UK emcee Juga-Naut is the perfect example of someone with undeniable natural talent. It’s as if he was born to rhyme. Whilst the Nottingham-based wordsmith has undoubtedly worked hard to perfect his craft, the end result sounds so effortless it’s clear the lyricist-slash-producer is tapping into a place of pure creativity every time he puts pen to paper, picks up a microphone or switches on his sampler.
Having spent the best part of the last decade releasing a string of quality projects (some self-produced, some collaborative efforts), Juga-Naut’s work ethic and dedication have been unquestionable. A true student of the game, Jugz respects the history of the culture, drawing upon it at times for inspiration, whilst boldly stepping forward on his own path, delivering music that is unique, vibrant and larger-than-life.
With his latest album “Bem” dropping back in February, Juga-Naut jumped on the phone recently amidst the coronavirus lockdown to discuss his artistic development, family and future goals.
You released your latest album “Bem” to coincide with your 30th birthday – was the album recorded specifically for that purpose or was there already a project in the pipeline?”
“I always had the idea since I was young. For me, back then, turning thirty really meant adulthood. I already had a couple of songs, like the song with Liam Bailey which I did a couple of years ago, and one or two others. But a lot of the tracks on the album were made very close to the time of it coming out. But I’d had the idea of doing it for a long time, man. Like I said, from when I was young. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, if I’m still doing this then I want to do an album when I turn thirty.’ Of course, I’m still doing it so I made the album (laughs). Also, not being corny, but I wanted to give something out to people for my birthday. But yeah, I’d always planned to do it. I mean, I’ve got so many other projects on the go, but with this, I was like, ‘Yeah this has got to happen.’ As far as the name of the album goes, I didn’t actually think of that until quite late. The title of the album “Bem” is also my third name. It’s an African name which means ‘good’ or ‘well’ in Portugese. So when I thought of using that, I felt that it really fit what I was trying to do with the album and made it personal.”
We did our first interview together eight years ago when you’d dropped the “Marvelous Wordsmiths” project with Vandal Savage. Since then you’ve released eleven projects and maintained a consistently high level of quality in your music. How do you feel you’ve developed as an artist over that period and have you learnt any lessons along the way that you apply to your craft today?
“That’s a good question, man. I mean, the most obvious way to answer you is to say that I’ve literally grown-up during that period. When I listen back to some of the music I was putting out at twenty-two, twenty-three-years-old and then listen to the stuff I’m making now, the progression has been great. I was always good at rapping, but my actual sound and confidence in being who I am has really come out during that time. So I think that’s what I’ve really applied to my music, just me fully embracing who I am. We’re in a place now within Hip-Hop where you can create your own world that people really want to be involved with and buy into and that’s what I’ve really applied to what I do. I’ve got a formula in some ways, but I just try to make every project I do a cohesive body of work. When I look back to “Marvelous Wordsmiths”, that was a mixtape in our eyes and it was a bunch of other people’s beats, mixed with some of our own stuff, and we were just having fun. But with something like “Bem”, that’s a fully cohesive album, fully sequenced and thought out. I also understand now that something like the artwork used for an album is all part of the package. Everything together, the artwork, the sound, the sonics, it’s all super important.”
So would it be fair to say that on your early projects you simply viewed yourself as being a rapper, but now you consider yourself a fully-fledged artist?
“One hundred percent, man. I think we talked about it in that first interview we did, about both my parents being artists and me coming up around art and how that influenced me. Art comes in so many different forms and when you’re making an album, aside from the music, there’s the cover art to think about, you’ve got videos and the visual aspect of what you’re doing. I mean, I always wanted to be considered the best rapper, but that only goes so far. You can only be the best rapper to other rappers. And I’ve kind of got to that place, which is amazing. Some of the greats and some of my peers are holding me up there in that place and that’s what I’ve always wanted, but that doesn’t solidify you in history and pay the bills. I mean, it’s not even about just paying the bills, it’s about creating lasting pieces of work. You mentioned I’ve released eleven projects over the last eight years, but in my head I’m never doing enough. I’m in a weird place where I feel like I’m never doing enough but at the same time there’s so much music there that I wish people could go back and really get their teeth into. Of course, I listen back and there’s some stuff I wish I could have done better, but there are some real gems and some of those projects are really special. I had this thing where I really wanted to get as much music out as I could before I was thirty, so then any shine that comes from now on, people will be able to look back at everything I’ve already done and be like, ‘Okay, this guy’s not a new jack.'”
