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The Wire 300: Simon Reynolds on the Hardcore Continuum #4: Hardstep, Jump Up, Techstep (1996)

February 2013

Originally published as "Slipping Into Darkness" The Wire #148, June 1996.

During the dark days of 1993, when Jungle was still banished from the media limelight, AWOL was the Hardcore club. Especially after the demise of Rage, one of the earliest Hardcore clubs, AWOL was where the scene’s inner circle of musicians, DJs and label runners would gather on a Saturday Night/Sunday Morning to hear DJs like Randall push the music to new heights of ruff-cut intensity. After a no fixed abode period in 1994, having been dislodged from its location at Islington’s Paradise, AWOL settled last year at The SW1 Club in Victoria, and re-established its former role. Some of the drum ’n’ bass elite may have moved onto Speed or the Blue Note Sunday Sessions, but that core Jungle audience is still to be found at AWOL (or similar nights like Club UN and Innersense at the Lazerdrome), shocking out to the underground sounds of gangsta hardstep and darkcore 96.

AWOL isn’t an acronym for ‘Absent Without Leave’, but for ‘A Way Of Life’. If you’re not involved in the scene, this article of faith – that buying records at specialist shops, going to clubs at the weekend, wearing MA2 jackets and Puffa jackets and smoking a lot of spliff, constitutes a set of tribal folkways – can seem a tad overstated. But the frequency and conviction with which the claim “jungle, it’s a way of life” is restated, suggests that for the true disciple, something massive has been invested in this music. Most external discourse about Jungle has been concerned with the music’s ‘progressive’ formal properties, and disagreements as to where the cutting edge is currently situated. What about the social energies embedded in the music? What exactly is at stake for fans? What makes them return week after week to experience the same thing, over and over again?

Ethnological research wasn’t on my mind the first time I checked out AWOL; fun was. I’m not sure if I found any, at least in the conventional sense, but the visit was a reaffirmation of flagging faith; a confirmation that, despite the surfeit of pseudo-jazzy drum ’n’ bass crossover tracks, Jungle is alive and kickin’. It was also a reminder that, despite all the success of album-length, home-listening drum ’n’ bass, Jungle’s meaning is still made on the dancefloor. At massive volume, knowledge is visceral, something your body understands as it’s seduced and ensnared by the music’s paradoxes: the way the breaks combine rollin’ flow and disruptive instability, instill a contradictory mix of nonchalance and vigilance; the way the bass is at once wombing and menacing. AWOL is a real Temple of Boom; the low-end frequencies are so thick and all-enveloping they’re swimmable. Inside the bass, you feel safe, and you feel dangerous. Like cruising in a car with a booming system, you’re sealed by surround-sound while marauding through urban space.

Tonight the AWOL vibe is neither celebratory nor especially moody, but neutral. In contrast to the rousing exhortations of the MC, the crowd response is subdued (not abnormal for Jungle). It’s a few days after the death of Leah Betts (the teenager who died of overhydration after she took a tab of Ecstasy at her own birthday party), and initially that’s how I account for the utter absence of any E-vibes in the area, and for the insistent –verging on desperate – dealer trying to offload her unusually bargain-price wares. Instead, it’s champagne, Pils and ganja that appear to be everybody’s intoxicants of choice. Later, I notice a gaggle of sofa-sprawled punters who do appear to be E’d up, but are struggling to conceal the fact; their flushed but impassive faces ripple and spasm as if they’re trying to hold down the rising high. It’s only later I realize the reason for their restraint: no one else here is luv’d up, and it’s as though any kind of blissed behaviour is deemed inappropriate, unseemly, a throwback.
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The next time I go AWOL, a month later, the vibe has subtly changed. The sofa-zone, which had seemed vaguely upmarket, has been moved to somewhere out of the light, and now seems murky and seedy. Overall, the balefulness quotient has increased dramatically. This time, I’m struck by the fact that nobody seems to be having fun; or to put it another way, ‘fun’ doesn’t seem to be the reason everyone is here. It’s old news that the effervescent bonhomie of 92-era Hardcore is long gone, but basic civility seems to be in short supply. Even among groups of friends or boyfriend/girlfriend couples, smiles are rarer than hen’s teeth, conversation is minimal. I spot a gang of super-sharp stylists, eyes masked behind sunglasses, standing erect and statuesque in the middle of the dancing throng. Their faces are frozen, their arms folded across the chest, b-boy style, but whether this intransigent posture is a salute to the DJ or disapproval, it’s hard to say; their expressions are unreadable.

