Jungle!: The Last Dance Underground

Jungle is a fierce and frenzied soundtrack to inner city Britain in ’94. Based around raw, ragga-influenced white labels, raves and pirate radio stations, it’s a scene with its own heritage and heroes, although the only media attention they get is negative. We went deep into the underground to meet dance music’s outlaws.

SUNDAY NIGHT at the Astoria, and the heartbeat of the city has just gone into overdrive. Sunday Roast, the capital’s premier jungle rave, is warp-factoring into the heart of the bass. 150bpm, 160bpm, 170bpm; the crowd, urged on by the metalloid mutation of the drum and the bass, chase their demons away. Their bodies fight the invisible enemies inside and outside their heads. They face down the frustrations of this time, this place, by immersing themselves in pure speed. Omni Trio’s ‘Renegade Snares’ is cued up by DJ Randall. That chorus – “that’s the way-y-y” – shimmering with the ghostly atmosphere of tempo alteration elicits a huge roar. People rush, run, zoom to the floor.

Elsewhere in London, crowds escape from the hard times of ’94 by going all the way back to the amniotic womb of ambient, but here, in an opposite which couldn’t be more extreme, the propulsive clatter of cyberdrums and the subdermal pulse of the bass triggers a furious frenzy of the feet, a jittery, skittery Pandemonium, as if the entire crowd is willing itself into another future, fast-forwarding on and on until the tape of today runs out and suddenly, shockingly, it’s tomorrow, a new tomorrow.

A fierce thirst for noise grips this predominantly black, inner city crowd. The MC, whose name is Navigator, urges calm, although there’s no signs of trouble that I can see: “This is a multicultural rave,” he insists, echo snatching his voice away to the ceiling. “There’s no black or white, just jungle. Jungle will never die, only multiply.” And looking around, at the girls dressed in high, black boots and short, tailored leather microskirts and designer tops, at the guys in smart versions of the inner city uniform of baggy jeans and expensive jackets, you can see what he means.

Jungle is one branch of hardcore, the breakbeat-dominated music which stayed in the tents and the marquees and the raves when the middle class and predominantly white Balearic followers moved back to the elitism of small London clubs after the Second Summer Of Love. But, boosted by what seems like a renaissance of pirate radio stations like Kool FM, Don FM, Rush FM, Chillin’ FM, Pulse FM and Dream FM, and by raves like AWOL, Thunder And Joy, Jungle Fever, and by venues like the Lazerdome in South London, the Roller Express in South London, the Sanctuary in Milton Keynes, The Edge in Coventry and Quest in Wolverhampton, it has become the underground scene of the last two years.

Unnoticed by the mainstream press, ignored by the dance media, jungle is dogged by rumours of moodiness and bad vibes, rock dealing and dodgy Es. The promoters of Sunday Roast trip over themselves to tell me horror stories of police harassment and abuse from other club-runners. At Crystal Palace, the same night, promoters Elevation and Reincarnation, alongside Ravescene magazine (along with Eternity and Generator, the only dance magazine to really cover the scene), are hosting their own Hardcore Awards, a pointed rebuke to the recent International Dance Awards, which they see as part of “the Industry plot to kill off hardcore”.

In a dance scene split into microfactions, each one zealously following their own DJs, hardcore is the one music everyone agrees is no good. Its stereotype public face is that of a music made in bedroom studios on council estates, anonymous white labels pressed up by pseudonymous black and white working class youth for an audience like themselves who languish frustrated in the inner cities. Although hardcore’s context is much more complex than this, the very fact that this question of class comes up over and over (has anyone ever fixed Underworld or Andy Weatherall in terms of their class status?) indicates an unease with the music’s following, who they are and what they’re up to.

