The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982

In Writing

The Wire 300: Simon Reynolds on the Hardcore Continuum #3: The State Of Drum 'n' Bass (1995)

February 2013

Originally published as "Sounds Of Blackness" in The Wire #136 June 1995.

Nine months on, General Levy's "Incredible" looks like a fluke; despite radio play and a seductive melody, Metalheads' "Inner City Life" failed to crack the Top 40. Jungle doesn't look like it's gonna become pop music after all. Maybe sped-up breakbeats will always prove too disruptive for mass consumption. But the real problem, I suspect, is that the Song is simply too staid and unwieldy an entity to ride Jungle's unstable, self-rupturing aesthetic. So far the best attempt at song-oriented Jungle is Princess's "Say I'm Your No 1", as remixed/re-produced by Steve Gurley, formerly of Foul Play: here, two different kinds of swing (Eighties R&B and drum 'n' bass) entwine perfectly to make for as nubile a slice of 'lover's Jungle' as you could wish for. Generally, though, Jungle - like most post-rave musics - isn't about songs, it's about hooks. Jungle's radicalism is that its drum-patterns are as catchy as its synth-motifs or vocal samples, e.g. Omni Trio's "Renegade Snares", where the snare tattoo is the mnemonic, rather than the stuttering diva-chorus or three-note piano figure.

Omni is about as pop as drum 'n' bass gets these days. Since the explosion of media and record biz interest last Summer, there's been a concerted shift by the scene's leading artists away from anything that panders to mainstream sensibilities. Determined to sabotage the co-option process and protect Jungle's underground status, the key producers are studiously shunning anything that smacks of either Ragga (the term 'Jungle' has been displaced by the more neutral and formalist 'drum 'n' bass' ) or pop appeal. Instead of hefty chunks of melody or lyrics, vocal samples tend now to be the merest mood-establishing tint of abstract emotion; keyboard motifs rarely amount to anything as memorable as a riff, just timbral washes and jazzy cadences.

Esotericism, elegance and elitism are the watchwords. Jungle's current obsession with being 'deep', its disowning of its roots in rave, has coincided neatly with its belated rehabilitation by the very people who once derided and ignored Hardcore back in 1992-93. As a result, drum 'n' bass has been reintegrated into the spectrum of 'cool' music, where it rubs shoulders with trip-hop and intelligent Techno. Accompanying this legitimisation process has been a subtle rewriting of history, with Detroit-aligned icons like Carl Craig and The Black Dog being cited as formative influences by some artists, while other key ancestors, perhaps too redolent of Ardkore's 'one dimensional' juvenilia are conveniently forgotten (Joey Beltram, Mantronix, The Prodigy).

None of this would particularly matter (the politics of hip being as irrelevant to true creativity as ever), except that Jungle's new legitimacy, and the scene's flattered self-image, is feeding back into the music, often to quite deleterious effect. Here I survey some of the directions in which artists are pushing the music in a misguided attempt to make it 'grow up', then focus on those who are really extending, rather than diluting, the renegade essence of drum 'n' bass. Jungle no longer needs uncritical boosterism; the scene, like Techno and Ambient before it, is reaching dangerous levels of over-production (in both the quantitative and technical senses). The time for discrimination, for rigorous aesthetic definition, is overdue.

Perhaps the biggest trend in Jungle right now is fusion. Drum 'n' bass has always been a hybrid, anti-essentialist style. In the early Ardkore days, this took the form of a collage-based, cut-up aesthetic. That fissile approach has now been replaced by a seamless emulsion of influences. There's also an explicit reinvocation of 70s jazz-fusion, and of later styles influenced by that era (jazz-funk, Detroit Techno, Garage). A crucial mid-94 release that trailblazed this smooth-core style was E-Z Rollers' "Believe"/"Rolled Into One", tracks that combined jazz-tinged chords and lambent, tremulous textures over float-like-a-butterfly breakbeats. What was initially so captivating and unusual about "Believe" and "Rolled" - the mellow mellifluousness - has subsequently become a hegemony of tepid tastefulness. Tracks like DJ Krust's "Jazz Note" or DJ Phantasy's "Atmosphere" amount to little more than 21st century cocktail music.

Jazz here signifies flava not process; there's no improv-combustion involved, just the use of a certain kind of chords. 'Jazz' also relates to a very specific British black tradition, where said chord-sequences and a polished fluency connote relaxation, finesse, sophistication, upward mobility. And so on KISS FM an influential DJ like Fabio will praise a track's "rich, lavish production -real class!" then exhort breakbeat-fans to "open their minds". All this passionate advocacy on behalf of what is basically fuzak draped over unnecessarily fussy breaks.

