On pop music, working dead end jobs, Southampton, cats, Reprezent Radio, Apple Music, DJing and the benefits of running a label with your best friend.
Chances are, if you’ve been paying close attention to electronic music over the last four years, you’ll have heard the name, Naina. You’ll have probably heard her voice, too. And no doubt you’ll have caught one of her sets, either IRL or online. As a DJ, broadcaster and record label founder, she’s left quite a mark of late, cutting through the noise alongside a tight-knit crew of fellow DJs and artists who are helping to not only signpost the future, but design it. As we catch up on a busy Wednesday afternoon, Naina still relentlessly in-demand and working as hard as ever, she seems relaxed and content — after all, she did buy a cat during lockdown. “I mean it’s been a shit-show of a year hasn’t it?”, she asks gloomily, “Obviously, everyone’s been affected by Coronavirus, but I’ve kinda seen it as the universe asking everyone to just chill out a bit … and hit reset.”
Like her flat mates, Naina made the decision to pack up and leave London soon after lockdown was implemented back in March— “I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to stay with my parents for a bit” — moving back out to her family home near Windsor in Buckinghamshire. It was here that Naina’s story began; she was born in Ascot — “my mum wanted Ascot on my birth certificate rather than Slough!” — and grew up spending time most of her time between Reading and London; the two closest big cities. Her childhood was quiet and fairly unremarkable; she recalls spending time with her older sister, who listened to Deftones and went to Reading Festival every year, but also by her own admission, found herself tucked away in her bedroom for hours, listening to pop. Her parents, both Indian by heritage, were born in Africa — her dad in Kenya and her mum in Uganda — and although not particularly musical, enjoyed listening to Bollywood music, mainly from some of their favourite film soundtracks. “I remember Bollywood soundtracks on tape”, Naina recalls, “and driving to see family in Croydon with them playing on loop. I can’t even speak the language but I know every word to those songs. My name Naina actually translates to mean ‘eyes’ in Hindi and it’s in loads of Bollywood and Indian songs, so I’d always hear it and be like, ‘ahh that’s my name!’. I guess it made me a lot more open to that sound and that style of music. I actually did a mix recently for Azeema Mag, which basically pays tribute to the music I heard growing up through my parents, something I’ve never done before. I think I should try and show that side of me more, now more than ever.”
“My name Naina actually translates to mean ‘eyes’ in Hindi and it’s in loads of Bollywood and Indian songs, so I’d always hear it and be like, ‘ahh that’s my name!’. I guess it made me a lot more open to that sound and that style of music.”
“Thinking about it, I just fucking loved pop music though to be honest”, she continues with a smile. “I think there’s a lot of people who are really into electronic music now, who used to listen to fucking everything as kids”, Naina also muses, “and I think a lot of them probably listened to bands a lot. I was so open-minded with music growing up .. I mean I was really into The Fugees, I remember having an album on CD, but also people like The Sugababes and All Saints. Primarily, as I got older, it was bands though … I guess you could say it was a bit all over the place. The first time I really got into dance music was through a band called The Faint … I didn’t even know where they were from or where I’d first heard them but they were so left … and also listening to bands like Yeah Yeah Yeah’s and stuff like that. The dance elements of their music made me explore that side of music more and I opened my eyes to producers like Rustie. From there, I just fell into it.”
It was only at 18 that she first started to lay roots elsewhere, heading to Southampton Solent University to study music journalism, where she would go onto meet close friends, music publicist and all-round industry polymath, Mitchell Stevens and DJ, producer and visual artist, Morgan Hislop. “I met Mitchell on my course, we were both studying the same degree and we were both clearly music heads”, Naina recalls. “I remember I first met him and I thought, ‘I hate you, I actually hate you’ (laughs) but then fast forward a week and boom, we were best friends. We hung out and he was DJing quite a bit at the time and I remember just really wanting to DJ too. I was always the person at house parties picking out the music, so I ended up asking my mum to buy me a controller for my birthday … just one of those cheap, plastic things that look like toys. We’d come back to mine after nights out and just mix until the early hours and after a while, I ended up putting some of my mixes on Soundcloud. Slowly, I guess people started to take notice.”
“I was always the person at house parties picking out the music, so I ended up asking my mum to buy me a controller for my birthday … just one of those cheap, plastic things that look like toys.”
“I remember Morgan as well”, she continues, “he was actually putting on club nights in Southampton at the time and reached out to ask if I wanted to play one of them. It ended up with us all becoming really good friends, united by this idea to try and push a certain type of electronic music. I remember when Disclosure first came onto the scene … it must have been 10 years ago … we had them play for us at this club called Unit in the city. They ended up coming to my student house afterwards and playing an after party set. I mean, we all knew they were sick but other people still weren’t aware of how good they were.”
