SOPHIA DEBOICK on the former Cypriot fishing village that became an unlikely outpost of UK garage music.
Ayia Napa means ‘Holy Forest’. As the Cypriot town’s origin myth has it, a hunter found an icon of the Virgin in a cave in the woods, giving it its name. In the late middle ages, when Cyprus was under Venetian control, a monastery was built on that site, but its tranquil cloisters and any sense of this being a ‘holy’ town’ has been overshadowed by Ayia Napa’s reputation today as the Sodom and Gomorrah of clubbing hotspots.
Deemed the poor relation to that other Mediterranean island party hotspot, Ibiza, a musical grab-bag spills out of the Ayia Napa clubs today – house, cheese, pop, and the dreaded karaoke – and it is easy to forget that Ayia Napa was once a place where new music was made, although not by Cypriots.
While the capital Nicosia is where beloved and acclaimed Cypriot acts like Alkinoos Ioannidis and Monsieur Doumani have hailed from, not one but two genres of urban British music emerged out of Ayia Napa in the 1990s and 2000s, changing the face of the town almost as profoundly as Cyprus’ violent history.
Before July 1974, when a coup d’état was swiftly followed by the Turkish invasion, Ayia Napa was a small fishing village of some 200 people. Inundated by refugees fleeing the north, the town’s population swelled to the high hundreds almost overnight. Later compensation schemes saw displaced Cypriots given land in the town and many set themselves up in the hospitality trade.
As Varosha, the resort just a 40-minute drive away that had been a favourite of millionaires and film stars in the 1960s, was incorporated into the Turkish north and became a ghost town, Ayia Napa took its place as an idyllic beach retreat.
The transformation of Ayia Napa into a clubbing mecca was largely down to London-born Cypriots. George Melas was a former Ipswich Town player who, along with his two brothers, opened Ayia Napa’s first nightclub, the Black & White, not far from the town’s Nissi Beach in 1985.
The town later became popular with Premier League footballers looking for an anonymous playground and they brought British urban music – specifically UK garage – with them.
UK garage, with its breakbeats and energetic emceeing, was the sound of young black London, and a number of club nights dedicated to it were in full swing in the capital by the mid-1990s. When another London-born Cypriot, Kiss FM DJ Nick Power, opened the Kool Club in Ayia Napa in 1995, it was another milestone for the town’s burgeoning club culture. And when the Melas brothers added the Pzazz club to their property portfolio and imported two established London club nights to play there – Pure Silk in 1998 and Twice as Nice the following year – two Ayia Napa institutions were born.
In 1999 So Solid Crew first arrived in Ayia Napa marking a crucial moment. The urban collective from Battersea were known for having an excessive 30 or so members and repeated violent incidents at their shows kept them in the tabloids.
So Solid member A.M. Sniper was George Melas’ son and the Crew would make the resort their personal fiefdom, playing sets at the Melas-owned clubs and generally lording it around.
Forty years after Cyprus gained independence from Britain, Ayia Napa began to have the feel of a British colony once more as clubbers flooded in and thronged the main square. But even if Ibiza was the blueprint, Ayia Napa was all rather more low-key.
Musically, it eschewed the cosmopolitan, continental feel of Ibizan house for a thoroughly British sound, and it was all cheaper and more egalitarian. It was alcohol instead of drugs, mopeds instead of limos, and with its black urban clientele it was also more diverse. Urban Britain but just with more sun, they even drove on the left on Cyprus.
So Solid’s Megaman later said ‘If you went to Ayia Napa back then you were bound to become five times more popular than you were if you just stayed in UK for the summer’, and indeed playing sets in the town’s clubs quickly translated to commercial success back home.
Shanks and Bigfoot, Artful Dodger and Craig David, DJ Luck and MC Neat, Oxide & Neutrino and others had already populated the Top 10 by mid-2001 when DJ Pied Piper went straight in at No.1 with Do You Really Like It? The track included the emcee, Melody, repeating ‘How’d ya like my/ How’d you like my/ How’d you like my’, which was commonly and not unreasonably misheard as ‘Ayia Napa/ Ayia Napa/ Ayia Napa’. It was the chant of the summer and Ayia Napa had fully entered the British popular consciousness.
The month after that Pied Piper single shot to the top, a sixth of So Solid Crew were pictured in their swimming trunks on an ‘Ibiza vs. Ayia Napa showdown’ double cover of NME, the headline proclaiming it ‘the new hotspot’, and the month after that their debut single, 21 Seconds, went straight to No.1. Lonyo’s October follow-up to his No.8 single Summer of Love, In Ayia Napa, wasn’t shy about trying to cash in (‘There’s a place for you to go this summer/ Where everybody wants to get on down/ It’s to a place called Ayia Napa’), and the two Pure Silk compilations of 2000 and 2001 by DJ S and Mikee B, the latter of pirate radio favourites Dreem Teem, were era-defining. For a while UK garage was the sound of British pop.
But UK garage also contained the seeds of one of the most significant new musical movements to come out of the UK for many years. The clues were in the sound of North London’s Heartless Crew, but when Dizzee Rascal released Boy in da Corner in August 2003 and Wiley’s Treddin’ on Thin Ice appeared the following year, grime had officially arrived, and Ayia Napa was deeply embedded in its mythos.
In July 2003 Dizzee Rascal was in Ayia Napa, booked to play the Gas Club, when he was dragged from his scooter and stabbed multiple times. Megaman was interviewed by local police but faced no further action, while warrants were issued for the arrest of members of another group on So Solid’s label. Dizzee Rascal blamed former friend Wiley for escalating the beef between their Roll Deep Crew and So Solid and a barrage of diss tracks between the two followed. Dizzee Rascal’s Hype Talk (2004) explicitly referenced the ‘Stabbin’ in Napa’.
After further violent incidents in the town, it was clear that the golden age of UK garage was over. Skepta’s Ayia Napa 2006 Skit, featuring a recording he made in a police cell after a fight in a bar in the town, was symbolic of Ayia Napa’s new association with both grime and violence.
As the town’s formidable mayor, Barbara Pericleous, brought in strict enforcement of licensing rules, vowing of intoxicated, lewd Brits to ‘send them away if they’re not put in jail first’, the clubs were largely hamstrung and things would never be quite the same.
Twenty years after the club explosion, the face of Ayia Napa is changing once again. Now the biggest tourist resort in Cyprus and categorised by the Cypriot government as a city, the authorities are trying to remould it into a ‘high end’ destination, complete with a new 300 million euro marina. But it faces serious challenges.
The treatment of an 18-year-old British woman who was convicted of making a false allegation after saying she had been gang-raped in the resort last summer made Ayia Napa seem a deeply unsafe place for young Brits. The decimation of the tourist trade in the Covid summer of 2020 has followed. While UK garage lives on – just last year DJ Spoony, long-time resident DJ at Twice as Nice, released Garage Classical, a nostalgic recasting of garage hits – the survival of Ayia Napa is much less certain.