Fraternization Machine: Simon Reynolds on U.K. Dance History
Simon Reynolds is the author of Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, as well as books like Rip It Up and Start Again and Retromania. Producer Sam Backer interviewed Simon about the history of U.K. Dance.
Sam Backer: So, let’s start with the beginning. And I guess that would be acid house, and how it evolved into hardcore.
Simon Reynolds: Acid house, you know, comes from black Americans. It comes from guys in Chicago taking a piece of music technology and using it in ways that the manufacturers didn’t intend. And initially when you hear it, you don’t necessarily think of black music. When I first heard it in the late ’80s, it reminded me of things from Germany, groups like D.A.F., these sort of hard, electronic, almost industrial dance records. In a way what was so exciting about it was just this sort of alien lack of reference to previous music. It didn’t remind you of anything, these strange bass patterns. It was just futuristic and alien. You could imagine that it was the sound of the emotions that might be felt by black holes or asteroids or something like that.
But it had this impact in Britain, because it interfaced with the drug culture. It was just this sort of really trippy, hallucinatory bass sound, it was rhythmically driving but also making these strange abstract patterns, almost like Mandelbrot images, like chaos theory images. And it just fit really well with the sort of repetitive energy that ecstasy creates, the desire to repeat dance moves and just get lost in music. And also the abstract psychedelicness of the sound fitted aspects of ecstasy and LSD—drugs that were big on the rave scene then. People just went crazy to it. It was very different to dancing in clubs in Britain before then, which was much more controlled and elegant, about showing off your sexual desirability in your smart clothes. This was totally sweaty, abandoned, Dionysius dancing.
At that early rave moment—I know that there’s a lot of acid house, but from talking to people, it seems that they were actually playing all sorts of records. It wasn’t just one style.
It was a real mix. There were certain DJs who just played really hard acid and the early Detroit techno records and it was quite sort of a monolithic, super intense, trance dance experience. But people were also mixing it up. There was a sound that was big called hip-house, that was house but with rapping over the top—quite fast breakbeats. And there was straightforward, more soulful kind of house music with pianos and soul vocals. All kinds of odd records got played—indy records that had a certain kind of hypnotic or cosmic feel. It was a real mishmash, a lot of taste barriers collapsed, a lot of the snobberies that were internal to club culture in Britain, which was very…correct. Sonically correct in its music policy. But they all collapsed. One of the things about ecstasy was that it made it O.K. to be uncool. To be sweaty, to be super friendly to strangers, to not be judgmental about things.
In London club culture there was a lot of racial mixing going on already. It was a lot of young white people who’d grown up with black music for decades. So there was quite a lot of fraternizing. But there was definitely a breakdown of class barriers, of sexuality barriers, a general kind of….almost out-of-control friendliness and bonhomie that ecstasy created. It just served to mix everybody up into a sort of melting pot. It was a fraternization machine. And the whole rhetoric was unity—love, peace and unity, no matter your class, color or creed, in this house music culture.
It seemed to actually work. I feel like a lot of people say things like that, but the scenes don’t usually follow through on them.
I think it was the combination of MDMA, the way it breaks down barriers and creates trust and intimacy, and the music, which was pretty open-hearted. It was was pretty euphoria-oriented, promoting a really positive energy. It served to actually create a small utopia, quite a limited one in the sense that it took place in clubs and warehouses parties and raves, but it really broke down barriers for a while.
So by ’88, ’89, the scene starts to develop a sound of its own, instead of relying on imports.
Initially, the rave scene in Britain was very dependent on the records coming out of Chicago, Detroit and New York. They had a backlog of them, there were several years of these records that could be played. But eventually people wanted to start making their own sound, and they started bringing in elements that hadn’t been part of house and techno. You started to get tracks that had a very heavy reggae element, a sub-bass boom to them. People would work in breakbeats from hip-hop. In America, hip-hop and house music and techno were very separate things really, but in Britain it all kind of got mushed together. I think of it as a street-sound culture. There were a series of compilations called Street Sounds, and they were a mix of electro and hip-hop, early house, techno… A whole bunch of sounds, that were all played by DJs, all mushed together, and out of that came the first really distinctively British dance records.
For example, there was a style called bleep and bass. It had these kind of Kraftwerk-like electronic beeps and then this heavy bass that came partly out of reggae…. the big influence in Britain of reggae going back decades, but also from the booming bass of electro, that sort of 808 bass sound of early hip-hop and electro. What happened in Britain was the merger of mostly black sounds that were separate in their own countries of origin, but which all came together in quite unique way. It’s something that only has happened in Britain, but all the elements came from outside—some of them came from Jamaica, some of them came from the Bronx, some of them came from Chicago and Detroit. They all kind of meshed together.
