When I first started and I was a teenager, I was saying yes to a lot of opportunities. I think the older you get, the more you've worked your ass off, the more you understand the industry and value your own worth. I think there is power in no saying, for sure.
London’s NAINA is a new school tastemaker and influential radio host with an effervescent personality. The Apple Music Radio and Reprezent Radio regular wants not only to share her passion for new music but also to uplift under-represented communities as she does it. We hear her story.
You said before we started that you’ve got some recordings to do.
Yeah, I’m doing this South Asian special show with Apple Music. I pitched a few ideas to them and they want me to do a mix to show how a lot of Bollywood music and South Asian Music influences dance music today. And then they also want me to do like… [a cat walks across the desk.] This is my cat by the way.
What a beautiful cat. But speaking from experience, white is not great for getting fur on clothing.
It’s like a running joke that I wear black all the time. And I have a white, long haired cat. I literally have to vacuum my flat like every other day.
But yeah, I’ve also got to record an MIA tribute mix because, obviously, she is the most influential Asian in Britain.
You’re proud of your roots and are keen to champion artists from similar backgrounds, but how much do you have to think about being tokenised?
I think it really depends. I’ve been asked to do stuff in the past for different platforms. And I can tell that it is a box-ticking activity. So it has to be something that I’m genuinely passionate and excited about. I’ve got to feel like it’s organic, on both sides. So obviously, with Apple Music, I’ve worked with them for years and years and years. It’s South Asian Heritage Month in July. So we’ve been talking about stuff like this, and they’ve always had an active interest in what I do outside of music as part of a few collectives. And we used to run South Asian-focused club nights. So they know that I go on about MIA.
With everything I do there is always some sort of link to MIA, cause she’s a big influence on me. So when this idea came about, it wasn’t ‘you’re doing this,’ it was, ‘how would you feel about this? What would you want to do?’ A lot of it is just me collaborating with the team. And I think that’s super important. Because if you’re just told what to do, what to play, it doesn’t feel organic. It would be forced, it would be like corporate policy, ticking a box somewhere.
Yeah, I was gonna say, cause you see the words ‘Apple Music’and assume it’s a big, faceless corporate brand. But it sounds like there are actually some human beings there that have understanding and compassion.
Yeah. And it’s like, it’s all people who love music, right? You have Apple Music, then you’ve got Apple Music Radio, so it’s actually quite a small part of the big company. But no, don’t get me wrong, I have turned down so many things, you know, whether it’s International Women’s Day, or for South Asian Heritage Month, or certain opportunities that when I’m approached, it doesn’t feel right. You’ve got to say no to things in this industry.
When I first started and I was a teenager, I was saying yes to a lot of opportunities. I think the older you get, the more you’ve worked your ass off, the more you understand the industry and value your own worth. I think there is power in no saying, for sure.
So you have the Apple Music Shows, how about all the others?
The amazing thing about Apple Music is that they really do encourage you to keep your foot in the underground as well. When I started on Apple, it was because they heard me on Reprezent. And they never said I had to leave. It’s amazing, because it’s quite a unique position to be in where you work for someone like Apple Music Radio, and then you work for someone like Reprezent, it’s like two different ends of the spectrum.
Do you have to approach the shows differently? Does each show take up a different part of your brain?
Yeah, 100%. So the Apple Music playlist show is presenting music from all around the world. It’s not necessarily dance music. I’ve got to talk about all of it. It’s me as a presenter, rather than a selector.
Do you enjoy that role as much as just selecting?
Yeah, I mean, I love dance music. I’ve been a dance music head since I was young. But also I’m a lover of music generally. I grew up listening to bands and everything else. A lot of that was influenced by my big sister. And I think Apple Music saw that. I think most people who work in music, love music, full stop. They’re never pigeon holed into one genre. So this gives me that opportunity to talk about music more generally. That’s part of being a radio presenter, you’re talking and it’s a form of journalism.
Did it always come naturally?
I studied Music Journalism at university in Southampton. From me being an 18 year old, I thought, I’ll write about music. I didn’t even think about radio or DJing or anything like that. And then when I was at university people would say oh you’d be great on the radio. But back then I was just posting mixes every week, and it was a hobby, it was never a career thing. And then someone from Reprezent Radio in London messaged me to see if I wanted to do a show. I didn’t have a clue what Reprezent was. I did some research into it and was like, my God, it’s like FM radio. They did a call out for new talent and I just went for a pilot. Like, I did prep it, I put together a script, came up with a feature and everything.
But if I’m doing a show where I’m actually mixing the whole time, there won’t be a script there. We’re just vibing. Whereas if it’s a show, like for example, covering MIA, and it’s not mixing, it’s just playing tracks, there is not necessarily a script, it’s more like bullet points, things to jog your memory.
But yeah, my pilot, it was word-for-word scripted. Tracks written out. And I bought my old Numark controller to Reprezent because I was like, I don’t know how to use CDJs, I’d never had access to a studio. And I remember the guy who was piloting me said, it’s not what you have, it’s how you use it. I was so nervous but I just remember him saying you’re a natural, I’m gonna give you a shot.
And the rest is history.
Yeah, it’s crazy.
So I mean, it’s a job right? So do you approach it like a job? Do you get up in the morning and think right today I’m gonna spend X amount of time looking through music for this show. And then in the afternoon, I’m going to be doing bullet points for that show and so on.
