Friday, March 27, 2009

Rough and Fast
(Riot Beats)
The Wire, 1995

by Simon Reynolds

All my anxieties about jungle's upwardly-mobile drift towards dubious concepts like 'musicality' and 'maturity' seem to be on the verge of becoming horrendous reality. You've got artists utilising 'real' musicians, punters who (ap)praise tracks in terms of how 'clean' their production is, and a burgeoning mutual admiration pact between the Mo' Wax posse and the drum & bass intelligentsia. All the new styles in what must now be termed 'post-jungle' are ultra-smooth and mellifluously mellow--from hardstep, with its fussy hi-hat shuffle-beats and tastefully restrained soul-diva passion, to the fusion-tinged serenity and long sustained synth-tones of the LTJ Bukem school. Don't get me wrong, these developments are still generating astonishing music. But sometimes you've got to wonder: whither jungle's mania, madness, ruffness?

For that, you might look to the UK's happy hardcore scene, which has back-lashed to 92 in order to follow a different path than that taken by drum & bass, i.e. fixating
on staccato synth-stabs, rush-activating piano riffs, helium-shrill vocals and stomping 4/4 beats. Or you might check out Germany's small but fervent breakbeat scene, as represented on Rough and Fast. Based around a handful of labels,
Germanic jungle has more of an explicitly political edge than its British cousin. Key figure Alec Empire of agit-tekno combo Atari Teenage Riot released a jungle track called "Hunt Down the Nazis" (appropriate given that jungle is all about
musical miscegenation and post-colonial cultural hybridity).

Doubtless by necessity, German jungle is less polished and fluent than current UK fare, but in a way that only adds to its raw appeal--there's a fierce inflexibility, an un-swinging rigour, to the drum programming that's curiously invigorating at a time when so much UK drum & bass verges on fuzak-with-breakbeats. Much of this comp harks back to jungle's under-rated dark phase of early 1993, when hardcore producers were first messing with fucked up rhythms but the music still retained some relation to techno (Joey Beltram/Belgian brutalism style as opposed to trance). And so DJ Moonraker's "Lion King" and Space Cube's "Dark Dive" both let rip bass-blast synth-riffs, redolent of the Frankfurt-based PCP label's brand of stormtrooper tekno,
amidst the jittery, shimmery breaks, while Roland 303 aciiied-squiggles are woven into the hyper-syncopated bustle of Sonic Subjunkies' "Djungelstadt" and Dr Echo & DJ
Reverend's "Fine Style". And on Doc Tom's "Moskito" there's a terrific ear-searing synth-noise that, yup, sounds like a squadron of mosquitos dive-bombing upon your flesh.

As with most non-Anglophone appropriations of Brit-pop there's something slightly wrong-sounding about the results: just check those names--Doc Tom, Sonic Subjunkies, Mental Bombin, DJ Reverend. But the best tracks here--the itchy'n'scratchy insectoid scrabble of Biobreaks' "May The Funk Be With You", the prehensile rhythmic intricacies and gamelan-textured percussion-rolls of Da Captains of Phuture's
"Legendary Flight"--suggest not just that the Krauts may soon catch but with their UK forebears, but that jungle's next and most interesting phase will involve regional hybrids across the globe: G-funk junglism, Miami Bass'n'drum, Latin-
breakbeat, Scandinavian new complexity ardkore....

imports column, Spin, 1998

by Simon Reynolds

Once, there was just "hardcore"--rave music at its most flipped-out and euphoric-aggressive fierce. Then, circa 1992, came the great parting of the ways. English hardcore DJs mixed in hip hop breaks 'n' bass to create a hyper-syncopated bedlam that eventually evolved into jungle. The rest of the world stuck with techno's monolithic 4/4 stomp-beat and kept upping the b.p.m's to ever more punishing extremes. For a while, the Dutch--in the form of the Rotterdam sound called gabba--were harder than the rest. Then other outposts--labels like Brooklyn's Industrial Strength, Milwaukee's Drop Bass Network, France's Gangstar Toons Industry, Australia's Bloody Fist, and many more--took it further still.

By 1996, though, hardcore was banging its head against a brick wall of shlocky ultraviolence and 250-300 b.p.m. velocity. The more astute producers took a step sideways from this braindead end. One escape route, followed by Frankfurt's PCP and its sister-labels Dance Ecstasy 2001 and Cold Rush, involved a style that just cries out for the absurd oxymoron "ambient gabba": an atmospheric, slightly slower sound, heavy on cavernous reverb, glacial textures and sorrowful melodies. Following
awesomely desolate dirges like Renegade Legion's "Torsion", the PCP crew have reached something of an aesthetic pinnacle with Pilldriver's "Apocalypse Never", the tenth Cold Rush release.

