Though it’s nearly eight years old, boasts a Mercury Prize winner in Roni Size, and has infiltrated pop culture via car commercials, drum’n’bass still suffers from a giant insecurity complex. Briefly a golden child in the mid ’90s, when Goldie, LTJ Bukem, and Size were releasing albums to critical acclaim and when club kids couldn’t get enough of its fractured, quicksand beats, drum’n’bass saw its popularity fall by the wayside when it became clear that its crossover potential was limited.
Junglists, as we now know, don’t really like vocals, have no use for an image, don’t care if the hooks are catchy (and prefer them scary, anyway), and stubbornly hold fast to a DIY ethos. Next to Detroit techno heads, few fans take musical purity to such fascist levels. Big-name guests? Sellout. A dancer, especially one whose bad hairdo makes him look like a reject from the punk era? Fuck you. Next thing you know, Madonna’s gonna ask Bukem to produce her next album.
Roni Size knows all these things, and so he operates in two universes—making one record (In the Mode, Reprazent’s follow-up to New Forms) for the masses, and many others (mostly singles on his label Full Cycle) for the junglists. What he doesn’t realize is that there needn’t be two separate strategies. In the Mode is Size’s brash attempt to sway the uninitiated to the world of drum’n’bass via vocals and hip-hop. Discarding New Forms‘ lazy jazz-fueled rhythms for more poppy, dancefloor-friendly beats, Size pulls another trick out of his hat, except everyone could see this one coming.
To lure the dragon to the treasure chest, he enlists massive stars like ex-Rage Against the Machine scream machine Zack de la Rocha, Wu mouthpiece Method Man, and Roots human beatbox Rahzel. And where New Forms was overly long and mostly instrumental, In the Mode is short by drum’n’bass standards (one disc, where seemingly everyone else—Grooverider, 4 Hero, Bukem—insists on doubles) and relies heavily on vocals. Homegrown Bristol soul sister Onallee and swank rapper MC Dynamite find themselves—not the bass—at center stage.
Problem is, the things that made drum’n’bass groundbreaking (or boring, depending) were not vocals, choruses, or shout-outs (please, not another MC shrieking for rewinds), but broken beat structures, time-stretched basslines, and relentless repetition. Drum’n’bass cuts are supposed to be antipop songs, entire tracks consisting of only a chorus, but shrink-wrapped. Using the bassline like a junkie uses a hit of crack, a drum’n’bass producer follows up a melodramatic intro with a “drop” to get you addicted. The trick is to make the hook so compelling you actually want to hear it 500 times in five minutes.
Size mastered this art with his earlier tunes on V Recordings and Full Cycle—classics like “It’s Jazzy” and the blistering collaboration with Die, “Trouble,” demonstrate that the fastest way to a dancefloor’s heart is through a sucker-punched stomach. There are moments on In the Mode when Size remembers what made him famous in the first place. “Snapshot,” which debuted as a Full Cycle 12-inch before appearing here, is as simplistic as it gets: a funky motherfucker that works like a worm, wiggling in circles ad nauseam. And though “Back to You” is almost ruined by busy-as-a-bee bleeps, Onallee’s mantra merges with the monstrous, meaty riff and pushes the track over the top.
But by and large, Size ignores his wife and spends more time with his mistress. If In the Mode‘s special guests were able to accomplish what a single searing bassline could in the same amount of time, I’d give them credit. But it takes de la Rocha nearly seven minutes to finish his Diallo tirade in “Center of the Storm,” and you wish he would just shut up for a second and let the music do the talking. While lyrics of substance are welcome, I’m convinced there’s a great track buried underneath his pontificating, just dying to get out.
Size pretends his pairing of hip-hop with drum’n’bass is something new, but we’ve been here before: Aphrodite’s Puffy-esque forays into sampledelica made him king of the beats for a hot second, and Size himself owns the most successful smooshing of the two. Bahamadia’s slippery crawl through New Forms‘ title track was a shadowboxing delight, and a sharp contrast to Method Man’s shallow, sallow cheerleading in “Ghetto Celebrity,” a basic cut’n’paste slapdashing speedy beats against lagging lyrics. There’s a whole store of hip-step—as Jungle Sky’s TC Izlam calls it—but nobody’s buying. OutKast’s “B.O.B.” might be the closest to the mainstream d’n’b will ever get.
As exciting as it must be for a drum’n’bass producer to collaborate with hip-hop idols, the In the Mode tracks that ring most true are the ones with Onallee and Dynamite. Inserting lyrics and choruses into 170 bpm is risky business, so d’n’b vocals work best when they become part of the percussive fabric—looping, revolving, and evolving into the mix. Rappers either rhyme at half-speed, which makes them sound lazy, or they try to keep up and run out of breath. But Dynamite, jungle’s best MC, knows the rippling rhythms like the back of his hand. The obnoxious first single “Who Told You” notwithstanding, his nuanced vocal tics demonstrate a respect for the music by giving and taking, but never hogging the show.
And Onallee, when she’s not trying out for the R&B Diva of the Year Award, can be understated, seductive, and sultry. On “Lucky Pressure,” Size and Onallee leave hype and histrionics behind; she weaves her lyrics around his warped, warbling bass and spooked-out sound effects. There’s not a gimmick or superstar in sight, and what do you know—it’s an actual, honest-to-goodness song. One that could even be played on the radio.
Roni Size/Reprazent play Hammerstein Ballroom March 17.