It’s a Jungle Out There…

Ask yer proverbial suburban kid on the street, and chances are they won’t be into Blur, Suede, Nirvana or Oasis — they’ll be hardcore JUNGLE heads. But what exactly is jungle? Where is it from? How is it made? And what happens after prolonged exposure to it? SIMON REYNOLDS — who was raving (geddit?) about this hyperkinetic dance sound years before anyone else on the music. press — tells you everything you ever wanted to know about jungle but were too obsessed with indie to ask.

NOW THAT THE outdoor mega-rave (legal and illegal) is extinct, rave culture has regrouped in clubs and medium-scale parties. In the process, its dream of an E-sponsored unity transcending class and race has faded, its fragile alliance disintegrated into factions and self-proclaimed elites. House’n’garage have reverted into disco, a Saturday Nite knees-up. Techno’n’ambient have become the new prog rock, geared towards studently contemplation and trainspotting. And then there’s jungle, where the old rave spirit has mutated, via the desperation of the Nineties, into something totally different: what jungle-convert Björk calls “a fierce joy”. How and why did this totally new, uniquely British music emerge?


“It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder/How I keep from going under”
Grandmaster Flash, ‘The Message’

THE SINGLE most crucial defining element of jungle is the breakbeat. Back in late’91, hardcore techno tunes based around looped hip hop beats, as opposed to programmed rhythms, became hugely popular. The gritty, funky syncopation drew more black British kids into hardcore rave. In turn, they brought new musical inputs: ragga and dub in ’92, soul and garage in ’93. By last year, the term “jungle” had displaced “hardcore”, while the scene had taken on a distinctly London-and-surrounding counties identity. According to MC Navigator from London’s ruling pirate station Kool FM, the term “jungle” comes from “junglist”, and was first heard as a Rebel MC sample back in ’91.

“Rebel got this chant — ‘alla the junglists’ — from a yard-tape [ie, a sound system mix-tape from Jamaica]. There’s a place in Kingston called Tivoli Gardens, and the people call it the jungle. When you hear on a yard-tape the MC sending a big-up to ‘alla the junglists’, they’re calling out to a posse from Tivoli. When Rebel sampled that, people cottoned on, and soon they started to call the music ‘jungle’. I live on Broadwater Farm, a real concrete jungle, and we called ourselves junglists long before the music even came along.”

Jungle’s ruffneck vibe is exactly midway between B-boy and rude boy. It’s music that reflects both the desperation and determination to survive of the inner-city renegade. From early tracks like ’28 Gun Bad Boy’ and ‘Organised Crime’ to today’s ragga-jungle like Shy FX & UK Apachi’s ‘Original Nuttah’ (which samples Goodfellas and Cypress Hill) and Conquering Lion’s ‘Code Red’ (which boasts about carrying an ‘oversize clip and carbine’), there’s lots of evidence for the case that jungle is “gangsta rave”. Like gangsta rap, jungle’s anger is pre-political, the rage of the lone ranger on the mean streets; it lacks conscious rap’s collective vision. But sooner or later, jungle will generate its own Public Enemys and KRS-1s. Already there are tracks that sample political/spiritual utterances from roots reggae or black nationalist rhetoric.

But it’s not just bad-boy jungle that has B-boy roots; many of the top art-core producers, like Goldie and DJ Crystl, started out in the electro/breakdancing/graffiti scene of the early Eighties, while the art of scratching and turntable manipulation has been revived by the likes of DJ Hype.

In another sense, jungle is a British cousin of Jamaican ragga, ie computerised reggae, dub on steroids. Jungle is full of Jamaican ideas, like “dubplates” (exclusive tracks given to DJs far in advance of release) and “rewinds” (when the crowd demands the DJ “wheel” a track back to the start), while junglist MC-ing is a blend of dub’s DJ-talkover, ragga’s coarse rasp and ultra-fast rapping.

Jungle completes the circle in that it reconnects hip hop with one of its sources: Jamaica. One of the pioneers of rap, DJ Kool Herc, was a Jamaican immigrant to the South Bronx. Not only did Herc import dub’s science of mega-bass sound systems, he also invented the idea of looping breakbeats (the peak of a funk track) into a perpetual crescendo.


