Drum & Bass: Sonic Youth

CALL IT drum & bass, breakbeat science or hardstep. As jungle accelerates faster into the future, it is splintering into a million different theme tunes to modern living, from TV adverts to the 80,000-plus sales of Goldie’s Timeless album. As the first phase of drum & bass, from cult status to the mainstream, comes to a close, THE FACE charts the history of the future sound of Britain

THERE’S A vivid, elusive yet feverishly exciting atmosphere in music these days and it’s due to drum & bass. From its slippery names (is it called drum & bass or jungle or hardstep? All of them or none? No one, not even its inventors, can say) to its freestyle confidence (implying the history of UK music from electro onwards at fastforward), to its digital, virtual and visual production techniques, the music proclaims the paradoxes of everything that’s truly Now. People use computer programmes called Search Engines to find the Net sites they’re looking for in the endless web of cyberspace. What follows is a Search Engine for the digital jungle that’s sprawling throughout the UK as I write. So scroll on. And don’t forget: the bug’s out of the bassbin now. And no one can put it back.

ALTER EGOS The norm in drum & bass. Sometimes, as with the avant jungle omni duo 4 Hero, each alter ego or pseudonym stands for a different musical style: Nu Era for techno, Tom and Jerry for cyber-ragga, Tek 9 for space dub, Manix for jazzstep. Jungle alter egos are a good way of bypassing media and crowd expectations. Thus DJ Zinc, who produces ballistic hip hop-hard-step like ‘Super Sharp Shooter’ on Ganja Records, also releases intelligent tracks as Jack Ruby; Coventry’s Neil Trix releases house as Quivver; phuture-funk omni duo Global Communication pursue drum & bass as Chaos And Julia Set, and also as Link. Jungle’s eclecticism is an advance version of the meltdown occurring across the spectrum of mid-Nineties music.

AQUATIC In aquatic drum & bass, waves of half-speed synthesised strings wash over you while breaks roll by and the bass, submerged deep below the synths like a submarine, thrums like a whale’s heartbeat. At its best, this style evokes sensations of flying through water or swimming in air. Pioneered by LTJ Bukem on 1992’s anthem ‘Atlantis’, aquatic drum & bass classics include Link’s ‘Amenity’, PFM’s ‘You’re My One And Only’ and DJ Crystl’s ‘Sweet Dreams’.

THE BADBOY SOUND “I want the perfect killa sound/a badboy sound”: Johnny Jungle’s track ‘Killa Sound’ refers to the perfect sound system which is where jungle, like ragga, inherits the concept of the single as a sonic weapon, or “sound murderer” as producer Remarc calls it. Badboy jungle digitally mutates breakbeats into bullets and bass into high-impact carpet bombs. Dancing to it at AWOL, London Sum’ting, Jungle Fever or Sunday Roast is like being caught in a sonic shootout or strafed by virtual crossfire. Also referred to as gangsta jungle by Marvellous Cain, producer of the badboy classic ‘Hitman’. The badboy sound, pioneered in ’91 by Hackney’s Ibiza Records, uses ragga verses because ragga is the UK parallel to US gangsta hip hop. Despite sustained criticism from within the scene (ragga’s reputation in drum & bass is like handbag’s rep in house), it remains a vital option in any producer’s aural arsenal. Labels like Ganja, Philly Blunt, Redlight and Frontline all release great gangsta tracks. Key badboy anthems include DJ Krome and Mr Time’s ‘Studio One Lik’, Remarc’s ‘RIP (Hype Remix)’ and Dillinja’s ‘MuthaF**ka’.

BREAKBEAT SCIENCE That little yelp or hiccup you often hear in jungle tracks is James Brown at hyperspeed, singing “you’re bad sister” to Lyn Collins on the old school breakbeat ‘Think’. Breakbeat science refers to the individual style each producer brings to drum & bass. Drum & bass is digitally keyed in on computer software packages like Cubase which turn Mac or Amiga computers into a virtual studio. Like computer-aided animation, it’s made by manipulating each sonic element — a snare, a hi-hat, a reversed bass — visually on-screen. It can take nine to ten hours to produce just a few bars of processed percussion which is one reason why techno-nrrrds like Underworld, Aphex Twin, Orbital and Plastikman have all released jungle tracks that fail miserably. You’ll have to work harder next time, boys! Drum & bass producers often talk of taking time out to upgrade their equipment. The role of unsung engineer/producers like Pete Parsons, Rob Playford, Nico and Nookie, who operate the computers, samplers and sequencers, is thus crucial. Breakbeat science also refers to the nth-dimensional sonic extremes to which the breakbeat can be pushed. For wildstyle adventures in the hyper-dimensions of the breakbeat, check out ‘Angel (Peshay Back From Narm Mix)’, Droppin’ Science’s ‘Volume 2’ and Aphrodite’s ‘The Bomber’.

