Liquid has to be one of the most enduring and versatile staple sounds of the drum’n’bass menu. It comes in many forms and flavours, is home to many interesting and multi-skilled musicians and songwriters. And it’s currently enjoying one of its most fertile chapters in years.
What is liquid drum'n'bass? Depending on your entrance into the genre, liquid could mean anything from the barbed soul of acts like Calibre and Zero T to the more mainstream singalong sounds of Hybrid Minds or Maduk. It’s essentially an umbrella term for any styles of d’n’b that might fall under the warm, soulful, funky or vocal-led varieties. And its roots go back to the turn of the century when a new movement of more groove-based and musical producers emerged during a particularly heavy, techy time in the genre.
Listen to a playlist of the best new liquid drum'n'bass tunes in the Spotify player below.
“A lot of drum’n’bass was very tight and claustrophobic at the time,” explains d’n’b pioneer Fabio. “Don’t get me wrong, that was the vibe and I loved that heavy stuff. But I think that first wave of what became known as liquid was a natural reaction. In a way it was a new take on the sound LTJ Bukem and [his label] Good Looking – and my label Creative Source – was doing in the mid-'90s. What they called ‘intelligent’ drum’n’bass. But that was a lot more epic and floaty for me. This was different. It was jazzy and soulful, and had more funk and movement.”
The birth of liquid
Fabio knows the original liquid funk schematics inside out. It’s a well-known fact he coined the term, most notably with the release of the seminal Liquid Funk Volume 1 album in 2000. The fact he took the name from hip-hop crew Tha Alkaholiks’ track Likwit and their album Likwitadtion, is not quite so well-known.
“They were pretty anarchic and rapped drunk all the time,” laughs Fabio. “I thought that name was sick and was a good way of describing that style of d’n’b. I called my radio show that on Radio 1 and it just caught on. It basically became synonymous with Calibre. That’s what his stuff was. Just fluid.”
I don’t want things to come back nostalgically. I want it to take it a new level
Calibre wasn’t alone. Throughout the 2000s, drum’n’bass saw several waves of artists, labels and massive anthems pushing the liquid style. Shy FX and DJ Marky, XRS and Stamina scored two of the genre’s biggest crossover chart hits with Shake Your Body and LK respectively. Marcus Intalex launched Soul:r, Bryan Gee fired up Liquid V, and Hospital Records started showing signs of the powerhouse it would soon become. For Hospital co-founder Tony Colman, aka London Elektricity, it was Fabio’s night weekly London night Swerve that was the primary incubator for the style.
“It was all down to Swerve,” says Coleman. “Fabio was supporting producers who were doing something different. Marcus, Calibre, Influx Datum, Danny Byrd, Carlito & Addiction. It was a brilliant time because it felt like a new avenue had been opened up that we’d previously been denied. Before that everyone was playing tech step or hard step. There was no liquid or particularly musical drum’n’bass in the room ones. It would be room three or, very occasionally room two.”
Fabio was supporting producers who were doing something different – Marcus Intalex, Calibre, Influx Datum, Danny Byrd, Carlito & Addiction
Nights like Swerve and Bryan Gee’s Movement proved liquid could hold its own as a room one attraction, but it was Hospital who supersized the subgenre’s status with their move to Heaven – the famous central London club where Fabio and Grooverider famously lit the fuse on d’n’b just over 10 years before with their party Rage.
“When Tony said they were doing Heaven I thought ‘Wow!’ Good luck with that,” Fabio laughs. “But they pulled it off. They took the risk. That transition from events at Herbal, which is tiny in comparison, set the benchmark.”
This was 2005. Hospital were bringing through a league of their own liquid artists such as High Contrast, Nu:Tone and Logistics. Elsewhere you had Chase & Status teaming up with Jenna G for anthem In Love, Marcus & ST Files and Calibre forming MIST:I:CAL and Bryan Gee bringing through the first wave of Brazilian artists like Marky and Patife. It was the peak of a golden era for the funkier side of d’n’b.
