The commercial jungle of Roni Size, Spring Heel Jack, and Plug.
By Chris Tweney
DECEMBER 8, 1997: Jungle? Isn't that something Duke Ellington's orchestra used to play? Not quite: jungle is the bastard child of techno and hip-hop, a musical bar sinister that may take over as the defining sound of the late '90s. It's already broken through in England, where drum 'n' bass sensation Roni Size captured the coveted Mercury Prize with his New Forms (Mercury) earlier this year. And even if you haven't heard the jungle bass bomb in any clubs yet, chances are it's assaulted your ears in cut-and-paste exploitations like David Bowie's Earthling, or as the backdrop to numerous TV commercials (Levi 501s, Rockport, Nissan).
The defining sound of jungle -- the preferred term in the UK is "drum 'n' bass," to avoid any racist connotations -- is the split-tempo beat, a heavy, half-speed bass line layered under a fast drumbeat. It creates a dilemma for dancers: do I dance to the bass or do I dance to the drums? And as if that weren't difficulty enough, jungle tracks tend to be based on challenging, frantically polyrhythmic beats spliced in with machine-gun snare rolls, toxic levels of electronic static, human screams, and anything else that can be designed to frighten. To top it off, the drums are almost always built around "breakbeats," or samples from drum-solo sections of hip-hop, reggae, and soul songs; this adds a level of historical confusion to the mix -- the "where have I heard that beat before?" factor.
Jungle first emerged in the late '80s, when British DJs started turning ragga, the rough-and-tumble reggae cousin, on its head. They played 33 rpm records at 45, mixed in techno tracks, spun everything backwards, and added horror-movie samples. Initially associated with black urban culture, and tagged with a tough racist rap for the connection, jungle was eventually assimilated into the British commercial mainstream as artists like LTJ Bukem and Goldie brought name visibility to the genre. The commercialization of jungle went hand in hand with the inevitable underground hand wringing, infighting over street credibility versus big paychecks, and arguments over which strain of drum 'n' bass was musically, commercially, or morally superior -- in short, all the hullabaloo that arises when an obscure, confrontational genre finds a mass audience. By 1994, drum 'n' bass was locked in tight with the British music scene, and just starting to get a foothold in America.
Still, drum 'n' bass remains primarily DJ music. Producers like Photek, Alex Reece, Bukem, and the Metalheadz label are household names in this world, and they've had quite a bit of press attention. But most new jungle tracks are released only on 12-inch vinyl, often without any markings other than the name of the record label (and sometimes not even that). In the club-centered world of jungle, you don't go to hear a particular artist or producer, you go to hear the DJ's mix -- which means DJs are constantly scrambling to find obscure, fresh tracks that no one else spins. This puts pressure on the studio artists, who crank out so much product that the subgenres of jungle mutate with incredible speed, making attempts at genre labeling fiendishly difficult, even pointless. DJs describe and pick records by the sounds and labels they like, not by choosing within a certain genre. Beyond a few very broad distinctions between rough-edged, aggressive sounds like hardstep and techstep versus softer varieties like "intelligent" jungle, there's not much official classification of jungle, except perhaps in the minds of critics.
Now, with the rush to commercialize jungle's electronic underground, would-be mainstream artists are moving in to see whether drum 'n' bass can survive outside the club circuit. The latest crop of album-oriented drum 'n' bass artists following in the footsteps of Goldie includes Roni Size, Spring Heel Jack, and Plug, who all have heavily hyped new major-label releases. But it'll be a rocky road to mass acceptance for these would-be junglistic messiahs: drum 'n' bass's most potent advocates, the small independent labels and the thousands of DJs who spin their records, are still nervous about the threat of commercial takeover by jungle-lite.
The champions of indie drum 'n' bass have little to fear from Roni Size's group, the collective called Reprazent. Their debut album, New Forms, a double CD released in the US a month ago, features Size as producer and bandleader with fellow junglists DJ Krust, Suv, and Die, and vocalist Onallee. Reprazent are Bristol born and bred, and it shows: they share the obsession with fat, smooth bass that notable Bristolians like Massive Attack and Tricky have used to power chart-breaking trip-hop. Most of the tracks on New Forms are built around lyrical, jazzy stand-up bass rather than the Roland 303 synthesizer that is typical of drum 'n' bass and techno. Tunes like "Brown Paper Bag" set up a fast boogie trip with Charlie Haden-style acoustic-jazz-bass playing and drumbeats stolen from Boogie Down Productions' classic rap LP, Criminal Minded. "Matter of Fact" breaks into an insanely overcaffeinated percussion workout anchored by a taut, accessible bass line. And "Hi-Potent" slips into a schizophrenic, ambient jazz noodlefest with a funk beat for propulsion.
