Drum’n’Bass: It’s a London Thing

in Music

By the early 90s the rave scene in England was all but dead and buried. The massive illegal parties that had dotted the landscape of London’s M25 motorway and its environs since the summer of 1988 had been raided and shut down, thanks in large part to government policy – specifically the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that infamously legislated against playing ‘repetitive beats’ outside. The heavy-handed crackdown on a music scene that the politicians didn’t care for, let alone try and understand, was the final nail in the coffin for what had been a monumental shift in youth culture, the latest since  the rise of punk music a decade earlier.

In the UK around this time a heady combination of US-imported house, techno, and hip-hop was combined with the indigenous sounds of reggae, dub, dance hall, breaks, and ambient to create new strains of music – albeit heavily fuelled by classic rave drugs such as LSD and MDMA. All of a sudden it was ‘one nation under a groove’, and raving was a very real fixture for many young people on weekends. But when it became policed, controlled, and eventually stopped altogether, it was driven underground. But forcing the scene out of those muddy fields and into nightclubs meant that both the scene and the music got darker – both literally and metaphorically – and the new genres that began to breed like specimens in a Petri dish were some of the darkest yet.

While many clubbers remained tied to the ‘four-to-the-floor’ (or 4/4) patterns associated with House and Techno (i.e. the uniform, repetitive sound of a kick drum on every beat), many producers and DJs began experimenting by breaking and chopping things up. Strongly influenced by breaks and hip-hop, as well as the reggae sound systems from Jamaica, there emerged a more ‘broken’, varied, and wild style of making, and mixing, beats – coupled with the natural ambient and psychedelic rhythms and melodies associated with British pop and rock, alongside the bass lines of dub music (as well as the art of MCing, or ‘toasting’). From this amalgamation came hardcore, and it was the sound of the grey, harsh metropolis: busy, paranoid, and loud, but also beautiful and inspiring.

Perhaps most surprising of all is that this happened in the space of just a few years. (To put it into context, hip-hop, house, techno, and jungle had all emerged in just a 14-year period.) In 1992 the first hardcore tracks started to appear in clubs and in record stores in Britain, mostly in London, but also in the cities of Bristol, Manchester, and Coventry. The sound itself was faster than house and techno, like the sound of the future rushing in. With a mixture of the more organic sounding bass and percussive elements combined with the more futuristic parts – the synthesisers and sound affects that were being used so masterfully in techno – came a potent cocktail of sonic experimentation.

Within the space of a few years hardcore began to morph into jungle, and the tempo increased yet again, now to around 150bpm (house and techno typically ranges between 120-130, while today’s drum’n’bass clocks in at 170+). Moreover, jungle, like its precursors, was regarded as black music, created predominantly by black Britons, mostly of Afro-Caribbean heritage, but also those of mixed race, like Goldie. The raves at the time were filled with people of every creed and colour, so it was little surprise that a movement like jungle would come out of this. It turned out to be the future in more ways than one.

Form-wise jungle is comprised of sped-up drum breaks (an isolated drum solo taken from, most famously, the 1969 track ‘Amen, Brother’ by The Winstons, at 1.26min to be precise) combined with a deep, sub-heavy ragga bassline and other string or vocal samples. Early pioneering producers include A Guy Called Gerald, Shy FX, Doc Scott, Ray Keith, and Peshay – with classic tunes coming in the form of Shy FX’s ‘Jungle Love’ in 1992, and ‘Original Nuttah’ (with UK Apache) two years later; A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Sunshine’; ‘Helicopter Tune’ by Deep Blue also came out in ’92; and before all that came a proto-jungle track called ‘We Are IE’ by Lennie de Ice.

With this rush to find and create new elements and rhythms, the sound started to progress and morph itself into new forms. From 1995 onwards the ‘Amen’ break was no longer the predominant go-to drum sample – nor were the only influences coming from Jamaican music. Producers began incorporating more techno and ambient sounds, creating their own drum patterns using drum machines and over-laying them with samples from obscure sci-fi films, coupled with synth pads and chords. And then came strings, orchestration, and the influence of jazz and soul and funk. It was futuristic, in a techno-leaning way, but also wild and freeform like jazz always was. Notable artists like Ed Rush & Optical, Adam F, Dillinja, Lemon D, John B, Fabio, Grooverider, LTJ Bukem, Nick Blackmarket, Dr S Gachet, Alex Reece, Andy C, and Photek began to emerge, releasing on labels such as Metalheadz, 31 Records, V Recordings, RAM, Moving Shadow, FFRR, Good Looking, and Reinforced.

But it wasn’t until Bristol’s Roni Size Reprazent released their debut album New Forms that the game changed overnight. The year was 1997, and jungle was now essentially playing second fiddle to what was now known as drum’n’bass. The clubs were full of it, and New Forms went on to win the prestigious Mercury Music Prize – becoming a bona fide crossover hit while remaining resolutely underground. The scene exploded, and from 1997 to the late 2000s drum’n’bass ruled the dance floors of Britain, with London being its spiritual home. To this day, drum’n’bass is a genre still with its diehard fans.

Like so many other great musical genres drum’n’bass owes as much to what was created across the Atlantic as to what was brewing in the UK at the time. Without jazz and soul and funk and blues there wouldn’t have been disco, and in turn no house – which would mean no rave, no hardcore, no jungle, and no drum’n’bass. And yet, despite its tangible American roots, drum’n’bass is so uniquely British that it’s easy to ignore its foreign influences. Sometimes all you see when you close your eyes is the surging power of the dark dance floor in a London club, and all you feel is the drums, the bass, and the ecstasy.

Top 10 Drum ’n’ Bass Tracks 

1. Metal Heads
Terminator (Metalheadz, 1992)

2. Origin Unknown
Valley of the Shadows (RAM, 1993)

3. Goldie
Inner City Life (FFRR, 1994)

4. Renegade
Terrorist (Moving Shadow, 1994)

5. Adam F
Circles (Section 5, 1995)

6. LTJ Bukem
Horizons (Looking Good Records, 1995)

7. Peshay
Piano Tune (Looking Good Records, 1995)

8. DJ Die
Reincarnations (Full Cycle, 1996)

9. Nasty Habits 
Shadow Boxing (31 Records, 1996)

10. Roni Size Reprazent
Brown Paper Bag (Talkin’ Loud, 1997)