“But after a few more years it flatlined a bit,” says Fabio. “Any subgenre, after about six or seven years, people get tired. I don’t think liquid developed as quickly as others did. It lost its edge a bit. It got too liquid-by-numbers and didn’t develop as quickly as jump up or the techy stuff where the sonics went up a notch. Liquid has never been about the technicalities, it’s been about feeling and vibe. But it meant you couldn’t play the two together anymore. The dynamic difference between the styles was too much and those classic records just weren’t getting made.”
New wave of liquid
Back to the future and those records are being made again. They have been for a while, in fact. DRS, Tyler Daley & LSB’s The View is a great example of a liquid record that DJs across many styles of d’n’b can (and still) drop in any style of set and create that emotional dynamic that the best liquid records have always done. “The View will go down in history,” agrees Hospital Records artist Degs. “LSB, DRS and Tyler Daley changed the game. I’ve been on stage and seen how that tune changes the energy so many times. It’s still crazy now in 2020 seeing its effect. It’s a reminder that an anthem doesn’t have to be heavy, it can invoke emotion and feelings.”
Released on Soul:r in 2015, The View confirmed LSB’s status at the forefront of the new liquid sound. The track has gone down as a modern-day anthem and it’s a great example of what liquid can stand for in contemporary d’n’b, highlighting how vocalists, MCs and songwriting are now much more integral to its make-up and sound.
“I don’t think that platform for singer/songwriters existed in d’n’b before. It’s only been the last five or six years that this has been able to happen,” continues Degs. A singer, rapper, musician and DJ, Degs represents these new skills that are helping to shape both the new chapter of liquid and his forthcoming debut album, Letters From Ndegwa.
“I’m thankful to be coming through in an era where the likes of DRS and Inja have set up a path for more songwriters – the likes of myself, Charlotte Haining and Katie Koven – to come in and be more received and understood. Lyricists have been scared to do that in the past because we’ve been worried how it would be received, but that worry isn’t there anymore. The genre hasn’t been reinvented but the quality control has gone up – whether that’s in the instrumentation, the production or the vocals. And one of the consequences of that is that the new songwriting element has been accepted.”
It’s how the quality control has risen that explains liquid’s currently rude bill of health. While it’s not been the main subgenre du jour for years, it never went away, and those who’ve been crafting it and championing it have created this current situation. There’s the continued matchless output of Calibre, for instance. Or the influence of Alix Perez and SpectraSoul – versatile artists who’ve developed rich bodies of work that flip between soulful and stern.
Accessibility has created an opportunity and mindset for people to try lots of things
“You cannot deny the influence of those guys on any artist who’s even dabbled in liquid in the last 10 years,” agrees Jack Higgins AKA Pola of Pola & Bryson. As well being an artist signed to Friction’s Shogun Audio – a label that’s consistently supported liquid in its far-ranging remit – he also co-runs Soulvent Records. Six years deep, the label has been responsible for early releases from the likes of GLXY, Changing Faces, Dilemma and In:Most, Jack explains how the amount of demos they receive hints at liquid’s new wealth of up-and-coming talent. “It used to be standardly 25s and over but now the sounds are coming from younger guys who are 18 or 19 and they’re making some really sick sounds. That’s been quite a big change in the last few years.”
Other artist-run labels that have been incubating new soulful d’n’b talent include Lenzman and his label The North Quarter, BCee’s Spearhead, LSB’s Footnotes and Artificial Intelligence’s Integral – home to mysterious artists Dawn Wall and Mohican Sun. Meanwhile on the dancefloor, Dutch mega-brand Liquicity – a channel that’s supported the lighter, more accessible and vocal d’n’b since 2009 – sells out most shows they host around Europe, including their annual festival. Lenzman recent sold out a four week residency at Phonox, while Hybrid Minds sold out Printworks in less than 24 hours.
“Hybrid Minds selling out Printworks is a pivotal moment,” explains Andy Powell, one half of Technimatic – who are also very much part of the new liquid movement as one of the steadfast acts who have flown the more musical and soulful flag diligently since they joined forces almost 10 years ago. Fabio agrees.