I was talking to PJ and Smiley, of Shut Up and Dance, and Karl “Tuff Enuff” Brown about his time in the Double Trouble Sound System, and all of them were doing exactly that. It sounds very much like Jamaican sound system culture, but instead of just playing reggae, they’re mixing up hip-hop and dancehall and rare groove, and New York style electro, and they’re cutting it up live at warehouse parties. It really seemed like all of the pieces of the next decade of U.K. dance music were there, sort of floating around in this kind of primordial sound-system soup.
It was like the raw materials were all floating around in the mid-’80s. And there is this street sounds culture, where there’s little bit of everything, and gradually, rather than sort of being eclectic as DJs, people actually start to make records out of all these different components, these hybrid sounds where the bass is booming and slow, and that’s from reggae, but then you have breakbeat or very fast, intricate, syncopated programmed drum-beats. And then you also have rapping on top as well. So you have all these constituents coming together, and meshing into hybrids. And then later they’re going to separate out, and you can see the seeds of dubstep, you can see the seeds of grime, the seeds of jungle and U.K. garage. For a while, they’re all in one sound, and then they’re going to separate out again into other sorts of hybrids.
Unique 3 reflect the mixture of hip-hop, techno and electro that defined early British dance music.
I think of British ’90s dance music as a kind of terrain, over which these different influences are warring for dominance. So at certain points the hip-hop influence seems stronger, and then reggae really takes over, and you know, the techno is in there as well, this European thing adding a whole other element to it. But there is definitely an argument for saying that reggae is the primary matrix. And that’s true for a bunch of reasons. For one, you have what is really unique to the British rave culture, which is the role of the MC chatting over the music live. The DJ is playing tracks, and the MC is ad-libbing, and has a stock armory of phrases. That is really something that comes out of reggae and dancehall culture, you won’t find that in house music in America or techno in America. It’s not really rapping, because they’re not doing complicated verses…it’s a series of vocal riffs, sometimes noises, strange noises, catchphrases, chants. They’re really mostly limited to bigging up the DJ, bigging up the crowd, exciting the crowd to do a rewind.
And a rewind—that’s another thing that’s a Jamaican sound system import that came to Britain from Jamaica. Where the audience clamors for a track, a really hot track, to be wheeled back to the top to start again. You will not find rewinds in house music or techno in America. Another element that comes from Jamaican culture and quickly became a staple in Britain is the dub plate. The dub plate is like an exclusive track which only one sound system has. It changed a bit in Britain, because it became a track that only certain DJs would have, and they’d play it at different parties. A producer might give dub plates of a new track in advance, many months in advance, to various different DJs. That’s basically a Jamaican idea, of having these sort of exclusive or semi-exclusive tracks. They’re almost like weapons in your arsenal, that you drop when you want to dominate. So it’s almost like a Jamaican competitive rivalry thing is adapted in Britain for a different kind of dance circuit.
But in all of that… It seems as if acid house explodes, and the rave scene explodes, but there’s a little bit of a lag right? It takes a bit of time before, for instance, Shut Up and Dance, who are black British DJs working in this sound-system world, are like—”Oh. We can do this. This new scene connects with what we’re doing really well.”
A crucial bridge that connected acid house and hip-hop and reggae in Britain, is that the British always liked fast hip-hop. For instance, Public Enemy was a really big band in Britain because their music was fast and quite noisy. And similarly, with the reggae sound systems, there was a kind of fast style of chatting that was different from Jamaica. So there’s a hyperkinetic quality to the way that both hip-hop and reggae developed in Britain. Just tempo-wise, it fit very well with acid house and techno, which are faster musics. So it was sort of easy for someone like Shut Up and Dance to go from being a fast hip-hop group to making tracks that worked as breakbeat-driven rave tunes. And actually, I think they always had a certain kind of wariness of the rave culture. I think they felt it to be a bit escapist, a bit lacking of lyrical content. But they attracted really well in that scene, and they did a lot to pushed the development of rave culture towards breakbeats.
I know that one of the things Shut Up and Dance does is to start pulling top talent from this underground Jamaican sound system culture, with the Ragga Twins being the most obvious example, and putting them on chart topping hits. Was that a big deal? Had musicians like the Ragga Twins been on “Top of the Pops” before?
There had always been reggae hits in Britain. An underground reggae track would suddenly rise up and be a big hit. So in the late-’70s Althea and Donna had a number one hit with “Uptown Top Ranking,” which is a kind of a talk-sing track, somewhere between rapping and singing. And people like Smiley Culture had hits with his toasting records. So it wasn’t something that completely didn’t exist. Every so often someone from the reggae culture would have a big hit in Britain, and it was sort of there in the background of British music. You even had things like Police or the Specials, who were bringing some of that Jamaican vibe into pop. It’s a thing that runs through British pop, from really early on. So I think that the Ragga Twins on “Top of the Pops”—it’s not as insanely incongruous and shocking as it might have seemed, but it definitely was a striking moment.
So over time, all of these styles fuse into something that’s really remarkably new. And that happens by around 1991, right?