BUT IF YOU go back even further in black music history, you’ll find the real reason why the term “jungle” resonates. Jungle is where all the different musics of the African-American/Afro-Caribbean diaspora (ie, the scattering caused by slavery and forced migration) reconverge. Jungle takes all the most African elements — polyrhythmic percussion, sub-aural bass frequencies — from funk, dub, electro, rap, aciiied and ragga, and welds them together into the ultimate tribal trance-dance. But jungle’s tribalism is late 20th century, apocalyptic, faithless: a form of working class consciousness after the death of community, after the withering away of Socialist myths of unity and common struggle. It’s the tribalism of those tuff enuff to survive and thrive in the concrete jungle: “I-and-I” inna Babylon.


SO JUNGLE is a hyped-up hybrid, a tangle of roots’n’futures. But lest we forget, jungle began as an offshoot of rave.

“People are saying this music is a reggae thing, but truthfully jungle stemmed from house music,” says MC Navigator. “It has a ragga influence, but it’s still house.”

This is true, in that jungle’s taken some of the original rave audience with it. But sonically and attitude-wise, it’s hard to see what jungle now has left in common with house or techno. Its beats descend from funk (febrile, jittery) as opposed to disco (regular, pulsating). Its bass sound fuses mid-Eighties rap’s Roland 909 boom and dub’s subsonic pressure into a totally New Thing: B-lines that collapse like landslides or rumble like shockwaves from an underground H-bomb test. As for the old rave spirit of E’d up communal euphoria, jungle has replaced that with a cool aloofness. At a jungle rave, there’s none of the eye contact or superficial but life-affirming bonhomie that characterised early hardcore. The nutter mentality has gone; now the Kool FM buzzwords are “sensible”, “intelligent”, even “educational”! Once the standard image of the hardcore fan was a sweaty, shirtless white teenage East Ender, gurning and asking for a sip of your Evian. Now, your average junglist is a head nodding black twentysomething with hooded eyes, a spliff in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other. Even the dancing has lost its mania, as people groove to the half-speed bassline rather than go mental to the 160 bpm.

Two factors lie behind the rise of this self-contained cool. One is that as hardcore turned into jungle, it shed the demonstrative, emotionally expressive elements of rave (which originated in gay disco, and entered white working-class consciousness via E). In its place, there’s a ‘black’ ethos of self-control, sophistication and inscrutability. The other factor is changing patterns of drug use. Early hardcore was full of references to “rushing” or titles like ‘We Are E’, now jungle samples soundbites from roots reggae about sensimilla or “herbman hustling”. This shift from E to marijuana was probably inevitable, given the diminishing returns of long-term E use.

“Just ask the St John’s Ambulance people,” says Kool FM’s MC Five-0. “The figures are all there: less people are caning the E. People are still doing it, but in a more mature way. You grow up, get more responsible. These days, you don’t see so many people off their faces.” Which is good, but it also means that the effusive, effervescent nuttiness of ‘appy ‘ardcore has gone, probably forever. In rave zines, there’s no shortage of letter-writers blaming jungle for creating a moody, tense atmosphere. But Kool FM’s DJ Ron reckons such hostility to jungle is down to racism, pure and simple: “It’s cos too many black people are going to the clubs.”

But in other ways, jungle is a victory over racism: this is, after all, a multiracial scene in which white kids have adopted Jamaican patois and B-boy slang.

“My biggest buzz is kids ringing in from Barking, Romford, Isle Of Dogs,” agrees MC Five-O. “Typical British-born Cockney boys, but they love what I do, they say ‘Five-O, you’re wikkid’.”

“Jungle’s got nothing to do with the colour of your skin,” adds DJ Ron, before reciting the Kool Credo: “No matter your class, colour or creed, you’re welcome in the house of jungle.” Jungle is a kick in the eye for both the BNP and the black segregationists because it shows that trans-racial alliances are possible. Not just because it makes “blackness” seem cool to white kids, but because there’s a real unity of experience shared by Britain’s black and white underclass. Whether they live in London’s inner-city estates or nowheresville suburbs like Hitchin and Romford, this is the jilted generation: bored, frustrated, with little to live for but burning up dead time in a weekend’s worth of “jungle fever”. Another angle to jungle’s anti-racist politics: the weird patriotism expressed by black junglists when they celebrate the music as uniquely British (or even as “a London t’ing”). This is possibly a pride-full response to years of having to look to black America or Jamaica for beats, but it also shows that they feel this country is their home.


