as an upcoming producer.
Having just released his instrumental “Late Night Beat Tape” project, a wide-ranging selection of obscure samples, top-shelf breaks and random soundbites, Nappa recently stepped away from his equipment long enough to discuss his early production efforts, the never-ending search for the perfect beat and his creative process.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a producer?
“I had turntables and was already deejay-ing and collecting breaks and stuff. But it wasn’t until I heard Caveman’s “Positive Reaction” album for the first time in the early-90s that I really thought about producing. The production on that album blew me away. It wasn’t the typical UK sound of the time and the album really struck a chord with me. After I heard that, I started putting bits and pieces together on a four-track. I had an Amiga with this tiny little silver box that sat on top of it which was the sampler. So you could play fours things at a time basically, but no more than that. So I started making little loops on there for awhile. At the time, there was another Hip-Hop deejay in Luton, a mate of mine called Johnny The Fox, and he used to be on pirate radio. He started a rave / dance type label called Furious Records and I put my first piece of vinyl out on there. It was a bit s**t though to be honest (laughs).”
Were you recording under a different name then?
“I called myself The Creator and there was one track on the single called “Time To Get Wrecked”, where I used a Pete Rock sample from “The Creator”, and another one was called “Scat” where I just had some drums and put this little jazzy scat sample over the top. It was terrible (laughs). I think I do still own a copy somewhere and I’m sure you can get it on Discogs for 50p or something (laughs). But that was my first venture onto vinyl in 1992.”
So prior to you actually getting into production you were listening to breaks but not with the intention of doing anything with them musically?
“Yeah, exactly. It was all about the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. I think the first one I actually bought was Volume 12 with “Funky Drummer” on it plus “The Champ” and “Ashley’s Roachclip”. There was a guy I went to school with, Steve, it was his birthday one year, this would have been 1986, and he went down to Bluebird Records in Luton, which later became Soul Sense, and he brought a load of the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. I remember we went back to his house to listen to them and that was the first time I heard The JB’s “Blow Your Head”. I was just like, ‘Wow! This is crazy!’ But at that point I definitely wasn’t thinking of making beats myself, I was just cutting the breaks up on the turntables. But like I said, it wasn’t until I heard Caveman that I really started to think about doing production myself.”
I always credit Caveman as being a really pivotal group within the British scene and, for me, “Positive Reaction” helped usher in a new era of production in UK Hip-Hop that stepped away from the traditional Brit-core sound and started to delve into funkier, jazzier samples…
“It was all about the sample material that they were using on that album. I mean, before that time, a lot of the samples you were hearing being used, you already knew what they were because they’d been used before. But when I heard “Positive Reaction”, the beats that The Principal was putting together on there just made me say, ‘Wow! What is this?’ I can still remember hearing the “Victory” single for the first time om Tim Westwood’s Capital Radio show back in 1990. At the time, I had a Sunday night pirate show on Pressure FM in Luton. Now, this was when MCM was on Westwood’s show all the time and he was doing a lot of gigs around the UK with Westwood and I remember they went to Batchwood Hall in St. Albans. I went down there and kinda just threw myself at MCM like, ‘You’re the s**t! You’re the best! What are those samples you’re using?’ He was a bit like, ‘Okay, chill out, chill out’ (laughs). But MCM was cool and he ended up playing me some of the “Positive Reaction” album in Westwood’s jeep and then gave me the tape! I was just like, ‘Wooow!’ This was before it had actually come out so I was dropping that all over the place (laughs). But me and MCM swapped numbers and we started chatting on the phone and we’re still friends to this day. But he taught me a lot about music back then. For example, Kool & The Gang, back then as far as I was concerned they were some disco pop s**t, but MCM put me onto the proper Kool & The Gang s**t. There was a track on “Positive Reaction” called “You Can’t Take It” which used Kool & The Gang’s “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight” and MCM told me about that. Then I went and found the record and it just opened me up to this whole other musical universe that was out there beyond the breaks that we’d already heard people using.”