As much as you have clearly developed as an artist over the years, I think all the elements that make your music so good now have definitely been there since the beginning. Perhaps now though, your own increased confidence and self-awareness means that you’ve been able to refine what you do and how you approach your music?
“One hundred percent. It’s like when you’re cooking and you reduce everything down to create your stock. You just keep reducing it down until it becomes perfect. Then once you’ve got it, that becomes your formula and something that can be added to any dish. I mean, back with a lot of those early releases, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I knew it was right. I knew it felt right and I knew some of those things I was doing were what you were meant to do if you wanted to be considered an artist. I was just trying to do my best with it back then, so I’m really happy that effort came across even at that young age.”
“Marvelous Wordsmiths” was my introduction to you and I remember looking at the cover art and thinking it was a somewhat random choice, but then when I listened to the project it did make sense in a way that I still can’t really explain…
“If it feels right and it’s genuine, that’s the key. It sounds cliché but if you’re doing something because it feels right then it just works and people will be able to hear that and see that. ”
You mentioned your parents earlier. Now, you’ve been working with your dad (aka Stickman) recently on the Cellar Sessions videos which feature his incredible drumming skills and he also delivers a really powerful spoken-word intro on “Bem”. What’s that collaborative experience like for you on both a personal and creative level?
“The intro on “Bem”, that’s a beat I did a couple of years ago. I recorded those drums in my parents’ cellar with one mic. I’ve done quite a lot of drum tracking and then used them on tracks. My dad just goes off. I let him do what he’s doing, he goes off for twenty minutes on the drums and then I just chop up whatever’s been recorded. I mean, it’s all amazing, but I’ll find the super gems and use those in different tracks. Both my parents are amazing artists, but they’re middle-aged now and I had that fear of missing the chance to solidify that talent in history both for myself and for them. I’m at a place now where I’ve got eyes and ears on me, so I can stamp that for them. They’ve both done amazing things in their lives and that doesn’t have to stop because they’ve had kids or whatever. My dad’s an incredible poet, drummer and visual artist, and my mum is an incredible painter and she makes clothes. She did the cover for my album “Bon Vivant”. She sewed the whole thing together, needle and thread, and it looks amazing. I mean, I wouldn’t be who I am without them and also the people we had around us, who were their friends. I grew up around art, so my whole feeling was like, it would be a loss in my life and our family history if we didn’t certify it by having them involved in my music. I hope to do much much more, but in a worse case scenario, if what we’ve worked on together so far was it, I’d be happy. But going back to the “Bem” intro, I asked my dad to come and record something for me, I told him to go straight off the top and he just did that.”
That intro was off the top?
“Yeah, he did that in two takes I think. He will go off! But it was important for me to get him on the album intro with me turning thirty because I wanted to show people that this is where I come from and this is how I was born and raised, man.”
I met your parents when you performed at Nottingham’s Rough Trade a few years back and heard some of their stories, including them seeing Run DMC perform in Manchester back in the 80s. I remember coming away with a better understanding of who you are and where your artistry comes from. I mean, your dad in particular is just magnetic in terms of his personality and passion for music…”
“He is, man, he is. My dad is the ultimate extrovert. I mean, I’m super close with all my family. But with my dad, he’s been through a lot in his life. He’s been through a lot of hardships and faced a lot of racism. His brother, who was also an amazing artist, took his own life in 1988. So he’s been through a lot. But he’s a true artist and a true eccentric. Every moment that he’s in, he’s truly in that moment. He lives for love and people and energy. That’s the key to what he does. My dad went to New York in 95 / 96 and was playing with all the jazz musicians out there, he went to the poetry clubs, he met Crazy Legs from the Rock Steady Crew and was drumming for him, all kinds of crazy stuff. That’s what I want to keep going. Hopefully I’ll be able to tour with him one day and do something on that level.”
