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"This Is Our Music": Rave, Race And Rhythm In The Jungle (Part 2/3)

Jacob Tucker, takes us into part 2 of the discussion on Rave, Race and Rhythm In The Jungle. If you missed the first section check it out here: https://www.halcyonwax.com/post/this-is-our-music-rave-race-and-rhythm-in-the-jungle-part-1-3

“We got to be black in the Jungle”: Afro-diasporic music and black cultural practices

Jungle’s significance, uniqueness and radicalism did not lie solely in its multi-racial combination of disparate elements. Junglists were responsible for the creation of a totally novel form and sound that put black British music at the avant-garde of underground music.[1] As Mykaell Riley (2014: 111) notes,“the concept of ‘Black British music’ was at best marginalised as a pale imitation of the American or Jamaican format; that is until ‘jungle’ burst onto the UK music scene.” In this section we shall uncover the ways in which Jungle manifested many Afro-diasporic musical priorities and was built upon black cultural practices. It is important to firstly note that this discussion is not made upon an essentialist basis, and shall avoid imposing “an imaginary coherence” on the Afro-diasporic “experience of dispersal and fragmentation.” Black identity is heterogeneous and does not remain fixed in origins “to which we can make some final and absolute return” (Hall, 1994: 394-5). Nevertheless, it is clear that music pioneered by black musicians has often demonstrated significantly different approaches to sound organisation and perception than that of Western classical music or even popular music. An understanding of Jungle’s musical form shall reveal the music’s radicalism, and its subversion of traditional approaches to deriving meaning from music. Our interrogation of Jungle music must, however, begin with a deeper exploration of what music is, and what purpose, if any, it holds.

A scholarly approach to electronic music, let alone Jungle music specifically, remains largely undeveloped. Academic forays into this field have faced theoretical obstacles attempting to interpret a musical form and culture which breaks from popular Western traditions. Crucially, we must interrogate the manner in which value judgements pertaining to what is and what isn’t music are socially constructed. This will develop our understanding of the way in which electronic dance music, and Jungle in particular, disrupts previously held notions of musicality, and the way in which this discourse is inseparable from the history of race. The resistance inherent in the orthodoxies of music studies, rooted in the ideals of classical musicology, was aptly demonstrated in a story from Tricia Rose’s Black Noise (1994: 62). Here, she describes the response of a university music department chairman to her project proposal on Hip-Hop:

"Well, you must be writing on rap's social impact and political lyrics, because there is nothing to the music”… He explained to me that although the music was quite simple and repetitive, the stories told in the lyrics had social value. He pointed out rap's role as a social steam valve, a means for the expression of social anger. "But," he concluded, referring to the music, "they ride down the street at 2:00 A.M. with it blasting from car speakers, and (they) wake up my wife and kids. What's the point in that?”

The professor’s response to the Hip-Hop’s sonic boom reveals two crucial elements through which we can see Jungle, and electronic music more broadly, as disrupting the norms of Western popular music, the roots of which lie as far as back as ancient Greece.

Firstly, we can see what Derrida understands as Western culture’s phonologocentrism; the privileging of the spoken word. For the professor, the music is worthy of discussion if it carries meaning, and furthermore, meaning is communicated best through the spoken word, thus rendering the music meaningless. This narrow view of the purpose and value of music dates back to the writings of Plato and Socrates who were both deeply suspicious of music’s ability to “subvert ordered meaning” through its non-verbal affect (Gilbert and Pearson, 1999: 24). The normative ideals of Western music discourse have remained largely unchanged in the millennia since. Immanuel Kant’s writings echo a binary valuation of music based in the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. For Kant, “beautiful” music was that which encouraged and was appreciated through reflection of the mind, whereas the lower form of “pleasurable” music were those which constituted mere bodily pleasure or sensation (Le Huray and Day, 1981: 220). Already, we can see the framework through which electronic dance music, purpose-built to compel the body into movement, has struggled for legitimate academic acknowledgement.

The professor also notes the music’s repetition and simplicity as intellectually disqualifying characteristics. Indeed, in 1994, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which criminalised British rave culture, specifically targeted music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, ch. 33).

