Another year goes by. Another almost endless stream of best-of lists get written and posted on websites, blogs and social media platforms. We agree with some lists. We disagree with most lists. We argue over all the lists. We love lists. We hate lists. Some people believe these lists have value. Some people question the point of even attempting to put such lists together. But remember, a best-of list can’t please everyone and should never try to.
For me, compiling a year-end round-up has never been about claiming to have made a definitive list that covers every release that’s been worthy of attention over a particular twelve month period. That would be impossible.
Instead, a year-end list is just a way of me being able to give a nod of gratitude to as many artists as possible whose music I’ve especially enjoyed. It’s really as simple as that.
So, with that being said, who gets props over here?
Phife Dawg – “Forever” (SmokinNeedles.BigCartel.Com) – Handled with obvious love, patience and care, this album from A Tribe Called Quest legend Phife avoided the shortcomings often associated with posthumous releases, sounding fresh, vibrant and organic. Backed by production from the likes of Nottz, DJ Rasta Root and 9th Wonder, the rhymes from the Five-Foot Assassin ranged from witty, humorous punchlines to moments of genuine reflection and vulnerability, the poignancy of which wasn’t lost on listeners fully aware we were hearing the thoughts and feelings of an individual no longer with us. Ultimately a celebration of the life, career and talent of an artist gone far too soon, “Forever” stood as a fitting (if bittersweet) tribute to a Hip-Hop great whose voice many of us grew-up with in our headphones. Rest in peace Phife Dawg.
Juga-Naut – “Time & Place” (JugaNaut.BandCamp.Com) – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Nottingham’s Juga-Naut is one of the most constistent and talented artists of the last decade. Since his debut to the present day, Jugz has walked his own path, inspired by a genuine love of the art and an inner drive to be creative. Ten years in the making, this concept-based album was an epic self-produced journey through the UK artist’s many musical and personal influences, resulting in some of the finest beats and rhymes you were likely to hear in 2022 and beyond. A naturally gifted individual, Juga-Naut has repeatedly reached new levels of excellence with each of his releases, and “Time & Place” pushed the bar even higher. The man appears to have no competition but himself.
A.G. – “Giant In The Mental” (FatBeatsRecords.BandCamp.Com) – A true golden-era great, Diggin’ In The Crates favourite Andre The Giant delivered his well-known brand of hardcore lyrical Bronx science throughout this succinct release, accompanied by choice production from DJ Manipulator, Dark Keys and Showbiz. With no guest appearances to be found, A.G. went for dolo on the mic here, giving listeners ample opportunity to fully appreciate both his timeless flow and dedication to his craft over thirty years since he first dropped on wax.
Apollo Brown & Philmore Greene – “Cost Of Living” (MellowMusicGroup.BandCamp.Com) – An authoritative voice of experience speaking from inner-city Chicago, Philmore Greene had already dropped a number of notable projects prior to teaming-up with Detroit boom-bap maestro Apollo Brown, but it quickly became apparent that “Cost Of Living” was some of the Windy City representative’s best work. Bolstered by Apollo’s knocking drums, sweeping strings and soulful vocal snippets, Greene painted detailed verbal pictures of Chicago’s West Side, weaving personal memories, life observations and social commentary into his often sobering verses. This album was the sound of two masters at work.
3 The God Way – “Mount Olympus” (HumbleMonarch.BandCamp.Com) – DMV trio Kaimbr, Sean Born and Let The Dirt Say Amen combined their talents on this quality group album which was full of soul-drenched production, sharp rhymes and appearances from notable names like Kenn Starr, yU and Uptown XO. Evoking images of the threesome passing mics in a basement, chopping it up about world events and local news inbetween unearthing dope loops and spitting competition-crushing rhymes with a casual swagger, “Mount Olympus” was a totally immersive listening experience that pulled you deep into the God zone.
SPNDA x Grubby Pawz – “Oil Can” (CityYardMusic.BandCamp) – Reigniting the creative chemistry heard on 2017’s “Steel Sharpens Steel” and 2018’s “Holographic”, Boston duo SPNDA and Grubby Pawz came together once again to deliver a full-length collection of streetwise rhymes from a balanced perspective coupled with smooth, mellow production. A shining example of the musical magic that can be created when one emcee and one producer lock in together on the same target.
