Will Jungle Be the Next Craze From Britain?

JUNGLE – A FRENETIC, fiercely percussive dance sound made using samples and computers – is the most exciting musical movement to emerge from Britain since the rave explosion of the late ’80s.

But where rave culture was initially based around house and techno records imported from Chicago and Detroit, jungle music is purely home-grown. Emerging from underground status last summer, jungle has been the focus of intense media and record-business interest ever since. Now major labels in America are following their British counterparts by releasing compilations of jungle music and single-artist LP’s. But doubts remain whether jungle, a London-centred subculture, can be transplanted to America.

It’s handy that the word jungle was coined, because a more musicologically precise term would be an ungainly, hyphenated hybrid. Jungle music has multiple roots, all of them non-British. Like subatomic particles colliding in an accelerator, elements of hip-hop, techno and reggae fused to create a distinctively British sound. The anything-goes experimentalism of untrained musicians grappling with cheap computer technology combined with the druggy delirium of the rave scene and multiracial mix of working-class London – all these factors conspired to create a new musical form.

If there’s a core to jungle music, it’s the bass lines and break beats – the percussion-only section of a funk or disco track. In the mid-’70s, DJ Kool Herc invented the hip-hop technique of looping these breaks into a continuous, hypnotic groove. Later, rap producers would use sampling and computer technology to loop beats.

Jungle artists take hip-hop’s rhythm-science even further: they layer multiple breaks into a dense percussive web, while speeding up the beats and processing them through effects to make them sound weird. As a result, the beat – normally the steady pulse of pop music – becomes unstable; rhythm itself is rendered psychedelic. A jungle track is a jolting roller coaster that rhythmically combines flow and disruption.

As for jungle’s bass sound, that’s descended more from reggae than hip-hop. Sometimes the bass line carries the melody, but more often, it operates almost below the threshold of audibility, exerting a visceral pressure like shock waves from a bomb. Together, break beats and bass capture both the tension and the edgy exhilaration of urban life.

As a distinct style, jungle was spawned in 1991-92 when English producers started to add funky breaks to techno tracks, accelerating them to match rave music’s hectic pace. This hip-hop-techno hybrid caught on like wildfire and became known as hard core, because it was popular with the most wildly hedonistic ravers. Always a multiracial milieu, hard core began to attract more black British youth, who in turn brought Jamaican influences to the music. By 1993, Caribbean traits – the echo effects of dub reggae and the raucous vocals of ’90s dancehall – permeated the sound, and the term jungle began to displace hard core.

Some say the word originates in Jamaican slang, a junglist being a denizen of the concrete jungle. But jungle is also evocative of the voodoo frenzy of the beats and of the African nature of the music. Jungle’s complexity resides in its repetitive polyrhythms and low-end bass frequencies, as opposed to harmony and arrangement, as is the case with Western classical and pop.

The last two years have seen the rise of a more melodic, multi-textured subgenre called intelligent or ambient jungle, which retains the roiling rhythms but adds a soothing overlay of mellow instrumentation – atmospheric sound-washes, bittersweet jazz-fusion cadences and rapturous soul-diva cries. This jazz-tinged style of jungle is associated with the influential labels Moving Shadow and Reinforced and with artists like Omni Trio, Foul Play, 4 Hero and Alex Reece. Some of these “art-core” junglists have already released full-length albums.

OTHER JUNGLISTS, OFTEN younger or from inner-city as opposed to suburban backgrounds, are determined to preserve jungle’s menacing minimalism. This ghettocentric stance is associated with labels like Suburban Base, Ganja, Kemet and with artists like DJ Hype, Amazon 11 and Asend. In some ways, though, the most interesting jungle artists – Dillinja, Roni Size and Droppin’ Science – have a foot in both camps, combining dangerous beats and eerie textures.

As well as being a genre of music, jungle is also a subculture. Insiders call it “a way of life”, although mostly that life consists of music and drugs. That phrase refers more to the scene’s sense of itself as a tribe apart, which dates to 1992, when hard core suffered a media backlash. Dance pundits and club hipsters lambasted break-beat-based techno as a bastardization of the form.

Ostracized, hard-core ravers created their own infrastructure of clubs, independent labels, record stores and, above all, pirate radio stations. Later, as hard core evolved into jungle, it acquired the reputation of being a scene that was both criminal-minded and nihilistic. This outlaw quality persists in jungle tracks in the form of bad-boy chants and baleful sound bites from movies like Goodfellas. In some ways, the tougher strain of jungle is Britain’s answer to gangster rap.

In the three years of its existence, jungle has followed a peculiar trajectory. It began its career as pop music with hard-core acts like the Prodigy, SL2 and Urban Shakedown regularly hitting the Top 20 in England. Then it devolved into a tightknit underground centred largely on London. In the last year it has re-emerged as a self-consciously experimental avant-garde beloved by hipsters around the world.

And that includes North America. In many cities where there is a substantial rave community, jungle already exists as a scene within a scene. The most sizable jungle factions are Toronto and Chicago. In New York, there’s a smaller but equally passionate scene based around the clubs Konkrete Jungle (Mondays at Wetlands, 161 Hudson Street) and the Egg (Tuesdays at the Cooler, 416 W. 14th Street). Records reach American junglists as pricey imports or as domestic releases via labels like Moonshine and Sm:)e. As well as releasing compilations, Moonshine distributes records by Suburban Base, while Sm:)e has released full-length albums by the Moving Shadow artists Omni Trio and 2 Bad Mice.

Can jungle grow beyond the American rave audience? The most obvious possibilities reside in the hip-hop scene. This year, the gangster rapper Scarface had two of his singles mixed jungle-style by the art-core producers Metalheadz and 4 Hero. The main obstacle is that jungle’s 150 beats per minute is so much faster than the languid, down-tempo grooves of contemporary hip-hop. If it does catch on, it’ll probably be through the more dancehall-influenced strain of jungle, since its boastful chants are close to rap’s egomania.

© Simon ReynoldsThe New York Times, 6 August 1995

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