People in the scene call it hardcore, although the word hardcore kind of shifts around, meaning slightly different things on a year-by-year basis. And a lot of people at the time continued to use the word techno as the word to describe it all. So it was all very semantically fluid and confusing, and almost as soon as you got used to one descriptor, another one came along to displace it. But for me, if I think of hardcore, I think of a crazy fast, chopped-up breakbeat, a booming bass out of reggae or electro, or an 808 bass out of hip-hop. And then there might be a mad sort of “terror riff,” that’s how I think of it, as terror riffs, a doomy-sounding sort of bombastic riff. But there might also be a happy piano in there for a bit, and there’d be chopped-up samples from pop music. Another motive was a lot of soundtrack music, film scores were very popular. So all of these things—things that were quite cheesy, that were quite rough and street and very black, things that were quite atmospheric, things that were brutal and techno and industrial. All of that was mashed together, often in the space of a five-minute track. They used all of these moves, every trick possible, to excite and drive a crowd crazy.
Classic Hardcore from 2 Bad Mice
But from this kind of mashup of everything—the music becomes more and more reggae influenced. And that’s both the really explicit, Shy FX type of stuff, as well as a set of more subtle influences.
People start using the word jungle, which is a term that comes from Jamaican slang—the inhabitants of the concrete jungle are jungalists. As soon as people start calling it jungle, the reggae influence comes to the fore. And they’re pulling from the current Jamaica, from dancehall, ragga, Buju Banton, people like that… But they’re also pulling for the past. From the soulful vocals of roots reggae, talking about Babylon, or about how “when I was a youth I like to smoke collie weed,” sensimilla-influenced lyrics. And also the bass lines, which were either literally taking the slow and low bass lines from classic roots reggae tracks, or they might just have that feel, that sort of dread feel of colossal bass pressure, almost a tectonic shifting of the continental plates beneath your feet. And vibes that came out of reggae, to do with either sort of a rude boy, I’m a bad man, I’m a gangster, raggamuffin kind of thing, or the more spiritual meditational side, referring to concepts like Zion, Babylon. The idea that in the dance, we escape all the pressures of the outside world, of Babylon basically.
That militant spirituality is in the fibers of this music, but it also has quite negative side as well, to do with gun talk and threats and strutting bad boy postures. So it’s all there—Jamaican culture, Jamaican ghetto culture is almost transplanted into Britain. Because what it’s talking about fits some of the things that are going on in Britain at the time. Britain has its own ghettos, has its own white and black youth who are harassed by the police, feel like they don’t have a future, don’t have a place, no way of rising up, economically. So music is one way to do that. Or to at least create a space for themselves.
When did you first start hearing jungle used to describe this new music and, I guess, cultural formation?
It’s always an ever-shifting semantic thing with U.K. dance, but at first you’d hear about jungle techno, or you’d hear people talking the jungalists, “big up the jungalists.” Sometimes it would be a sample from a tape from Jamaica, but often it would be the MC, calling to the jungalists, and using patois quite heavily, saying “Bruk out!” and “Wind ya waist”–all these Jamaican-flavored terms. It went from being a word, a word sort of glommed onto techno, people talking about jungle techno, and then it became a genre its own right, and then it achieved definition as a sound. It became a kind of identity, you were jungalist, this is your life. People used to talk about “AWOL,” a way of life. Your whole life is oriented around pirate radio, going to these raves, going to the record shops every week to see what new tracks are out, the white labels… it was a world unto itself.
When you say the definition of a sound, can you talk a little bit more about that?
Because I tend to associate jungle with the moment when the breakbeats start tension-and-release slipping…
It’s such a mutating and elastic form of music, it’s hard to pin it down. But I think the core of jungle is the relationship between the fast breaks, going about 150+ BPM, chopped up and jagged, and then the basslines, which are going about exactly half that speed, 75 to 80 beats per minute, and the bass provides the solid foundation for the dancer. Mostly you would dance to the slower beat, the slower groove within the faster groove. The faster groove you might move your arms around to that, but it was almost there as a sort of ambient blur of velocity which you swam through. And the beat went from being a steady thing—in most dance music it’s very regular and holds down the groove, to being an unstable force. It would be madly chopped up into volleys and ambushes of chopped up breaks and sudden interruptions of particularly frenzied bits.And multiple beats going on simultaneously, so it became almost baroque in the complexity of the way that people were chopping up these breaks. And often there were a quite small number of original breaks—there were maybe only five or six main ones: The “Amen” break being the one that was used the most. “Think” was another breakbeat that was used a lot. But people found huge numbers of ways of slipping them up, recombining them, creating maximal musical potential out of this quite minimal source material.
In terms of the overall trajectory, this is sort of a sub-scene of this larger rave massive in ’92. But over the next couple of years, it seems like it developed a really sturdy infrastructure of radio stations and record stores and producers. And then it explodes in size, right?
