Interview: Here come the drumz… 909originals chats to State Of Bass author Martin James about the origins of jungle and drum ‘n’ bass
Emerging out of the melting pot of broken Britain in the early 90s, jungle (and drum ‘n’ bass, which followed later) was like no musical movement heretofore experienced, as a new generation of artists blended old school attitude and new school innovation.
First published in the mid-90s, State of Bass tells the story of the scene’s formative years, right up to its arguable high-water mark, the awarding of the Mercury Music Prize to Roni Size’s New Forms in 1997.
Recently republished by Velocity Press, the book brings new perspectives to a movement that is still a blueprint for urban musical experimentation and continues to influence both mainstream and underground artists.
909originals caught up with author Martin James.
Hi Martin, thanks for talking to us. You first released this book in the mid 90s, arguably at the peak of the drum ‘n’ bass movement. What prompted you to do an update? What part of the story remained untold?
The first version of the book was written between mid 1996 and early 1997, and published later in 1997, just before Roni Size’s Mercury victory. There was only a few months between delivery and publication perhaps, but a huge amount happened in that time.
I always felt that the book ended too soon as the Mercury marked the final transition to the mainstream media rather than the specialist music press and youth radio stations. Mind you, the mainstream media still didn’t understand it. I’d turn up to TV news studios and literally have to explain the music to them.
But I’d originally written the book to be accessible to a wide readership. I didn’t want it to be for an exclusive audience of ‘those in the know’ but also wanted people with a passing interest to get something out of it. So it was fitting that I ended up trying to explain drum ‘n’ bass to a brand new audience on TV.
I had tried to get publishers interested in an update about fifteen years ago, but it got no bites at all. Then I looked into self-publishing, but at that time it was still too expensive to do. So I kind of shelved the book until Colin Steven at Velocity Press approached me to put out a version. I was obviously pretty honoured that the man behind [seminal drum ‘n’ bass magazine] Knowledge wanted to publish it.
We talked about the update and agreed that a full chronological update wasn’t really needed. What I tried to do is put the original in to a newer context. I didn’t have to worry about people understanding the music because it’s been around so long.
So I explored the histories of the music in more depth. I thought that was important to do, because I keep reading these partial histories in the music press and online that seem to have excluded all of the awkward details in favour of an easier, more comfortable history.
Was there more to add? I could write another 100,000 words and still not need to talk about the post 2000s. It’s a complex history and I’m still only scratching the surface… even though I go a lot deeper than most magazines, documentaries etc.
At the start of the book, you talk about the ‘origins’ of jungle and drum ‘n’ bass – that unlike other forms of dance or popular music, its origins are so myriad that they are near impossible to trace. Has this process become any easier with time?
The main point I was trying to make here is that people tend to talk about the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ of music styles but it’s not that simple. Music style is evolutionary. That’s the same for all music.
There wasn’t a single moment, or track that defined jungle or drum ‘n’ bass but a series of events that fed into the evolution story. It’s hard to present a historical account without placing markers of specific events in specific places and popular history does this.
I was keen to try and avoid the essentialism that creeps into so many books about dance music. The popular narrative at the moment is that jungle is an extension of Jamaican soundsystem culture, but to follow this simple evolutionary line is essentialist.
For example, jungle’s antecedents include Detroit techno, which in itself was inspired by artists like Depeche Mode and Gary Numan, who were inspired by David Bowie and Kraftwerk, who were a influence on the creation of ‘sleng teng’, which fired dancehall and inspired hardcore rave and jungle.
The sonic journey is far more complex than a simple evolutionary line. The music scene was culturally complex too but it quickly became simplified.
We interviewed Gerald Simpson recently, and he talked about how early jungle was “deeply embedded in the technology of the period”. In what ways does the evolution of sampling, Cubase etc match the evolution of drum and bass?
Yeah, I hear this. It certainly pushed the sonic technology, which in turn drove the growth, so yes you could map the evolution of the breakbeat continuum against that.
But this would be another simplification, as it implies we’re all victims of technological determinism. This would be wrong though, because it was the social environment that demanded certain sounds, not the technology.
In fact technologies like timestretching were reacting to the demands of producers who were misusing technology in a way that excited audiences, who in turn demanded more of the same. Goldie talked about ‘ramraiding the technology’, which I thought was a pretty good analogy.
The 303 was never supposed to be used in the way it was with acid house. If producers had stuck to the technological development instead of ‘ramraiding’ it, or the consumers had have reacted negatively to the squelches being created, acid house may not have happened. That was a social revolution as much as a technological one.
It’s the same with jungle. The people who invented the sampler never imagined they would be used to sample breakbeats. And the guy who first used the available technology to record the ‘Amen Break’ never thought that his recording of that performance would become one of the cornerstones of a musical revolution.
To what degree did timing play a part in the emergence of jungle – it rose to prominence in a bit of a musical vacuum, as the optimism of the acid house wave receded and rave became a parody of itself?
I think the time was really important, largely because the sound and scene were allowed to develop in the darkness as all eyes were elsewhere. It also benefitted from political change in the period after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which saw funding gradually being put into inner city spaces where many youth clubs developed rudimentary studios, and music community projects were able to reach out to a disenfranchised generation.
I’m not sure if it emerged in a ‘musical vacuum’ though. True, the hardcore rave scene had collapsed but happy hardcore was insanely popular all over the country in a way that jungle and drum ‘n’ bass didn’t achieve for quite some considerable time.