That was the beautiful thing about Hip-Hop back then, that as a fan you took an active interest in the records that were being sampled and would want to learn more about a Roy Ayers or a James Brown. That whole process really helped you join the dots between the music of the time and the music of the past…
“Yeah, there isn’t so much of that happening anymore. But back then, that was a real eye-opener for me because before that I had really just been listening to the original breaks and I definitely wasn’t digging into jazz or anything like that. I mean, during that late-80s era a lot of the samples that were being used on Hip-Hop records were being sampled straight off the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. But when people started using the jazz samples, that opened up a whole new music world to me.”
So how did things progress for you from working with that original Amiga computer set-up to coming out with Phi-Life Cypher in the late-90s?
“So, like I said, it was around 1990 when I first started getting into the production side of things, and for the next few years I was really just messing around on the Amiga. I was making loops up and then I’d play them to MCM when I’d go and check him in High Wycombe and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, they’re alright.’ He wouldn’t tell me they were s**t, but he was just being really cool about it (laughs). Now, at the time, MCM had an Akai S950 and he taught me how to use it. He even let me me borrow it a few times and bring it back to Luton. So that’s how I really learnt to make proper beats, with MCM teaching me how to work the S950 and how to sequence it with an Atari computer, which was the Atari 520. I’ve actually got an Atari sitting in front of me now that I still use, which is the Atari 1040 (laughs). But yeah, that would have been about 1994 / 1995 that I was working with the S950.”
Was that a revolutionary experience for you to go from using a basic computer set-up to then working on the same equipment that some of the Hip-Hop records you were buying at the time would have been made with?
“Totally. Even though there still wasn’t much sampling time on the S950 back then, it was about ten or twelve seconds, but that was enough. Being able to use that machine back then was a really big stepping stone for me. I was working at the time, digging roads, and I decided that I had to save myself some money and get my own 950. That was around the end of 1995 going into the beginning of 1996. So I saved some money and ended-up buying one off a guy in Crystal Palace that I’d seen advertised in Exchange & Mart.”
Do you remember how much you paid for it?
“I paid £570 for it second-hand which was a lot of money back then. Then, somewhere near Bedford, I brought an Atari ST and started really making beats. I already knew Life as he had a little crew with a studio in Luton and I’d always be messing with them. So I started making beats and giving them to Life. This was around 1996. Life was in and out of prison, I’d be sending him beats, he’d be writing and when we had the opportunity we would make little tapes. Life’s probably still got them somewhere as he’s got hundreds of tapes from back then (laughs).”
So once you’d mastered the S950 there must have been a massive progression in terms of the quality of the beats you were making at that time?
“Yeah, it totally jumped from what I was making messing around on my Amiga to what I was doing at that point. I’d learnt a lot more about breaks by then, partly because I’d also gotten to know Juliano from The Creators through MCM. I mean, Juliano’s on a whole next level with breaks, so when I met him for the first time in the 90s that was another eye-opening experience. It was like, at the time, you think you know everything there is to know about music, but then you realise that you actually don’t know (laughs). So meeting Juliano opened up another different musical world with the library records, the soundtracks, the European records…”
So would you say your beats were getting better at that point because of the familiarity you were gaining with the equipment you were using or because you were being exposed to a wider amount of material to sample?
“It was both, really. I was getting good on the 950, but then going digging with Juliano, taking trips with him up to Birmingham, he’d just be pulling out records and saying to me, ‘Take that, take that, and that one.’ I was just learning from him at that point.”
Were there any memorable digging trips from that period that still stand-out to you?
“Yeah, yeah (laughs). There was one time we were in Birmingham, I can’t remember the exact spot, but this was around the time when people were just discovering David Axelrod. We were in this shop and this place had eight or nine copies of the Electric Prunes album “Release Of An Oath”, with “Holy Are You” on it, and that was just at the time that it had been used on Fat Joe’s second album. I remember we all got a copy of that album and were like, ‘Daammmn!’ There was another guy that MCM knew from High Wycombe, this guy called Gus, this real upper-class posh dude. He didn’t make music but he collected breaks and he had the ill s**t. I think it was actually Gus who Juliano got the break from that he used on The Creators’ “Hard Margin” track with Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Gus was also the first person I knew to have a copy of the “Planete Sauvage” soundtrack. This guy just had crazy records. God knows what happened to him (laughs).”
Were you spending a lot of money of records back then?