It’s hard to say how big it was. You could say the rave scene might have been at his biggest in ’91, ’92, when a lot of tracks are going in the charts. They weren’t getting any play on the mainstream radio, but sales to the rave audience were propelling them, sometimes right to the top of the pop charts. But then the scene kind of fragments. It becomes more regionally fragmented, and jungle is a strong scene within this fragmented rave culture. It’s centered in London, although it has outposts in other cities with large black populations, and with white youth who have grown up with decades of black friends, and black music played around them. So Bristol is a strong scene, Birmingham, Coventry, some of the northern cities, these are the satellite cities for jungle. But London is the core, and that’s why you have all these songs with names like “Just 4 U London,” or “London Sumting Dis,” all these patriotic appeals to London as a metropolis of multicultural mixing. This feeling that London is the vanguard, London is leading the world by creating these new hybrids.
But I don’t know how big it was. I once asked people at the label Moving Shadow, and Goldie, who was working with them, if they knew how big the scene was. I didn’t know, I had no idea. It felt enormous because there were so many pirate stations, and I was a little surprised when they said, well maybe it’s 50,000 people, and I thought, “That seems small to me,” but you know, it was a very fervent 50,000 if that’s how many it was. The biggest records in ’93, ’94 might sell 23,000, maybe 30,000 at the most, but that was abnormal. Normal sales for a record were 6,000 or 4,000 or something like that. So it was quite a dense, fervent, compact scene, and a lot of the people who are fans of it were DJs or aspiring DJs or were producers or were somehow involved. It was a high ratio of participants to observers—there weren’t that many passive people in the scene, which was quite inspiring.
And a big part of that was the pirate stations, right? That’s one of the things that amazes me—the sheer density of the pirates.That you could turn on the radio, and hear so many stations playing this underground music.
There were a lot of mainstream stations. The BBC stations, the commercial pop stations, community radio stations which are legal. But in between them, all the way through the dial, you’d bump into pirate radio after pirate radio. And probably, it depended on which part of London you were in, but in any given place you’d probably hear about 30 pirate radios. In total, there might be as many as 100 in the whole of London. And you’d get a few pirates in other cities. London is so much bigger than the nearest city, that in other cities you might get two or three pirates—in a place like Manchester or Sheffield or Bristol.
But London because of its landscape of high-rise apartment blocks, it is peculiarly suited to illegal broadcasting. And there’s a lot of people and a lot of fragmented different tastes. There are enough people to support several dancehall stations, several house stations, a few hip-hop stations, and then you’d have 45 jungle stations—there could be as many as that. They didn’t all last that long. Some of them give up after six months, but there are others that go on year after year. And have proper sort of business infrastructure, and even the premises are quite neat, tidy, and organized.
And that’s really a remarkable tool for getting these underground sounds out. Jungle is a really good example of that.
Pirates promote the music, they promoted raves. They have adverts for raves on them, or the raves are being thrown by the pirates sometimes. Up-and-coming DJs and MCs make their name on shows. You keep the audience excited during the week while they’re waiting for the rave to happen. They would tape the music off the radio, listen to it in the week as well, when the stations were not broadcasting. And then there’s the weekend itself. If it’s your way of life, you can listen to pirates all day long, then go to the rave, listen to the pirate while you were driving to another rave in the middle of night. It becomes an all-subsuming world, a world unto itself.
And it’s a ranking system. It’s where people rise up, talent can rise up. You make a name for yourself, you become a hot producer, a hot DJ, a hot MC, through this sort of hierarchy. What I found interesting about the pirates, is that they are both collective and extremely competitive. It’s just weird mixture of collectivism and hypercapitalistic competition. Every pirate is a rival with the the other pirates, people on the show are competing to be better than other people on the same station, but the music is given out free to the community, and the DJs and the MCs actually pay a subscription fee to be on the station. It’s like a little stake they have to pay to keep the station running. So it’s a weird combination of anarcho-collectivism and this sort of very competitive “I want to make it” kind of capitalistic drive.
It’s also a crime as well. They’re committing crimes. So there’s a whole element of adventure and danger. The kind of thing that appeals to adolescent men of every class and background, is doing dangerous risky reckless things. Some of these pirates would climb up the side of buildings using ropes to get into places where they were broadcasting from, or they’d have to get up on roofs and put transmitters up there. As an activity, it has that thrilling vibe of being outside the law.
You mentioned Moving Shadow and Goldie, and actually that leads into my next question. Because they were both on the artier side of things. And I’m just wondering whether there was any tension between these different wings of jungle—between the kind of arty hardcore and the more rootsy jungle stuff.
