It’s hard to think of a musical style that’s been discussed, celebrated, and borrowed by so many yet heard by so few as drum ‘n’ bass. The music formerly known as jungle has left traces on pop albums like Everything but the Girl’s Walking Wounded and smothered the new David Bowie…but who’s actually got the latest Peshay record? It’s precisely this cart-before-the-horse dilemma that will in all likelihood prevent electronica–the blanket term favored by the music biz for drum ‘n’ bass, along with its older siblings techno, instrumental hip-hop, ambient dub, and trip-hop–from becoming the industry’s new cash cow, despite concerted efforts to milk it.
It won’t help any that electronic artists tend to hide behind noms de needle on record and behind fortresses of electronic equipment onstage. People who like rock shows are going to be disappointed if they blindly run out to catch the latest drum ‘n’ bass star manipulating turntables and twirling knobs–it’s a studio phenomenon first and foremost. But for those who want to know more about the trend than they can read in the New York Times, on Thursday, March 6, the Smart Bar might be the place to be. At an event called the Summit, billed as “a night of pure drum ‘n’ bass,” six of Chicago’s top jungle DJs–Snuggles, Phantom 45, 3D, U-Sheen (John Herndon), Designer (Casey Rice), and Daniel Givens, some of whom are artists in their own right–ought to provide a vivid scan of this frenetic, high-speed electronic style.
While most of the styles that fall under the rubric of electronica have been around for years, spawned by the house and techno of Chicago and Detroit in the early 80s, drum ‘n’ bass is fairly new. It developed in England out of a rave style called breakbeat, or hardcore, where looped drum samples were accelerated to double and sometimes triple time and repeated ad infinitum. Jungle artists broke out of breakbeat’s dumbed-down simplicity by programming their own elaborate patterns and lifting hip-hop and dancehall beats instead of merely sampling four-bar breaks. While the beats became more complex, rapid, and abstract, the music’s bass lines–actually more tones than lines–remained the navigable element for dancers.
Ravers still favor a less complicated–and less intellectually interesting–sort of drum ‘n’ bass, which should be best represented at the Summit by Snuggles. And even within pure drum ‘n’ bass there are subgenres: artists recording for L.T.J Bukem’s Looking Good label accent their beats with airy, jazzy washes and soul-diva snippets. Scene vet Roni Size has pioneered a funkier style, jump-up, that draws heavily on hip-hop; listen for it in Phantom 45’s and U-Sheen’s sets. The hardstep of Doc Scott and Dillinja leans on more punishing beats, and extremists like Ed Rush and Arcon 2 push hardstep into a dark void, blowing up bass lines into woofer-destroying pulses of distortion; this is Designer’s territory.
The catalyst for the electronica revolution, such as it is, has been drum ‘n’ bass’s appeal to and appropriation by artists outside the rave scene. Spring Heel Jack and Plug have crafted sweeping, cinematic music that enfolds the rhythms with provocative textures and even reintroduces the notion of melody; guitar improviser Derek Bailey and experimental composer Jim O’Rourke have both used the vocabulary to forge fresh and challenging fusions far removed from club culture. The shame of it is that these worthwhile hybrids are just as likely as their purist antecedents to lose out to the shams.
When the Sugar Hill Gang perform Monday at House of Blues, their nostalgic shtick is bound to include a rendition of their first–and hip-hop’s first–record, “Rapper’s Delight.” That classic and numerous other gems by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Spoonie Gee, Treacherous Three, and Funky 4+1 have been collected on The Sugar Hill Records Story, a five-CD box recently released by Rhino. In an era when hip-hop is continually derided for its violence, drug references, and misogyny, it’s startling to relisten to the music in its infancy. These landmark singles aren’t without a sharp awareness of the oppressive conditions of ghetto life, but they’re also a lot of fun. As Ronin Ro writes in the liner notes, this music “was meant to serve as a form of entertainment. The microphone wasn’t used for one artist to tell another he screwed his wife.” o On January 16, the garage- and trash-rock label Estrus, based in Bellingham, Washington, fell victim to a warehouse fire that destroyed most of its business records and inventory. This Saturday at 7 PM the Empty Bottle will host Fireshock, a benefit concert featuring performances by the Goblins, Crown Royals, Chinese Millionaires, Bouncing Balls, and five other bands.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.