After graduating, Naina was intent on finding a job in music. Through her degree, she’d managed to find a bit of writing work but her passion lay in DJing, radio, broadcasting — she wanted to become a voice. After being asked to record a guest mix for Reprezent Radio back at university in Southampton, she became aware that the station was now on the look out for new talent. Not daunted by her lack of practical experience, she got in touch and applied, with the station quick to draft her in to start covering shows. “Back then, the big name on Reprezent was Jamilla or Jamz (Supernova) and her Future Bounce show, as well as Martha”, explains Naina. “It was really weird because I was balancing trying to get into radio with an awful sales job I was doing to pay my rent, and before that, I’d been working in this terrible bar in Maidenhead called Smokey Joe’s. There’s a dreadful photo of me out there from the one time they forced me to be a shot girl for the night. I’ll never live it down.”
Ironically, it was the sales job that’d bring Naina to London full time. She’d impressed in an entry-level corporate role and was offered a promotion, which saw her moved to offices in London. Commuting each day, she found herself becoming enamoured with everything the city had to offer. “I loved it so much, I ended up moving to London in the end”, Naina notes. “I carried on doing the sales job for a while but it got to a point where I was doing so much music stuff that I really wanted to give that a go properly. I felt like I was at the age I could take the risk and I mean, luckily it definitely paid off. I started having coffees will people, just meeting up with people and putting out the feelers. I’d been pre-recording a late night Wednesday night show on Reprezent for a while at this point and me leaving my job coincided with them asking me to do the 7-9pm slot every Friday night, but live. I remember thinking ‘fuck yes’ and then texting Reprezent station manager, Adrian, like ‘life update, I’ve quit my job and I’ve got a month to find something else, but even if I have to move back home, I still wanna commit to the Friday night show’ kinda thing. He messaged me back almost straight away like, ‘how old are you?’ and thought, ‘ahh shit, is he kicking me off the station?’, because back then Rep really was the voice of young London and I thought maybe I was too old. He was like, ‘I need some production work doing’, which was great for me because I’d spent two years recording, editing and sending in my show anyway. I’ve always been really interested in that side of it … working out how Final Cut works, thinking about how to stitch this or that together, using Audition. I taught those things myself but Adrian was happy to put in the hours to help brush those skills up once I started. It was supposed to be a three-month contract but I definitely outstayed my welcome.”
Naina stayed on indefinitely and was soon made Head of Production at the station; “it was such an exciting time to join”, she recalls, “because it was just levelling up constantly.” Alongside fellow presenters like Joe Walker, Jeremiah Asiamah, Henrie, Scully and Sherelle — not to mention the other 100+ presenters across the station roster — she quickly became an important part of the Reprezent fabric. Closely aligned in terms of ambition, dedication and a natural flair for broadcasting, their shows soon became destination spots for those looking to get their ears around some of the best music and debate London and beyond had to offer. Her own Friday night slot, now running for close to five years, is a perfect example; from first mixing her favourite new music solidly for two hours each week, she’s since built in a guest mix slot that’s seen everyone from Machinedrum to Ikonika join her live in the studio.
“I’ve gone through a bit of a rollercoaster with my show because when I was first got it, I thought to myself ‘right, this is a Friday night slot, so don’t be playing any more Kelela or James Blake anymore’”, Naina reflects. “I knew I had to switch it up a little bit. I decided to make it a club music show that catered for people like me, people who listen to all sorts of different electronic music. Whether it’s footwork or funky, it doesn’t matter, it’s just under one umbrella. I have to be aware that it’s an FM station too, so I’m conscious of not playing anything too niche for too long, and also as a radio producer I’m naturally always thinking about the audience that are tapped in listening. I generally try and balance the sounds of more familiar producers like Bicep or Four Tet with new underground stuff that I rate or might have discovered myself. It’s been really nice to see it grow organically, because I started out recording make-shift shows from my bedroom, so after doing it live for while, I just thought, ‘do you know what, I’m gonna invite all the people I love down to the show’. I always aim to spotlight new producers and maybe DJs that haven’t had the chance to be on the radio before where I can too, as well as going big and shooting for the stars. I’m lucky to call so many of my guest my friends now.”
Then there was The xx’s ‘Night + Day’ series —a week-long program of events that saw The xx partner with Reprezent and Young Turks to broadcast specially-curated shows, as well as afterparties, live performance broadcasts and cinema events in advance of their record-breaking run of sold-out gigs (7!) at Brixton Academy in March 2017. “It was one of the most surreal weeks of my life”, admits Naina, “but I fucking loved it. I mean, The xx were doing the drive-time show every day, like … ah it was incredible. I remember Robyn coming down and me losing my shit because she’s an absolute icon, Sampha was there one day … it was just mad. For that whole week, XL and Young Turks basically moved into the station as well, they’d all just be sat on the floor with their laptops open. What was also so beautiful about that week was that so many Reprezent presenters volunteered to just help out. Everyone was so happy to see the station winning and just wanted to get involved any way that they could.”