A lot of people did tracks with a reggae influence. 4hero did tracks that had reggae samples in them, and Goldie did ones like that as well. But those guys quickly started to feel that that had become too clichéd and obvious. It was very popular on the dance floor, every time a track dropped that had a sample from Buju Banton or some dancehall figure like that, the crowd would go crazy for it. They felt that there was an art form there that they wanted to develop, and they thought their influences were actually much wider than reggae. They’d been listening to Detroit techno and ambient music and weird postpunk and a lot of jazz and funk and soul was all part of the mix. So you started to get a sort of arty vanguard, I actually called it artcore, and then the more ragga crowd-pleasing stuff, that people started to call jump-up, because it’s what people made the dancers jump up on the dance floor.
4Hero reflects the “artier,” less reggae-influenced side of hardcore.
And there was a kind of gulf that emerged between the more experimental people, Reinforced Records, 4Hero, Goldie, some of the Moving Shadow people. They were making music that was increasingly very sophisticated, that didn’t necessarily have that visceral appeal to the dance, it is actually better for listening at home on headphones, or on a really good stereo. These people start thinking about albums more, rather than a killer track that would get dropped at a rave seven times because every DJ would have to play the big tune at the moment. They started making music that actually didn’t get really get played much on the dance floor. It might get played on the pirates because people could be more adventurous on the air, but was really almost like home-listening jungle. Drum and bass people, as people started to prefer to call it.
That was my next question. So that artier side does transform into what will become drum and bass.
Well, as a phrase, drum and bass is a Jamaican term. “Strictly drum and bass, come and wind up your waist.” It’s one of those catchphrases, but funnily enough it gradually came to signify the non-reggae side of jungle and of that music. It came to signify people who were tired of ragga tunes, who don’t want to be restricted to what they felt were the clichés of this music. So drum and bass became a neutral term, because it was basically describing the fundamental parameters of the music, which was drums and bass. But then people started to add more and more to it. So there was orchestration, there were jazzy elements, there were lots of layers and textures. It became quite maximal, almost like a modern-day version of ’70s fusion. People were very influenced by Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers. And for certain producers like LTJ Bukem, this moment of ’70s of jazz fusion, jazz where you had synthesizer parts and these thick mellow textured grooves, became for them the ultimate ideal of music, what they felt they were carrying on and updating.
What’s also interesting is that when I talked to people, there seemed to be a racial component to that redefinition. That, at least for some of jungle DJs, there was a sense of scene politics. Jungle had come to have this connotation of people in hoodies and too many black people in the clubs, and that image didn’t stick to the music being described as drum and bass.
It’s really complicated. It’s like different eras or ideas of black music that are set against each other. So the dancehall influence, the ragga jungle tunes, would be felt to be suggestive of what people in Britain called “yardies,” bad boys basically. And perhaps that was something that some club promoters would not want to come to their nights. Whereas the music that was more redolent of ’70s black music, fusion and jazz and soul…that was felt to create a more mellow vibe. So it was almost like different eras of black music being set in contrast or competition with each other…But you know, in practice, some of the hardest, toughest, most “ghetto” bad-boy tunes were made by white producers, and some of the most gentle lyrical melodic poignant tunes were made by black producers, so you couldn’t really… it was more of a taste difference within different areas of black music history, that things revolved around. And the composition of the audience.
Unfortunately in British club culture promoters have often been nervous about music policies that draw an entirely black male audience. Part of the sort of goals that club promoters always state is “a mixed crowd.” But underneath what sounds like a really nice ideal is a racist anxiety, basically. Which is not to say that a mixed crowd isn’t a nice thing, but if you look later with the closing down of clubs that play grime, there is a perennial anxiety about a teenage black male audience.
It’s tricky, because people on both sides of the divide are both white and black and all kinds of mixtures. And the DJs who were talking to me about this were very clear about that. That this was the perception of jungle, but that many of the people pushing that perception were black DJs. So this is now…’95, ’96, when drum and bass starts to take off?
Yes. That’s when it starts to draw an audience that it never had before and people like LTJ Bukem are very much consciously trying to convert the house music audience, and really make drum and bass a mellow inviting experience. Where initially it was something of a test–you had to work out how to dance to it, the percussion was sort of a bombardment. Now people like Bukem and Alex Reese were making these slinky, approachable tracks, with very mellow textures in them, and it starts to take off. It starts to get cover stories in dance magazines. There are radio shows on mainstream commercial stations dedicated to drum and bass, it starts to cross over.
And it goes international, in a way that jungle never had.
Jungle had followings, really devoted firm followings in certain cities in America. New York, Toronto, there’s a little one in Florida. These sort of fanatical scenes based on jungle imports. But when you get to Goldie and LTJ Bukem, people like that, they are getting interviewed in rock magazines. And you get drum and bass scenes popping up all around the world, in all kinds of different countries, from Brazil to places in Eastern Europe. It becomes international scene, and it’s never stopped really.
And around the same time that all of this is happening, garage appears. And I think that’s actually the hardest thing to grasp from a U.S. perspective. Because it just seems almost magical. It’s just a totally different sound.
