I feel like The Boy Who Cried Jungle. Until New Forms, nothing has been widely available that has anything to do with what I’ve thought for three years was so great about drum’n’bass: dancehall undertow and hip-hop breakbeats liberated to funk fully, thanks to the sequencer’s super energy pill. Goldie and L.T.J. Bukem, London’s first feted visitors, both basted their breakswith too much goddamn new-age synth wash, more botanical moisture splash than rinse out. Techstep, the flavor du jour in drum’n’bass, leaches out the blackness and syncopation of the form with its “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine” beatsand Goth doom. And what’s great about satellite albums like Spring Heel Jack’s Busy Curious Thirsty or Squarepusher’s Hard Normal Daddy has less to do with the amount of d’n’b folded into them than an auteur vision that extrudes itself through a different beat structure–like Odelay, as compared to hip-hop. New Forms, on the other hand, is jungle: funky, black, breakbeat music.
Jamaica has been putting its chocolate in England’s peanut butter for years; Kingston-via-London miscegenation has driven most of London’s important and unique pop innovations. America’s average response has been “Oh, cool,” but with no sales to back it up. (We didn’t put the Specials or Tricky in the top 10 and I doubt we’ll do it with Roni Size.) Listen to the U.K. drum’n’ licensed over here by majors and you’ll hear precious little that sounds like reggae. Yet albums like the Greensleeves label’s Ragga Anthems Volume One are jungle’s roots. When blood pulse Jamaican basslines, toasting, and third-generation hip-hop breakbeats were fed through the hyper-pleasure logarithms of rave, out came jungle’s infant self: happy hardcore. The drum’n’bass I like is fast, and still linked to the social context of the dance floor, which hip-hop traded around 1992 for the mix-tape-driven (and slow, always slow now) interior landscape of Jeeps and Walkmans. In London, people dance like Cocoa Puffs to such drum’n’bass; I only see that kind of enthusiasm in NY anymore at gay clubs.
The dancehall-meets–hip-hop imperative of jungle is what first blew me away–records like Leviticus’s “Burial,” whereover the “It Takes Two” / “Think” break and a dancehall bassline, some doo-wop fellas go “ooohooh ooh” and it’s more than enough. Or DJ Hype’s remix of Remarc’s “R.I.P.” Sampling, I think, a Cutty Ranks boast, Hype turns the subsonic rumble of the original into a funny-car mash-up of hip-hop breaks and gruff Jamaican chatting. Ragga’s digital blend of reggae powered much early jungle, as captured in one of the first compilations (maybe the first put out by a major label), 1995’s Jungle Massive, Volume 1 (Payday/ffrr).”Burial” is here, along with stormers like Dead Dred’s “Dred Bass,” a blueprint for later “jump up” tracks, and Roni Size’s early masterpiece, “Timestretch,” which is a perfect litmus test for anyone unsure about jungle as a whole. If “Timestretch”‘s Cab Calloway beats and booming bass line don’t make you jump up, you may proceed.
As jungle developed in London, there was enough media-fomented fear about its dark origins that promoters and practitioners both supported a new name, drum’n’bass, and a new sound that downplayed gun talk and dancehall tropes in general. The class implications of this alone are worth a book, especially when you grab hold of the terms that soon modified drum’n’bass, namely “intelligent” and “jazz,” the first an insult to the complexity of early breakbeat butchers, the second a whammy of misrecognition that says less about music and more about a cultural view of a certain music (CD 101.9–style jazz) as a lifestyle enhancer and alleged class signifier (like Cristal or silk sheets).
Faithfuls like Shy FX, DJ Hype, and Aphrodite stayed true to the dancefloor boom of ragga and hip-hop, helping solidify the jump up style of barn-sized basslines, super-funky breaks, and not much else. If only a major would license Aphrodite’s recent compilation CD (Aphrodite) or New Frontiers (Parousia), from Hype’s Ganja Kru, we’d have something really rude, rough, and brilliant to grapple with. As it is, I think the next visible import may be Earth Pioneers (Mercury U.K.), the latest from the duo 4 Hero, important, longtime jungle programmers. Possibly influenced by the success of label mate Size, 4Hero now veer between staggering beat writing and some truly awful orchestral jazz that makes Roni Size’s few missteps into jazz-lite seem negligible.
V Classics, Volume 1 (Konkrete Jungle/Ultra) is a welcome American issue of some important tracks issued by Roni Size’s first home, V Recordings. Drawing from a stack of 30 or so releases, Volume 1 helps illuminate what Size, Krust, Suv, and Die (the Reprazent crew) have been up to these past three years. Size’s “Only a Dream” and Die and Suv’s “War and Peace” stand tall and hint at the jump-up tracks Size has released on his subsidiary labels like Full Cycle and Dope Dragon. But make no mistake, these are tracks originally designed for the mixing DJ. The drums make their opening statement and you get to watch for six or seven minutes, structure be damned.
Programmers have to look beyond breaks if they want out of the 12-inch ghetto, and that’s why we have New Forms. It’s as close as we’re going to get to an accessible drum’n’bass record that doesn’t hide its breaks under a bushel. Simultaneously catchier and harder than anything Size has done before, New Forms justifies its silly title with tunes like “Brown Paper Bag,” “Ballet Dance,”and “Electricks,” which really don’t sound likemuch else. The digital trash of “Railing”‘s beat spurs MC Dynamite onto some fine toasting that crossbreeds today’s topic, dancehall, with hip-hop dexterously enough to really confuse the issue of what moves came from what origin. Putting the dancehall up front on the first track is a deft wake-up, a warning shot fired across the bow of ambient creeps.
On “Matter of Fact” or the ferocious new single, “Electricks,” the breaks get you at least halfway to Jericho all by themselves. There are, thankfully, few long stretches of legato synth drool, although that does creep in when Roni wants to change the scenery. And changing the vista is where New Forms confronts the question: to pop or not to pop? I think the album succeeds by forgetting the question and sneaking in visceral trickery from the dancehall/hip-hop side of the family.
New Forms is hardly Song Forms, sometimes to its detriment, sometimes to its futuristic credit. The overlong outros and intros are still there for DJs, not pop listeners, which is unfortunate, since most DJs are not going to be spinning the CD. And the upright bass of the superfine “Brown Paper Bag” no more makes it “jazz” than the guitar samples make it rock. Roni Size’s conception of catchiness remains that of a hip-hop producer, the beathead looking to loop two bars into bliss, finding more in the moment as it repeats. Drum’n’bass is loop music, no matter how irregular the chops, edits, and timestretches, wherejazz tends not to do anything the same way twice in a row. It’s also hard to take drum’n’bass artists seriously when they talk about Miles in the face of their own Dave Grusinisms, especially given their love and knowledge of hip-hop (not surprising, since they lived through one and not the other). Why the need to get cred from the ancestors? Isn’t it more impressive that New Forms doesn’t duplicate existing genres like jazz while, even better, giving the funk a shiny new suit of armor to make it over the cyber hill? Dancefloor or day spa, choose your ghetto.