Happa’s tale of a teenage-techno prodigy chaperoned to gigs he’d been booked for by his mum is one that music journalists dreams are made of. In fact, the Leeds native’s story is one we all think we know: the legend of Happa springing fully-formed at just 14 into the world of techno with a banger called ‘Boss’ back in 2012. That track was famously picked up and played by Loefah on Rinse and Happa was suddenly in the spotlight with high-profile fans in the shape of Mary Anne Hobbs and Four Tet championing his sound. Since then, the young producer and DJ has gone on to release with big labels like R&S and Bleep, gaining acclaim for a hard, industrial sound style and an ability to weave club sets that feel like a punch in the face. But the real-life Happa is more than the story that precedes him – something that becomes immediately clear when we meet to talk in the wake of his first Radar show. On that evening, I’m running late and it’s pouring outside – I’m sure he will have made his excuses and left. But, when we call him, surprisingly, he’s waiting at a pub around the corner and happily walks back in the rain so we can chat. Affable, funny and eager to explore new ideas, within moments Happa subverts the stereotype of the techno-wizard more comfortable behind a computer screen than out in the real world.
So, how did Happa first come into contact with the kind of music most people discover around the same time as their first pill? While he had always loved music, it wasn’t until he was first put onto the sound of dubstep at ten years old with Rusko’s seminal 2007 ‘Cockney Thug’ that music really started to click for Happa. “I wasn’t really a big music head and I never played an instrument in my life but I just fully fell in love with that song,” he remembers. Happa grew up in Leeds at a time when the distorted 140bpm sound of dubstep basslines undulated throughout the city, soundtracking every party and club. It’s easy to assume that Happa is a product of his environment but that’s not the case. Instead, the artist explains that his route to music was much more personal. In fact, it was his brother, older than him by six years, who turned him onto dubstep, introducing him to new music and sharing tracks with him.
“I don’t know if I would’ve been pigeonholed more if I was part of a scene. I do feel quite free” – Happa
From those early days of ‘Cockney Thug’, Happa started to discover more and more sounds. First picking his way through releases from pioneering dubstep label DMZ – “I remember walking around during lunchtime in year 8 just bopping along listening to DMZ mixes and shit like that” – run by London heavyweights Mala, Coki and Loefah. From there, he moved into the murky world where dubstep and techno cross over – a space inhabited by the likes of Hessle Audio and Swamp 81. His next discovery was noise music and the whole world of electronic music. At the same time, his brother had also introduced him to FL Studio, the production software he started out making beats on for the first year of what would become his career. “Basically everything is thanks to my brother, which is nice because he’s like my best friend,” Happa recalls fondly.
Although the next major event in his life would have, for many people, been a disaster – a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease in 2014 followed by surgery – for Happa the forced confinement to home turned out to be critical. It was a period of time that gave the budding producer space and solitude to work intensively on his musical craft and produce the tracks that first drew people’s attention. It’s something he doesn’t mind talking about but also something he doesn’t use as part of his narrative. “I guess I’ve always been quite open and blasé about it,” he tells me. “As cringey as it sounds, none of this would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for getting ill because it just came out of boredom, basically, and being sat at home.”
From those first tracks, Happa went on to being booked for gigs. He remembers how his first booking was for Wigflex in Nottingham – a night he was hit up to play over SoundCloud before he even knew how to DJ. “I was like, ‘Yeah! Definitely.’ Then I was like, ‘Wait a second – I don’t know how to DJ and I don’t have any decks.’ So I just used my computer and had a midi-controller with knobs on it and assigned them EQs’,” he laughs. As well as not knowing how to DJ at the beginning, Happa’s age also coloured his first experiences as a DJ. Stories of bouncers refusing him entry and his mum or sister having to accompany him to nights he was booked to play and being hustled out the moment his set was over because he was underage continue to float around the musical community. For him, though, that experience was crucial to his development as a musician and DJ because, while he was exposed to club culture as a performer in his early years, Happa wasn’t part of a scene: he didn’t emerge from one or integrate into one. That allowed him to operate on his own terms and make and play the music he wanted without having accepted norms and ideas put onto him in his formative years. “I don’t know if I would’ve been pigeonholed more if I was part of a scene. I do feel quite free,” he reflects.
In fact, Happa tells me that he’s currently sitting on a ton of new music, all of which fits easily into different spaces in the world of dance and electronic – which is exactly what he likes. “I’m not tied down to anything which is definitely where I want to be. I want to try everything, basically. I want to make pop music and release noise music on a tape that only twelve people buy and then release big room bangers and really weird dance music. It all really interests me – most corners of the dance world. I just want to try and do all of it. Apart from electro swing… that’s just terrible,” he laughs, half joking.
“I don’t ever see myself tiring of sitting in a room and just fucking about with a drum machine for like four hours” – Happa
That determination to resists typecasting extends beyond music, though. What emerges as we speak is that Happa is an artist who is curious to try new things across the creative spectrum. It’s clear that he’s got skills outside of production and DJing. He describes how he always drew and traced things as a kid. In fact, he art-directed his entire shoot and edited all the images for the feature – “My favourite ones were in the café toilet. Shall we bring out a weird metaphor in that?” He also finds himself gravitating naturally towards the world of fashion – something he sees as marrying well with his own sound. In fact, his boundless enthusiasm for everything is infectious, as is the fact that he doesn’t see any limitations to at he can do or where he can go. “My dream in, like, ten years’ time is to have some mad exhibition or some big installation at the Tate or something like that. I don’t know, I think it’s just really exciting to cover that much ground which I feel is quite possible nowadays.”
Towards the end of our conversation the talk turns back to Happa’s first love: making music. Until recently Happa has been holed up in the studio. While he hasn’t been releasing tracks, he spent the whole of this summer writing non-stop, which isn’t how he normally works. “Usually I’ll work for like a week or two and then I’ll hit a block and I won’t be able to make a tune for a week because it’ll all just sound like shit.” But that time in the studio is something he cherishes. For this artist, the studio is the place he likes better than any other. “I can’t ever see myself tiring of sitting in a room and just fucking about with a drum machine for like four hours. It seems amazing to me that’s still a thing and I can make stuff that not only sounds good to me but to other people. It’s just literally my favourite thing to do ever. I’m a bit of a nerd, basically,” he concludes wryly.
The talent that started all of this is impossible to ignore. Happa’s music is good – hard sounds make up expertly built, technically impressive tracks – with plenty in the pipeline for the future. But what’s most exciting about Happa is that, for him, the music is part of a bigger story that leaps clear of its early beginnings. Not only does he recognise that, it’s something he’s more than happy about and he’s eager for his music to be the focus. “Luckily no one gives a shit about how old I am anymore,” he laughs. “It’s a good thing because now my music has no excuse – it stands up fully for itself.”