Perhaps the two most totemic figures behind the phusion phad are Alex Reece and Rupert Parkes (aka Photek, Aquarius, Studio Pressure, et al). Revealingly, neither were around in the Ardkore era, but only got into Jungle when it became 'musical'. Parkes's reputation resides in his having made Jungle sound more like 'proper' Techno and less like its own baaad self. Straddling both genres without innovating in either, he's infected Jungle with Trance's funkless frigidity and pseudo-conceptual portentousness: just dig those track titles, "Resolution", "Book of Changes", "Form & Function"... Parkes actually admitted in i-D that he and his posse "have more in common with Carl Craig's music than we do with the majority of Jungle". In mitigation, it must be conceded that the last Photek EP, The Water Margin, shows improved command of swing and groove. But overall, everything that Parkes is applauded for bringing to Jungle actually detracts from its ferocity.

I should have said much the same of Alex Reece, judging by the emollient slinkiness of his Latin/jazz tinged debut "Basic Principles", but he's redeemed himself by creating the monumental "Pulp Fiction", which is due out on the Metalheadz label any week now and has been the national anthem at LTJ Bukem's club Speed for months. Based around an epic bassline distantly descended from George Clinton's "Loopzilla", and featuring a horn motif-cum-solo redolent of Miles' coked-out early 70s paranoiac phase, "Pulp Fiction" dramatically expands drum 'n' bass's spectrum of moods and sources without blunting its edge.

Another notable sub-style, pioneered by LTJ Bukem, picks up on the cosmic/oceanic imagery of fusion and ambient. Based around 'quiet storm' diva-murmurs, nebulous texture-swirls and a radical uneventfulness, Bukem's 1993 classics "Music" and "Atlantis" were heretically at odds with the staccato freneticism of Ardkore. Sadly, this aqua-funk serenity, as perpetuated by Bukem & Co via his Good Looking/Looking Good imprint, seems to have become an aesthetic cul de sac, if self-parodic titles like "Rain Fall" and recurrent use of clichéd dolphin-like noises are any indication. Bukem's latest, "Horizons" is closer to jacuzzi than gulf-stream; its synth-arpeggios and watery texture-washes are way too New Agey, as is the snatch of Maya Angelou poesy that witters on about how "each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings/the horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps for change". Bah!

Forming a triangle with nu-fusion and oceanic Jungle is a subgenre - call it 'hyper-soul' - that draws on the same kind of soothing, silken 70s sources as G-funk, e.g. harmony groups like The Dramatics. A pivotal track here is Doc Scott's "Faraway". At first a rather sickly confection, with its limpid trickles of wah-wah guitar and breathy angel-sighs, the track comes alive when it strips down to guitar/bass/drums, sashaying with an irresistible panache. By far the best G-funk junglists, though, are Hidden Agenda, if only because "Is It Love?" has ten ideas where most tracks content themselves with three, veering from dubwise menace through summer-breezy soul shimmy (frothing Moogs, you half expect to hear a clavinet come in any second) to sinister phusion, and back again.

Drawing on the most oversubscribed elements of all these three mini-aesthetics is an overcrowded Second Division of drum 'n' bass units, artists like Essence Of Aura, Higher Sense, Adam F, Sounds of Life, Wax Doctor, JMJ & Richie, Obsession, Northern Connection, ad nauseam. Together, they have installed the consensual middlebrow sound of '95. Start with an unnecessarily elongated, 'teasing' intro; roll in the heavy-on-the-cymbals breaks; layer some wordless female vocal samples (measured, tasteful passion only, no helium-histrionics please); drag out the track, through percussive breakdowns and wafting synth-interludes, for eight minutes or longer; rinse the mix to get that airy, 'just brushed freshness' that sounds good on a really crisp stereo (lots of separation and ear-catching stereo-panning effects, natch). There's nothing shallower than the music made by artists who have been persuaded that Depth is where they should be at, but who don't have what it takes to get there.
[page break]
So who's really 'deep'? What does 'deep' mean, anyway? I'd argue that it's not some external notion of profundity borrowed from another genre altogether (e.g. jazz), but rather about exploring the style's essence, the stuff drum 'n' bass has got going on that no other genre has (not even hiphop, Ragga and dub, although they're all ancestors/inputs). With Jungle, that's breakbeat-science and bass-mutation. Exempting from consideration the key figures I discussed in last year's Ambient Jungle feature, (i.e. Goldie, Foul Play, Omni, A Guy Called Gerald), here's a provisional checklist of the crucial drum 'n' bass auteurs. Some are new skool, others have been around in some guise or other since Year Dot.

Roni Size and sidekick DJ Die are exemplars. This duo are usually regarded as pioneers of jazz-Jungle, on account of their early 94 classic "Music Box" and sequel "It's A Jazz Thing". Listen again to "Music Box", though, and you realise that the sublime cascades of fusion-era chimes are only a brief interlude in what's basically a stripped down percussion workout. Size's late 94 monster "Timestretch" was even more austere, just escalating drums and a chiming bassline that together resemble a clockwork contraption gone mad. Size & Die's latest collaboration, "11.55", and especially the "Roll Out Mix", is their most minimal-is-maximalist effort yet. What initially registers as merciless monotony reveals itself, on repeated plays, to be an inexhaustibly listenable forest of densely tangled breaks and multiple basslines (the latter acting both as subliminal, ever-modulating melody and as sustained sub-aural pressure), relieved only by the sparest shadings of sampled jazz colouration. Such fiercely compressed, implosive creativity is an aesthetic strategy of alienation analogous to bebop or free jazz, i.e. an attempt to discover who's really down with the programme by venturing deeper into the heart of blackness. Hence the track's mood of brooding malevolence, its vague gangsta theme (the sample that kicks off the track explains that 11.55 is when the hustlers swagger en masse into the nightclub).