Funky DL – “Still Classic” (FunkyDL.BandCamp.Com) – Twenty five years ago in 1997 prolific UK artist Funky DL dropped his debut album “Classic Was The Day”. In 2022, instead of celebrating the album’s anniversary by simply re-releasing it, the London-raised producer-on-the-mic put together this entertaining concept-based EP full of new music capturing DL’s memories and experiences from those early days in his career.
Farma – “Farma’s £10 Bag Volume 1” (FarmaBeats.BandCamp.Com) – UK Hip-Hop legend Farma of MUD Fam / Task Force fame has kept busy in recent years supplying beats to underground heavyweights such as Mach-Hommy, Rome Streetz, Conway and many more. With this particular compilation release, however, Farma chose to focus on the undeniable amount of talent within the British scene. Homegrown favourites such as Essa, MysDiggi and SonnyJim were on the roll call here, showcasing their skills over stellar sample-driven production.
Jay iLLestrate – “Doctor Jay” (JayiLLestrate.BandCamp.Com) – Cincinnati’s Jay iLLestrate took it to the hoop creatively on this entertaining basketball-influenced album that was packed with accomplished, sometimes quirky lyricism and engaging production from Toonorth, Gatekeeper, Grillo and Prof Logik. A lively mix of personality and talent.
Milano Constantine & Big Ghost Ltd – “Pay The Ghost” (BigGhostLimited.BandCamp.Com) – Over twenty years since his debut, Diggin’ In The Crates affiliate Milano is still carrying on tradition and repping for the 80s / 90s New York he grew-up in with all the pride of a Yankees fan on game day. Teaming-up here with ever-impressive producer Big Ghost Ltd, this album featured Constantine’s cinematic verses being matched with tense, atmospheric beats. The end product sounded like a late-night subway ride across the Rotten Apple.
Nejma Nefertiti – “Tongue Fu” (NejmaNefertiti.BandCamp.Com) – A short, potent dose of firebrand lyricism, this four-track EP from Brooklyn’s Nejma Nefertiti found the NY-based artist dropping punchy rhymes full of b-girl attitude over Kool M Da Loop Digga production, with strong guest appearances from Napoleon Da Legend and Zach Lost.
El Jazzy Chavo – “S950 Funk” (Funkypselicave.BandCamp.Com) – Imitated but never duplicated, the crunch and thump of the Akai S950 was fully celebrated by Greece’s El Jazzy Chavo on this instrumental album. The head-nod factor was high throughout, with the dusty-fingered beats stirring-up memories of an era that has long since passed but that remains a time period cherished by all who lived through it.
Dell-P – “The People’s Emcee” (Dell-P.BandCamp.Com) – Produced entirely by New Jersey duo Trac-Qaeda, this latest album from Philly’s Dell-P was another worthy addition to his already impeccable catalogue. Grounded in the realities of daily life but laced with optimism and hope as always, the Illadeph artist’s rhymes offered motivation and inspiration in equal measures, backed by well-crafted beats.
Jazz Spastiks – “Intomental” (JazzSpastiks.BandCamp.Com) – Longstanding purveyors of sublime sample-based music, the UK’s Jazz Spastiks returned once more with a rich collection of laidback flavour for our listening pleasure. Expertly put together and with a genuine feeling of warmth running throughout, this album was the perfect way to ease your mind in today’s stressful times.
Jones Brothers – “Apollo” (FlukeBeatMusic.BandCamp.Com) – The UK’s Joker Starr and Anyway Tha God reunited for a new Jones Brothers project, with the pair delivering incisive, swaggering rhymes laced with social commentary over brilliant production from veteran London-based music man Apollo.
Brainorchestra – “Big Brain” (Brainorchestra.BandCamp.Com) – The rise of producer-on-the-mic Brainorchestra during recent years has been a genuine pleasure to witness. “Big Brain” appeared to draw a metaphorical line in the sand, simultaneously signalling the end of one career phase and the beginning of the next stage of growth and progression for the New Jersey artist. With a keen ear for a great sample and a natural rhyming ability, Brainorchestra could only continue to move in the right direction after the release of this album.