And even hardcore itself is split into factions, the most popular being the drum’n’bass sound of jungle. Jungle is a newer music, between 18 months and two years old, and it narrows hardcore’s continuum of beats down to the drum and bass of ragga. Jungle labels such as Ibiza and Renk apply hardcore’s techniques – the high end treble of soul and garage seized and spat out as a frenzied babble, the low end of bass devolved into a viscous whoomph which pulses through your stomach – to ragga. Where hardcore at its leading edge spins off into ambient fusions and soundtracks of soaring strings, jungle fixates on ragga, morphs it into a monomaniac mutation of thunderous drums and gleeful joy.

Jungle tracks emphasise the breakbeat, the excerpt of a record which foregrounds the drum and bass; twisting and accelerating it. Jungle is an experiment in grafting, a hybrid centaur that a lot of people don’t think should exist. All too often, the dislike of jungle translates into fear of the Alien Ruffneck, of the Rudeboy from the council estate who’s supposedly spoilt the peace-and-love vibe and the dream of trans-tribal unity. Jungle, so this racist myth goes, is what killed Smiley, turned every raver’s little Woodstock into an Altamont with bass bins.

Jungle’s response is to turn in on itself. The term itself, which Shut Up And Dance once dismissed as racist (even as they influenced it) in 1991, has now become a banner, a flag to be fiercely defended. Raves in Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton regularly attract thousands. At Jungle Fever in Milton Keynes, the atmosphere resembles a futuristic soundclash. The Ragga Twins pace up and down, hyping the crowd, running a non-stop commentary over the cataclysmic car crashes of polyrhythmatic shock.

At Sunday Roast, Navigator requests harmony in the dance just as his precursors from reggae sound systems like Saxon and Coxsone once did. Mickey Finn, the resident DJ at AWOL in North London for the last two years, tells me that DJs have taken the reggae aesthetic a step further by pressing up or playing dub plates in their set. Dub plates or ‘specials’ are acetates, the first version of a record. Interrupting the process of industrial reproduction, reggae DJs took this special version and played it as a one-off, creating a buzz for a record which might not be released until a year later. Now more than half of a jungle DJ’s set is dub plates, and the reggae aesthetic of sonic warfare has gone ballistic. This excitement has provoked a split from within the ranks of hardcore. While the crowds at the Roller Disco in Edmonton go mad for tracks such as Uncle 22’s ‘6 Million Ways To Die’, which cuts up Cutty Ranks’ bravado into a gangsta stagga or the mysterious white label seven-inch which samples Alyson Williams’ ‘Sweet Love’, the same DJs and producers within the scene grit their teeth at the obviousness of such tracks.

Ironically, their criticisms echo those from outside hardcore, right down to the same words, except for the crucial fact that they love hardcore for its possibility, for the range of sounds it produces. Jungle’s success has overshadowed what DJs call the more ‘musical’, sophisticated and intelligent sides of hardcore music.

In 1991, The Prodigy’s ‘Charly’ was the record which killed Rave, one magazine wrote. This wasn’t quite true. What ‘Charly’ and cartoon records like it actually did was turn the media’s slight curiosity into a permanent sneer. Retrospectively, it was the best thing that could have happened. Out of the public eye, DJs-turned-producers such as LTJ Bukem, Doc Scott, Neil Trix, the Wax Doctor, old school labels such as Reinforced, Moving Shadow and Suburban Base, new school labels such as Certificate 8, Ram C and Legend, and producers such as Goldie, Nookie, A Guy Called Gerald and Peshay began to experiment with the possibilities of the breakbeat.

LTJ Bukem, like many if not all of the tightly-knit hardcore community, can trace his musical experience back further than the summer of ’88 and ’89, back to collecting soul, fusion and jazz records on the black music scene of the ’70s and ’80s. From Bobby Humphries to Carl Craig, Roy Ayers to Underground Resistance, Lonnie Liston Smith to the Mizell Brothers – with years of the rarest grooves behind them, it’s no surprise DJs such as Fabio, Grooverider, Randall and Jumping Jack Frost are annoyed by journalists who arrived yesterday dictating what they can or cannot play. From this perspective, hardcore isn’t a ghetto but a window of opportunity for utterly new and strange fusions, a lab where experienced music lovers can breed new and artificial forms of audio life, and stay ahead of the pack.