SUNDAY NIGHT at Thunder & Joy, and I hear the MC calling out to “alla the journalists”. Course, he really said ‘junglists’, but the aural hallucination is forgiveable: only minutes earlier, he’d been railing against “saboteurs and perpetrators”. It’s the week that the mainstream media have gone jungle crazy, and on the pirates, MCs have been simmering with rage about one newspaper’s gross misrepresentation of the scene. A month later, and they’re dissing The Face for letting General Levy boast that he’s “runnin’ jungle”. To this day, Levy, an interloper from dancehall ragga whose ‘Incredible’ finally hit the Top 10 a few weeks ago, remains jungle’s Public Enemy No1. According to rumour, retribution has already been taken. Jungle’s anti-media paranoia is understandable. It goes back to the anti-hardcore backlash of ’92, when the scene was tarred with the same brush as all those sub-Prodigy bubble-core tunes with kids TV samples (‘Roobarb & Custard’, ‘Trip To Trumpton’ et al). Dance mags like MixMag proclaimed the death of rave and cold-shouldered hardcore into a long phase of media blackout. Finally, when it became apparent that hardcore hadn’t died, but thrived in exile, the media’s interest has returned. But jungle retains its siege mentality, its justified suspicion of the press.


VENTURE INTO the jungle, and it won’t be long before you notice the semantic confusion: the scene can’t decide what to call itself. Jungle tekno, hardcore, drum & bass, hard-step, all compete for pre-eminence. Then there are all the sub-genres of jungle: ‘dark’, ‘happy’, ‘ragga’, ‘intelligent drum & bass’, ‘ambient’. This terminological struggle reflects a growing schism within the ranks of jungle: populist floor filling jungle (based around ruff beats, ragga samples and soul lifts) versus atmospheric, ambient-tinged tunes that DJs play out infrequently. The ambient jungle contingent (units like Omni Trio, Metalheads, Foul Play, Blame & Justice, E-Z Rollers, Da Intalex, Dillinja) are evolving a new music designed for home listening: art-core. Some artists — Omni, Metalheads, Nookie, A Guy Called Gerald — are about to release full-length albums. At the moment, the ambient junglists are making far more imaginative music than the ragga. Tracks like Metalheads’ 22-minute symphony ‘Timeless’ and Foul Play’s ‘Being With You’ are simply the most soul-harrowing, futuristic music being made on the planet right now. But there is a danger that art-core will get too smooth, over-souled and jazzified. It would be a tragedy if it went up the same easy-listening cul-de-sac as ‘intelligent techno’. Ideally, the raggamuffin element and the art-core should remain in communication, lest the former stultify and the latter lose its edge. But it’s highly possible that the scene will split in two, with separate clubs and radio stations.


CAN JUNGLE survive an Atlantic crossing? Or will it simply prove too fast for a Chronic-ly stoned hip hop audience? Some suggest that jungle could heal the racial divide in America between rap and rave (an almost totally Caucasian scene, because hip hop associates it with disco, and thus with (a) gay culture (b) the Uncle Tom-isation of funk). But could anyone understand the thrill of jungle without its context: pirate radio, the way it creates a clandestine cartography of London?

“I really think jungle could conquer the world,” says MC Navigator. “Look how long it’s taken for reggae to get through. But it’s all-conquering now.”

Which means that by 2002 we’ll be getting junglist Ace of Bases… Scandinavian junglism!

“There will be, and I welcome it.” 


JUNGLE BREAKS so many rules of the record biz. First, VINYL RULES. The 12-inch is an end in itself, not an advert for the album. If you have a home studio, and thus minimal recording costs, you can make a decent profit off a 12-inch (reasonable success = between 3,000 to 6,000 sales; anthem status = 10,000 to 20,000). It costs about £1,000 to press 1,000 singles. Distributors give you about £1.90 each, so you’re already a thousand in profit. The real money comes with the re-press, as basic costs (mastering, etc) are already covered. But to make a living you have to churn out tunes, operate under different names, or be a DJ too.

Second, while some tracks have a few weeks play-life before they’re ancient history, others become anthems that are still going strong a year later. A track’s life is extended by remixes, then remixes of the remix, ad absurdum. Johnny Jungle’s ‘Johnny’ recently underwent six simultaneously released remixes! Because revamps are usually drastic, the remixer is more famous than the artist, eg, Omni Trio’s ‘Renegade Snares’ (now in its re-remix stage!) is often attributed to remixer Foul Play.

Third, a huge proportion of the music that’s hot in the clubs and on the airwaves cannot be purchased: a notion that breaks with all record biz logic. This is because of the thrall of the DUBPLATE. Artists give influential DJs a pre-release version of a track on DAT; the DJ presses up an acetate at his own expense (around £30). You guessed it, the dubplate is a Jamaican idea: Seventies sound systems pressed up their own tracks in order to outdo their rivals. Similarly, jungle’s top DJs are desperate for exclusives to spin, and so spend up to £200 a week on dubplates (either their own or other artists tracks). Unfortunately, this means the fans are tantalised for months until the official release, by which time DJs have stopped playing it; some dubplates never get issued at all.