Here, we can identify two metaphysical priorities that have permeated Western music discourse since the Renaissance: melodic progression and harmonic complexity. Christopher Small’s (1996: 9-13) illuminations on the origins of this tradition are useful here. The Renaissance was a moment in which Europe can be seen as diverging from other cultures, in its newfound focus on humanist and individualist approaches to the world, and the concurrent developments in cultural practices. In the world of art, the new centrality of perspective, “the placing of all the elements of a picture in logical relation to one another and to a ‘vanishing point’”, shifted the lens of the artist from God to man. In musical terms, tonal harmony, “the type of musical language in which the most transparent logic reigns,was constituted as the fundamental basis of Western music. Its logic was fixed within a precise twelve tone range and its composition based “on the forward drive toward resolution of a musical sequence that leads to a final resolution: the final perfect cadence” (Rose: 1994: 66). The Renaissance development of tonal harmony thus entailed the complete suppression of rhythm and timbre, and, hence, the exclusion of all percussion instruments (Small, 1996: 21).

The beat of the drum and the centrality of rhythm, conversely, is seen as a central feature of what we shall call Afro-diasporic music. This connection between rhythm, blackness, and resistance in the diaspora has a long and powerful history, and takes us back to the 1739 Stono Rebellion. The use of drums by slaves in this uprising “prompted the South to prohibit drums legally and to classify them as weapons” (Pleasant, 2004). Similarly, drums were central to the successful Haitian slave revolt, which led to the establishment of the first black republic in 1804 (Munro, 2010: 24-77). Drums and rhythms remained a popular tool of resistance, and a central musical feature, for marginalised black communities in the centuries after. Indeed, Rose notes that whilst the complexity of traditional Western music is primarily represented in the aforementioned melodic and harmonic structures, the musical richness of Afro-diasporic music “is in the rhythmic and percussive density and organization” (Rose, 1994: 65 Although Rose was writing more specifically about the American context of Hip-Hop music, it is fair to say that Jungle music embodies this priority to an even greater extent.

Moreover, James A. Snead’s writings on repetition and rupture in black culture are useful in understanding the deeper meaning of this cultural difference. For Snead (1981: 150), European culture “maintains the illusions of progression and control at all costs,whilst for black culture, accident and rupture are confronted head on. He writes that “black music sets up expectations and disturbs them at irregular intervals.” Accordingly, it is this idea of rupture that sits at the very heart of Jungle music. As Reynolds (1998: 251-52) writes:

“Composed literally out of fracture (“breaks”), jungle paints a sound picture of social disintegration and instability. But the anxiety in the music is mastered and transformed into a kind of nonchalance; the disruptive breakbeats are looped into a rolling flow. In this way jungle contains a nonverbal response to troubled times, a kind of warrior stance. The “resistance” is in the rhythms.”

Whilst Reynolds broadly understands the black origins, it is indicative that the accompanying literature to African-American music such as Jazz, Blues, and Hip-Hop nearly always incorporates an explicitly race-based approach, whilst in Britain, we often approach black British music from a more class-centric perspective. Reynolds, is indeed later echoed by Martin James (2020: 8), who writes that “Jungle… captured the collapse of the UK’s inner-city communities, a collision of art and poverty.” In this sense, Jungle music echoes Rose’s (1994: 66) writings on Hip-Hop, suggesting that these musical features “are not merely stylistic effects, they are aural manifestations of philosophical approaches to social environments.” The rupture of Jungle music certainly reflected the challenges and poverty of British inner-city life, but the conceptualisation of urban British struggles are inseparable from anti-racist struggles and the challenges that people of colour face to this very day. Indeed, many of the most successful Jungle DJs, MCs, and producers came from areas such as Tottenham and Brixton in London, St Paul’s in Bristol, Moss Side in Manchester, and Handsworth in Birmingham, all witnesses to severe riots in the 1980s, provoked by mass unemployment and heavy-handed policing which disproportionately affected young black and Asian men. The musical practices through which Jungle came into its own are explicit continuations of black musical and cultural priorities and traditions.