But the more accessible songs on New Forms, such as the radio hit "Heroes," fall flat. You'd think that cranking in a jungle beat underneath some female soul vocals would be a good recipe -- after all, Massive Attack pulled it off on their 1991 classic Blue Lines, which still ranks as one of the most emotional electronic albums ever released. But when Onallee breaks into the lead vocal of "Heroes," singing "I don't know no heroes," the album becomes a cringefest. This is painfully close to easy listening, with pleasant, distilled strings sliding around a sterilized drumbeat and a bit of token sub-bass. It's designed not to offend anyone, and in a genre that thrives on the unexpected splice, outright terror, and sudden rhythmic rupture, that's almost a criminal act.
The soft tracks on New Forms, taking up about half of the two-CD set, sound like drum 'n' bass by committee -- not a cohesive, well-oiled groove collective, but a suited-up boardroom meeting of corporate suits analyzing focus-group results. Roni Size's attitude, spiced up by his obvious credentials as a DJ and an aficionado of all forms of music from dub to soul, can't save the album from descending to the depths of cynical exploitation of a vital genre. And DJ Krust, though he's produced some very solid hardstep jungle tracks (check his work on the UK hardstep compilation Nu Skool Flava, on Sour), doesn't contribute enough to keep the grit level up. New Forms does maintain the Bristol tradition of crossing between genres faster than you can say "mixing deck," but it never gets comfortable with any of them.
If New Forms is jungle by focus group, then Spring Heel Jack produce drum 'n' bass in absentia. Seriously -- their new CD, Busy, Curious, Thirsty (Island), sounds as if it had been put together by leaving a sampler/sequencer running while the group popped out for a cup of hot coffee. Nearly every track starts out with a promisingly heavy, descending bass line and some champagne-bubbly horn lines accompanied by '70s prog-rock drums. Okay, you think, all is well, I'm in for a wild ride. But the first 30 or so seconds of each track is essentially looped over and over to fill out the six-to-eight-minute tunes. "Hale Bopp" opens with a paranoid, accelerated heartbeat rhythm -- a sort of musical panic attack -- but never delivers on the tension, preferring instead to repeat the same line ad nauseam. And the techsteppy frenetic grit of "Happy Baby" starts to wear thin after the first minute or so.
That said, Busy, Curious, Thirsty delivers a few startling provocations. "Bank of America" opens the album with cash-register breakbeats and drumbeats that clatter around a truly massive, airy sound space. It's an ironic, mechanized take on global capitalism in the spirit of techno-dystopian classics like Fritz Lang's silent film Metropolis. And "Sirens" offers a melange of car alarms, screaming fire engines, and klaxon horns layered into a dense mix. These tracks, as fresh as they are, don't cohere into an album that's worth listening to from start to finish -- which is a perennial problem with album-based drum 'n' bass. Without the excitement of a live DJ mixing, it's hard to sustain interest for more than a few minutes.
Plug, the jungle pseudonym of the highly mobile producer Luke Vibert, can't be accused of resting on any laurels, or letting the sequencer handle all the hard work. The newest Plug release, a US version of last year's Drum 'n' Bass for Papa (Nothing/Interscope), reprints most of the original album on one CD, with Plug's first three hard-to-find EPs on a second disc. Plug represents what you might call "geekstep jungle," sounds that come from a detached observer who steals ideas from the club scene and reprograms them into extra-nerdy adventures for the home stereo. It's bolstered by a relentless sense of irony so thick you can cut it with a knife, irony spread with a nice layer of good old American cheese -- witness the paraphrase of Berlin's Top Gun hit, "Take My Breath Away," that anchors the title track, or the slide whistles and laughing clowns that punctuate the breakbeats on "Tuf Rinse."
Plug isn't merely cheez-whiz playfulness at jungle's expense: this is serious
music, too, and it deserves a careful listen. Although his work is often
knocked by the hardcore inner sanctum of drum 'n' bass for being too corny, too
far removed from the street or the clubs, or too commercial, it's actually
quite subversive. Irony is nothing new on the commercial-music landscape, of
course, but Vibert's detail-obsessive production and intensely eclectic sound
library make you wonder whether he isn't an anarchist fox raiding the corporate
henhouse. One of the best tracks on the UK version of Drum 'n' Bass for
Papa, unfortunately left out of the new US version because of copyright
concerns, steals a line from the movie Barton Fink: a man shouts "I'll
show you the life of the mind" over a nightmare soundscape of gunshots,
screeching sheet metal, and twisted screams. Vibert is a master of the sneak
tactic of taking over a genre only to critique it from within. It's a friendly
critique -- he has no intention of undermining the vitality and energy of
jungle's underground sea currents -- but it's important nonetheless. Not to
mention good clean digital fun for the stay-at-home set.
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