“I was buying records all the time. But it was Juliano who taught me about charity shops. I mean, I wasn’t going into charity shops before then (laughs). At that time, around 1996 / 1997, Juliano was doing a lot of trades with big American producers, going to the record conventions out in New York and doing trades with people like Q-Tip and Pete Rock. I remember, I’d always be carrying around a list of the records that Juliano was looking for. So there might be a John Schroeder version of “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” that he’d be looking for, I’d find it, give it to Juliano, he’d give me some really good stuff, but then he’d trade it with producers out in America because it was a British copy and they couldn’t get it out there. They were going mad for that s**t over there at the time. Whatever deals Juliano did with Q-Tip, he ended-up with all of the instrumental Tribe show albums in his collection. That was all through dealing British breaks with Q-Tip. But I got some of my favourite records off of Juliano, like my Tom Scott “Honey Suckle Breeze” album. I’ve definitely got some good records off him. I actually haven’t seen him for a few years, but Juliano was a real record collector.”
I remember going to Juliano’s house back in 1998 so that him and Si Spex could play me their album “The Weight” for a feature I was writing on them for Fatboss magazine. The interview never actually got printed as the album didn’t come out until two years later. But I can still remember how passionate Juliano was about the music he was playing me and that crazy neck-snap he’d do…
“You probably heard a lot of the same tracks that I did at that point that didn’t actually make the album. There was a Craig G track and also an F.T. track that never made the final release. But, that was the legendary Juliano neck-snap you’re talking about (laughs). There was no head-nodding, it was his neck just snapping. That and his foot tapping (laughs). But that was around the time that Phi-Life Cypher were talking with Juliano about putting our stuff out. We’d made some demos, like “Drop Bombs”, which we’d recorded in Luton. We gave those to Juliano and he was looking to do his own label and put us out. But then with everything that went on with the Creators album, we sort of got lost in the mix. So Juliano passed our stuff to DJ Vadim and that was how we got the Jazz Fudge link.”
I can still remember picking-up Phi-Life’s “Baddest Man” EP on white label from London’s Deal Real Records back in 1998. Something that struck me immediately about your production on there was that it had a really clear, full-bodied sound to it. Was that something you set out to achieve once you started working in a proper studio?
“I wasn’t even thinking about that sort of stuff when we were doing the “Baddest Man” EP to be honest with you. I mean, I found it really hard at the time because I’d never been in a proper studio before at that point and the studio we were using had never worked with Hip-Hop artists before. So I was just trying to make everything sound really loud (laughs). When we started doing “Millennium Metaphors”, Juliano mixed some of the album and was really good in the studio, but he liked to really compress everything at the time, so his snares and everything would be really hard. But we were also working with No Sleep Nigel and that man is just a beast in the studio.”
No Sleep Nigel is a legend within UK Hip-Hop circles thanks to his engineer work with Blade, MC Mell’O’, Hardnoise etc. Did you learn anything from working with Nigel in the studio?
“I mean, Nigel just kinda did his thing. A lot of the time, you’d put a track up for him, he’d stick his headphones on and you wouldn’t hear from him for hours (laughs). The one thing with Nigel was that if you started talking to him you’d never get any work done (laughs). He could definitely talk. I mean, he was a lot older than us, he was a big man and he’d have a story for everything. Once you got him started you couldn’t stop him (laughs). So you kinda learnt to just leave him, let him do his thing and you knew it would sound good at the end.”
What producers were you looking up to at that point?
“Prince Paul was always my number one. Then a little later when I was around Juliano, Si Spex and Mark B, I kinda looked up to what they were doing at the time. Then, of course, you had people like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, The Alchemist, Hi-Tek. All those guys at that time were making real good music that was inspiring me.”
You remixed the Mark B & Blade track “Ya Don’t See The Signs” in 2001 which was on the flip of the Grant Nicholas rock version with that single eventually breaking into the UK Top 30. How was that experience for you?
“Yeah. That was definitely a big thing for me. Mark B liked what I was doing and it was really a big step-up for me to do that remix. I remember I really wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to do it at the same time because I was feeling the pressure to deliver. But I wanted to try and make my version a totally different track to the original and, in the end, it came out nice.”
