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"This Is Our Music": Rave, Race And Rhythm In The Jungle (Part 1/3)

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

“When the summer heat rises, the rumbling bass calls with the sound of junglist beats, black & white come together as one in a celebration of Jungle Fever.” - Jungle Fever promo flyer (1993).

“In ’94 I’ll never forget standing outside the Astoria and this young black guy was trying to get in and they said, “No you can’t come in.” He said, “But you’re playing my fuckin’ music in there.” - Bret, Telepathy promoter.


In 1998, Britain celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of S. S. Empire Windrush’s arrival at Tilbury Docks. The thousands of Afro-Caribbean people who undertook this journey, setting off from the islands of the Caribbean, traversing the Atlantic, and arriving through the Thames Estuary into London, the beating heart of the British Empire, would later come to be known as the Windrush Generation. The following five decades, though marred by struggles against racism and prejudice, were duly celebrated as marking the “irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain.” (Phillips, 1998). A decade earlier, such a vision had been encapsulated in the outbreak of rave culture; images of “loved-up” black, white, Asian, working-class, middle-class, queer, gender-bending and straight youths, fuelled by ecstasy, appeared as a living repudiation of Thatcher’s declaration that “there was no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families.” To many, rave represented a “foretaste of a colour-blind society” (Brewster and Broughton, 1999: 407), and signalled that the divisive burdens of Britain’s imperial past may be behind them and by 1994, multiculturalism had a soundtrack of its own: Jungle.

Jungle has been widely seen as a “British music arising from a unique mix of energy and culture” (Belle-Fortune, 2004: 30). This account of Jungle emphasises its emergence from the exceptional context of Britain’s multicultural landscape; a proverbial “melting pot” of intermingling cultural practices, ideas and rituals. Such a reading can help illuminate Britain’s specific obsession with bass frequencies and the relative prevalence of MCs within rave culture; practices which clearly reflect the central importance of Jamaican sound system culture as a basis for modern British musical innovation. Jungle was therefore an important historical moment in which blackness became interwoven with popular notions of Britishness, and became the irrefutable source of one of Britain’s most unique formal contributions to the world of music. Although it would later evolve into “Drum and Bass”, a more commercially lucrative, musically palatable, and easily containable offshoot of Jungle, no-one could deny Jungle’s novelty, futurism and sonic power.

This popular account of Jungle should, nevertheless, be balanced against a history which recognises the firm endurance of anti-blackness within “multicultural” Britain. Indeed, whilst for some, the thought of 1990s Britain may conjure up images of baggy-clothed ravers racing around Britain's motorways or the tightly-packed Jungle and Garage raves at London warehouses, such a memory of the nineties is, for many others, eclipsed by the reign of “Cool Britannia”. This was a cultural phenomenon in which figures such as Noel Gallagher and Gerri Halliwell grasped the mantel of patriotic Britain.

Indeed, such was the impetus in 1996 that the Department of National Heritage (now Department of Culture, Media, and Sport) declared “our fashion, music and culture are the envy of our European neighbours. This abundance of talent, together with our rich heritage, makes “Cool Britannia” an obvious choice for visitors from all over the world.” That such a fuss could be made over Oasis and the Spice Girls, whilst young black, white, and Asian communities were developing some of the most innovative contemporary musical forms in the Western world, reflects a cultural structure skewed by white supremacy. Accordingly, Mykaell Riley (2014: 112), head of the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster, has described the British music industry as “a system that takes from everything and only credits itself.” It is upon this basis that we shall conduct an interrogation of the significance of race to the emergence, development, and eventual fragmentation of Jungle music.

The Emergence of Jungle: etymology

We shall begin this endeavour with an exploration of the etymological origins of ‘Jungle’. Within this term, lies an understanding of the music’s formation at a conjuncture of racially-informed and class-based identities that reflect Jungle’s roots in Britain’s multi-ethnic working-class urban, and suburban, neighbourhoods. An analysis of the history of the term ‘Jungle’ in popular music takes us back, however, to two of the most important black musicians of the twentieth century: Duke Ellington and James Brown. In the 1920s, Ellington cultivated what was known as “jungle style”, a distinctive sound characterised by “muted, growling horns…, slithering chromatic melodies and harmonies cast in a minor mode; low and murky sonorities; and a heavy four-beat tread in the bass and drums” (Magee, 2014: 89). Ellington’s jungle style parallels neatly with Jungle music of the 1990s. The “bottom-heavy scoring” of Ellington’s "East St. Louis Toodle-O" (1926) exhibits an explicit preoccupation with low-end frequencies that, according to the DJ and ‘originator’ Fabio, crucially distinguishes Jungle from Techno. Six decades later, the ‘Godfather of Soul’ James Brown released the In the Jungle Groove compilation. One of the key progenitors of Jungle, Ibiza Records boss Paul Chambers, claims he first began to use this term with reference to this very compilation. Indeed, Noise Factory’s Jungle Techno, released in 1991 on Ibiza Records, is the earliest recorded mention of this word within what was then the ‘Hardcore’ scene. His account is perhaps the most thoroughly evidenced, but it is one amongst many competing claims to Jungle’s etymological roots.