DJing at London’s Crazy Club in 1991, Bukem, alongside Kenny Ken and Ray Keith would mix garage with hardcore. “I was always very fussy about what I picked up,” he explains, “and I started bringing my musical background of jazz fusion into hardcore, seeing how tempos could be changed, how we could experiment with sounds.” The fruit of this was ‘Logical Progression’, a track which is 140 bpm, probably more, but crucially doesn’t sound as if it is this fast. Instead, the music floats along on a pillow of strings, ‘rolling’ on timbres and sequences of head-nodding mellowness, an eerie blend of the tender and the melancholic.

‘Demon’s Theme’ and ‘Music’ followed on his own Looking Good label, both suffused with a tension between the harsh and the soft that was to become highly influential. All through 1992 and 1993, you could hear hardcore taking itself apart and reconstructing itself, building new cyborgs and sending them out into the world. Moving Shadow, a label started three years ago in Stevenage by Rob Playford, an ex-hip hop DJ, is responsible for two of hardcore’s greatest anthems: Omni Trio’s ‘Renegade Snares’ and Deep Blue’s ‘The Helicopter Tune’. 22-year-old Sean O’Keefe, one third of another Moving Shadow act, 2 Bad Mice, sequenced a bongo pattern on his keyboard and then ‘time-stretched’ it to create the rotor mekanik intro which sent punters lining up in Black Market and Lucky Spin to ask for “the tune that sounds like a helicopter, mate”.

‘Time-stretching’, the studio technique which gives so much experimental hardcore a febrile metallic sound, brought a new dimension to hardcore’s palette of sonic surprise: an atmosphere of impending yet unlocateable dread which became known as ‘dark’. Just as Bukem introduced string sounds and Nookie, a ragga mixer turned producer, updated the sounds of N-Joi and Shades Of Rhythm to produce an ecstatic blend of piano, synths and beats which would become popular in the Midlands as ‘happy hardcore’, so the producers behind Reinforced Records used their hip hop skills to come up with time-stretching.

Mark, Dego, Gus and Ian of Reinforced, the most respected old school hardcore label on the scene, came through the Covent Garden breaking scene which spawned London hip hop. “Hardcore to us meant real hip hop, aggressive music. In 1990, we started playing around with hip house, speeding up house, putting breaks underneath it, giving the music which we just called freestyle then as much of an edge as we could.” Mark, Dego and Ian formed 4-Hero and scored a hit with ‘Mr Kirk’s Nightmare’ in 1991.

‘Mr Kirk’s Nightmare’ had all the trademarks of early hardcore – a ’50s-era TV sample, a refrain which sounded like someone tapping out a phone number from hell and the ‘wooh! yeah!’ samples which Fast Eddie and Tyree were using at the time. 1992’s ‘Journey Into The Light’, also by 4-Hero, was a quantum leap forward, the first track to time-stretch a break, thus infusing it with an ominous sense of ambient fear rather than the kiddy thrill of kartoon kineticism hardcore had been stuck with. Now the music could flip between moods in the same track, in the same chorus, oscillating between anxiety and euphoria whenever it wanted.

If there’s a Derrick May of hardcore, though, his name is Goldie. With one foot in the world of Stussy and West End hip hop and the other in hardcore, Goldie is the scene’s most charismatic face as well as it’s most self-consciously obsessed innovator. Criticising it harshly for its lack of ambition, Goldie is on mission to save hardcore from its worst excesses. He’ll produce a vocal as if it’s a sample rather than simply snatch a chorus, he’ll record a vocalist and get her to listen to another track at the same time, anything to get the dislocated, off-centre feel he’s looking for.

“I was all the way into hip hop in the ’80s,” he recalls. “Breaking, graffiti art, popping – I even went over to New York and learnt the techniques properly. When I got back to London in 1991, the hip hop scene wasn’t really happening. I used to go to Rage at Heaven and study what Fabio and Grooverider were playing, pester them to tell me the names of tracks by Nebula II or Doc Scott. I was an outsider to it all, but the sounds really affected me so I stuck with it and learnt how to put the music together.”