Yeah, so I love a list and I need to have a routine otherwise I go a bit mental. I do about two days as a freelancer for Reprezent then maybe one or two days for Apple so I start prepping at 9am then have shows recorded by about 3pm.
How do you like doing the shows at home versus in the studio?
I’m just happy that we’re still doing it. Because I think, like a year and a half ago, no one knew what the hell was up. And I remember thinking, am I gunna be out of a job? The fact that everywhere I worked just figured it out, that’s something to be really proud of.
I guess hunting for tunes must be quite a large part of it, literally just going through music.
Yeah, it just takes so much time, doesn’t it? And there are so many different channels to go through. You want to check Bandcamp, Beatport, Juno, Soundcloud, but also social media, because people announce their music on it. By the end of it, I have literally like a million tabs open.
I would guess the thing you’ve got to work out is how not to just rely on the same one or two channels, the same PRs, the same outlets who might provide you with bankers every week, but if you’re really doing your job properly, you need to be listening and looking everywhere.
That’s the thing. I remember when I first started getting added to promo lists, I was like this is sick. But you’ve got to remember, that’s going to a lot of big A-list DJs. And it’s amazing that you’re on that list, but then that’s not doing your job. You have to go that extra level further and dig a bit more because you need those moments in sets that no one in the room has heard. And I think that’s what I love about going to see DJs – hearing new music. So you want to give that back to people who are watching you.
What is it about new music that you love so much, when so many people fetishise old records?
I just think as a radio presenter, you’re a tastemaker, right? You’re the gatekeeper. It is my job to literally shout about who I’m listening to and who I’m loving. And that’s something that I think came through from doing music journalism at uni, being that person playing the tunes at house parties, people actually cared about what I was listening to. And that’s kind of when I had the lightbulb moment of everyone telling me I should be a radio presenter. And that’s also how the label started. Don’t get me wrong, I love legacy records. Like with the label [Hooversound co-run with Sherelle] we wanted to, you know, pay homage to the old school, showing it in a new school way.
I always have a bit of a rule in terms of with a set, I like to play a new tune and play like maybe a tune which is from the label or, that means a lot, and then play like an old recognisable tune, just to keep like some sort of flow going throughout it all.
But yeah, I think new music is super important. We got to keep everything rolling, because it comes full circle. When I started getting into radio, I had people like Scratcha DVA, Bok Bok, all these people who meant a lot to me on the show, people I’ve looked up to, and then when we then did our label we got a remix from Scratcha, but we paired it up with the newer artists like Hieroglyphics to create like a hybrid. So I mean, like, we’re trying to cover all areas of what the sound is.
Are you mindful when you’re putting together the stuff that you’re going to play of who has made it and what communities they represent?
Yeah, I mean, it’s always at the forefront, especially with mine and Sherelle’s label. We’re two women, two women of colour, who run a label, and we want more people to be doing that, you know, we don’t want to be the only ones doing that. And very mindful in terms of gender. You know, there’s a lot of incredible female producers out there. And as a female myself, I know that there is a lot of pressure on women, we’re in such a male dominated environment, and I think we have to lift everyone up together, whether that’s race, gender, whatever.
Somewhere like Reprezent, I work with a lot of West Indians, Caribbeans, Nigerians, South Asians, it’s a real mixed bunch. And that’s a beautiful thing. And I think a lot of places need to look at somewhere like Reprezent and learn from it. It’s not something that we’ve orchestrated. It’s something that’s completely natural and I think more places need to be like that.
I’m always interested to know what parents make of their children getting into music.
My parents are so sound. They both were born in Africa. So my mum was born in Uganda. And my dad was born in Kenya. And they came over to this country. My mom was very young, my dad was a teenager. Their upbringing wasn’t easy. And I feel like what they’ve done is tried to make their kids’ upbringing as easy as possible, because they went through shit. When I wanted to do music at uni, my mom especially was just my biggest fan. She was always like, one thing I’ve learned in life is just absolutely follow your dreams.
There was a point where I had to make a decision – do I leave my day job for this. And I was working Monday to Friday in a sales job. And doing all this music stuff on the side, I had literally no time for anything. My mum was just like, quit, give it a month, you’re young, you’ve got no mortgage or kids, you can always come home if it doesn’t work out.
And you actually took her to your Reprezent audition right?
Yeah. To this day, I am the only person who took a parent to a pilot. It was just hilarious.
So these days do you have time away from music to do anything?
I don’t really get sick of music. Like, I wake up in the morning, I put the radio on. It’s the first thing I do before I even have a coffee or brush my teeth. I put the radio on.
But yeah, I think it’s always a bit up and down with DJs. In lockdown, after the year and a half we’ve had, it has made me really realise I need to stop and read a book. Actually, a couple of months ago I bought some stuff like a big art pad and some pens and started drawing again. It was more the screen aspect of always being on a laptop then on the phone. It was just doing my head in.
I actually bought my first flat in lockdown as well. So I suddenly had a project which had nothing to do with music. I was doing all this music stuff, and then in all my spare time, I was buying stuff and putting things together and putting things up on the walls. And that kept me sane. But it’s definitely about balance for sure. I think everyone needs to just take a break from the screen.