The multiplicity of accounts explaining Jungle’s terminological roots is aptly demonstrated in Brian Belle-Fortune’s All Crews (2004: 15-16), in which he identifies at least six competing accounts of the word’s origins. Most recently, Goldie, perhaps the only real ‘celebrity’ to emerge from the Jungle scene, claimed that Fabio coined the term at his RAGE club night, which is also questionably located as the “birthplace of Jungle.” Two decades earlier, when Fabio’s DJ partner Grooverider was asked where the name came from, he replied “fuck knows” (Belle-Fortune, 2004: 16). Nearly all accounts include the claim, supported by Peter Harris of Kickin’ Records, and PJ and Smiley of Shut Up and Dance, that Jungle emerged first as a racial epithet. Less than a century earlier, this term had been deliberately employed, in the case of Ellington, as a marketing strategy that “portrayed African Americans as being one step removed (if that) from primitivism” (Cohen, 2004: 296).

For Harris, however, Jungle as a racial epithet is discussed in the context of white ravers who despised the increasing prevalence of Ragga and Reggae samples that infiltrated the musical landscape in around 1991. These Reggae-tinged Hardcore tracks, such as Lennie De Ice’s "We Are I.E. "and Rebel MC’s "Wickedest Sound", are widely regarded as the earliest proto-jungle records. This brings us to one key interpretation of Jungle’s etymology and wider origins which underlines its roots in Jamaican sound system culture. MC Navigator’s claim that Jungle emerged as a predominant term from a sample in a Rebel MC track is frequently cited in the literature. Ripped from a yard-tape, the sample in question consists of an MC shouting out “alla the junglists,” a term originally used to describe the residents of the Tivoli estate in Kingston, Jamaica. Importantly, MC Navigator’s interpretation establishes Jungle within what Gilroy termed the “black Atlantic”; a sprawling Afro-diasporic network of cultural communication and interchange that stretches across time and space, and is centred in the urban hubs of Kingston, London, and New York.

Even so, this shout out to the “junglists” equally related to MC Navigator’s experience living in the “urban Jungle” of the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, where they had “called [them]selves junglists long before the music ever came along” (James, 2020: 18). Less than a decade before the ‘Summer of Jungle’, Broadwater Farm had been the site of an infamous riot, sparked by the death of Cynthia Jarret, and culminating in the widely-publicised killing of PC Keith Blakelock. Whilst it is true that the heavy-handed policing of the estate was racially-motivated, Stuart Hall (1999: 190) highlights that “both white and black youth were heavily involved.” In this vein, Jungle has been dubbed by Simon Reynolds as “gangsta rave”, described as the “soundtrack of Britain’s burgeoning underclass, black and white kids who live in the same inner-city tower-blocks and estates… and share the same hatred of the police.” Emily Ferrigno (2011: 95) also agrees that “the unifying feature of the early Jungle scene was more socioeconomic than racial. Inner city London was not segregated, and various ethnic groups struggled for survival together, becoming unified through the common experience of migration.” Thus, for Reynolds and Ferrigno, whilst Jungle exists within the prism of an international black diaspora, it is also highly localised in the context of British inner-city life, cutting through racial boundaries. Contained within these competing claims is a differing vision of Jungle’s roots as a manifestation of class antagonism. Experiences of migration were nevertheless differentiated, and any attempt to remove Jungle from its wider context of black history will inevitably fall short of a full appreciation of this music’s emergence.

The Emergence of Jungle: lineage of influence

This leads us to a broader debate within the literature which has received perhaps the highest degree of scholarly attention. The question posed is that of origins, and an understanding of the thread, or threads, of lineage that Jungle can be situated within. This question is critically shaped by racialized discourses manifested in both the aesthetic development of Jungle’s sound and the pre-existing cultural infrastructure upon which Jungle grew. Electronic music scholarship owes much to the pioneering writings of Simon Reynolds, who developed the idea of the Hardcore Continuum at a FACT symposium in 2009. Reynolds describes this as “a continuum of musical culture that emerged out of the British rave scene,” beginning with the novel British variant of Techno, known popularly as Hardcore, and moving in a “ceaseless forward drive” over two decades through Jungle, 2-Step, Dubstep, Grime, and most recently, Bassline and Funky. For Reynolds, Hardcore Techno is crucial due to its constitution as a combination of two “UK-specific sounds” which ended the British rave scene’s reliance on American creative output: Breakbeat House and Bleep. Hardcore Techno was however largely dominated by developments in Belgium. In Britain, Jungle was the subsequent transformation, forming as “the breaks got sped up, edited, processed” and as “the bass [got] more peculiar…, moulded and gloopy… and yet also heavy in… the dub reggae sense.” His basis for what he sees as not a “theory” but a “fact” is a continuity in several key areas: continuity of infrastructure (clubs, pirate radio), of rituals (rewinds, MCs), of personnel (DJs, producers), and of geography (London-centred alongside similarly multi-ethnic outposts across the country). Most crucially, Reynolds sees a continuity of sound and of attitude, writing:

“those core elements are: beat-science seeking the intersection between ‘fucked up’ and ‘groovy’; dark bass pressure; MCs chatting fast over live-mixed DJ sets; samples and arrangement ideas inspired by pulp soundtracks and orchestrated pop. In a profound sense, underneath two decades of relentless sonic mutation, this is the same music, the same culture.”

Reynolds’ conceptualisation has nevertheless been called into question by an array of contemporary writers who locate Jungle within what can broadly be described as an Afro-diasporic continuum, the exact formulation of which has differed based on the respective approach taken. Mykaell Riley (2014: 102) argues for the existence of a historic lineage of “Bass Culture,” including, but not limited to, Ska, Roots Reggae, Dub, Pop Reggae, Jungle, Drum and Bass, Trip-Hop, Garage, 2 Step, Grime, and Dubstep. Through this lens, Jungle is seen as part of a thread of black British music crucially underpinned by the enormously influential import of Jamaican sound system culture. Joe Muggs and Brian David Stevens’ Bass, Mids, Tops (2019) is not necessarily an attempt to present a cohesive continuum, but its collection of interviews is undoubtedly part of a broader movement towards the construction of this history of “sound system culture.” Hugo Boothby (2020) similarly charts a “convivial continuum,” within which the “radical intermixture of musical forms from Africa, the Caribbean, Britain and the United States is a defining characteristic and thread of continuity.”

Of these accounts, Caspar Melville’s It’s a London Thing is certainly the most pointed in its opposition to Reynolds’ continuum, which he rightfully criticises as creating a “troublingly gendered” hard-soft binary. Melville (2020: 193) takes particular issue with Reynolds’ “historically short-sighted” claim that Hardcore represented the “moment of genesis,” arguing that “a bass culture had been alive and well in British sound system culture for decades.” He goes on to point out that if Reynolds’ continuum is based on continuity of personnel, infrastructure, ritual and bass, then why begin with Hardcore? His analysis is such:

“Many DJs of the ‘ardkore period… were bass culture veterans of reggae, funk, soul and disco; the new pirate radio stations… were modelled on and continuous with the practices of mid-1980s pirates like Kiss FM; the attitude of ‘ardkore and especially jungle drew equally on the rituals and norms of suburban soul and the reggae dancehall as much as it did rave… And the ‘sound’, new juxtapositions of drum, bass and technology, can also be traced back through rave to disco, funk, hip hop and dub reggae.”

Melville’s criticisms are certainly corroborated by a wealth of evidence located in interviews, documentaries, and records alike. In terms of infrastructure, Music House, the site at which the all-important Jungle dub-plates would be pressed, had previously catered to London’s dub sound systems. Similarly, Jah Tubby’s Studios, home to a self-proclaimed “World sound system,” was responsible for a large portion of mastering on some of the most popular tracks of the Hardcore and Jungle era. With regards to personnel and sound, we can see the likes of DJ Hype discussing his early years as the “little white boy who hung around” sound systems and his background in mixing Hip Hop. Jungle pioneer Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald) has discussed his experience as a youth, surrounded by the sounds of Jazz, Funk and Soul, as well as Dub music and sound system culture, which fed into his love for the more technical side of electronics. Jumpin’ Jack Frost (2019: 201) started his DJ career at “a proper black station,” Passion Radio, which played “mostly reggae” whilst Dego McFarlane (2019: 157) of 4Hero was similarly brought into the rave scene due to his selection of breakbeats on a Jazz radio station. The Reggae and Hip-Hop sound systems, as well as the pirate radios playing Rare Groove, Soul, and Jazz, thus constituted a crucial entry point in the 1980s for many black youths who would later sit at the vanguard of the Jungle scene.