Unlike many producers, you’ve really limited the number of artists you’ve worked with over the years and a lot of your production has remained in-house on the Phi-Life Cypher projects and then Life’s solo material…
“There’s no real reason for it, it’s kinda just happened like that. I mean, I’ve done bits here and there. Even before Phi-Life came out, I produced something for a crew that MCM had back in the 90s called Next Wavelength for a single they put out on Blue Planet Records. I did some remixes for DJ Vadim and worked with a crew from Scotland called Belles In Monica. Then I also did the projects with Inja and I have the “Rebelbase” album with Cappo coming out. But to be honest with you, nobody really asks me for beats. So back then, everything that I was making was going into the Phi-Life material. ”
How would you say your approach to production has changed, if at all, over the years?
“I don’t think it’s changed too much. I mean, when I listen back to beats I did years back I hear them and might think they’re not something that I’d do now. But I don’t know if my approach to making music has really changed. It’s hard to explain. I just make beats (laughs). I mean, there’s a few bits on the new Cappo album that are literally just loops and I think that’s something that I’ve learnt, which is to just go with what sounds good. Before, I would have thought that I couldn’t just loop something, I’d have to put drums on it and everything. Whereas now, if it sounds good then I’ll just leave it. I mean, if you listen to some of the music being made by people like Roc Marciano, he’s just looping s**t, rapping on it and it’s amazing. I feel that Hip-Hop is coming back around to that raw beats and rhymes sound. Just straight, hardcore beats and rhymes. I mean, a few beats on the new “Late Night” project, I haven’t actually sampled anything. I just recorded the music and then pasted the track together like I was cutting tape.”
What was the idea behind your new instrumental project “Late Night Beat Tape”?
“I’ve been sitting on a lot of those beats for ages. I know that’s something that you probably hear a lot of producers say. But sometimes you make beats for yourself, like, ‘If I could rap then this what I would want to rap over.’ So, a lot of the beats on the “Late Night” project are the type of beats that, if I could rap, I’d be rapping on them. I called it “Late Night” because I’m an insomniac and I’ll be there sampling s**t at whatever time in the morning just making beats. I mean, sometimes you’ll make a beat with a particular emcee in mind or you make something more straight forward with the intention of having someone rap on it. But then, as a producer, you also sometimes make those awkward beats that emcees will say they can’t rap over (laughs). So “Late Night” is just a collection of little bits like that, really.”
You definitely cover a lot of musical ground on the project, including soul, funk, reggae, jazz…
“Yeah, there’s a whole heap of stuff on there. At the minute, I’m kind of into electronic music, Tangerine Dream and stuff like that. I’m finding all of these really weird electronic loops. So there’s a few Tangerine Dream samples on the new project. There’s just a selection of styles on there. I didn’t really over-think it when I was putting it together. I think that if you love Hip-Hop then you’re going to love it. Maybe some people out there don’t like listening to instrumentals and want to hear an emcee on everything, but I think most heads will listen to this and think that it’s dope.”
Does it put you under more pressure when you’re working on an instrumental track knowing that there isn’t going to be an emcee on it to hold the listener’s attention?
“Yeah, it does. You have to make the track more involved and keep the movement going. If there’s not an emcee there that people are listening to as the main focus of a track then it’s very important to be able to keep the listener’s attention. I mean, sometimes you hear instrumental Hip-Hop albums and they’re boring because they’re just straight beats. So, as a producer, if you’re making instrumental stuff, I think it’s really important to make sure it moves and keeps flowing. I want people to listen to what I’m doing and enjoy it, not be thinking of what’s missing from a track whilst they’re listening to it.”
Do you still go out digging for vinyl regularly?
“I was actually out digging earlier today (laughs). I was out with Justice, the guy who’s putting the “Late Night” project out on his Modern Urban Jazz label. He’s from Luton as well and we’ve known each other on and off over the years. He was a big drum & bass man and put out releases of his own. He’s got his own drum & bass label but has always been into Hip-Hop, like a lot of the old-school jungle / drum & bass guys. It was actually him who started pushing me last year to put the “Late Night” project out there. I was just sitting on it and it was something that I would listen to, but I didn’t really know if anyone else would like it. But yeah, we were out earlier today digging. There’s only really one vinyl record shop still here in Luton, Vinyl Revelations, and the guy who runs it has got an outhouse, shed-type thing at his home which is just full of 45s. They’re not in any order or anything, you just have to dig through and see what you can find. But whenever I get a chance, I’m out digging.”
