Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Digital Drama

Goldie makes drum 'n' bass personal.

By Matt Ashare

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  Late last year Perry Farrell invited Goldie, one of England's best-known drum 'n' bass artists, to open for Jane's Addiction on the band's much-hyped reunion tour. For a lot of artists this would have been a dream gig, with guaranteed capacity crowds and big press coverage. But Goldie, who'd just put the finishing touches on his second album, the two-disc opus Saturnz Return (London; in stores Tuesday), viewed the tour as a major challenge -- one that would bring him face to face with an American rock audience who didn't care that junglist Roni Size was pop's man of the moment in England, that Goldie was the other king of Britain's jungle scene, or that drum 'n' bass was the sound of the future.

As Goldie soberly put it over tea at the Burlington Marriott before a show at Brandeis University's Gossman Center, "It's great when someone like Perry calls you and says, 'Goldie, man, your fucking album blows my mind, it's what I listen to when I'm stoned.' But I don't give a fuck about that because I could go out there tonight and there might be a thousand hecklers. My job is to try to open the doors of perception for those people who are narrow-minded. I could just go out and play to the people who already love drum 'n' bass. But there's no challenge in that. Some people are just scared of technology. But those people should think about where their rock music came from. Unplug the guitars and you're going to need some very big ears to hear the music.

"Like, the other night I did a show and there were these two six-foot big-ass leather-jacket biker guys saying, 'This sucks, man.' So I went off stage, over to the side, and I said to them, 'It really sucks, doesn't it. But, hey, you're beginning to sound old. When you were a kid, didn't your mother and father tell you that what you listened to sucked?' I think they got the point."

Yeah, but it's a point that cuts both ways: somewhere between the Beatles and Oasis, kids in America got weary of hearing about next big things from their parent country overseas. So, yes, it was Goldie who pretty much singlehandedly took the frenetic slip-sliding rhythms, lugubrious bass tones, and digital cut-and-paste logic of jungle out of the clubs and into the mainstream marketplace in England back in 1995 with his debut CD, Timeless (London). And, yes, it was Goldie's gold-plated teeth, Stussy gear, and nights on the town with Björk that helped put a celebrity face on what is still mainly a faceless subculture -- I mean, how many of you could pick L.T.J. Bukem out of a crowd? And, yes, Timeless, with its 20-minute-long title track, pristine production, and soulful vocals by Diane Charlamagne, was the body of work to back up the hype, the bite behind Goldie's menacing smile, the first and still one of the few fully realized full-length albums in a genre built on the hit-and-run excitement of cutting-edge club singles. But none of that seemed to matter to anyone other than critics here in the US, where the big electronica invasion was still two years away.

Which brings us to Saturnz Return, the oceanic two-disc follow-up anchored, ambitiously and problematically, by a one-hour-and-13-second composition about Goldie's mom. "Mother," which is the album's opening track (in fact it fills the entire first CD), floats in a quiet sea of soft ambient waves for almost 15 minutes before the first beat surfaces, which is enough time for most kids to take in five Green Day tunes and a short nap. But from that point on the track gathers momentum in disorienting fits and starts, as zigzagging drum 'n' bass loops swirl around Charlamagne's ethereal voice (and Goldie's occasional cries of "Mother') and techno blips and beeps shower down over the symphonic crescendos performed by a 40-piece orchestra.

On one level, "Mother" is simply a technical triumph, a chance for Goldie to flex his digital chops. " 'Mother' was a bitch to make," he boasts. "I deal with Macintosh Logic Audio. Most people usually work on one screen or [computer] monitor. I had to have four screens up for 'Mother,' along with a really powerful computer and a big 48-track mixing console. I'd lived with the idea of 'Mother' for a long time, but I had to wait until I had the right technology in order to execute it."


Is jungle dead?