So in a way, “Bem” is as much about celebrating your family heritage as it is about you turning thirty-years-old…
“I really wanted the album to be like the household we have and how it was when I was growing up, with different artists coming over and things like that. I also have to say rest in peace to one of our family’s best friends Pablo and also DJ Jazz Spirit who both passed away. I mean, some of my friends’ parents were so important and pivotal in who we are as well, man. The music was always there. I used to get lectured by Pablo for hours and hours, all of us, my brothers and our friends. He’d play a record and then we’d have to sit down to talk about it and explain why we liked this part and why we didn’t like that part. When you’re young you’re kinda like ‘What’s going on?’, but now I understand that was all part of my foundation. I mean, we’d sit there and listen to a whole John Coltrane piece and then Pablo would turn around and put EPMD on (laughs). Then he’d take that off the deck and put Fela Kuti on. Then he’d put a Roni Size record on. He did all that too f**k with our heads at a young age (laughs). Man, I could go off about it for ages, but the childhood I had was very unique and myself along with my brothers and friends are blessed to have had that. We’ve all been through different things, but that structure there that led us to love art the way we do was amazing, man.”
I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I’ve always felt that you sound particularly good over 80s soul and funk loops. Looking back over your catalogue, you’ve included a number of tracks fitting that description on various releases. Have you ever considered doing a full project based on samples from that musical era?
“I have, man. That’s always been part of my formula, to just put one or two tracks like that on each project because I haven’t wanted it to get too samey. But I’ve been thinking that I might grab a few of the best ones that I’ve done before, do a bunch more and make it into a cohesive album. If I do that, then my idea was to try and get one or two of those classic artists from that period involved in some way. That would be amazing, man. Or people that are doing that type of music now, because you’ve got a few artists out there that are on that vibe. But I’ve always just seemed to fit in that pocket; that 95-100 bpm straight soulful s**t. That music has always hit me and I’ve always loved it. That’s my favourite s**t, man. That 80s soul and rare groove sound. That’s my music through and through. But I’m definitely down to do a full project around that. I’ll be in the full three-piece crushed purple velvet suit on the cover (laughs). So if I do it, I’m going to go all the way.”
That 80s soul / funk flavour is the ultimate feel-good music. Even my five-year-old son Daniel loves that stuff. Obviously he’s heard a lot of music being played in the house and in the car since he was born, but before he could even talk I noticed he really responded to those 80s classics. By the time he was talking, Zapp’s “More Bounce To The Ounce” and Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” were two songs he used to ask to hear all the time. But for some reason he couldn’t say Luther Vandross and used to pronounce it as Super Bandross!
“I’m using that as the name of the album – Super Bandross (laughs). Man, that’s amazing. But it’s music that speaks to your heart. This is the thing with that type of stuff, it’s just uplifting music. It’s upbeat. I’ve never been able to listen to sad music. I’ve always struggled to do that because music affects me so much. Music can make me cry at the drop of a hat. Chords in a song can really mess with you, which is why stuff like Roy Ayers and a lot of the jazz fusion artists, they really hit me because those chord patters they use just do something to me. It’s powerful, man. But when I perform live and I do those songs with the 80s samples, people love it. Even if they haven’t heard the original song before. It just hits them in a certain way and that’s what I want.”
You’ve dropped a few releases that feature you working specifically with one producer for the whole project – Micall Parknsun (“Six Bricks”), Sonnyjim (“The Purple Door”), Giallo Point (“Back To The Grill Again”). As a producer yourself, what do you look for in another producer that makes you decide you want to collaborate with them in that way rather that just handle the music yourself?