“We had some special moments too”, she continues. “I remember we all got to go to the Young Turks afterparty and we all got invited to watch The xx soundcheck at Brixton Academy, which was incredible because they asked us to go on stage with them. The funny thing was that my sister, who lives near Bristol, had already got us tickets to see The xx that week so I told her to come to London a few days early, thinking she could tag along with me at work and whatever. She ended up meeting the band and coming along to that sound check, which I think was the moment she finally stopped and thought, ‘actually my little sister is actually pretty cool’.” The ‘Night + Day’ week was the first to really hammer home just how much of an impact Reprezent Radio was having on young London, serving as a primer of sorts to a visit by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle the following year. Through tireless graft and intelligent programming — “we’re like one big dysfunctional family” — Naina and co had put the station firmly on the map.
The dedication doesn’t just stop at Naina and her fellow presenters either. During lockdown, she’s not missed a single show, thanks largely to the perseverance and foresight of station manager, Adrian. “He saw this all coming”, Naina explains, “like honestly, he was on top of the lockdown situation so early. I was all in denial thinking everything would be fine and he was busy packing up the whole station back in March. Reprezent has two studios, as well as extra equipment at Bussey Building in Peckham where we do our training, and Adrian got all of it together and then went driving around to drop off essential bits to everyone he could. He drove all the way to my parents house in Buckinghamshire to drop off some CDJs and a sound card, like what the hell? He drew up a list of the equipment everyone had and then he’d fill in the gaps, basically making sure that everybody with a regular show had the capability to broadcast live from home. Someone will switch me over via a laptop remotely and then using this amazing software called BUTT, I’m able to connect to the Rep server. Station manager Adrian has been the one patching me through recently, he gets a takeaway every Friday night and listens to my show to make sure I’m not cutting out. Sometimes, he’ll text me like ‘you’re dropping out, get off the WiFi, get your parents off the WiFi, stop watching Netflix.”
“Station manager Adrian has been the one patching me through recently, he gets a takeaway every Friday night and listens to my show to make sure I’m not cutting out. Sometimes, he’ll text me like ‘you’re dropping out, get off the WiFi, get your parents off the WiFi, stop watching Netflix.”
What was the energy like recording from home, I ask. “The first few times I did it, it did feel really weird. I mean, you don’t even get a friendly nod from whoever is working on the show with you like you would at the studio and I miss getting guests in with me as well. I remember I did an interview with India Jordan on the day they released their ‘For You’ EP and they were in the park celebrating with the Local Action lot. I rang them, we did the interview and it went really well … even they were like, ‘that was such a good interview’ … and it didn’t record. We had to do the exact same interview again and it sounded probably better second time around, but little things like that have been frustrating.”
“I remember I did an interview with India Jordan on the day they released their ‘For You’ EP and they were in the park celebrating with the Local Action lot. I rang them, we did the interview and it went really well … even they were like, ‘that was such a good interview’ … and it didn’t record.”
It all feels a far cry from her work at Apple Music, formerly known until recently as Beats 1, where she’s worked on playlist shows (The Apple Music 1 List) — as well as covering for Matt Wilkinson — for the last three years. “They just sent me a mic during lockdown”, Naina says. “I record for them two, three times a week but rather than a full show, I’ll just record dry links, which I then send into the producers who piece it all together into a show, which is incredible really. They’re a really great team to work with, because they push you … the demands are different and starting there was so exciting, it was like a fresh start you know. I put everything I knew about radio to the back of my mind and went in there ready to learn again.”
Tapping back into her love of music from across a broad spectrum of scenes, Naina’s playlist show work at Apple Music has also sharpened her broadcasting skills; rather than curate shows, she’s there to to voice them, to serve as people’s access point for the music that they’re consuming. Offset by her cover show work with Matt Wilkinson which gives her the chance to do ‘loads of ridiculous things’ — “I did an M.I.A. tribute mix for no reason other than it was her birthday” — Naina has quickly come to realise how different being a radio DJ is to being a radio presenter. “The two roles are so different”, she acknowledges. “The way that Annie Mac records her show for example … it’s about what she’s saying, how she’s saying it, how she’s using her voice … she’s a broadcaster. It’s amazing that people like her can DJ too, because they can also shut it down anywhere and run festivals, host stages and run parties. That is what I love. I love being a voice, more so than anything.” Is that where Naina sees herself, I wonder. “Yeah I think so. I mean it’s weird because I started out DJing before I started out at radio but as I did more of it, I realised that I just loved chatting shit about music. Now it’s got to the point where people are actually listening to me and want to know what I think or what I’m listening to, which is sick.”