THE DRED BASS Released in November ’94 on Moving Shadow by West Midlands-based duo Dead Dred aka Lee Smith and Warren Smith, ‘The Dred Bass’, an ominous wall of reversed low-end turbulence, has been rapidly replicating across the nation’s jungle dancefloors ever since. The dred bass amplifies the edgy, emotionally-repressed shades on the dancefloor attitude of UK’s young junglists. Its success in late ’95 parallels late ’92, when the bad-trip bass synth of Joey Beltram’s ‘Mentasm’ similarly dominated. On his Friday night Kiss FM show last October, Fabio suggested the time had come for DJs to expand the spectrum of bass moods. Other bass monsters are Asylum aka L Double’s ‘Da Base 2 Dark’, Amazon II’s ‘Bass Light’ and Goldie’s ‘Kemistry’ remix.

THE DARKSIDE By mutating the mentasm sound throughout ’92, hardcore became a new kind of sound effect, film sample-saturated psychedelia. Dark was a sampladelia that amplified the sensation of the rave era’s collective comedown. The ‘Stairway To Heaven’ of hardcore is Goldie’s ‘Terminator’ (with its spooky Terminator II sample: “You’re talking about things I haven’t done yet”). The perennial darkcore anthem is Origin Unknown’s ‘Valley Of The Shadows’ from ’93, a track that still trips out dancefloors today with its eerie sample of a girl muttering, “Felt that I was in a long dark tunnel.” In 1995, the darkside style is back as gangstadelia, fuelled this time by weed-driven paranoia rather than snide Es. Here, dark connects to the hip hop head music of Cypress Hill and Wu-Tang Clan rather than any parallels in techno. For maximum immersion in the nu school of dark side, listen to these classics: DJ Trace’s ‘Mutant Remix’, DJ Ed Rush’s ‘Guncheck’ and Source Direct’s ‘Snake Style’.

DETROIT In late ’95, the drum & bass-techno interface of warm 5am synths and hi-tech jazz syncopation is on. Goldie and Photek are set to release their remixes of Carl Craig’s astro-jazz breakbeat epic ‘Bug In The Bassbin’, a track broken by pioneering techno and breakbeat DJs Fabio and Grooverider back in 1992. On his Island debut single ‘Never As Good’, Wax Doctor speeds up the cosmic techno of Carl Craig’s ‘At Les’. 4 Hero, signed as Jacob’s Optical Stairway to R&S — the archetypal European techno label — are set to release the ultimate 5am album. Jungle’s connections to Detroit date right back to rave’s heyday in ’92. Even as Derrick May excommunicated rave from the church of Detroit, hardcore auteurs like Blame and Manix were releasing singles on Kevin (Inner City) Saunderson’s KMS label. 4 Hero’s Reinforced label went beyond remixing by releasing last year’s best techno compilation — the utterly essential, warm sound of The Deepest Shade of Techno. If you ever wondered what happened to 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ mood of shooting star synths and romantic strings, then this album will update you nicely. On their classic concept album Parallel Universe, 4 Hero align themselves with the sonic science fiction of Detroit’s legendary techno unit Underground Resistance. As Detroit veterans like Derrick May acknowledge, jungle’s experimentation leaves much techno sounding dated. Naively interpreted as if jungle were gaining “credibility” or “respectability”, the recent series of remixes in fact signals drum & bass entering a productive old school phase, a parallel to UK techno’s enjoyable electro revival.

HARDSTEP The term coined by veteran DJ Grooverider as an alternative to jungle or drum & bass. ‘Gangsta Hardstep’, the DJ Ed Rush single, evokes the perpetual paranoia of today’s gangstadelia. For variations on this mood, check out Roni Size’s nervy ‘11.55 (Rollout Mix)’ and gangstadelic pioneer DJ Hype’s astonishing ‘Pum Pum Must Smoke Ganja’.

HIP HOP-HARDSTEP In late ’95, the hip hop-jungle interface has gone cold fusion. Jungle is digitally manipulating the breakbeat first isolated by late-Seventies hip hop DJs through scratching. Hip hop-hardstep is another version of drum & bass gone old school since producers such as Tek 9, DJ Hype, Q Bass, DJs Krust and Flynn, Droppin’ Science and L Double are former or practising B-boys. It reverses the UK-US current: for the first time, American producers and fans are feeling the productively mystifying confusion that’s spurred on and defeated generations of UK artists. Some of the wildest tracks of ’95 are fantastic mutants — neither hip hop nor hardstep, just totally new. Listen to DJ Crystl’s Perpetual Motion EP (especially ‘Emotionless Science’ and ‘Harlem World Flavour’), Scarface’s ‘Hand Of The Dead Body (Goldie Remix)’ and Pascal aka P Funk’s ‘P Funk Era’.