At the time, I tried to pieces on garage in America, and I’d play tapes that I’d made of all the best speed-garage records, and people would say, “Well, it’s just house music though, isn’t it.” They’d been able to perceive what was so different about jungle even if they didn’t like it. Because there was no denying it wasn’t a new thing, a shockingly new assault sonically. But with garage, it was quite subtle and mellow, and the tempo wasn’t so frenetic. People could just say that it’s house music with a very slight favor of reggae to it.
I think it was confusing because you sort of imagine that music will keep evolving and getting exponentially more extreme, and this was a curious swerve where it went less extreme. It went back to be more approachable and inviting, but still having the uproarious elements of roots reggae to it as well. And dubby effects, and whole bunch of other unusual production tricks that it had learned from the drum and bass years, but resituated back in a context that was…fun. Drum and bass had gotten so hard–it was quite a macho scene, and this new music appealed to both genders equally. It had a pop element, there were hits that came out of it. It was something that a lot of people in Britain liked much more than jungle, and it became much more popular than jungle had ever become.
Do you remember when you first became aware of it as sound? Had you been paying attention to the New York stuff?
Well, I knew that garage originally meant New York house music of a soulful kind, but I wasn’t very interested in it. It seemed like, if jungle was the vanguard, this was the opposite of the vanguard. It was like a treading water, a slow-moving, backward-looking sound. I remember going to jungle raves, and there was a second room that was always playing garage, and I was always surprised why garage was there. I thought it just seemed like such a soft option. It was there as sort of a relaxation room really, for people who wanted a break from the full-on assault of the jungle and drum and bass. And then that side room branched off and became its own scene.Basically it was New York house music, that then they added jungle elements and heavier bass lines and the vocal licks from dancehall. They roughed it up a bit, and it became almost like junglized house music. And that’s when I thought, “Ahh I see. this is interesting.” It was fun again, and sensual and sexy, and that had dropped out of jungle. Almost completely.
It also seems like a lot of the garage that initially breaks into mainstream is connected to what was going on in American r&b.
Initially, U.K. or speed garage is just U.S. garage music, well, sped up a bit. It’s a bit more rough, it’s got bad boy elements, its got heavier bass lines. And then people start picking up what Timbaland is doing, and the r&b producers that came after him, especially the sort of stop-start beats. And it gets even slower. It slows down from jungle to speed garage, and then when speed garage becomes two-step garage, it’s really pretty slow. You dance to it in quite a slow sexy, move your shoulders and your hips and waist type of way.
It’s like grown-up music. I’ve always felt that this generation has been through rave, taken loads of pills, and the whole fast crazy frenetic thing, and now they were grown-ups, and they wanted music that fit their grown-up lives, which are oriented around relationships and love and sex. So that’s what two-step was. Britain always has listened to what America is doing, and also what Jamaica is doing, and these records that Timbaland was doing were just amazing. The beats—these broken-up beats, the hyper-syncopations, the way the bass is situated in the groove. And it was pop music as well. With underground music there’s always a thing, well, “We wouldn’t mind making some money.” These are people who don’t come from money, and often don’t have other career options, so the chance of being as big as Timbaland or She’kspere, the guy who produced Destiny’s Child…there’s always a temptation that we’re underground, but we wouldn’t mind being overground.
One big thing that came out of that was a huge vogue for doing bootlegs of r&b tracks, stuff like Brandy and Monica, Aaliyah, people like that. They would take the vocals off the a cappella versions, and they would build a new track around them. Sometimes they would create a different emotional vibe just through resituating different elements of the vocal in a different musical matrix. These bootlegs, bootlegs of things like Whitney Houston, would sell huge amounts, relative to the sales of dance music at least. And again, I think that indicated their ambition. It’s the beginning of a thing where people were looking at what Puff Daddy was doing, what Timbaland was doing, and thinking, “Yeah. We wouldn’t mind some of that.”
That resituation. In your book, Energy Flash, you call that”vocal science.”
That was a term created by a writer called bat, a dance music scholar, a dance music pundit. And he coined this term vocal science, playing on the idea of breakbeat science. Jungle had been about breakbeat science, about chopping up the breaks in this almost surgical way. Jungle producers had also done vocal science, doing things with samples of divas, but 2-step producers took things to a new level. They edited these vocals to create new melodies and riffs out of them, changing the emotional stance of a vocal from its original context, making it baleful or desirous. They would do amazing processing of the vocals to make them sound more glistening or phased or eerie and futuristic. There was crazy invention with the beats and bass lines, but vocal science almost became the frontier for a while. That was where the creativity was going, where people were doing things where you didn’t believe their ears. But it was poppy at the same time. It was like futuristic avant-garde pop, lush and sensual and sexy and soulful, and all these things that you expect from r&b, but twisted and warped at the same time.