“Man, nobody’s ever asked me that (laughs). To be honest, all those guys you’ve mentioned, they’re my mates now. Obviously I love the beats they’ve done, otherwise I wouldn’t have used them, but it’s about the energy as well and me getting in touch with them and really getting where they’re coming from. I mean, one of the reasons I started producing when I was fifteen, sixteen-years-old was because I really didn’t like a lot of the stuff people were giving me, so I decided to give it a go as I’d thought it couldn’t be as hard as people made out (laughs). But with Sonny, he’s got a good ear for straight raw loops and I got where he was coming from. With Micall Parknsun, I loved the drums and I love the way he chopped the beats. Plus, he was one of the first people from the UK who openly really promoted me and he didn’t have to. Before we even worked together, he was telling people about my music. Not too many people do that because there’s so much ego and weirdness out there. But the beats he sent me, he told me that he’d made them specifically for me, and they worked. Same with Giallo Point. A lot of the stuff he does is super grimy, but he told me that he had some stuff for me. He sent me a couple of tracks and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ So the rest of the beats were almost made to order for me and as they were coming through, almost all of them I was hearing were perfect for what I wanted to do. There’s something about Giallo’s beats though that make me want to write to them as soon as I hear them, which is rare. He’s got a great ear for samples.”
How does working with outside producers influence your writing process, if at all, compared with when you’re using your own beats?
“So the difference between me working on my own tracks and working on other people’s is that ninety percent of the time, whenever you’ve heard me on a beat of my own, I’ve literally made the beat and written to it that same day. If I leave a beat after I’ve made it and I keep listening to it, I just can’t write to it. My brain just switches off and I start thinking ‘You know what? I can hear Nas on this beat or Jadakiss.’ If that happens then I find that I just can’t write to it. It’s a weird, weird thing. So with my own beats, if I don’t write to them straight away I’ll just agonize over it and it’ll just turn to ash, man.”
Are we likely to see another VVV album with yourself, Cappo and Vandal Savage?
“Well, we have got another one in the works, man. We were already supposed to do one but everyone was just too busy. I mean, that first project was just for fun and was just all of us having a laugh. When we all wanted to get together, have a few drinks and record some music, that’s how that first project came together. So our deejay, International Jeff, he’s got a tape with about ten tracks done and it’s all on his beats. So that’s there and is yet to come. So there will be another Triple V album but it won’t be in the same vein of how we did the one before because it’s Jeff producing it, whereas before it was between me, Cappo and Vandal Savage doing all the beats. But everyone’s just doing different things at the moment with their own music and just life in general. So there will be another Triple V album, it’s just a matter of time, man.”
When the first VVV tracks and videos started to surface initially I wasn’t completely sure whether they were meant to be taken seriously or not. What was the inspiration behind you all coming together to form the group in the first place?
“All being at the forefront of what we do and all coming from Nottingham, it was a natural thing for us to come together to work on something. But when we started, it was really about saying let’s just make something and see where it goes. We didn’t just want to do the traditional underground UK Hip-Hop sound and be put into that box. Hip-Hop can be very conservative and there are just so many rules that people apply to it, but with that first Triple V album we just wanted to have fun. We were creating our own world with our own sense of humour, but within that there were some real gems and some really good music. I mean, we got a real cult following just from that album alone and I think it was almost cathartic for all of us just to get that out of our systems. I had so much fun doing the videos the way that we did and making that music. We all went on tour together and that was some of the funniest times I’ve ever had in my life. It was just absolute chaos and pure fun. man.”
Previously you’ve talked about the politics of the UK Hip-Hop scene and how initially it was difficult for you to gain attention coming from Nottingham. Do you feel that’s changed now or are you still facing the same issues?