INTELLIGENCE A controversial term used in ’92 by techno to deride hardcore. It was adopted in late ’94, then quickly rejected as “misunderstood” in mid-’95 by DJs Fabio, LTJ Bukem, Kemistry and Storm, residents at London’s now-legendary Speed club. Musically, intelligence refers to the symphonic arrangements and chord progressions of Bukem- inspired drum & bass. Sonically and socially, it serves to distance drum & bass from ragga-inspired jungle. Widely perceived as separating itself from Suburban Base-style hardstep, intelligence is an elitist idea that backfired to become the drum & bass parallel of chillout. Disgust with the term reached a peak in October when Fabio announced (on his Friday night Kiss show) he wouldn’t be confined to playing in the intelligent room at large events. By late ’95, Doc Scott was pointing to the new dark or deep strain in drum & bass. Intelligence also triggered hopeful calls from DJs and magazines for a reunification of the scenes, a mood reflected in recent events (nobody calls them raves any more) such as Dreamscape, World Dance, Hysteria Ear Blaster 9, Dance Paradise and Andromeda X which cater for the entire post-hardcore spectrum. For three very different takes on intelligence, try Fast Floor’s soft core debut album On A Quest For Intelligence, DJ Rap and Voyager’s debut album Intelligence and D’Cruze’s ‘Ruff Intelligence’.

JAZZSTEP Coined by Fabio for the mix section of his Friday show. In early 1994, key tracks such as Dillinja’s ‘Sovereign Melody’ and Roni Size’s ‘The Calling’ introduced the new jazz mood — lingering trails of electric piano reverb with shimmering rhythms composed from floating snares and hissing rimshots. Without intending to, these tracks reactivated London’s old school house and club jazz scenes. Sometimes jazzstep descends into queasy saxophone licks sounding like Gerry Rafferty jazz-lite out-takes. At other times it’s a bewitching experience that draws as many, if not more, girls as guys into nights like Goldie’s essential Metalheadz Sunday sessions at London’s Blue Note. In late ’95, veteran DJ Ron’s two-year-old cyber fusion epic ‘Canaan’s Land’, underrated like Bodysnatch’s ‘Secret Summer Fantasy’, has triggered a mood of nu fusion or hyper soul. Listen to the crisp syncopation of Just Jungle’s angelic ‘Sky’, Hidden Agenda’s ‘Is it Love’ and the sun-kissed drum rolls of the Ballistic Brothers’ ‘I’ll Fly Away’. See also ‘Cyberjazz’, the A Guy Called Gerald album track which epitomises the elusive, ultra-tangled rhythms of indie renegade Wagon Christ’s ‘Plug 2’ and Techno Animal’s ‘Heavy Water (Spring Heel Jack Mix)’ as much as the mutant melodies of the jazzstep.

LIVE Many of the best jungle tracks are a result of rushing home from an inspirational night out, running upstairs and getting straight on to the mouse. Yet producers often find digital technology constricting. Low-cost digital technology has deleted traditional studios, but producers pine after the status of the recording studio as if it were a phantom limb. They talk wistfully about working with real musicians, real singers and real drummers rather than toiling in the virtual Cubase studio. Like all post-house musics, drum & bass dreams of proper studio time and the kind of marathon rehearsal sessions that humdrum, homespun Britpop takes for granted.

MUSICAL Named after LTJ Bukem’s ’93 anthem ‘Music’, “musical” in drum & bass speak means melodic, Lonnie Liston Smith-inspired arrangements such as ascending synth string progressions and military drum loops rather than chopped-up breaks or tearin’ tempo changes. With its clusters of chiming bells and ascending, cosmic keyboards, dancing to ‘Music’ is like being cradled among the stars or swinging rapturously inside a celestial seesaw. Musical tracks such as Jack And Phil’s ‘Music Is The Basis Of All Life’, FBD Project’s ‘She’s So’ and Rogue Unit’s ‘Luv Dub (VIP Mix)’ bypass jungle’s murderously excessive escape velocity and wrap you in star-struck stasis instead.