The Hardcore Continuum

The Hardcore Continuum is useful in its demonstration of one of Jungle’s central conceptualisations: its formation as a music form made possible solely in the context of multicultural Britain. Reynolds sees Hardcore, which emerged in around 1989, as constituting “the first time the UK [came] up with its own spin on house and techno.” Importantly, however, he notes that the impetus for this novelty lay in the addition of “elements that are actually not indigenous to the U.K.” such as Hip-Hop, Electro, Dub, Reggae, and Dancehall. This reflects a conceptualisation of Britain as a uniquely integrated country holding the potential for creative “cross-fertilisation.” In Generation Ecstasy he develops this idea even further:

“In the more integrated UK, hip-hop and house music were part of the same continuum of imported “street beats”; Jamaican sound system culture had long-established roots. Influenced by reggae and hip-hop, hardcore producers intensified the sub-bass frequencies, used looped breakbeats to funk up house’s four-to-the-floor machine beat, and embraced sampling with deranged glee.”

Firstly, we can see the way in which Reynolds locates the origins of the Hardcore continuum in the very Afro-diasporic music that Melville accuses him of neglecting. His understanding of the origins of Breakbeat House and Bleep, which together comprise British Hardcore Techno, provides a central role to the crucial influences of Reggae, Hip-Hop, and Funk. The first track Reynolds uses to exemplify his theory of continuum is The Theme by Unique 3, a group of “B-boys from Bradford” in which one can hear “an echo… of sound systems mashing it down in Kingston, Jamaica.” More recently, research has been undertaken into the backgrounds of influential but largely forgotten black British sound engineers, DJs, and producers who were fundamental in the creation of this Northern “bleeps and bass” sound. Credit has been duly given to Robert Gordon, the technical master-mind behind The Theme and one founder of the hugely influential Warp Records, whose mastery of sub-bass frequencies left an indelible mark on British electronic music. Similarly, Matt Anniss has recently tracked down Martin Williams (a.k.a. DJ Martin), who learnt his trade in the Reggae sound systems of Chapeltown in Leeds and was instrumental in the production of the landmark track L.F.O. (Leeds Warehouse Mix).

Reynolds (1999) also thrusted the history of “fast hip-hop” group Shut Up and Dance, who he argues were “the key figures in the rise of breakbeat house” to the centre of his account. Shut Up and Dance, Reynolds claims, “laid the groundwork for jungle,” taking particular note of their “roots in hip-hop and reggae’s sound system culture, and their street survivalist politics.” Dego McFarlane notes that these are black musicians who have been largely neglected from popular accounts of rave history. His explanation of the breakbeat’s origins in the music of “a legion of obscure funk and disco artists of the seventies” also demonstrates a clear understanding of the importance of funk to the development of the Hardcore Continuum. Reynolds namechecks Lyn Collins and James Brown’s Think Break, the Winston Brothers’ Amen Break, and the Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache Break as three “percussion-only section[s] of… funk or disco track[s]” that became “ubiquitous” in Jungle music.

Multiculturalism and creativity

More broadly, what we can extrapolate from Reynolds’ Hardcore Continuum is a wider understanding of Britain’s creative potency, and more specifically the emergence of Jungle, as supposedly deriving from British multiculturalism. This is a “strand of British dance music” in which the development of the sound, the central focus of the continuum, was based on hybridisations made uniquely possible by Britain’s racial integration. Jumpin’ Jack Frost demonstrates this clearly in a 1994 interview with Mixmag. Addressing the white interviewer, he says “in America there is no way we could ever be talking. And without you and me knowing each other and getting our heads together… this music can’t work.” This is congruent with Reynolds’ formulation of the Hardcore Continuum and is an idea which reappears constantly in interviews with nearly all Junglists. He continues by saying “they can’t do it over there [in America]. This is our thing and we’re gonna build it.” Similarly, Bristol-born DJ Krust (2019: 219-221), recalls:

“You had the sense of when you first started going to the jungle raves that these people had built something out of nothing. We had this culture that was ours. We were proud of it… because no one gave us that, people stitched that together themselves… We knew we were part of something. We were trying to have our own British movement.”

To put it clearly, Jungle was an explicit celebration of the “vibrant intermixture” of Britain’s inner cities, which Akala (2018: 9) described as “some of the most successfully multi-ethnic experiments in the ‘Western’ world.” Indeed, the foundational junglist DJ Hype has argued that whilst ecstasy brought together the Acid House generation, it was specifically the “multicultural sound” of Jungle music that united once-divided racial groups under one tent. A closer analysis may, however, reveal that this sound was built more clearly upon a tradition of black cultural practices and an approach to sound organisation which had its roots in Afro-diasporic musical priorities. Not only this, but the eventual fragmentation of Jungle involved deeply racialized discourses and demonstrated an endurance of anti-Black attitudes, even in an allegedly multicultural setting. What is clear is that the image of Jungle as an achievement of multicultural Britain should be equally balanced against a sober acknowledgement of the enduring racism which touches upon every aspect of our society.


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