The world was responding to British electronica and groups like The Prodigy at that time and jungle and drum ‘n’ bass benefited from this wave. Arguably it was a golden age for electronic music in the UK.
The summer of 1994 saw the release of General Levy & M-Beat’s Incredible and UK Apache & Shy FX’s Original Nuttah in quick succession – giving jungle a prominence it arguably never had before or since. Was this the catalyst that led the evolution towards drum ‘n’ bass, do you think – the need to ‘take things back underground’?
Popularity does have a tendency to force people back underground again. That’s as much part of the psyche of the UK rave generation as it was for punks, hip hop fans, etc. Subcultures need to feel oppositional.
The success of these two tracks had the impact of making jungle the target of popular comedy – Zig and Zag even released a track – but when Incredible and Original Nuttah dropped in the raves and at carnival they already sounded like the biggest tunes ever.
They felt like chart topping records that happened to be brilliant club tunes. I don’t think this was the beginning of the evolution though.
Firstly, all of the musical streams that flowed together to become drum ‘n’ bass had been flowing long before anyone named the genre, and by the time Original Nuttah and Incredible became hits the scene had already moved on in terms of production.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is about The Committee – a self-elected parliament of artists ‘controlling how the scene would run in future. How much was that driven by efforts to preserve the integrity of the scene?
Loads of producers were ripped off by major labels when rave became a success. Loads of vocalists became stars while the producers were forgotten. In the main it was young black men who were being ripped off – think of the biggest stars to have come out of rave culture, predominantly white.
The Committee was basically made up of a group of mainly black men who had been ripped off, or had seen others get ripped off and who wanted to try and retain control in order to protect the integrity of the scene but also to make sure they got paid in full.
It was a show of communal strength that would become important in the development if UK Garage and Grime. The Committee was about the young black British voice. They laid down the seeds for the scene’s foundational strength but also defined some of its more negative elements. For example, women were excluded. They side-lined MCs.
They also started to try and overtly define the scene according to their vision, but people don’t work like that. And crucially jungle and drum ‘n’ bass weren’t simply black British music forms – that idea was also an essentialist one. Jungle and drum ‘n’ bass were simultaneously black and white.
This was an urban British phenomenon and to define it along the lines of racial identity was too simplistic.
Goldie was one of the first artists to break into the ‘live’ arena, on the back of Timeless, in 1995. Was this move into the live arena necessary due to (or because of) the increasing ‘sophistication’ of the scene?
Goldie wanted to be seen as a proper artist. He equated this with antiquated ideas of rock music stardom, which demanded the authenticity of timeless albums as well as live performances. For full authenticity he had to play live.
Now, if he’d been Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye he would have had the talent to transcend the singles environment and succeed in the album and live arenas. His first album was excellent. His live show was awful – it lacked sophistication in every way. He didn’t have the chops.
In fact, I’ve always felt the strength of his work depended on who he was collaborating with – 4Hero on the early singles, Rob Playford on Timeless. He made a few bad choices after that. But I admire him for trying to push at boundaries.
Roni Size & Reprazent’s New Forms crops up a few times in the book. The first lyrics of the album (from Railing), are “Yes, something of a different pace”. Do you think New Forms marked a ‘turning of the page’ for drum ‘n’ bass in terms of its absorbance into popular culture?
Drum ‘n’ bass only gained broad mainstream awareness once, and that was through New Forms. By mainstream awareness, I mean the mums and dads who watched the news, the people who had no interest in popular music of any kind – the true mainstream.
When New Forms won that award, Roni and co were on the world’s news shows. They were covered in every area of the serious and the throwaway presses.
Readers of The Guardian were reading about him as much as people who read The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Sun. As I said in the book, I was interviewed by the Evening Standard about them, you don’t get more mainstream than that. New Forms was a cultural phenomenon. Luckily, they could also cut it live because that band was incredible.
However, I don’t think drum ‘n’ bass got absorbed into popular culture. Most people didn’t like it. drum ‘n’ bass didn’t sell. Reprazent were hardly Oasis or Blur.
I think the New Forms success was an inspiration to many though. Very few artists are able to have a brush with mainstream awareness and retain integrity but they managed it.
Drum ‘n’ bass is experiencing a revival at present through artists like IMANU, Kanine, Bou, Indika and others. In terms of the continuation of the ‘liquid network of the breakbeat continuum‘, what does this new breed bring to the story?
OK, this is a hard one to answer because I’m not involved in the same way as I was. I think the main thing that newer DJs bring to the arena is a high-speed mentality of constantly smashing it.
The intros, the long drops, the tension isn’t there for me anymore. And I don’t know enough about producers to offer opinion on their impact on the continuum– although I did listen to a lot of liquid for a while, but kind of felt it wasn’t as good as liquid funk because it lacked… funk.
I’m much less involved in contemporary music culture although I do stay aware of things through my children and my students.
I’m a lecturer now and in fact have taught loads of people who have gone on to be DJs and producers – for example, Blocks of Blocks & Escher fame was one of my students.
I’d love to hear a tune that knocks me sideways in the same way that I was when those early tunes dropped. My son’s 20 and he loves drum ‘n’ bass in a way that I recognise but am no longer part of. So who am I to say that the current scene is better or worse – it means a lot to a lot of people. My main interest is as a historian now. 🙂
[Thanks to Martin for the interview. State of Bass is published by Velocity Press and can be purchased by clicking here]