Da Flyy Hooligan – “Ben Kingsley” (GourmetDeluxx.BandCamp.Com) – Smooth, sharp and stylish like butter-soft leather jackets and box-fresh footwear, London’s Da Flyy Hooligan lived up to his name once again on this album, delivering larger-than-life rhymes over top-shelf production from the mighty Micall Parknsun.
360 Physicals – “Style Crown” (NoelPolandRecords.BandCamp.Com) – Skills. That’s what this album was about. Having honed their respective crafts within the UK’s 90s Hip-Hop scene, the 360 Physicals crew reunited in 2022, with Killa Kela, Koaste, Jonny Virgo and Cristo Cannes celebrating the past whilst demonstrating their ability to still reign supreme in the present and beyond. Brilliantly produced by Kong The Artisan, “Style Crown” bristled with energy and passion.
Fatnice – “The Baddest” (IllVibeMedia.BandCamp.Com) – A stalwart of the Philly rap scene, Fatnice blended emcee bravado, social commentary and storytelling skills on this short-but-effective album, proving that sometimes less really is more. With the likes of The Blue Ninja, Mr. Sonny James and Kush Oxford supplying melodic, upbeat production, “The Baddest” blew out of the speakers like a refreshing blast of cool air.
Count Bass D – “All Due Respect” (CountBassD.BandCamp.Com) – The ever-busy Count Bass D returned with another lesson in high-level beat science, crafting an instrumental album that pulsated with the sounds of slick funk and sweet soul. Music to groove to.
Nottingham’s Juga-Naut has been one of my favourite emcees since I first heard him ten years ago. His musical journey over the last decade has been inspiring to watch, dropping impressive release after impressive release, always staying true to his own artistic vision and refusing to be distracted by trends and hype. But this new self-produced “Time & Place” album finds Jugz pushing the quality levels up even further than they’ve already been set! An incredible collection of beats and rhymes. A masterpiece. Huge props to Juga-Naut as always for letting passion and integrity guide his creativity (and shout to Emily Catherine for the brilliant cover art).
Consistently brilliant and always setting increasingly high standards for himself, Nottingham’s hugely talented Juga-Naut drops the second single from his forthcoming self-produced album “Time & Place”.
It’s that time again. Hard to believe that 2021 has ended already. The last twelve months seemed to pass by at a lightning pace and as I approach my late-forties I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
That said, it was another difficult year for most, regardless of how fast the days and weeks may or may not have felt like they were moving. But music remained an essential escape for many of us. Listening to it. Talking about it. Making it. Writing about it. Remembering it. Arguing about it. Loving it.
Rhythm is life, as the great philosopher Warren G once said, and life is rhythm.
As I post the five installments of my 2021 list over the coming week, there will, of course, be releases missing that people may have expected or hoped to see. If an album or EP hasn’t been included, that doesn’t automatically mean I didn’t like it. It could just mean I didn’t like it as much as everything else I have included. In today’s social media-driven world, it can often feel like it’s all or nothing when discussing music (or anything for that matter). If you don’t love an album or think it’s an instant classic, that must mean you hate it or think it’s worthless. The middle-ground in-between where constructive debate occurs appears to be shrinking by the day. But I digress.
As always, this round-up celebrates the Hip-Hop I connected with most over the past twelve months. It contains the Hip-Hop I revisited most throughout the year. It shines a light on the Hip-Hop I enjoyed most in 2021.
So, let’s set if off…
Juga-Naut & Giallo Point – “Smoke Filled Room” (JugaNaut.BandCamp.Com) – Having already worked together on 2019’s sterling effort “Back To The Grill Again”, expectations were understandably high for the second full-length collaborative project to come from the UK’s Juga-Naut and Giallo Point, with the finished product finding the pair further cementing their reputations as masters of their respective crafts. An exquisite combination of top-tier lyricism and perfectly selected sample-based production, this album brilliantly showcased Juga-Naut’s natural talent for penning intricate verses packed with multiple layers that were a joy to follow, unravel, rewind and listen to again and again.