Like Roni Size, Dillinja is keeping alive Jungle's ghettocentric menace without resorting to tired Ragga-isms: just check that mobster moniker. He's also one of the very few producers to respond to Ragga's rhythmic innovations, as opposed to just its verbal/attitudinal aggression. Dillinja's justly renowned for the melting melancholy of fusion-y tracks like "Deep Love" and "Angel's Fall", but not enough attention has been paid to the viciously disorientating properties of his beats and B-lines. "Warrior" places the listener in the centre of an unfeasibly expanded drum kit played by an octopus-limbed cyborg; the bass enters not as a B-line but a one-note detonation, an impacted cluster of different low-end frequencies/timbres/treatments. This track's aura of abstract militancy also comes through in Bert & Dillinja's collaboration "Lionheart", whose intro beat-sequence slashes and scythes, feints and parries like a ninja warrior.

If Dillinja and Size & Die are developing drum 'n' bass as martial art, Droppin' Science's work is more like a virtual adventure playground, where collapsible breakbeats and trampoline bass trigger kinesthetic responses, gradually recalibrating your motor reflexes, hot-rodding the human nervous system in readiness for an immeasurably swifter new millennium. Droppin Science's Danny Breaks is a former b-boy whose first Ardkore incarnation was as the scratchadelic Sonz of A Loop Da Loop Era. His five Droppin' Science EPs since early 94 have evolved a fantastical fusion of electro and dub that sounds like neither. On tracks like "Long Time Comin'" (Vol 4) and "Step Off" (Vol 5), bass fibrillates like muscle with electric current coursing through it, hi-hats incandesce like fireworks in slow-mo, beats seem to run backward as uncannily as trick photography of a fallen house of cards tumbling back together. And melody limits itself to minimal motifs where the eerie fluorescent glow of the synth-plasma is the real hook.

Another innovative drum 'n' bass essentialist is Asend. As half of Dead Dred, he was responsible for last year's "Dred Bass", whose skidding breaks and backward bass constituted a landmark in Jungle's development into a rhythmic psychedelia. This year, as half of NC & Asend, he's crafted another ultra-minimal classic of compulsion-for-compulsion's sake, "Take Your Soul", whose one-and-a-half note bassline, percussive/textural as opposed to melodic, lodges itself in your memory-flesh as viciously as a flechette. Texturally closer to the fuzak-squad, Blame & Justice are also doing astonishing rhythmic stuff underneath all the Joe Zawinul-esque synth-foliage. On "Nightvision", and on Blame solo tracks like "Sub Committee", there's an effect like a sampladelic equivalent of the way a drummer will let the stick vibrate on the skin, rather than make a crisp hit - a sound like a spinning coin that's starting to decelerate. "Nightvision" is so reverb-riddled and elasticated, so nuanced with percussive accents and hyper-syncopations, it's virtually a drum solo, albeit constructed painstakingly over days as opposed to happening in real-time.

Of course, there's a point at which this approach becomes virtuosity for virtuosity's sake, when the breakbeat bombastics get so fiddly and fucked up that any sense of groove is lost. Dillinja and Size, Asend and Danny Breaks, these are the Jimi Hendrixes and Jimmy Pages of polyrhythm; Lord help us when the Eddie Van Halens and Gary Moores materialise.

What's going on in drum 'n' bass right now is a productive conflict between two rival models of blackness, one American, the other ultimately derived from Africa, via the Bronx and Jamaica: elegant urbanity (jazz-lite, smooth soul) vs. ruffneck tribalism (hiphop, ragga, dub - all based on African music principles like bass frequencies, polyrhythms, repetition). From a drum 'n' bass novice's viewpoint, artists like Dillinja, Roni Size, and Droppin' Science constitute the deep end. They are consciously engaged in purging any and all concessions to non-Jungle criteria. Even more than the nu-fusion esoterics, these artists are ferociously distancing drum 'n' bass from pop, not in deference to an ill-conceived notion of maturity but simply because they're impelled to plunge ever deeper into the anti-populist imperatives of the art's core, which means intensifying all the stuff that happens beneath/beyond the non-initiate's perceptual thresholds. They are doing things for which we don't yet have a language.

Most of the artists and syndromes discussed above are documented on the following compilations:Jungle Renegades Volume One (Re-Animate), Artcore (REACT), DJs Unite Volume Two (Death Becomes Me), Spectrum (ffrr)

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.