A former graffiti artist and street hustler who jammed his foot in the fast-swinging door of the British club scene by doing cover art for dance-label releases, Goldie doesn't really play any instruments. He only recently came into DJing; he toys around on keyboards, and he rarely sings on his albums. His creative role is closest to that of a composer, a producer, or a film auteur in that he conceptualizes, oversees, and otherwise directs the making of a Goldie track. The tools of his trade are what he calls "sonics," which is shorthand for a collection of sampled loops, breakbeats, and other assorted sounds that have been electronically doctored. And yet it was Goldie who first figured out how to lengthen the duration of a sample without changing its pitch, a breakthrough that was a big deal in the realm of techno and earned him the respect of the jungle community.

"I wanted to change things so badly as an artist," he explains. "So I started getting into time-stretching and fucking around with equipment. The equipment for time-stretching had been around, but people had never used it for that. You know, old bags have fast cars. They work all their lives and buy fast cars, and then they drive them 30 miles an hour. If I steal one of those cars, I'm going to drive it 120 miles an hour. So you push the equipment. That's all we did with time-stretching. Because I was never an engineer. I'm an arranger. I have the overview and I can tell the engineers what to do."

Regardless of how he gets there technically, Goldie manages to cover a lot of musical terrain in "Mother" -- from the modernist Stockhausen/Satie-style musique concrète of its sampled sounds of air, fire, and water to the postmodern patter of its intermittent jingle-jungle groove. And that's just the beginning of Saturnz Return. Disc two kicks off with the scabrous electro-industrial rant "Temper, Temper," which features Goldie's screamed vocals and Oasis's Noel Gallagher playing some discordant noise guitar. Elsewhere, rapper KRS One lends his rhyme skills to the jungle/hip-hop fusion "Digital," jazzy flügelhorn and muted trumpet accent Charlamagne's soulful delivery of the tender disco ballad "Believe," jazz-fusiony flute improvisations dance atop a jittery jungle beat on the instrumental "Dragonfly," and David Bowie guests on a drumless and bassless hidden track titled "Truth."

There's nothing new about junglists colonizing other musical genres with the fractal beats of drum 'n' bass -- at least on one level that's the philosophy underlying Roni Size's New Forms. But Size seems to be aiming, one track at a time, to make jungle universal world music, a reggae suited to the pre-millennium tension of the '90s. With Saturnz Return Goldie goes in the opposite direction: he uses the cold digital logic of jungle programming to tell a story, one in which each track connects to the next to create an interweaving narrative, with the idea of making drum 'n' bass as personal as any other autobiographical form.

In other words, Saturnz Return is a concept album about Goldie. "Mother" tracks Goldie's relationship with his estranged mother, from birth through a youth spent in foster homes and with relatives and then on up to his recent reunion with her. The surrealistic "Dragonfly" is based a childhood dream; "Letter of Fate" is inspired by a suicide note Goldie wrote a decade ago. The disc may be the first extended example of techno autobiography -- certainly it represents the widening of the creative horizons of album-oriented (as opposed to dance-single-based) electronica.

What it isn't is a straight drum 'n' bass collection, à la L.T.J. Bukem's Logical Progression, Size's New Forms, or anything by Spring Heel Jack. Although even Goldie isn't quite sure how best to define drum 'n' bass. "Drum 'n' bass is a music that has been labeled many things. But it's not jungle. Jungle is what came out of the commercial thing of it. Drum 'n' bass goes deeper. It has to do with the integration of the community involved in it in the UK. It's an urban music. But it has many different origins. For me there are only four genres of world music: blues and jazz; Detroit techno; Bronx hip-hop; and reggae. Recordable audio has allowed me to look at those four past genres and learn, and that's where drum 'n' bass comes from."

Just how far Goldie can take drum 'n' bass now will depend on his charisma rather than his technical skill. As you learn more about him the tracks on Saturnz Return inevitably take on more meaning, more depth, more resonance. Putting across an abstract composition like "Mother" or a mostly instrumental concept album like Saturnz Return requires a certain force of personality, a larger-than-life image, an audience who can identify with the artist behind the music. And that's a challenge that goes well beyond simply turning a Jane's Addiction audience on to drum 'n' bass.

"I think it's very easy to become a pop star," Goldie reflects. "But it's not very easy to become a popular star. Popular music is cool; pop music is uncool. I want to make popular music."


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