Pilldriver is one of many pseudonyms (see also The Mover, Mescalinum United, Alien Christ) used by the mysterious Marc Acardipane, probably hardcore's most visionary producer. "Apocalypse Never" harries the listener with synth-stabs that sound like a swarm of bat-winged and trident-wielding demons, while the unrelenting 4/4 kick-drum is so cleverly inflected you never register it as monotony. For more glorious
gloomcore, check out the PCP compilation Bigger Bolder Better, plus Superpower, a six-track EP collaboration between PCP's Hypnotizer and New York's Oliver Chesler,on the latter's Things To Come label.

Another increasingly popular "step sideways" involves mixing gabba's Teutonic terror-riffs with techstep jungle's paroxysmic breakbeats and murky bombast. From Drop Bass Network's sub-label Ghetto Safari and Frankfurt's Chrome to the Paris imprint No-Tek and London's Ambush, this new hybrid--known variously as "splatterbreaks", "hardbreaks" or "harsh-step"--is the emergent renegade sound at squat-raves.

Superficially, harsh-step seems to have much in common with Alec Empire's Digital Hardcore, which also combines gabba's killer-bee drones, sped-up breaks and fuzzguitar-like midfrequency noise. But unlike Digital Hardcore's adrenalizingly one-dimensional scree, the Ambush producers leaven their assault with a superior sense of dynamics and space. Jackal & Hide's Escape From South London EP is a lo-fi holocaust of industrial effluent,eardrum-shredding snares and low-end turbulence. Aphasic & Scud's Welcome To The Warren EP sounds like metal-bashers
Einsturzende Neubauten getting on the good foot. Best of the lot is the Give Up EP by David Hammer (a.k.a DHR artist Shizuo),who interweaves different kinds of distortion with a sensuous awareness of audio-tactile texture.

Although Ambush's sound verges on outright avant-gardism, DJ Scud--who recently played New York's Soundlab alongside DJ Spooky, Alec Empire and Manhattan's own harsh-step crusader I-Sound--says his real inspiration is the populist rave of 1991. Scud wants to bring back "the madness and intensity" of early hardcore, "but not its happy-happy, hands-in-the-air vibe". Hence the dystopian aura and abstract
militancy of Ambush's four releases to date. Sidestepping DHR's full-frontal approach (sloganeering harangues), harsh-step's anarcho-politics are more subtle --articulated in techno-theory zines like Break/Flow, Datacide and Scud's own Fallout, hinted at in the paramilitary imagery of track titles and band names, and most of all, incarnated in the music itself. At once savage and sophisticated, harsh-step is the sound of insubordination--not just against sonic stagnation but against cultural lockdown too: the urban politics of gentrification and ghettoization, the insidious normalization of surveillance. If gabba was
techno-as-heavy-metal, harsh-step is new millennium punk-funk.

Sound of the City, Village Voice, April 27th, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

The curious thing about scenes that occupy the sonic extremities is the way they splinter into microgenres as they get further from the mainstream. Like thrash/speed /death/black metal, the sound purveyed by Manhattan's I-Sound rejoices in multiple monikers: "harshstep," "splatterbreaks," "broken beats," "shrillstep." Semantic excess aside, the style basically merges the jagged breakbeat dynamics of early jungle with the blaring distortion of hardcore gabba. At Abstrakt Future Lounge (the Soundlab night at Fahrenheit) last Tuesday, I-Sound's DJ set was like an unoffical soundtrack to Jacques Attali's Noise: The Political Economy of Music: all dive-bombing scree and low-end ordnance, leavened with deft scratching and electro-acoustic burbles. Understanding that relentless din ultimately dulls the senses, I-Sound varied the breakneck pace with midtempo excursions into underground rap and roots reggae, before climaxing with DJ Scud's "Total Destruction," a shrillstep classic that thrillingly combines ragga boasts with berserker beats.