That’s not to say Naina plans on scaling back her DJ career any time soon, mind. Last summer, she posted a tweet from a newly setup Twitter account called ‘@hooversoundrecs’. Alongside close friend and fellow DJ, Sherelle — herself one of 2019’s breakout DJ success stories — the pair had long-agonised, debated and gone back-and-forth over the merits of starting their own label. On August 22nd, the tweet, simply detailing a spinning logo GIF and a basic message asking producers if they’d like to send demos went viral, and Hooversound was born. “I remember a lot of people talking about starting a label and just saying how long it was”, Naina recalls, breaking out into laughter. “But thinking about it, I remember Sherelle really stood out to me at Rep because when I first started, there weren’t many really heads-y people there and she was definitely one. I had DJ Earl on my show one night and she popped her head round the studio door and was like ‘okayyyyyy’. That got us talking about footwork and whatever, which I told her she should focus on with her show, as well as jungle which she loved as well. We became good mates really quickly, got to know each other’s mates and yeah before we knew it, we were playing b2b in support of The Prodigy at Brixton Academy.”
“The night before that gig, she came to mine to have a mix and figure out what we were gonna play”, Naina continues.”We did this 140-175bpm set and it was fucking jokes, but it also made us realise that a lot of the music was unsigned, made by artists that not a lot of people know about … we should do something with this. We chatted about it for so long but because we were both so busy working and trying to hold down our shows, DJ and whatever, it took a while for us to decide when to start. We knew there was never gonna be a right time so last summer, because we were in a good position … Sherelle was killing it, she was on Radio 1, I was on Beats 1 and Reprezent … we both had exciting things that were going on that would compliment running a label. I can tell you now though, we did not expect it to go everywhere like it did. I remember that tweet … like we’d been on the look out for music and doing a bit of research … but we were so overwhelmed by the response to one, kinda vague little tweet. The true test, we thought, would be if anyone had actually sent music through. We refreshed our email inbox the next day and were like ‘oh, shit’. We had so many demos. To be honest, it’s nice to be two women running a label, especially women of colour, because there aren’t enough. It’s been great to see people back it.”
“The true test, we thought, would be if anyone had actually sent music through. We refreshed our email inbox the next day and were like ‘oh, shit’. We had so many demos.”
Named after a synth sound fondly used by The Prodigy and in other hard, fast dance music styles like Gabber and Trance, Hooversound launched officially with the release of Hyroglifics & Sinistarr’s ‘BS6’ in March — a sweltering, four-track plate of acid-y, 160 Jersey club pressure, complete with a Scratcha DVA remix of the original track. “I love the fact that people can’t work out what Hooversound is”, says Naina. “That’s kind of the point, you know. The type of sets myself and Sherelle used to play were always so chaotic and full of music that wasn’t really represented properly, so we wanted to make a home for that. We’re not a Jungle label, we’re not a Footwork label, we’re not a Funky label. We’re a bit of everything. I don’t think we’d ever want to box it in.”
“We’re not a jungle label, we’re not a footwork label, we’re not a funky label. We’re a bit of everything.”
While Hyroglifics and Sinistarr sent over the full ‘BS6’ project as a demo — “we were just so excited by it, we knew it had to be 001 for sure” — every artist on the Hooversound roster, which continues to build out with every passing month, has their own label backstory. Deft, one of Naina’s favourite ever producers, followed up with three-track EP ‘Burna’ in June, a record she believes embodies everything Hooversound represents. “I’ve loved Deft’s music for so long”, she explains, “and he’s a prime example of what the label’s all about because he can make anything. He can work on 160-170 tunes, but doesn’t necessarily put them out in favour of his 130 stuff, which is sick, but he’s got such a varied audience that people are always gonna welcome whatever he releases with open arms. He sent us a load of stuff after he came on my Reprezent show one Friday night, and I knew he’d been sat on some gold. The tracks on his EP were written quite a long time ago but never had a home, so I’m really happy that we could provide a space for it.”
With 003 helmed by HØST — and only released last week — Hooversound have more than hit the ground running, with a tight visual aesthetic defined by black-and-white colour-ways and repeated block text patterns also fast becoming a calling card. It feels like the final part of the jigsaw for Naina, who, despite all of her achievements so far, seems destined for the very top. She discussed Annie Mac’s impact in glowing terms and gave nods to other seasoned presenters like Benji B — selectors who are able to balance a love of underground music with a love of broadcasting — and it’s perhaps in those spaces that her future would be best served. But regardless of where she ends up, she’s determined to enjoy the journey. “The general dream is to continue what I do as a broadcaster, but continually grow and get better at it as I go. I can’t say where I’ll end up from here but with the label as well, I just want to carry on enjoying everything that we’re doing. That’s the M.O.”
Naina broadcasts regularly on Reprezent Radio and Apple Music 1.
You can also browse the Hooversound back catalogue here: https://hooversoundrecordings.bandcamp.com/