Hugo: Jay-Z Told Me to “Go For It” When I Wanted to Cover “99 Problems”

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One of the newest artists on Jay-Z's Roc Nation label is London-born Hugo and he's taken up summer residency at the Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side every Tuesday through the end of the month.

Niteside got a chance to talk to Hugo at the recent swanky M Missoni summer party, which featured a performance by his fellow buzz-worthy Epic artist, Denmark-import Oh Land. At the Standard Hotel’s rooftop spot Le Bain, we chatted with him about his new album, why English musicians love American music and how he convinced Jay-Z to let him cover “99 Problems.”

How was it working with producer David McCracken on your album “Old Tyme Religion”? He’s was amazing. He actually also did Oh Land’s album, who we’re here to see today. He has worked with Ian Brown and Depeche Mode. For me, it worked out really well because I’m a real throw-back guy and he’s super futuristic.

How have you enjoyed your residence at Rockwood Music Hall thus far? It’s been the best experience. The venue is perfect and I couldn’t think of a better place for a residency. I’m looking forward to every show in August.

So a few Tuesday’s ago Jay actually dropped by to see your Rockwood Music Hall show. He’s very supportive of his artists. Everything Roc Nation does is about family.

Even so was it difficult asking him to cover his epic hit “99 Problems”? I had been signed to Jay’s record label for maybe a minute and he invited me out to do some club-hopping with him. I didn’t know him that well at all, but I thought I’d just go for it. I leaned over to him and said, “So I was thinking about doing '99 Problems' with a banjo. You’re okay with that right?” He looked at me for a second, smiled, and said, “Go for it, man.”

Did you wait until late to ask him? It was around 2 a.m., and I was hoping he had some drinks in him by then.

When was the first time he heard it? Did he approve? I played it for him in his office, and I was terrified. I didn’t even try to look him in the eyes when I was doing it. It was just him with his hat down bobbing to it.

What made you want to do a cover of “99 Problems”? I just wanted to acknowledge that that song has become part of the language. It’s like “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” by Robert Johnson. I hear a lot of the old roots in Jay’s music. I mean their just putting 808s where Bo Diddle would have put a kick drum.

Have you been greatly influenced by American music? I’ve always been fascinated by African American music. I feel like every white English guy is. I mean this music comes from America, but then us English guys steal it and take it to this weird place where we make it even more American.

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