Fresh from a recording session with Scud, German DJ Panacea was the populist ambassador for this jungle-meets-gabba frenzy. He drew a crowd evenly divided between drum'n'bassheads and gabba scenesters (like Lenny Dee, whose Industrial Strength label licensed Panacea's recent Twisted Designz). With his disconcerting blind-looking colored contact lens in one eye and alarming facial piercings, Panacea's image shtick is "Overlord of Darkness." You might recognize him from Modulations, or maybe not—he's recently shed a staggering 130 pounds. Panacea's music's gotten sleeker too, scaling down the Carmina Burana bombast of his two albums in favor of the streamlined, clinical sound of current drum'n'bass (labels like Renegade Hardware). By most standards, though, it's pretty fucking fierce—180 bpm breaks, swarf-swarms of low-end turbulence, B-lines that ping like the elastic of your mind's snapped. As his own track "Motion Sickness" suggests, the effect is simultaneously kinetic and nauseous. Compared with I-Sound's shifting guerrilla tactics, Panacea's set was a war of attrition, a plateau of pleasurable punishment.

Friday, March 20, 2009


A London Sometin' Dis
A Jungle Documentary filmed in 1993

Segment 1
Segment 2
Segment 3


another one, this from 1996

Lost In Music
Melody Maker April 3 1993

by Simon Reynolds

One of my favourite sleights of sampling sorcery last year occurred on a nameless techno track. Suddenly, an all-too-familiar snarl careened out of the mix: “D’ya know where you are??!!”. It was Axl Rose, from G’N’R’s urban paranoia anthem “Welcome to the Jungle”, gloating at your disorientation. Not only did the sample fit perfectly with the track’s frenzy, it was a nice joke, because this was “junglist” techno, and the people dancing almost certainly were so out of it that they didn’t know where they were.

I don’t know where the term “junglist” (hardcore techno’s dominant style for almost a year) originates. Probably from the churning polyrhythms that define the genre (hip hop breakbeats hyped-up to twice their proper pace), which sound like sheer voodoo. But I imagine it’s also got something to do with a feeling that “it’s getting like a jungle out there”, that in hard times only the hard(core) survive. Recently, junglist techno has developed something akin to a cult of the criminal. A vaguely nefarious aura hangs around the newer pirate stations like Don FM, Index and Lightning. Listen to the MC’s coded patter, and you might assume illicit transactions are being conducted. MCs send out shouts to “all the wrong ’uns” and “liberty-takers”; sometimes, you hear requests being played for blokes banged up in Pentonville.

Although it’s still mostly instrumental, the criminal-minded vibe is seeping into the music, with a spate of tracks with "bad boy” themes. A big source is ragga, reggae’s equivalent to gangsta rap, with its brash insolence and “rude boy” postures. Junglist is desperate music for desperate times, which is why its two themes are oblivion and crime. British youth want to get out of “it” (dead-end reality), either by taking drugs or by selling them. The sad fact is, that for many kids, the only way they can afford to participate in rave culture at all is to become dealers. And so junglism has become the soundtrack of Britain’s underclass. It’s sort of appropriate that the sampling aesthetic (taking liberties with other people’s musical property) should have fallen into the light-fingered hands of delinquents.

What’s weird about junglist is that, having started as a form of Techno, it’s devolving, inexplicably, into a hyperactive cousin of early US rap. It’s not just the breakbeats and outlaw imagery that recall hip hop. Hardcore’s cult of bass and spliff as the route to blissful stupor is reminiscent of mid-Eighties rap’s “get a little stupid and pump that bass” ethos (before rap got righteous and aware with Public Enemy, etc). Junglism has even revived scratching and other forms of turntable-manipulating mayhem, long since abandoned by US hip hoppers. Pirate MCs speed-rap self-celebratory gibberish over their cut’n’mix uproar, just like the earliest rappers.

As the ghetto-isation of Britain’s inner city estates worsens, as more and more of the young come to depend on the black economy and petty villainy to survive, it could be that junglist will developed into something more than just party music, just as US rap evolved from its ghetto origins to become a culture. It’s even conceivable that it could be politicized, if Tory tyranny extends itself towards the new millennium. But, at the moment, junglist is an anti-culture, locked in a here-and-now time-frame, seeing no further than the weekend (and whatever quick killings are necessary to pay for its costly kicks).

No discourse surrounds this music, because even the dance media recoil in horror, cloaking a class-bound snobbery behind talk of a return to “pure techno” (all electronics, no breakbeats, no squeaky 78 rpm voices). Combining Oi!’s uncouthness, Mantronix’s sampladelic absurdism, Mod’s speed-freak intensity and avant-funk’s eeriness, junglist is a mighty peculiar mutant.

Who knows what it might evolve into?

What counts is that, for better or worse, it reflects what’s going on in this country right now. It’s the exhilarating, scary sound of a generation going nowhere at hyper-speed.

