Drum-and-Bass Is Rising Again, With Nia Archives in the Spotlight

About 300 dance music fans were packed into a north London club late last year, waiting for Nia Archives, a jungle artist and D.J., to begin her set.

Jungle and its successor drum-and-bass emerged in Britain in the 1990s, and club nights dedicated to these styles of dance music can often attract older crowds dominated by men looking to hear the relentlessly rhythmic sounds of their youth. But this evening was different: Young women were front and center in the crowd.

As Nia Archives, 23, sang over her own soulful tracks or dropped frantic remixes of rap hits with rumbling bass lines, groups of men tried to barge their way forward, but the women stuck out their elbows, held the men back and kept on dancing.

Casey Forbes, 19, felt she “had to” stay at the front, she said afterward. “I’m a big fan of jungle music,” she added, “but there’s not much women playing, especially Black women, so seeing her onstage and performing her own music, she’s a big inspiration.”

Behind her decks, Archives danced from side to side, her nails painted in the colors of the Jamaican flag, her long braids flying around her.

Jungle and drum-and-bass have been two of Britain’s most popular forms of dance music for nearly 30 years, and many of their pioneers are now middle-aged. Britain’s music press regularly proclaims a new act or two is revitalizing, or even “saving,” the genres. In recent years, a host of female artists, many of whom are Black, have been identified as the music’s next big things, including the D.J.-producer Sherelle and the singer and producer PinkPantheress, who regularly uses drum-and-bass beats in her songs.

Archives, whose music combines clattering beats with emotional vocals, is the latest with breakout buzz. In January, she took third place in the BBC’s Sound of 2023, a long-running annual poll that has previously tipped Billie Eilish, Wet Leg and Adele for success. That accolade came just weeks after Archives won best electronic dance act at Britain’s Music of Black Origin (MOBO) awards, and followed a summer spent D.J.ing at major festivals like Glastonbury.

Her third EP, “Sunrise Bang Ur Head Against Tha Wall,” released Friday, follows “Headz Gone West” from 2021, which she recorded in her bedroom studio, and “Forbidden Feelingz” from last year, which opens with “Ode 2 Maya Angelou,” a track that blends stuttering breakbeats with the writer’s “Still I Rise.”

Speaking on a recent call from Los Angeles, Archives — who declined to give her real name — said the new EP was an attempt to experiment with different sounds and meld jungle with other genres “whilst still being true to what I do.”

The release includes “So Tell Me…,” which features indie guitars and glossy strings alongside clattering drums; “That’s Tha Way Life Goes,” a track she said was inspired by an obsession with bossa nova; and “Baianá,” an uproarious instrumental with vocals sampled from an old Brazilian record and a decades-old interview with DJ Patife, one of that country’s main drum-and-bass stars.

In an earlier video call, Archives said she’s been inspired by female predecessors in British dance music, like DJ Flight and DJ Storm. “It’s representation,” she added. “It’s really important to see yourself in music.”

When she used to go to parties as a teenager, she said, she would sometimes see men nod toward her then remark to their friends, “You don’t see Black girls in raves like this.” Today, Archives observed, women feel “comfortable to just be themselves and have fun.”

That shift has been noticed by Natalie Wright, who began performing as DJ Flight over 25 years ago. Wright said that in the 1990s she was “so tunnel vision and passionate” about wanting to make it as a drum-and-bass D.J., she didn’t let sexist comments or the lack of women stars bother her, “until quite a bit later.” In 2018, she co-founded EQ50, an organization to encourage gender diversity in drum-and-bass music.

Two years later, it launched a mentoring program for women and nonbinary artists; Archives was accepted from among 80 applicants.

Wright said Archives immediately stood out because she was able “to do everything” — from producing great beats to writing grabby hooks. Archives also had “that slightly different charisma” that seemed necessary for stardom, she added.

Another of Archives’ favorite artists has become a fan: Jayne Conneely, better known as DJ Storm, said Archives is “like a little sponge” always looking to learn from older stars: “She’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Growing up in Leeds, a city in northern England, Archives said she was surrounded by music from a young age — hearing gospel at her local Jamaican Pentecostal church, rap at home and drum-and-bass at carnivals.

At 16, she left a difficult home life and moved to Manchester, where she began to write music. “I’d been through a really turbulent time,” she said, “and I had no way to process how I was feeling, so that was what I used.” Soon, she was crafting tracks likes “Crossroads,” which she has said was about her relationship with her mother (“Tell me, who do I turn to?” she sings. “I used to trust you, but you said things that were untrue.”)

She initially sang over rap beats, but found the songs sounded too sad. Eventually, she sped the music up to “disguise the emotions I’m actually feeling with these crazy jungle drums,” she said. That formula clicked.

During the height of the pandemic, Archives spent 500 pounds, or a little over $600, of a student loan on Instagram ads to promote her debut single, “Sober Feels.” Its hook — “I don’t like how sober feels” — seemed to resonate with Britons who couldn’t party during the country’s lockdowns, she said. A month later, Spotify was adding another of her tracks to its New Music Friday U.K. playlist. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, OK, things can start happening really,’” she added, stunned that her bedroom music could travel so far.

Though her songs are finding wider audiences, Archives said she said she is still writing to process her own emotions. One track on the new EP, “Conveniency,” is about an unrequited love over the past year, she said, while “So Tell Me …” is about her seven-year estrangement from her mother.

Estrangement is a topic she felt compelled to tackle to give hope to others who come from challenging home environments. “I don’t have a mom or a dad, and for someone my age, it’s really hard to navigate adulthood and being a women without anyone to show you how to do that,” she said.

A future debut album would also involve more musical experimentation, she said. Her call from Los Angeles came during a two-week recording trip that included writing sessions with the singer and violinist Sudan Archives, the rapper and producer Jpegmafia and the producer DJ Dahi. She was “just trying to make something new and fun,” she said, but she insisted her work would have jungle music at its core.

She needed to “be true to what I do,” she said: “My drums are my identity.”

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