Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Rumbles in the Jungle

Is drum 'n' bass burning out?

By Chris Tweney

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  You know there's something wrong with a genre whose "old school" tunes were released just three or four years ago. But that's true of jungle, where DJs often speak wistfully of the glory days of 1994 and 1995, and worry that drum 'n' bass is on the verge of extinction. In part this fear is a natural side effect of the relentless pressure for club-world artists to be on the cutting edge of cool. But it's also a function of excessive hype: at least in the US, drum 'n' bass has yet to live up to its much-vaunted billing as the ultimate pre-millennial funk. In the jungle scene, with its aggressive release schedule for singles, even the flavor of the week may not be up-to-date enough. So just as jungle is getting a foothold in the American mainstream, insiders have been predicting its demise.

Jungle isn't dead, but it may be killing itself. Jungle feeds on the break, whether it's the artists' reassembly of broken beats or the stop/start tension of a well-timed breakdown, or the neurotic break in the audience that DJs try to exploit with their disorienting mixes. The break is where jungle explodes out of the expected routine, destroys the established genre conventions -- in other words, kills itself. The irony is that if jungle doesn't work harder at killing itself, it will soon be dead, like a shark that keeps swimming after you plunge a harpoon into its brain.

Exhibit A: Virgin's The Morning After compilation. Billed as "the ultimate post-club companion," this appalling mess of a CD mixes together drum 'n' bass, a little trip-hop, and a lot of yawning ambient filler. Worthy tracks like Subtropic's funky "The M.H.T." and Photek's "T'raenon" get buried in a swamp of cornball synthesizer spooge. Mixmaster Morris manages to find the dullest tracks from usually reliable labels like Reflective, Flex, and Spymania (a side project of Tom Jenkinson, a/k/a Squarepusher). Granted, drum 'n' bass has strong roots in techno, but this compilation has jungle inheriting techno's lamentable reliance on synth wash as cookie-cutter psychedelic. And most of the tracks lack the serious interplay of build-up, breakdown, and bass assault that makes for prime drum 'n' bass.

It's tempting to explain away this homogeneity as the fumbling of a major label trying to pick up on a music trend that is still decidedly centered on the small indie house. But several New York DJs have complained to me of a lack of experimentalism on the jungle front. It's as if jungle had shot itself in the foot with its signature method: find a terrific drum break from an old soul or hip-hop song, splice it up just so, and loop it for six minutes. You might call this the "lather, rinse, repeat" method. It's one reason why jungle tracks can be cranked out with incredible speed, and when it works, the effect can be smashing. Just listen to Omni Trio's "Renegade Snares" or 4 Hero's infamous "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" -- both classic tracks from 1994 and 1995. But when the loop principle turns into complacency, drum 'n' bass becomes as dull as the 4/4 stomp techno it was conceived to replace.

The problem with loop-till-you-drop jungle programming is especially apparent in techstep, jungle's most militant branch. Brilliant techstep tracks like Capone's "Guess Who" and Souljah's "Down with the Lites" roar onto the sound stage with shotgun-blast snare, gut-wrenchingly distorted bass drained of all its funk, and relentlessly dark overtones. Call it music as psychological warfare: techstep can be fearfully compelling for all its alienated-adolescent posturing. Torque (No U Turn) and Suspect Package (Hard Leaders) are the definitive manifestos, charting the techstep status quo as of early 1997. Yet more recent efforts, like Renegade Continuum (Renegade Hardware/Rawkus), have been less consistent. Angry, loud music is a knife blade that becomes dull through overuse, and techstep is no exception. Continuum spots excellent material from Future Forces ("Intensify") and Paradox ("A Certain Sound"), but elsewhere the mix turns stale, overprocessed.

There have been recent attempts to inject new sounds into jungle's mix -- of which Roni Size's New Forms (Talkin' Loud/Mercury), the double CD that won England's coveted Mercury Prize last year, is the most commercially successful example. He sets everything from acoustic bass to harpsichord against funky bebopping grooves that resurrect the ganja-fueled eclecticism of ragga jungle. His taste in wailing divas is dubious, and his arrangements can sound pop-treacly to some ears, but Size understands that jungle's strength lies in its impurity -- its ability to buck the tide of tradition. Nevertheless, the DJs who anchor jungle's grassroots clubs have been almost universal in their condemnation of Size's pop junglism, regarding him as a drum 'n' bass Judas who sold out the breakbeat to make a quick buck. That may be true, but the scenester sniping misses the point: if Size sucks, at least he sucks in a new way.

