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Eternal evolution: why drum’n’bass refuses to die
Fabio, Friction, Optical and more explain why after two decades, d’n’b is still on top.
2016 started on a high for Goldie, the drum’n’bass musician granted an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List for services for music and young people. It’s an honour that comes 21 years on from the release of his debut album Timeless – a sprawling, futurist record inspired by E-fuelled nights dancing to Fabio and Grooverider at London club Rage that nonetheless entered the UK Top 10, marking drum’n’bass’ breakthrough into the mainstream.
D’n’b spent a couple of years on top, with another landmark dropping in 1997, when Roni Size and Reprazent scooped the Mercury Music Prize with their debut album New Forms. But come the late ‘90s, the music started moving in the direction of a dark, paranoid sound, typified by Bad Company’s The Nine or the pre-millennial tension of Ed Rush and Optical’s debut album Wormhole. Garage went on to replace d’n’b in the charts, and grime and dubstep both followed, hogging the media limelight.
There’s a teeming mass of producers tearing up the rulebook on what d’n’b could or should sound like
But this wasn’t the end for drum’n’bass. On the contrary, this was a new dawn of sorts, the genre reaffirming its underground credentials. The days of what seemed like every single DJ playing the same rave are now gone – a period affectionately spoofed with 2012’s Raveageddon – but the sound is as vital as ever. In 2012, the genre hit the top of the UK chart for the first time with DJ Fresh’s Hot Right Now, featuring Rita Ora. And closer to the ground, there’s a teeming mass of producers tearing up the rulebook on what d’n’b could or should sound like, producing new offshoots like drumstep along the way.
We asked some of those responsible for the genre’s longevity why it has such enduring appeal, and who is pushing it forward today.
Why has drum'n'bass survived so long?
“Organic growth has a major part to play in this,” reckons If Khan, one of the label bosses of Metalheadz, which alongside Goldie provided an early home to other pioneers such as Doc Scott. If thinks d’n’b’s ability to put down roots helped it endure: “Jungle and drum’n’bass grew and became concrete pre-internet and as such had a much steadier growth period.”
“I could be wrong, but drum’n’bass feel like the first British-created electronic music,” believes dBridge, ex-member of Bad Company and head of Exit Records. “This was our thing, so to speak, so there’s that sense of pride of having created something that we exported to the world, of having created this genre. It’s just got producers who are dedicated to it and really love it. There are lots of people who don’t want to jump ship and dip their toes in these new scenes.”
There’s that sense of pride of having created something that we exported to the world
“It almost gets taken for granted,” says Friction, Radio 1 mainstay and head of Shogun Audio, who late last year released Rockwell’s long-anticipated debut LP Obsolete Medium. Friction thinks d’n’b has a unique ability to command a club or festival: “My career started happening about nine years ago, and over that time I’ve got to play at more and more festivals and done bigger shows. People will wait for the drum and bass. They always seem hyped, I think it’s the tempo, the energy and the production.”
dBridge, meanwhile, points out the way the genre has splintered into sub-genres. “Everyone can find their own space and niche without crossing over or even worrying about what is going on elsewhere.” Friction is equally appreciative of the sound’s diversity. “One of the beauties of the genre is you can hear a big, spanking, mainstream crossover tune and appreciate the production and weight – a Sub Focus tune for instance. Then you can go back to a dBridge tune.
“Really and truly they shouldn’t be related genre-wise – but they are because of the tempo. The dBridge tune will give you a completely different emotion to the Sub Focus one. You may just like one, not the other. If you’re like me, you’ll like both.”
Where is it going next?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a genre of such rhythmic complexity, there are all sorts of ways to innovate around the d’n’b template. “The music we make and play has become some of the most technically difficult, but also exciting and powerful, of all the bass music genres to produce,” says Matt Quinn, aka Optical – head of Virus Recordings, alongside fellow DJ and production partner Ed Rush.
“Also, more recently it has many unique rhythms that can't be heard in any other music. I think the really cutting edge producers have moved away from rigid 4/4 grid based music and gone for what makes you want to really jump around in a way you have never done before.”
“I think what we’re about to see is a resurgence of underground drum and bass,” adds Friction. “I’m not talking about leftfield underground, I’m talking about underground music that’s specifically built for the dancefloor. I think that’s been missing in recent times. There’s been an underground scene, but it’s been completely detached from the commercial dance scene that some drum’n’bass artists fall into: Chase & Status, Sub Focus, Andy C or myself.”
He looks back fondly to the days of a “missing link” between the underground and overground, citing the like of Calyx & Teebee and Fourward as bridging this gap. “Obviously people have been talking about Bad Company being in the studio again and they’ll add to that sound as well.”
I think what we’re about to see is a resurgence of underground drum and bass
dBridge, meanwhile, talks of the way drum’n’bass can successfully crossbreed with other genres. “I try to be seen as an electronica label that happens to mainly be in the realm of D&B,” he explains on Exit’s own path. “There’s hip-hop influenced stuff, there’s ambient influenced stuff, there’s what you might call IDM.”
To see what he means, check out Paradise, Stray's late 2015 EP for Exit, which ranges from liquid rollers like Queen to the title track, a Brainfeeder-esque hip-hop head bopper awash with warm synths, sirens and heavy swing. Stray is also one third of Ivy Lab, whose 2015 debut album Ivy Lab Presents 20/20 Volume One experimented with half-time beats on tracks like Hiya and the distinctly grimy No Answer.
The rise of footwork-influenced jungle is another interesting seam. Mixing chopped breaks with the most recent rhythmic lineage of Chicago juke, it's a collision pushed into dreamy realms by another artist who has appeared on Exit, the Los Angeles-based artist Machinedrum (real name Travis Stewart).
Where are the drum'n'bass strongholds?
“London is always the flagship for d'n'b,” says Fabio, one of jungle’s founding fathers. His continued partnership with Grooverider has seen the duo playing six gigs in the month before we speak, though he adds that Bristol and Birmingham also have healthy scenes. “There are not so many weekly events like there used to be, but Bailey’s Soul in Motion night on a Wednesday is smashing it.”
D’n’b is still very male dominated… it shouldn't be, after being around for two decades
The capital’s most iconic venue has also been an unwavering supporter of drum and bass. “We’ve always had a spiritual home at Fabric,” says Optical, who recently mixed FABRICLIVE 82 alongside Ed Rush. But he adds that the Virus crew has played extensively across Europe, USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, NZ and even Russia.
This international community is growing, believes Khan, recalling recent standout parties in China and India. And dBridge – who now lives in Antwerp in Belgium – offers a slightly different perspective. “I could be wrong but it seems like there’s a mass exodus going on,” he tells us on his current outsider’s view of London, citing Mala as one of the producers now living in the same city as him after escaping London’s ever rising cost of living – perhaps pointing to the shape of things to come.
Who are the up-and-coming names to watch?
Indeed, all that’s missing still is a fair representation of the number of the women on the dancefloor. “D’n’b is still very male dominated,” admits Fabio, name-checking Luton’s LIZ-E and Bristol’s DJ Dazzee as two rising female talents. “It shouldn't be, after being around for two decades – but unfortunately it hasn't changed much since the ‘90s in that respect.” Hopefully 2016 is the year that barrier is broached.
Follow Joe Roberts on Twitter at @joerobots.