As London’s longest running hardcore club (’89 to ’93), Rage provided a focus for the scene through its emergent years. Resident DJs Fabio and Grooverider, Sunrise veterans both, played an entire spectrum of breakbeat from Joey Beltram to Detroit techno to Renegade Soundwave. When it closed, the one club that non-hardcore types checked out was gone.

As Metalheads and Rufige Kru, Goldie composes hardcore which also works at home, as soundtrack as well as on the dancefloor. Tracks like last year’s ‘Terminator’ and ‘Terminator ll: Ghosts In Our Lives’ use a studio technique Goldie calls ‘parameters’ to alter the pitch levels within a break so that the vocal line, already haunted, twists and turns in on itself.

It makes sense that A Guy Called Gerald, one of the original members of 808 State and producer of the 1988 techno anthem ‘Voodoo Ray’, has recently given the master tapes of that track to Goldie to remix. Back then, 23-year-old Gerald Simpson was the phoenix of Manchester; ‘Voodoo Ray’ was a track of awesome mystery matched only by the original Detroit innovators. But his star set with Manchester’s. After signing to major label CBS and failing to match that first track, he slipped out of the mainstream and started releasing jungle tracks on his own Juice Box label; harsh, chaotic, dense tracks, their tone nicely summed up by the title of his 1992 compilation album, 28 Gun Bad Boy. Unlike Goldie, who simply calls it hardcore inner city ghetto music, Gerald accepts the word ‘jungle’: “As I hear it, it’s a mixture of things. It’s like going into a tropical rainforest. But then there’s a lot of aggression and tension in the music as well. It’s like fighting your way out of something. I’ve had people pull shooters in my face here in Manchester. They want to shoot you down if you’re doing something for yourself, and that’s what comes across in my music now.”

There’s an all-pervasive sense of panic in the air these days. As we hurtle towards a new millenium, people will seize on anything going – TV, rap, child murders – anything to localise and explain away this sensation. But it’s an ambient fear, it’s in the very atmosphere. Jungle wants to outrun it; experimental hardcore embodies it. And if you really want to understand this country in 1994, then hardcore, this blues for the 21st century, this elegy for our fucked-up futures, is where you should start. As Goldie says, anything else is just escapism.

Additional research by Nickie Duku. Many thanks to Jeff; Goldie; Nicky Trax; Ann; Mark, Dego and Gus at Reinforced; Ray Keith; Matt; Brett; Kingsley; Everton; Julian; Jason; Rob at Moving Shadow and Gerald at Juice Box.

Ten Hardcore Classics

I. Deep Blue: ‘The Helicopter Tune’ (Moving Shadow)
2. Baby D: ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’ (Production House)
3. Origin Unknown: ‘Valley Of The Shadows’ (Ram)
4. NRG 1: ‘Need Your Lovin” (Chill)
5. Origination: ‘Breakdown (Shine On)’ (Rude Boy)
6. House Crew: ‘Euphoria (Nino’s Dream)’ (Production House)
7. Noise Factory: ‘Can You Feel The Rush?’ (Ibiza)
8. Johnny L: ‘Hurt You So’ (Yoyo)
9. Mickey Finn: ‘Some Justice’ (Urban Shakedown)
10. The Family Foundation: ‘Express yourself’ (380) Compiled by DJ Klass-E

Hardcore Compilations

Hardcore moves fast; in order to keep up. look out for compilation L.Ps. These are the best ones around:

I . Drum And Bass Selection 1 (Breakdown)
2. Hard Leaders 3 (Kickin’)
3. Hard Leaders 4 – Into The Jungle (Kickin’)
4. Happiness And Darkness – Further Adventures In Jungle Tekno (Jumpin’ & Pumpin’)
5. The Joint (Suburban Base/Moving Shadow)

© Kodwo Eshuni-D, May 1994

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