2009 FOOTNOTE: A piece about jungle so early it wasn’t even called “jungle” yet. Well, that’s my get-out clause for “junglist”! These things will happen when you're only in the UK for two and half of months out of an entire year, as I was in 1993.Actually, it’s true: things were semantically cloudy at that point, pirate MCs were still chating about “junglistic hardcore” or “jungle techno”, it was a flavour not a genre, an adjective or add-on. Also the original word was “junglist”, because it came from a shout-out captured on Jamaican sound system tapes that then reached the UK, on which dancehall MCs shouted out to youth from Arnette Gardens, a Kingston community known as “Concrete Jungle”. (In the original Energy Flash, I have the garbled etymology given me by MC Navigator: he said the junglists came from Tivoli Gardens, but I found out later those gangs were called "gardenists". Doesn't have quite the same ring, eh?) The "alla tha junglists" shouts on these "yard tapes" were sampled by early ragga-techno producers and "junglist" led to "junglizm" led to "jungle."
JUNGLE EMERGES: A Flashback to 1993
director's cut of a piece written six years later, Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Years before Roni Size and LTJ Bukem became international hipster favorites, jungle was banished from the media limelight. To identify yourself as a "junglist" in 1993 meant you belonged to an outcast tribe, a scene feared by most London clubbers as a sinister underworld populated by speed-freaks and baby-gangstas. Born out of rave's Ecstasy-fuelled fervor, the music had mutated, under the influence of bad drugs and the desperation of the recession-wracked early Nineties, until it was too hard, too dark, and too black for most people to handle.

The emergence of jungle has everything to do with drugs. Its frantic breakbeat rhythms evolved because ravers buzzing on too many E pills and amphetamine wraps craved beats as hectic and hyper as their own overdriven metabolisms. The music's bad-trippy aura and disorientating FX simultaneously reflected and exacerbated the paranoia induced by long-term stimulant abuse. 1993 was the year of "darkside", a crucial transitional phase between hardcore rave's hands-in-the-air euphoria and jungle's guns-in-the-air menace.

"The production played tricks on your mind, " enthuses Two Fingers, author of the pulp novel Junglist, talking about twilight-zone jungle classics like Boogie Time Tribe's "Dark Stranger" and Origin Unknown's "Valley of the Shadows". "Darkside freaked out a lot of people, especially those still in the Ecstasy haze--because on E there's no distance between you and the music. Darkside was just evil, evil music--and that was good. Cos it got rid of the lightweights, to be honest".

One of the first all-jungle-DJs raves, Jungle Fever, went out of its way to scare off fans of happy rave and fluffy house, theming the venue with tombstones, coffins, and Gothic statuary. But the classic darkside moment in jungle mythology is an infamous inccident at a rave called Telepathy, where DJ Rap unwittingly played 4 Hero's "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare"---a song in which a father is informed about his son's fatal overdose--just seconds after a boy was knifed on the dancefloor.

Stabbings and muggings, friction and tension.... Many blamed the shift from rave's smiley-face glee to jungle's skrewface scowl on another drug: crack. After all, who else but rock-smoking fiends could possibly enjoy such insanely frenetic beats? Joe Wieczorek, owner of the hardcore rave club Labrynth, claims "the early dark jungle, you might as well call it crack music. There's nothing worse for a raver than being somewhere he doesn't feel safe, and if there's fifty rock-heads in the club, it's going to frighten the life out of you." But although there was a spate of anti-crack tunes like DJ Ron's "Crackman On the Line" in 1993, others reject the linking of jungle and crack as a crypto-racist slur based on the fact that the dancefloor was anywhere from 50 to 80 percent black.

If any substance has a claim to be the true junglist's drug, it's marijuana-- especially the hydroponically-grown ultra-strong weed known as skunk. An archetypal tableau in any jungle club is a group of boys stood in a huddle "building and burning." One youth clasps his hands together, fingers interlocked, and upturns the palms to form a flat surface for his friend to build a massive spliff on; in a crowded, jostling club, it's the only way to roll. Another friend leans close to block off the sight-lines of any security guard in the vicinity. "Burning"... well, that's self-explanatory. Marijuana is the reason jungle basslines started to run at reggae tempo, exactly half the speed of the accelerated breakbeats, thereby allowing dancers to skank rather than rave. And marijuana is why the nudge-nudge wink-wink references to E in tracks were gradually replaced by roots reggae samples exalting ganja, sensimilla and herb.