Skyzoo – “All The Brilliant Things” (MMG-Skyzoo.BandCamp.Com) – Another year passed by and NYC’s Skyzoo added yet another masterpiece to his already stellar catalogue. At this point in his career, Skyzoo’s ability to make his lyrical brilliance appear effortless should never stop us from remembering just how much work no doubt goes into every bar, every line and every verse that he commits to the pages of his rhyme pad. Like many of Skyzoo’s previous releases, this was a concept-driven project which found the talented emcee commenting on the gentrification of his beloved Brooklyn over an impeccable selection of jazz-infused beats from the likes of Kenny Keys, MarcNfinit and Tuamie. Writing with incredible attention to detail as always, Skyzoo pulled listeners into his world, placing us all amongst the sights, sounds and experiences of past, present and future New York.
IAMGAWD & Doc Da Mindbenda – “Hell’s Angels & Heaven’s Demons” (GawdsGift.BandCamp.Com) – Being able to create meaningful art out of the uglier aspects of life is a unique skill and one clearly shared by Chicago partnership IAMGAWD and Doc Da Mindbenda, as demonstrated on this captivating album. A quality example of the greatness that can be achieved when an emcee and producer share undeniable creative chemistry, GAWD’s commanding flow was matched perfectly here with Doc’s robust beats. Touching on a variety of topics, including the vicious cycle of gang life, structural racism and street politics, this album offered a powerful and sobering dose of reality.
Funky DL – “Beautiful Soul” (FunkyDL.BandCamp.Com) – Paying tribute to the soul music of the 60s and 70s in clever and subtle ways, this 21st (!!!) album from the UK’s Funky DL was an ambitious and expertly executed project. Accompanied by the organic sound of live musicians, DL delivered personal, heartfelt rhymes with sincerity and feeling, resulting in an album that was both inspiring and uplifting. A much needed ray of musical light.
Sons Phonetic – “Nakatomi” (SonsPhonetic.BandCamp.Com) – Having spent the last decade consistently delivering their own unique brand of quality Hip-Hop, Ireland’s mighty Sons Phonetic crew dropped their new long-awaited album “Nakatomi”, a skilful combination of sublime, sample-based production and expertly penned verses full of meaningful depth and striking imagery. A remarkable release.
Genesis Elijah – “A Prophet In His Hometown…” (GenesisElijah.BandCamp.Com) – A lot of artists will talk about keeping it real, but how real are they really keeping it? Are they talking about their struggles, emotions and mistakes? Are they letting you hear their true feelings through music? Are they being genuine? Watford-based emcee Genesis Elijah did all of the above throughout this striking collection of beats and rhymes. We cheered when Genesis spoke on his successes and cared when he touched on his personal battles. Backed by unique production from Pastor Dutchie and Shapes that blurred lines between genres, Elijah stood loud and proud throughout “A Prophet…”, rightfully staking his claim as one of the UK’s finest lyricists.
Codenine – “LVNDR” (TragicAlliesCodenine.BandCamp.Com) – Mood music of the highest quality, this latest album from Tragic Allies member Codenine was a towering creative triumph, blending sharp lyrical darts with smooth, emotive production from the likes of Chronic Tone and Karnate, lending the release a cinematic, soundtrack-like feel. This wasn’t an album you could (or should) just dip in and out of. It was a body of work that deserved to be listened to in its entirety in order to be fully appreciated.
TrueMendous – “Misdiagnosis Of Chyvonne Johnson” (TrueMendous.BandCamp.Com) – Personality. Flow. Ingenuity. Three things you’re guaranteed to hear on any release from Birmingham emcee TrueMendous. Having signed with the High Focus label in 2020 and subsequently dropping the well-received “HUH?” EP, this album release for the imprint found the UK talent in full artistic flight, clearly seeing every moment here as an opportunity to revel in her own individuality as she touched on relationships, self-image and personal history, accompanied by diverse and inventive production.
Tall Black Guy & Ozay Moore – “Of Process And Progression” (TallBlackGuy.BandCamp.Com) – A celebratory album with a message, Tall Black Guy and Ozay Moore combined their individual expertise and crafted something truly special here. Whilst the hype sticker on the front of this album boasted of the duo being here to “revive the pulse of Hip-Hop’s golden-era”, that statement only told half the story. Far from simply being a collection of predictable throwback tracks full of 90s nostalgia, this was a vibrant, inspirational release that respectfully nodded toward its back-in-the-day influences, yet very much remained a soundtrack made for the present day.