All the above, plus jungle’s self-sufficient circuit of specialist shops, labels, promoters, pirate radio etc, are why the scene was able to thrive despite the media blackout of ’92-’93. Nowadays you can get most of the major releases in HMV, Tower and Virgin, while tracks from top labels like Moving Shadow and Suburban Base dent the indie charts. But when the media spotlight and record biz chequebook-waving has faded, jungle will still have an underground infrastructure to sustain itself.


JUNGLE’S BIGGEST affinity with house and techno is its means of production: computers and work-stations. Jungle is totally digitalised — that’s to say, no acoustic sound is involved, nothing that was recorded through a mic. Jungle is composed from digital data derived from recordings, video or modules (encyclopedias of samples). A handful of artists use real vocals, but almost invariably they re-sample, warp and twist them until utterly etherealised and un-bodied.

Jungle artists use programs like Cubase or Creator, which present samples, loops and riffs in visual form on a computer screen. “You feel like a conductor with an orchestra” says DJ Ron — an appropriate metaphor, since jungle is a percussion symphony, built from multiple loops of breakbeats. These can be sampled, then edited and treated, but increasingly artists prefer to build beats from scratch using ‘single-shot’ samples (kicks, hi-hats, etc).

Perhaps the key junglist technique is ‘timestretching’. Jungle producers weren’t the first to use it, but they’re unique in that they’ve made it a core element of their sound. ‘Timestretching’ is a process that allows a sample (vocal, instrumental, whatever) to be sped up to fit any tempo of beat, without its pitch changing, ie, it sounds ‘normal’, as opposed to the shrill chipmunk vocals on early hardcore trax. While this has convinced many outside the scene that jungle is ‘proper’ music, it has eroded the zany delirium of hardcore circa ’92, with its elf-gibberish vox. Another use of timestretching is as a treatment on breakbeats, giving them an eerie, textural quality that blurs the line between rhythm, melody and chromatics.


Goldie, Metalheads, Andy C, Origin Unknown, Shimon, Roni Size, Dillinja, Omni Trio, Foul Ploy, Roy Keith, LTJ Bukem, DJ Hype, Ganja Crew, L Double, Da Intolex, DJ Crystl, Pascal, Johnny Jungle, A Guy Called Gerald, Hyper-On-Experience, E-Z Rollers


Moving Shadow, Suburban Base, Reinforced, Ram, Back To Basics, Renk, X Project, Dee Jay, No U Turn, Full Circle, V Recordings, Proper Talent, Kemet, Philly Blunt, Ganja, Metalheads, SLM, Basement, Good Looking, IQ, Liftin’ Spirits, Production House, Formation, Juke Box, SOUR, Flex


Thunder & Joy (Sun) The Raw Club, 112a Great Russell St, WC1. Tribal Dance (Fri) and AWOL (Sat), Paradise Club, 1-5 Parkfield St Islington N1. Innersense (Sat), The Lozerdrome, 267 Rye Lane SE15


Section 5, 121 King’s Rd, SW3. Ibiza, 464 Kingsland Rd, E8. Unity, Beak St, W1. Chemistry, 4 Regent Parade, Brighton Rd, Sutton, Surrey. Freedom, Watford


Metalheads — ‘Angel’ and ‘Timeless’
Foul Play — ‘Open Your Mind (Foul Play Remix)’ and ‘Being With You’
Omni Trio — ‘Renegade Snares (Foul Play Remix)’
A Guy Called Gerald — ‘Nazinji-Zaka’
Roni Size & DJ Die — ‘Music Box’
Dillinja — ‘Deep Love’
LTJ Bukem — ‘Atlantis (I Need You)’ and ‘Music’
DJ Crystl — ‘Warpdrive’
E-Z Rollers — ‘Rolled Into One’/’Believe’
Da Intalex — ‘What Ya Gonna Do’


DJ Hype — ‘Roll The Bears’
Shy FX/UK Apache — ‘Original Nuttah’
Subnotion — ‘Scottie’ (Ray Keith Remix)
Deep Blue — ‘The Helkopter Tune’
Roni Size — ‘Timestretch’
Renegade — ‘Terrorist’
Conquering Lion/X Project — ‘Code Red’
DJ Edrush — ‘Bludclot Artattack’

© Simon ReynoldsMelody Maker, 15 October 1994

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