AWOL’s resident crew of DJs – Randall, Mickey Finn, Kenny Ken, Darren Jay – sustain the mercilessly minimalist and militaristic assault of hardstep, all parade-ground paradiddles and atonal, metallic b-lines that bounce joylessly like ball-bearings in a pinball machine. The night stays at a plateau of punitive intensity, no crescendos or lulls, just steady Ardkore pressure. By about 4am, the dancers are jigging about with a kind of listless mania. One girl twitches and bounces mechanically, her limp limbs inscribing the exact same patterns in the air, as if she’s animated by some will other than her own. For a Saturday night out, the compensatory climax of a week’s drudgery, this seems like hard work. I start to wonder if she, like me, got sucked in by Ardkore’s explosive euphoria, its manic, fiery-eyed glee, and then got carried along by the music’s logical evolution to wind up at another place altogether, dystopian rather than utopian. Maybe that stunned, dispirited expression on her face comes from finding herself in the midst of an entirely new cultural formation, “a way of life” that can no longer offer release, let alone a redemptive vision.

This new cultural formation started to emerge from the Hardcore rave scene in late 92 and early 93. Two things replaced Rave’s smiley-face fervor with skrewface attitude. The first was ‘darkness’, the trend for producers to deploy sinister atmospherics and sick-joke soundbites that reflected the paranoia and psychic malaise engendered by excessive, long-term Ecstasy use. The second factor was ‘blackness’, as ragga, dub and Hip Hop influences (already percolating in Ardkore) broke Rave’s ties to House and disco. Following the late 94/early 95 initiatives of LTJ Bukem, Alex Reece and Wax Doctor, who began making tracks heavily influenced by Techno and House, Jungle has looped back to 1993 and reaffirmed both of those initial breaks with Rave. The blackness is reinforced by a conscious alignment with US hiphop, which now extends beyond breakbeats to the use of melancholy melodic refrains from West Coast G-funk and vocal samples from East Coast rap, whether boastful (“raw like Reservoir Dogs”) or threatening (“hit the deck, I got the Tek right on your neck”). As for darkness, there’s been a resurrection and intensification of darkcore’s bad-trippy effects.

Kodwo Eshun’s term for the new flava is ‘gangstadelic’. Ganjadelic fits too. Just check the Dr Dre-like marijuana leaf on the cover of the Ganja/Frontline compilation Still Smokin’, or the Pure Rollers anthology with its image of a turntable whose tone-arm is a gigantic, smouldering spliff. But these days smoking isn’t a mellow, Marley-esque affair. With their much higher THC content, super-breeds of weed like skunk are near hallucinogenic, offering a sensory intensification without euphoria, tinged with a jittery, nerve-jangling paranoia: a mind-state perfect for jungle’s tension-but-no-release rhythms.

At AWOL, the ruling sound is the ‘ruffneck soldier’ hardstep of labels like DJ Hype’s Ganja, Pascal’s Frontline, Dread, and the Bristol based Full cycle affiliate Dope Dragon, as well as artists such as HMP, The Terradome, Renegade, L Double, Shy FX, Swift, Zinc and Joker. Somewhere between this stripped-down, martial drum ’n’ bass and the dank neurosis of Photek and Source Direct, you’ll find the artcore noir of Ed Rush’s “Guncheck” and “What’s Up?”, Roni Size’s “Ready or Not”, Dillinja’s “Muthafucka”, Soul-Jah’s “21212”, DJ Krust’s “Angles” and Doc Scott’s “Drumz 95” (a remake of Scott’s original 92 darkside tune “Here Come the Drumz”).
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The big difference between the new noir and darkside 93 is that the latter still retained traces of Ardkore jouissance. Even seminal darkcore tracks such as Boogie Times Tribe’s “The Dark Stranger” or Hype’s “Weird Energy” oozed a sinister, sickly bliss (perhaps because the scene was still caning the E in a desperate attempt to recover the old buzz). With E a distant memory, today’s dark tunes are claustrophobic, costive and curiously devoid of affect, instilling a numb compulsion-for-compulsion’s sake. An almost omnipresent motif is a tightly coiled, rattlesnake roll of a breakbeat, first heard, I believe, on DJ Trace’s seminal “Mutant” remix of last year. It’s a hyper-syncopated spasm, the aural equivalent of a panic attack or heart-tremor, and it’s all over state-of-art compilations like Nu Skool Flava and Tech Steppin’. Then there’s the bass sound pioneered by Trace, Ed Rush and Nico, a dense, humming miasma of low-end frequencies, as malignant as a cloud of poison gas or swarming killer bees. In tracks like “Mutant” and Ed Rush’s “The Force Is Electric”, all the explosive energy of Hardcore is imploded in it: listening is like being caged inside a pressure-cooker of paroxysmal breaks and plasmic bass.