“It’s still the case, man. But it’s made me go even more Nottingham with it. I mean, I’ve done shows and worked with people all over the country and all over the world. But there are still people not paying attention. I did a podcast in London last year and one of the guys told me I was one of the only rappers he listens to outside of London. When I asked why he said it was because he couldn’t get with the accents. Now, that’s someone British saying that, so imagine what someone from Sweden or the USA might have to say about the music. But when it comes to people not checking the music out, I’ve often asked myself is it because of the way I look? Is it purely because of the accent? Am I not gangster enough? Am I not backpack enough? I wouldn’t say I’m a square peg in a round hole, but I don’t quite fit anywhere people want me to be. But the people who do know, they’re stone cold fans and that’s the beautiful thing about it. I guess to answer your question, I still don’t really feel embraced, but the whole world is listening to me now.”
You recently dropped a video for the track “Bone Marrow” which gives a massive nod of respect to Wu-Tang and also uses the same Syl Johnson sample as the crew’s 2000 cut “Hollow Bones”. What made you choose to pay homage to the Clan and what impact have they had on you as an artist?
“It’s almost beyond words how much impact the Wu have had on my life. There’s just something so pure, so raw and grimy and real about their music. But that loop there, I was just listening to the original song and it’s one of those songs that really hits your heart because it’s pure Black pain that you’re listening to. The way RZA used it and flipped it on “Hollow Bones”, I was going to loop the same part, but then I decided to use a different part that didn’t have the vocals on just to have a little difference to it. But in terms of how they’ve influenced me, Wu-Tang is one of the most important groups in Hip-Hop history and they’ve had a massive influence on everything, from lyricism, to beats, to clothing, to slang. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time. I mean, I wouldn’t be the emcee I am today without Raekwon and Ghostface, and I wouldn’t be the producer I am without RZA.”
“Yellow Glow” is a personal favourite of mine off “Bem” and is a perfect example of the point you were making earlier about particular sounds in music being able to trigger certain emotions and feelings. The verses from yourself, Taja and Oliver Rees obviously have a nostalgic element to them, but even without the lyrics that track would still you put in that place just off the production alone…
“I’m really glad you said that, man. Like I said earlier about music hitting you in a certain way, with the chords and the progression, that’s what I was aiming for with “Yellow Glow”. There’s both a happiness and a melancholy feel to it as well, which sums up life in general but also comes from looking back on the best memories ever and understanding those times will never happen again. But the two emcees featured on there, I feel that they’re the future. I’m still not at a place where I have enough reach to say ‘These are the next guys!’ and everyone jumps on them, but if I can do anything for those who are truly good people and who have talent, then I will. I’ve got a whole project with Taja, she’s an amazing emcee from Birmingham, and Oliver Rees plays his own instruments and as an emcee he’s amazing as well. But that track came together really well and I’m glad you brought it up because not many people have brought it up in the same way you just have so I’m really happy about that.”
So obvious final question, now you’ve hit thirty-years-old and reached that milestone, what’s next for you?
“When I look back at the plans I made when I was younger and the ideas I had of where I wanted to be by the time I reached my late-twenties / early-thirties, I’ve actually surpassed it. Not in terms of monetarily or receiving the recognition I feel I deserve, but when it comes to just releasing music, having a worldwide following, having loyal fans, having legends and people I look up to supporting me, I have all that now which is amazing. So the thing for me now is getting to a place where I’m financially okay to just put my own music out, have a label and put out artists I want to work with. I really want to be free to do what I want to do and not have to rely on anyone else. So the next step is about being at a level where I can tour every summer, put my music out, and have a strong enough following to be able to do this for the foreseeable future. It’s coming, man, it’s coming. I’m gradually picking up steam and behind the scenes my name is being talked about, it’s just about now getting my name to the forefront (laughs). Moving forward I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and hopefully get more of the world to listen to what I do. I want to have longevity. In twenty years time I want people to be talking about my music like, “Do you remember that “Bem” album that Juga-Naut put out? That was a brilliant album, let’s go back and listen to it.” I mean, I’m sending orders for tapes out to Japan which is crazy! When we did our interview eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking that I would end up sending cassettes to Germany, Japan and the US. But it’s definitely a beautiful thing.”
The “Bem” album is available now at JugaNaut.BandCamp.Com.