Fresh Daily – “The Quiet Life 2” (HighWaterMusic.BandCamp.Com) – Raised in Brooklyn, now residing in Oakland, Fresh Daily came correct on his long-awaited sequel album “The Quiet Life 2”, an absolutely brilliant release which found the talented artist matching his observational rhymes and conversational flow with warm, melodic production from the likes of Chris Keys, Lakim, Suff Daddy and more.
Jazz Spastiks – “Camera Of Sound” (JazzSpastiks.BandCamp.Com) – Scotland’s Jazz Spastiks never fail to operate at the top of their game whenever it’s time for the gifted production duo to bless us with a new release. This latest album from Coconut Delight and Mr Manyana featured a who’s who of underground heavyweights taking full advantage of the pair’s full-bodied beats. Wee Bee Foolish, Artifacts, Soundsci and more stepped up with their best microphone techniques, ensuring this album had maximum replay value.
Wavy Da Ghawd – “Ghawd’s Eden” (WavyDaGhawd.BandCamp.Com) – Having worked with the likes of Rome Streetz, Bub Rock and Sauce Heist in recent years, Brooklyn-based producer Wavy Da Ghawd entered 2021 already known for delivering quality soundscapes. This album further cemented the NY music man’s reputation for stellar work behind the boards, with underground favourites such as Planet Asia, Eddie Kaine and Ty Farris all eager to spit over one of Wavy’s carefully selected loops. Producer-based albums can sometimes sound disjointed, but the dusty-fingered basement vibe running throughout “Ghawd’s Eden” ensured it stood out as a cohesive collection with plenty of musical character.
Rita J – “The High Priestess” (RitaJ.BandCamp.Com) – Chicago’s Rita J made a welcome return to the rap game with this superb album which found the skilled emcee being joined by fellow Windy City representatives Neak (producer) and Rashid Hadee (executive producer), who both also added their lyrical talents to the mix. Full of potent, thoughtful rhymes laced with a strong b-girl attitude and delivered over quality beats, “The High Priestess” stood out as a refreshing listening experience which fully tapped into the potential Hip-Hop has to touch the soul.
Charlie K – “Sunshine Philadelphia: The God Hour” (CharlieK1.BandCamp.Com) – Accomplished Philly emcee Charlie K filled his well-crafted verses with spirituality, social commentary and poignant observations on this concise EP, backed by soulful production from the likes of Lim0, Kulture, DviousMindz and more.
Twizzy – “Crabs In A Bucket” (Twizzy.BandCamp.Com) – With a wink and a knowing smile, Bristol’s Twizzy offered his thoughts on the world around us and his place in it throughout this thoroughly enjoyable Chillman-produced album. Highlighting the growth that can come from personal struggle, as well as the importance of not allowing the matrix of daily life to distract you from what really matters, Twizzy focused on silver linings here rather than the dark clouds we all find ourselves under sometimes.
Eddie Kaine – “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” (BigGhostLimited.BandCamp.Com / 2021) – For me, what elevates a good emcee to a standout emcee isn’t just their ability to put words together, but whether an artist can deliver those words in such a way that makes you genuinely feel them as a listener? A rapper can be technically gifted, but if the verses in an artist’s book of rhymes don’t come alive with character and emotion once they’re in front of a microphone, is it really worth it? Whether speaking on personal hardships, painting images of Crooklyn life, or simply stating his lyrical prowess, NYC’s Eddie Kaine made you feel his bars, accompanied by the wailing soul samples of the always impressive Big Ghost Ltd.
Philmore Greene – “Knowledge And Power” (PhilmoreGreene.BandCamp.Com) – On this album, Chicago’s Philmore Greene delivered a soul-stirring collection of honest, contemplative rhymes rooted in the reality of his Windy City life experiences whilst reaching towards a better future. Produced by fellow Chi-town representative Rashid Hadee with features from Natasha Robinson, Skyzoo and Vic Spencer, “Knowledge And Power” lived up to its title with Greene possessing both in abundance.
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.”
Nottingham’s multi-talented Juga-Naut puts the mic down for his latest release, choosing instead to focus his attention on delivering an impeccable selection of exquisite beats for your listening pleasure.