That focus on the vocal. It seems like it also created a new space for the MC. You get MC-led hit tracks, but also in the live sets, you hear the MCs spitting more front and center then they had been in jungle…
There was a sort of weird transitional phase were garage became what I call garage rap. The MC is not only saying a few basic vocal licks, they’re actually rhyming proper verses. And you start to get these star MCs, people like MC Creed or PSG. They were big figures in the dance, mentioned high up on the flyers for the raves, but they are also credited on the records now as well. It’s featuring MC Creed, or featuring MC Neat. And they’re starting to get equal billing with the DJs. So this garage rap phase is really the precursor to grime, where the MCs take over. They are the stars, and the DJs really drop back.
And that’s then followed by what I see as even more of a bridge, which is the garage crews.
Yeah. The way I think of it—it’s sort of a metaphor but, that the MCs are gathering force, they’re looking to displace the DJ and producer. So they gang up–you have Genius Crew, Heartless Crew, Pay-As-U-Go Cartel, all of these six, eight, nine-member gangs of MCs, these collectives who just sort of take over. And there suddenly, the records are credited to Roll Deep or they’re credited to Pay-As-U-Go Cartel, the K2 family, all these names that are actually quite so similar to the names you’re getting in America, like Ruff Ryders, or Roc-A-Fella or Cash Money. And that’s an exciting period because suddenly the whole axis of the music seems to flip, and other people who were ancillary to it, the MCs. They were very important but always ancillary to the DJ, now they’re running things, now they’re in charge. And people are dancing, but they’re also listening closely to who’s got the best flow, who’s got the best verses, who’s dissing another MC. It becomes more like a British hip-hop.
That last period of garage is always confusing to me. Because in 2000 you’re still having Daniel Bedingfields, you’re still having this pop garage that’s topping the charts, right?
But then you are also starting to get hits from Oxide and Neutrino, So Solid Crew and Pay-As-U-Go Cartel, and More Fire Crew. Really big hits, top 10 hits. Where the MCs are running things, and the music is very gradually getting less garage-ey, it’s getting less house music dancey, and getting quite tough again. The beats are getting quite electro, and the vibe is dark and menacing. And then you have these aggressive rasping MCs over the top. “Oi,” by More Fire Crew is one of the most extreme records that’s ever been a chart-topping hit in Britain. It’s got no melody, just these tough, tough beats, and then these raspy, kind of guttural MCs on the top. Very minimal. Very full on. Almost like a jump-up jungle record but with a rap element. And that would go to number seven, I think, on the U.K. charts.
Was there a sense of the time this was a more underground sound as opposed to the more mainstream, more pop garage? Or was it seen as, “This is all garage. It’s one big scene, it’s one big rave”?
It’s a paradox because on one hand, it did seem very underground because it was very street, very aggressive. Stars like So Solid Crew had gotten into trouble of various kinds, so it did seem underground. But they were also having number-one hits, and were on the TV a lot. So it was sort of underground-overground in that most exciting way, where the pop charts are overrun by something that does come from the streets, that does come from pirate radio. I think So Solid Crew actually ran and owned their own pirate radio station, but at the same time they were everywhere. Their records are in big stores, and they are on the “Top of the Pops,” so… That was an exciting moment.
It created a certain paradox because really this is the beginning of grime, but grime starts at the top of the U.K. charts. Oxide and Neutrino, a number-one hit. So Solid Crew’s “21 Seconds,” it’s a number-one hit. It’s the weirdest trajectory of a music I can think of. Grime is born at the top of the charts, and goes underground and then comes out again with Dizzee Rascal and becomes critically approved and wins the Mercury Prize, but then it only becomes pop music again in late 2000s. It’s a very strange, zigzagging path for genre of music to take, to actually be born in the the top five.
My sense is that, when you’re trying to track this subculture, with these kinds of dense institutions that are a remarkably solid through-line until digital technology creates a whole new set of challenges and opportunities. But it really seems that, more than garage, grime really retreats back into infrastructure, in way that hadn’t been true since I don’t know, jungle in 1993? I mean like, this density of small labels, and white label releases, and pirate radio stations, and really living in that network.
It does retreat, but I think a lot of those people probably wanted to be signed, and follow the path that Dizzee Rascal went on. But the initial phase of grime at least was too scary for most record labels, in the sense that they didn’t know how they could sell it. It was getting all these critical plaudits, but they probably fairly shrewdly thought that most listeners don’t want to be confronted by something so confrontational and abrasive in their living room. And so it did, almost of necessity, become an underground scene. And I think it was quite hard for many in the scene to make much of a living, because there weren’t that many opportunities to play live, because of the difficulties of having grime-only raves. Tracks didn’t sell all that well. You started to get tracks where they were one-sided, because it saved a bit in the mastering stage, for the record not to have at track on the other side. And they were being pressed up in only a few hundred copies. That’s when you started to feel that, yes, this is like jungle, but jungle could sell a lot more records in its prime. Three or four thousand sales was normal for track if it was decent. And some tracks could sell 10,000, 20,000. DJs had a lot more opportunities, and MCs had a lot more opportunities to perform at raves, and make money that way. It was a much more functional economy.