ONE-OFF DUBPLATE Go to any jungle night and chances are you’ll be dancing to one-off dubplates or acetates which won’t be available for six to eight months. You’re literally dancing to the future sound of music. The better the track, the longer you have to wait for release. Tracks can sometimes take up to a year to come out. It’s an excessive time gap which creates a feverishly fervid anticipation not felt in the UK for years. Three of drum & bass’s most notoriously delayed dubplates are Alex Reece’s ‘Pulp Fiction’, Terrorist’s ‘Sing Time’ and Andy C’s ‘Cool Down’.

REMIXOLOGY Jungle is in a perpetual state of competitive remix-ology, an attitude inherited from hip hop and exaggerated by dub-plate pressure to stay one step ahead. Each remix becomes more and more deranged. Coined by Goldie back in early ’94, the first VIP mix was Doc Scott’s third remix of his darkside classic ‘Here Comes The Drumz’. The phrase immediately migrated across jungle where it’s now standard practice. Three of jungle’s greatest VIP mixes are Omni Trio’s ‘Renegade Snares (Foul Play VIP Mix)’, Leviticus’ ‘Burial: Chronic 2’ by Roni Size, Krust and Dillinja aka V Collective and Randall and Andy C’s ‘Sound Control (AWOL VIP Mix)’.

ROLLIN’ It shouldn’t take you long to realise that jungle’s rhythmic pattern of half-step beats gives the music a sashaying, hipswinging looseness that feels fantastically spacious and freestyle after years of four-to-the-floor house and techno kickdrums. Dancing to rollin’ or runnin’ beats is a gyroscopic thrill comparable to surfing an avalanche for the fun of it. The next time a DJ rewinds any of these tracks, leave everything you’re doing, run on to the dance-floor and roll with these: ‘We’re Roll’in (Remix)’ by In Between The Lines aka DJ SS, ‘Rolled Into One’ by E-Z Rollers and ‘I Like It (Remix)’ by Da Intalex.

TIMESTRETCHING A standard studio effect used to correct off-key pitch, Dego McFarlane and Mark Clair of 4 Hero transformed it into the sonic parallel of SF morphing on Reinforced tracks in ’92 and ’93. In ’94, at the peak of jungle-mania, it mutated into groaning, eerie, ragga-dalek intros. Rejected as old hat in ’95, timestretching has migrated into the house-techno grey area on tracks by Josh Wink, Dan Bell and Ian Pooley. For ’92-era timestretching check A Guy Called Gerald’s Juicebox compilation album 28 Gun Bad Boy; for ’93 listen to Goldie, 4 Hero and Manix’s Internal Affairs EP (especially the breathtaking ‘Hands To Heaven’); and for ’94 check out Splash’s apocalyptic ‘Babylon’ 

SHOPS Independent shops like Unity, Black Market, De Underground, Section 5 and Remix Records in London, Boogie Times and Vinyl Rhythm in Romford, Slammin’ Vinyl in Kingston, Basement Records in Reading, Bangin Tunes in Coventry, Catapult One in Cardiff and Notorious Vinyl in Glasgow play a crucial part in maintaining the jungle ecology that emerged from the hardcore scene of 1991. Linked up to labels, pirates (Kool FM, Galaxy FM, Dream FM), events and magazines (EternityKnowledgeAtmosphereRavescene), this internal empire runs in parallel to the mainstreaming of drum & bass in Tower and Virgin, Radio 1 and supportive major labels like London, Island and MCA. Most shops separate drum & bass styles into tearin’, mellow and happy for convenience, not because they like segregating the scene. And don’t be put off by the moody DJ syndrome: if the guys behind the counter act offhand, that’s because they’re hassled, not because they hate you for mispronouncing Aphrodite.

COMPILATIONS Ignore the persistent media sneers; compilations are an essential and enjoyable way of keeping up with what’s new in jungle if you don’t live near a record shop or just don’t have the time and money to buy new singles. They are a portable version of the single-laden shop walls. Essential compilations include Drum & Bass Volumes 1-5 on Breakdown, the Renegade Selector and Jungle Renegades series on Re-animate, the Jungle Massive series on Labello Blanco and the DJs Unite/Hardcore Massive series on Death Becomes Me. The best compilations are always trying to outdo each other by releasing singles in one-off VIP mixes months before they ever hit the shops. Label compilations which gather up long-deleted singles together with new mixes are always good value. Limited-edition mix tapes by DJs such as Hype and Darren Jay are even better. Reflecting the scene’s confidence, late ’95 is a high point for retrospectives with long awaited anthologies due from Ganja and Frontline Records, Formation Records, Deejay Recordings, Moving Shadow and Suburban Base.

© Kodwo EshunThe Face, January 1996

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