Do you have any other particular spots?
“Not really. I mainly go digging in charity shops, car-boot sales, places like that. There’s a guy who goes to Hitchin market every week with a load of records and everything he sells only costs a pound. I always get bits off him. So I’m still out looking for stuff. I don’t really get that whole online digging thing though, man. To me, it’s about going out, looking at the records, reading the liner notes, trying to find something that has that next big break on it. That’s the part of it that I enjoy most and sometimes you never know what you’ve got until you get home and play it.”
What’s the most you’ve ever paid for a record?
“To be honest, I’ve never had that one record that I’ve paid ridiculous money for. I love records, but I don’t like the fact that people put these mad prices on them.”
What equipment are you using nowadays?
“I got an MPC Renaissance when that came out, so I’m using that at the minute. But I’m having a headache with at the moment because it’s computer-based and my computer is a bit older and they don’t really like each other so there’s a lot of crashing and stuff (laughs). But the Renaissance is really good. It’s definitely a nice bit of kit. I just need a better computer (laughs).”
What happened to the S950 that you started on all those years ago?
“I actually got rid of that last year. I sold it to one of Mr. Thing’s friends, Mo Fingaz, so it went to a good home.”
Was it difficult for you to part with considering the personal history that was attached to it?
“Yeah, it was quite sad to get rid of it, but at the time I needed the money. I mean, all the Phi-Life albums had been done on that and a lot of other stuff. There were a lot of memories attached to that 950 so it was quite a big deal to let it go. But like I said, it went to a good home so I know that it’s going to be looked after.”
When you look at the newer generation of talented UK emcees, is there anyone out there that you’d particularly like to work with?
“I think M9 has been putting out some really good music. I think Fliptrix from the High Focus camp is amazing. Also, Farma G’s son Remus, he’s definitely dangerous. I think there’s definitely a newer generation of emcees and producers coming through now who know what real Hip-Hop is all about. They’ve watched and learnt from the people who came before them and aren’t just jumping on a bandwagon. So there’s definitely some younger dudes out there who are really making some good music, which is something that can only be good for the scene overall. But aside from the newer emcees, I’d still like to do a whole project with Micall Parknsun and also something with MCM as well because he can definitely still rap.”
What albums, both inside and outside of Hip-Hop, do you listen to and think, ‘I wish I produced that project’?
“Outside of Hip-Hop, the first thing that popped in my head when you said that was Portishead. They were just on some next s**t when they came out. In terms of Hip-Hop, there are just too many albums I could think of that I love, man. My favourite Gang Starr album is “Daily Operation”. That’s the ultimate Gang Starr album for me. I’d also have to say Ultramagnetic MC’s’ “Critical Beatdown” and Diamond D’s “Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop”. Those albums just don’t age and are definitely some of the albums that have influenced me over the years, but I could keep naming others for hours (laughs).”
What’s next for you musically?
“Well, Life has an album out called “Sound Of The Underground” that has beats on there from Leaf Dog, Mr. Thing, DJ Lok and myself. But after that, there’s another Life album coming later in the year which is produced entirely by me. The “Rebelbase” album I’ve done with Cappo is all done now and just needs to be mixed and everything. Plus, I still have a lot of Phi-Life Cypher tracks that were recorded before we broke up that will see the light of day at some point. There are still Phi-Life fans out there and I think people would still like to hear that music. I mean, we’d basically recorded a whole album before the split and I don’t think it’s fair that the Phi-Life fans out there can’t hear that for whatever reason. But I just make beats and that’s really all I know. So whether they’re being released out there or not, I’m still going to me making more beats tomorrow.”
So going back to your favourite Gang Starr album, making beats for you really is a daily operation…
“Yeah, exactly. Whether anyone’s listening or not, I’m still going to be making beats. It’s something that’s ingrained in me now and I just still have that real love of music.”
Follow DJ Nappa on Twitter – @Nappa72