With grime, you could be a big name on the pirates, and everybody knew who you were, but you might not have much of a livelihood from it. In the wake of Dizzee Rascal, people like Kano got signed, but they didn’t cross over, so… There was a certain sense of desperation in grime. All these people trying to break through a really narrow aperture. There were a lot of grime radio stations, but you didn’t have the grime hits going to the charts. Three or four maybe, middling hits. And there wasn’t that sense of the outside world’s money pouring into the scene.
In addition to radio, grime also developed an entire DvD industry.
There was this vogue for grime DVDs, little handhelds with somewhat shoddy interviews and performance clips and videos, rather amateurish videos, from housing estates, filmed in East London. They almost felt like the scene was feeling that “We deserve to be on TV, but nobody’s putting us on TV, so let’s make our own sort of TV in DVD form.” So these became quite popular well-selling things to the scene itself, almost as a form of fantasy fulfillment, I think. You could say, I’m on Lords of the Mic, Vol. 3 doing my track, and that was a surrogate for the mainstream attention that deserved. They really deserved, they thought, and I believe as well. But that they weren’t getting it.
Let’s go back to that moment when garage is both at the top of the charts and dissolving, to track the other emergent strand.
All right. Dubstep.
You can really hear it in some of the garage tracks. I was listening through one of the lists that you did for Red Bull Music Academy at some point, and the bass tone is just enormous on some of these garage tracks. You can really hear where this darker, heavier, more atmospheric sound begins to emerge.
Dubstep comes out of garage, and a taste among some producers and DJs for more stripped-down, less poppy tunes that have the groove of garage but also this deeper, more meditational or menacing bass. And maybe with maybe just a little more reggae influence in for the production. So initially that’s what it is. Dubstep is 2-step but with a stronger dub element in it. One of the main pioneers is Horsepower Productions, who did a lot of tracks that were sort of slinky but also could be sinister and ominous in vibe, with not much in them but the beats and the bass. It’s sort of a minimalist move within U.K. garage almost bringing it more in line with techno aesthetic. Stripped-down, subtle. The buzzword would be deep. Deepness means avoiding the obvious, avoiding the cheesy, avoiding anything that suggests pop music or the obvious appeal to anthemic melody. So deep becomes the aesthetic, and the behavior it brings about is a more intent, inwardly focused, less-uproarious kind of dancing
Initially it’s a quite diffusely defined sound. I think it really becomes its own thing when you start to get this beat, this sort of lurching beat. It’s quite slow and quite sort of… ominous. And that’s when it stops being just a kind of minimal, stripped down, somewhat doomy version of garage. It had a whole different rhythmic feel. It’s sort of a kind of disabled skank in some ways, it’s lurching. Like one leg is limping kind of thing. It’s almost like the beat’s been wounded in some way, in one leg, and it’s lurching along. For me, who is a fan of the faster kinds of music, this energy drop, I wasn’t so keen on it. But at the same time they make up for it by really intensifying the bass, and coming up with a whole new kinds of dirty gnarly bass. It’s very sub-bassey, very low-endy, but also has this blare to it as well, this mid-frequency attack. It’s almost like instead of having the drive of fast beat music, it has this sort of impact of the bass hit. The bass drop is the bit that makes people go crazy. Makes people react. In comes the bass line. It becomes a kind of fetish of bass. I think of it as a cosmology of bass. People talk about “bass weight.” Come up with the heaviest bass line. So picking up again on some of the things that jungle did when it had really heavy gnarly bass lines, but moving into an area where you have multiple bass lines. Different levels, different kinds of bass timbre simultaneously. People trying to make the ugliest, most punishing bass-lines possible.
And going back to that early acid house moment, one of the thing that might explain dubstep’s popularity is the sheer physicality of that experiences. Even for people who are’t on drugs, that bass is remarkable.
People talk about bass pressure. The physical feeling that sort of goes through your body. It’s like a tremor, like an earthquake tremor. It’s seismic. And your whole body kind of wobbles with it. And the word wobble because the name of sort of phase of dubstep, wobble tunes. Initially praising them, and the later people get fed up with some many of these tunes that have these tremolo effects, a really exaggerated tremble that becomes increasingly severe. Jagged and mechanistic and sort of inhuman. And that the element where dubstep starts to feel like it’s innovating. In its early phase, a lot of people, including myself, felt like “Well, it’s a composite of a bunch of things we’ve already seen.” But when the bass gets to be that extreme, and that opposed to conventional ideas of musicality, that’s when you start to hear dubstep making sounds of the 21st century that no one else is making. And that’s when, even if you don’t enjoy it that much, there’s a sense that things are being pushed forward again.