Jungle wouldn't exist without two black musics that also worship sub-bass and the chronic that intensifies the low-end boom: hip hop and reggae. The life arc of DJ Hype, founder of the labels Ganja and True Playaz, is typical. A white working class boy from the desolate East London borough of Hackney, Hype spent the Eighties playing on a reggae sound-system and competing in hip hop cut'n'mix contests. By 1990, he was spinning house on pirate station Fantasy FM and recording brutal Euro-techno anthems as The Scientist. Jungle is the only-in-London amalgam of all these different imported sounds, and crucially it was a collective invention. " I always say, we are the foundation, because there's no one record, no single DJ, no specific club, where jungle started," Hype declares.

If you wanted to pinpoint the emergence of jungle, though, one contender is the moment at the end of 1992 when tracks like Bodysnatch's "Just 4 U London" and Code 071's "London Sumting" hit the pirate radio airwaves. "That it's-a-London-thing stance, I always took as this-is-a-black-thing, y'know," says Two Fingers. "London has the biggest black population in Britain". It was black fashion that shaped jungle's style spectrum, which ranged from hip hop-influenced "ruffneck soldier" minimalism (puffy MA1 and MA2 flight-jackets, namebrand sneakers, baggy pants) to dancehall-reggae derived ghetto fabulous flashiness. At the ragga-dominated raves like Sunday Roast and Desert Storm, the 80 percent black British crowd "larged it" VIP style--the men flaunting Versace and Moschino, gold sovereign rings and bottles of champagne; the women flexin' their abdomens and winin' their waists in their skin-tight "batty rider" shorts, micro-skirts, bustiers, and thigh-high boots.

As well as changing the way people moved on the dancefloor, the ragga influence was decisive in another area that sealed jungle's break with house and techno: the crucial role of the MC. "Girls sticking their asses in the air and a MC really working the crowd, getting them to hold their lighters up and blow their horns to get the DJ to rewind the track." is how Lee Billingham, aka DJ Bo!ne, recalls his first encounter with jungle at the South London club Lazerdrome. "I loved the whole 'selector! wheel-and-come-again!' , rewind thing," says Two Fingers, another Lazerdrome regular. The democratic way in which the audience controlled the DJ via the MC, he argues, is part of jungle's renegade blackness--its participatory, call-and-response ethos. "As the jungle MCs like GQ, Det, 5-0 and Moose took on the Jamaican patois thing, they became more than crowd motivators, they were vocalizing what the massive was feeling, connecting you with the music more intensely, and adding a lyrical element to this largely instrumental music. There's an ephemeral, magical quality to the MC chants--especially on the pirate radio stations, they'd just go off on one, creating stuff on the fly."

It's the pirate radio stations that are the real heroes of jungle's story--they kept the vibe alive in the scene's early, pre-breakthrough phase. London has dozens of these illegal radio collectives, gangstas of the airwaves who broadcast from the top of towering apartment blocks and engage in a constant, quasi-military struggle to survive not just governmental suppression but the skullduggery of rival stations who'll gladly steal their pirate brethren's transmitters. Legend has it that one outfit, Rush FM, turned the derelict upper floors of an East London block into a fortress so impregnable that the DJ's had to rappel up the side of the building to reach the studio. They sealed the stairwell entrance with concrete, hollow metal tubes pumped with ammonia gas, and a wire connected to the electrical supply. When local government officials attempted to drill through the barricade, they hit the live wire and an electric spark ignited the gas, exploding the concrete and showering the workmen with shrapnel.

Yet for all its militancy and moodiness, jungle seethed with "a fierce, fierce joy", as convert Bjork put it. The speed of the music was crucial, as if you could somehow ride its future-rush, achieve escape velocity, and smash through to a brighter tomorrow.

"The breakbeats were so fast and chopped up, your body wanted to be pulled in twenty different directions at once," recalls DJ Bo!ne of his baptismal experience at Lazerdome. "Me and my mates just looked at each other, jaws dropped, and were, like, 'This is mental!!!!"."

Says Two Fingers: "Anyone can be a junglist, but for me, it's part of having a black spirit. Jungle is about getting sweaty and having a religious experience on the dancefloor. It can feel like the Holy Spirit is moving through you."

Monday, March 9, 2009

Energy Flash (the updated and expanded 2008 version) is to be published in a Croatian translation by Naklada Ljevak. Look for this edition to come out early in 2010.

The updated/expanded Energy Flash is also being published by Elliot Edizioni(formerly Arcana, who published a version of the book under the title Generazione Ballo/Sballo in 2000). Again that should be out by early 2010.