Size's most interesting contributions have actually been on his own V label, where he grooms breakbeat talent like DJs Krust, Die, and Suv (part of the Reprazent collective featured on New Forms). The essential V tracks can be found on the new V Classic, Vol. 1 (Konkrete Jungle/Ultra), which comes very close to reviving the energy of 1995's hardstep heyday. Dillinja rips up carpet with a rolling mix of "Unexplored Terrain"; Die and Suv work out funkified breaks on "War & Peace." And DJ Krust is in fine form with several tracks, including "Blaze Dis One," perhaps the only drum 'n' bass track ever to feature an actual Hammond organ. V Classic is top-notch stuff -- no sounds are too weird for its mix. Which is as it should be. Roni Size isn't the only one to reconceptualize the sound of drum 'n' bass. New York DJs Wally and Swingsett churn out an intriguing jungle/trip-hop/ambient mix on Dog Leg Left (Ubiquity). It's a broadcast from way out (think of it as left-field jungle), but coming from two of the US's most respected practitioners of the form, it's a significant message. Fellow New Yorker DJ Soul Slinger's Don't Believe (Liquid Sky), on the other hand, sounds good in theory (mix in a little Brazilian rhythm, some jazzy numbers, and a lot of disco and soul) but fails to cohere, or even to overcome the limitations of its cheesy sample choices.

Weirdstep jungle dilettantes like Squarepusher, u-Ziq, Plug, and Aphex Twin continue to raid the drum 'n' bass bins for sonic suggestions to graft on their experiments. But weirdstep (some call it "fungle"), because it's not intended for dance-floor consumption, is often not considered part of the drum 'n' bass movement at all. That's a shame; even if you have to put up with irritating bits of showy kitsch (e.g., Squarepusher's flamboyantly virtuoso fretless bass work), weirdstep offers some of jungle's most productive self-critiques. Looking at it that way, you could call weirdstep the ultimate development of a genre that always takes an outsider's standpoint, even to itself.

One of the most intriguing drum 'n' bass mutations comes from Londoner Talvin Singh, whose compilation Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground (Quango) introduces a jungle built around tabla and sitar samples. The CD draws heavily on the Bollywood cheesiness of bhangra, India's strangest fusion of classical music and electronic dance, but it sits firmly in jungle territory. And its combination of breakbeat funk and Indian twang is more convincing than the exotic tabla curiosities on "Eastern-influenced" compilations like East/Westercism (Law & Auder).

Anokha represents jungle as a chameleon that changes color according to its surroundings; the disc proves that even if drum 'n' bass proper fails to make convincing waves beyond its club-scene ghetto, it's already had a huge influence in spreading the breakbeat aesthetic. David Bowie's atrocious use of jungle's signature "Amen" break (the drum solo from "Amen Brother," by the Winstons) on the Earthling album is but the tip of a very large iceberg. If the pop-music ship crashes full-tilt into that ice mountain, we can look for some very fresh ear-shattering sounds -- regardless of whether club insiders have already read the genre its last rites.


DRUM 'N' BASS 101

* History of Our World Part 1: Breakbeat & Jungle Ultramix by DJ DB (Profile). A quick tutorial on how techno's funky cousin, happy hardcore, turned into jungle circa 1993. Key transitional elements of ragga and silly techno are in full effect.

* Jungle Fever: The Jungalistic Revolution, Vol. 1 (Zyx). Prototype hardstep and ragga jungle from 1994, with classic tracks like DJ Hype's "The Chopper," Omni Trio's "Renegade Snares," and Randall & Andy C's "Sound Control."

* History of Hardcore, Part 2 (Sub Base). This key missive from two prominent drum 'n' bass labels, Suburban Base and Moving Shadow, charts their output between 1993 and 1995. DJ Hype's "Roll the Beats" is one of the most potent old-school anthems. There's also notable work by Deep Blue, Johnny Jungle, and Renegade.

* Nu Skool Flava (Sour). This is 1995 jump-up and hardstep jungle at its best -- terrific rude-boy MCed stuff with prime hip-hop flavor. Don't miss the contributions from Elementz of Noize, Shy FX, and MC Det.

* Torque (No U Turn). Techstep messiahs Ed Rush, Trace, Nico, and Fierce get down and dirty with some of the scariest music ever pressed to CD. Don't listen unless you like having your ears hurt.

* Suspect Package (Hard Leaders). Techstep gets a boost of rolling, funky breaks here, with excellent tracks by Capone, Dillinja, Souljah, and others. Noisy, aggressive, militaristic, an urgent message.

* Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground (Quango). Talvin Singh's Bollywood breakbeat manifesto proves that dipping into traditional musical forms (in this case, classical Indian music) doesn't have to be a mere "gee-whiz" show.


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