“Hybrid Minds selling out Printworks on the basis of vocal drum’n’bass? That was incredible,” he says. “Maybe it’s more poppy but it’s from that liquid vibe. They came up from the ground. They’ve been around for ages doing their thing, chipping away and now they can sell out big venues because they’ve stuck to their guns. Just like Hospital did. They’re bringing in their own audience, which has a much healthier male/female balance than a lot of drum’n’bass crowds do, and they’ve done it all by themselves. I have a lot of respect for that.”
Hybrid Minds’ Printworks show takes place on March 20. It sold out with no other line-up listed which isn’t just indicative of the re-rise of liquid, but also the graft Matt Lowe and Josh White have put in since forming in 2010. “It’s really nice to get recognition from real heads of the scene,” admits Josh. “It’s quite funny. We spent years trying to impress them. Then, when we stopped caring about that and just focused on doing our own thing, it’s recognised. It’s humbling and quite unexpected.”
Listen to Lenzman in the mix with GQ live from Egg London on Red Bull Radio in the player below.
Not caring about what people think and just doing your own thing is arguably as d’n’b as it gets. It’s what separates the originators from the imitators and it’s rife in the new generation of artists experimenting with liquid right now. “There’s just been this really exciting shift of artists just trying different things out,” agrees Dilemma, another emerging new-gen player in this next liquid chapter. “Accessibility has created an opportunity and mindset for people to try lots of things. You can find the most obscure shit and be inspired by so much more music now. I think that could be one thing that’s informed the variety we now find in liquid drum’n’bass, particularly as sampling is a big part of it.”
As well the rising influence of songwriting, variety is perhaps the most important key to liquid’s new renaissance. Artists such as Whiney, Pola & Bryson and GLXY have made names for themselves with broad signatures that range from dark to light, in the same way Perez and SpectraSoul records inspired them when they first got into the genre.
“Putting it bluntly, doing it this way is just way more fun!” says Tom, one half of GLXY. “Solely producing liquid at 174bpm I think limits yourself as an artist. We love to experiment and go with darker sounds too. Anile is also a great example. His last EP on Footnotes goes from the deep introspective vibe of Constant Reminder, to the incredible system tune Riggers. That’s what liquid producers are doing so well at the moment.”
It’s a technique that not only characterises GLXY’s forthcoming album but many of their peers’ approach, including their Shogun Audio label mate Monrroe – a name that continues to pop up in any conversation about new-gen liquid. “For me personally the actual sound of what's considered ‘liquid’ has become a bit broader which is wicked to see,” he explains. “You’ve got liquid adopting much more flavours of other sub genres of d’n’b like minimal and tech, creating a much deeper sound which to me translates to the dancefloor really well – while also keeping that ‘euphoric’ liquid touch. Then on the other side we’ve still got the more ‘classic’ liquid sound, with the atmospheric keys/vocals etc – which again has been evolving over the past five years gaining a much-deserved place in the scene.”
This versatility has brought back the dynamic that, as Fabio explained, became lost as the styles of drum’n’bass became too sonically disparate years ago. Like The View, more crossover records that DJs are playing across the board have returned. Examples from last year alone range from Mat Zo’s Latin-licked early 2000s homage Games to Dogger, Mindstate and Liam Bailey’s superb melancholy soul gem Broken Home. All occupy completely different styles – but all fall under the liquid umbrella and all getting support from a wide range of DJs. It reinforces the feeling that drum’n’bass is undergoing a true renaissance.
“It’s getting warmer,” nods Fabio. “But I think it’s still just coming into fruition. Keeping watching the new guys coming in now over the next year. They won’t be jumping on other people’s styles, they’ll be coming with their own fusion of new ideas and things that influenced them. 2021 will be when we hear the real liquid, a different guise, a new energy and a different take. I don’t want things to come back nostalgically. I want it to take it to a new level. I want to hear how the new generation is fusing their energy with their own perception of funk and we’re definitely heading in the right direction…”
Now listen to a mix from liquid pioneer DJ Marky on Red Bull Radio.
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D'n'b meets classical music in Red Bull Symphonic
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