Compare the new darkside’s dry, clenched sound with the massaging, muscle-relaxing stream of sound oozed you’ll hear at Speed. Dubbed “dolphin” by one correspondent at the internet’s Breakbeat Mailing List, because of its immersive, aquatic vibe, this Bukem-invented style is all heart beat basslines and breaks that roll smoothly, without much disruption; every sonic gap is filled with caressing synth-washes and sax loops that could be on loan from Grover Washington Jr or Kenny G. Brooding and bruising, the new artcore noir is cutting edge because it’s all about cut-up, jolting beats and edgy, treacherous bass. But the real difference is one of intent: music as therapy versus music as terrorism. Where Bukem and his acolytes talk about “educating” listeners, opening minds, Ed Rush has said bluntly, “I want to hurt people with my beats”.

When Origin Unknown’s 93 darkcore classic “Valley of the Shadows” gets dropped during my second visit to AWOL, its creepy “Felt like I was in a long dark tunnel” sample and baleful bass undertow fit as perfectly into the current vibe as Origin’s recent “Truly One” track. Which prompts the ostensibly heretical thought: maybe Jungle is actually a rather conservative music, and maybe it’s this very insular intransigence that is the scene’s strength. Conservative, in that the musical experience when you enter AWOL is the same as when you leave five hours later. Conservative, in that the ruling producers are much the same as in the first phase of darkness: Andy C and Ant Miles (Origin Unknown), Dillinja, Ray Keith, DJ SS, Hype, Pascal, Bizzy B, Remarc, Ed Rush. And conservative, in that Jungle’s basic musical parameters (fucked up breaks and warped bass) haven’t expanded significantly since 93, and moreover, the music’s future course of development (hard won increments of polyrhythmic intricacy and sub-bass brutalism) appears to be set.

This phenomenon has led many ‘non-scene’ observers to reject hardstep in favour of what they regard as the more avant garde drum ’n’ bass tracks produced by outsiders such as Witchman, Luke Vibert (as Plug) or Richard James (with AFX’s “Hangable Auto Bulb” EPs). But the point here is that these players are free to take greater liberties with Jungle’s idiomatic motifs because they don’t have to service DJs and dancers, because they don’t belong to the community. And while their breakbeat elaborations sound astonishing, they lack the electric charge of relatively formulaic stuff made by hardstep fundamentalists. When music is divorced from its subcultural context, it suffers from the meaning-deficit that vitiates all art-for-art’s-sake activity. Listening to records such as the newly reissued Plug EPs, you sense that nothing’s really at stake for the creator, let alone the consumer.
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If Ardkore was a fluxed-up con-fusion (stylistic, racial, social, chemical), it’s now possible to talk about drum ’n’ bass essentialism. Jungle’s ‘intelligent’ strain has proved that the music’s rhythmic chassis can be welded to all manner of other genres, from House (Alex Reece, Jacob’s Optical Stairway) to thirtysomething pop-jazz (Everything But the Girl produced by Spring Heel Jack). But the music’s vital pulse, its unique contribution, resides in that essence: breakbeat science, bass mutation, and the use of samples as opposed to synthesizers. In purist AWOL-style hardstep, synths occasionally contribute colouration or unnerving drones (and in the case of the Roland Juno 106, Jungle’s distinctive spectrum of bass tones). But once synths start to be deployed in a keyboard-like manner, Jungle gets closer to conventional notions of ‘musicality’ (which usually means Bruce Hornby-style piano trills or Tangerine Dreamy cosmic flatus).

What’s invigorating about darkcore is its bracing anti-musicality. With its incorporation of atonal, unpitched timbres, non-musical sounds and horror movie soundtrack dissonance, darkcore is simply far more avant garde than intelligent drum ’n’ bass. The latter, in an abiding confusion about what constitutes progression for electronic music, is too deferential to traditional ideas about melody, arrangement, ‘nice’ textures, the importance of proper songs and hands on, real-time instrumentation. Paradoxically, it’s the shit that ‘s most uncompromisingly anti-melodic, that has the highest quotient of rhythmic dissonance, which really gets the punters going. Like Wu Tang Clan’s brand of paranoid, melody-free hiphop (which sells by the half-million), hardstep is what you might call a popular avant garde. The real question, though, is what are the social conditions that have created such a big audience for music that fucks with your head so extensively, that appears to be ‘no fun’? Similarly, what’s going on when Ed Rush talks of deliberately smoking weed to get “dark, evil thoughts”, the kind of ‘skunkanoia’ without which he couldn’t achieve the right vibe for his tracks. Wu Tang-style horrorcore rap and darkside jungle are subcultures based around the active pursuit of phobia and psychosis as a form of leisure. As musics, they offer a drastic amplification of everyday unease and dread (just check track titles like Pascal’s “Mindstresser”). What gives?

