Confession: When I started buying jungle records three years ago, every other purchase was marked with a “jump up” record associated with Aphrodite. The first time I ever attempted to mix, my buddy Brian pulled two singles from Aphrodite’s own Urban Takeover label for me to practice with. As Brian explained, and as I quickly learned, Aphrodite records are perfect for beginner junglists—they all follow an unmistakable formula, with large patches of easily recognizable hip-hop samples, bubbly basslines, and a by-the-numbers tri-part format that’s jungle’s equivalent of verse-chorus-verse.
But the more Brian and I were exposed to jungle, the less Aphrodite, a/k/a Gavin King, excited us. Our interest finally waned when, after the sixth or seventh record, we realized every bassline was practically identical and his use of samples just as predictable. We liked jungle because it was about innovation, about pushing boundaries wider and moving music forward. But mostly, we got off on the basslines—the harder, the heavier, the better. Every time.
After our love affair with Aphrodite ended, Brian and I ventured into dark, unfamiliar territory. Amongst the other producers who caught our ear was Roni Size’s Reprazent partner, Krust—whose Bristolian funk was more disturbing and unwieldy than Size’s, and less immediate than his Reprazent collaborator DJ Die. The tune making the rounds in ’97 was “Warhead,” which Brian introduced to me the proper way—with help from a green friend and headphones turned to 10. “Warhead” was urgent, anxious, alien, tough, commanding—and unlike anything I had heard, least of all from Aphrodite. Mostly though, the bass was like a bomb. It literally detonated. No fear.
This is the path I imagine lots of drum and bass inductees take. It’s the reason Aphrodite scores U.K. hits, and may well score one in the U.S. But it also explains why artists like Krust may not crack the charts, yet hold court over dance floors and bedroom DJs worldwide. For all his mainstream popularity, Aphrodite gets
no respect from the headz nor from moreforward-thinking jungle producers. It’s significant, then, that both Aphrodite and Krust have recently released debut longplayers. When jumping from the 12-inch (and the underground) to an album, a d’n’b artist can follow the same patterns that brought him notoriety—or he can dig deeper, reach further, and free himself from the club’s confines altogether.
This is a lesson that’s lost on Aphrodite. King is the Fatboy Slim of jungle, the Yanni of jungle, the Britney Spears of jungle, the Puff Daddy of jungle. To his credit, he ventured where no jungle producer had gone before: He dared to make jungle as infectious and (as a result) as one-dimensional as Top 40 pop. Candy wearing, glo-stick-wielding kids—listeners who don’t like to work too hard—loved it. Their virgin ears ate up tracks like “King of the Beats,” “Dub Moods,” “Spice,” and the remixed-old-school “Jungle Brothers.” To be sure, an Aphrodite bassline is like crack: so shamelessly catchy it leaves you jonesing for another hit.
Since my first mix session, the leaner, meaner sub-sub-subgenre tech step has muscled out jump up’s perky wobble as the flavor de rigueur, rendering Aphrodite and his ilk entirely Uncool. His long-awaited debut, Aphrodite, proves that he is either the laziest jungle producer on the planet or just plain artistically bankrupt. The album mostly just collects or remixes his past hits, seven of which had already appeared on a self-released compilation two years ago. And the remixes don’t improve things, either. “Spice (even spicier)” is anything but. When King attempts to incorporate tech step’s militant beats with his upbeat basslines, it sounds like a desperate attempt to gain the credibility that has alluded him.
Krust, in contrast, has integrity pouring out of his ears. He’s the anti-Aphrodite, aiming to make his music as difficult as possible—in the best sense of the word. His vision has always required several listens to fully grasp, and Coded Language follows suit. With vicious, voracious vocalist Morgan, Krust creates an elusive world where her singing ignores his dramatic beats, and where tunes slide from anger to melancholy, then back to anger. “Interlude” and “Overture” are like cotton candy: luxurious, dreamy semi-instrumentals recorded with an orchestra; “Excuses” bites like a pit bull. And depending on your vantage point, New York slam poet Saul Williams’s tirade on the title track is either one of the most innovative d’n’b tunes to appear in a long while, or one of the most annoying. His Urb-meets-The Nation quasi-political-musical declaration bashes and thrashes its way through an incessant looped rhythm, running off about time’s continuum, quantized drum beats, and musical innovators.
Fans looking for dancefloor pounders may be disappointed: Like many drum and bass producers advancing to full-lengths, Krust takes this opportunity to flex his muscle as an Artist, incorporating moody downtempo pieces and music for home listening. There seems to be an unspoken inferiority complex amongst jungle producers who feel that only long-winded, enigmatic CDs (often double-CDs) wrapped in mysterious concepts will be taken seriously.
But Krust is in good company—joining Goldie, Grooverider, 4 Hero, Roni Size, and Photek in this admirable, but misguided, tradition. (I give Aphrodite credit for not falling prey to this notion, but I’m still forced to banish him to the corner of the room with a dunce cap stuck on his head.)
While Krust earns brownie points for aiming high (even when he fails, he fails gloriously), he also never hits that precious middle ground—somewhere between hard-hitting floor-fillers and deep mind-fuckers. Album-oriented drum and bass is a tricky business, because on the one hand you’ve got to convince die-hard fans you’re not a sellout, and on the other, you’ve got to reel in new blood. So while Krust struggles through a twisted pathway, tripping over fallen branches and broken beats, Aphrodite skips merrily, and all too easily, down the yellow brick road. The question remains: Which one will find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?