“Yo man, there’s a gang of muthafuckers out there on the dick.... Non-reality seeing, non-reality feeling, non-reality-living-ass muthafuckas, man. And I don’t know, man, reality, it’s important to me… So fellaz, tell these niggas what it’s like in the minds of real niggaz” – monologue at the start of “The Shit” by L Double and Shy FX

“It’s like this: some people are sharks, and some people are marks. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Play pussy, get fucked. Come prepared or run away scared... You can’t always count on E to shelter you from being vic’ed” – Breakbeat Mailing List correspondent’s riposte to other correspondents’ complaints about the loveless, intimidating vibe at Jungle events

Since 1993 and Rave’s slide into the twilight zone, Hardcore has periodically been convulsed by debates about “where did our love go?” Some mourn the eclipse of bonhomie by moodiness and attitude; many of these disenchanted ravers sloped off to form the Happy Hardcore scene, currently massive in England and Scotland. Others defend the demise of the euphoric vibe, arguing that Jungle’s atmosphere isn’t moody, it’s ’serious’. This faction pours scorn on the happy ravers for their cheesy music, white gloves and other nostalgic trappings of the rave dream, which is felt to be not just lost, but utterly discredited.
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In the absence of Ecstasy, as both a chemical and as a redemptive vision of utopia around which the scene pivots, Jungle has begun to embrace an ideology of ‘real-ness’ similar to the worldview of American gangsta rap. In hiphop, ‘real’ has two meanings. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover. ‘Real’ also signifies that the music reflects a ‘reality’ constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalised racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police. ‘Real’ means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by what the Americans call downsizing (the laying-off the permanent workforce in order to create a floating employment pool of part-time and freelance workers without benefits or job security).

‘Real’ is a neo-Medieval scenario; you could compare downsizing to enclosure, where the aristocracy threw the peasants off the land and reduced them to a vagabond underclass. Like gangsta rap, Jungle reflects a Medieval paranoiascape of robber barons, pirate corporations, conspiracies and covert operations. Hence the popularity as a source of samples and song titles of martial arts films and gangsta movies like The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, whose universe revolves around concepts of righteous violence and blood-honour that predate the liberal, social-democratic era. Then there’s the influence on Jungle of dystopian sci-fi movies that contain a subliminally anti-capitalist message, imagining the future as a return to Medievalism, complete with fortress cities and bandit clans: Robocop (sampled in A Guy Called Gerald’s “Gloktrak”, Terminator (which provided the title for a pioneering 92 darkcore track by Metalheads), Predator 2. Jungle has long had an ambivalent investment in the future, ranging from the utopian anticipation of Omni Trio’s “Living For the Future” to the millennial anxiety of Redlight’s “The Future Is Dark.” Yet there’s also an impatience to reach this apocalypse noir, because that’s when the ‘dark’ will come into its own. ‘Dark’ is where primal, predatory energies meet digital technique, where id gets scientific.

The pervasive sense of slipping into a new Dark Age, of an insidious breakdown of the social contract, generates anxieties that are repressed but resurface in unlikely ways and places. Resistance doesn’t necessarily take the ‘logical’ form of collective activism (unions, left-wing politics); it can be so distorted and imaginatively impoverished by the conditions of capitalism itself, that it express itself as, say, the proto-fascist, anti-corporate nostalgia of America’s right-wing militias, or as a sort of hyper-individualistic survivalism.
In hiphop and, increasingly, Jungle, the response is a ‘realism’ that accepts a socially-constructed reality as natural. To ‘get real’ is to confront a state-of-nature where dog eats dog, where you’re either a winner or a loser, and where most will be losers. There’s a cold rage seething in Jungle, but it’s expressed within the terms of an anti-capitalist yet non-socialist politics, and expressed defensively: as a determination that the underground will not be co-opted by the mainstream. ‘Underground’ can be understood sociologically as a metaphor for the underclass, or psychologically, as a metaphor for a fortress psyche: the survivalist self, primed and ready for combat in capitalism’s war of all against all. As music, as a form of cultural resistance, Jungle works by eroticizing anxiety: it’s as if, by immersing yourself in the phobic, you can make dread your element. That’s the true meaning of “A Way of Life”. Jungle is a sound-picture of a world that is falling apart, and the art of being a roller, a steppa, is to somehow groove on all that fragmentation and instability, handle the ruff ride, take it in your stride.

The battery of sensations offered by a six hour stint at AWOL induces a mixture of shellshock and future-shock. Alvin Toffler defined the latter as what happens when the human adaptive mechanism seizes up in response to an overload of stimuli, novelty, surprise. Triggering neural reflexes and motor responses, Jungle’s rhythmic assault course hypes up the listener’s adaptive capability in readiness for the worst the 21st Century has up its sleeve. If Jungle is a martial artform, clubs like AWOL are church for the soul-jah and killah priest, inculcating a kind of spiritual fortitude. All this is why going to AWOL is serious bizness, as opposed to ‘fun’. Jungle is the living death of Rave, the sound of living with and living through the dream’s demise. At AWOL, every synapse-shredding snare and cranium-cracking bass-bomb is an alarm-call saying “wake up, that dream is over. Time to get real”.

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