Rhythmic complexity, density and rupture as central features of Jungle music are identifiable in nearly all Jungle tracks. An early example can be found in Progression’s ‘Lost In The Jungle’, released on Ibiza Records in 1992. Clattering breakbeats sit upon a web of layered polyrhythms, lashed bleeps are employed rhythmically, whilst a repeated vocal sample soberly implores the listener to “feel the rhythm.” The hugely popular ‘Mo Musik (African Chant Mix)’ by DJ Ron, which was released in the prelude to the explosive ‘Summer of Jungle’, is exemplary of the manipulation of the classic Amen Break, spliced and chopped into a percussive frenzy which thrusts metallic polyrhythms to the forefront of the music. The percussion in Ganja Cru’s ‘Mash Up Da Place’ is even more jagged and ruptured, beginning with a sample declaring “rhythm is fundamental to the spirit, like the beat of the tribal drum.Indeed, the movement from Hardcore into Jungle traces this very shift in rhythmic priorities, and parallels the large-scale return of black youths into the raves of 1993-95. Jumpin’ Jack Frost recalls this evolution, stating “at first you had the 4x4 [kicks] and the breaks, but the 4x4 disappeared somehow and it was just the breaks” (Muggs and Stevens, 2018: 203). Such a focus on the manipulation of these old funk samples led to the creation of a veritable “breakbeat science” (Reynolds, 1998: 258).

Indeed, unlike its Hardcore predecessor with its cheesy piano stabs, Jungle often dispensed altogether with conventional melody and harmony. This practice is invocative of Meki Nzewi’s (1974: 23-28) conception of a melo-rythmic approach. This approach is based on an African-derived cultural practice in which one hears melody in rhythm, and rhythm in melodies, contrasting “the abstract depersonalised percussion function typical of Western percussive style.” Such an approach can be heard in the seminal track “Helicopter” which “changed everything in 1993.” (Terror Danjah in Muggs and Stevens, 2018: 291). The track begins with the sound of a spinning rotor blade, before jumping straight into its main drum break, sampled from a 1974 funk record by Blowfly, and punctuated by intermittent drum fills. After the weighty and deep bassline and subtle high-range strings have entered some way into the track, the main break eventually drops out, leaving just the bassline and the drum fills, which climb in pitch, to form a melo-rhythmic drum lead. Metalheads’ ‘Terminator’ (1992) was perhaps equally important, and, whilst retaining its core Hardcore style, experimented greatly with breakbeats and time-stretching, a technological practice which subverted distinctions between percussion and melody. These tracks, widely regarded as game-changers in helping move Hardcore into Jungle, are also demonstrative more broadly of Jungle’s clear prioritisation of polyrhythmic density and its focus on low-end bass frequencies registered by both the ear and the body.

This leads us on to another crucial aspect of Jungle’s musical constitution and its relation to black cultural practices. We must be aware of what Gilroy (2003: 391) notes to be “the limited idea that we encounter sound only, or even mainly, through our capacity to hear and make interpretative sense of it.” Indeed, Jungle music was geared specifically towards the dancefloor, and was thus musically welded to the human body. As Gilbert and Pearson (1999: 60) point out, “dance is an undeniably physical experience… [and] involves a relationship to music which radically problematises… the distinction between internal and external experience.” This connects to a crucial element which constitutes the indispensable and definitive foundation of Jungle music: the bass. Bass is important here as it is not just heard but also felt. The corporeality of bass in Jungle has firm roots in the “sonic dominance” (Henriques: 2003: 45) of Jamaican sound-systems, to which British popular music owes a great deal. Many writers have also suggested that bass can be seen as enacting a “community of listeners” (Farinati and Firth: 2017: 18). This links to Jungle’s hybrid and multi-cultural nature, itself a distinct product of dialogue, but also a creator of sociality through the bass which “permeates and modulates… [and] binds bodies together (putting them literally on the same wavelength)” (Jasen, 2016: 22). This was not the only manner, however, in which Jungle’s musical form brought together supposedly disparate sounds and social groups.

Although bass had constituted a vibrant element of British music culture for decades, Jungle was unique in its formal juxtaposition of fast-paced and propulsive breakbeats and slow booming sub-bass. Whilst more conventional forms of electronic music, such as House and Techno, tend to occupy a range of around 110-140 BPM, Jungle runs simultaneously at around 160 BPM, with its propulsive percussion, and 80 BPM, in the half-time Reggae basslines. Incorporating our discussion of polyrhythms in the drums themselves, Jungle is therefore highly demonstrative of Robert Farris Thompson’s (1984: xiii) identification of “a propensity for multiple meter” as a principle of Africanist sound organisation. Such a contrast can be heard clearly in tracks such as Mega City 2’s “Nightwalker (Rude Boy Bass Mix)” (1993). The introduction consists of a sample-heavy bricolage sat upon a slow Reggae groove which, after around a minute, is abruptly joined by rapid breakbeats. As we will explore in the final section, this musical development was closely linked to changes in drug consumption habits within the subculture, appealing to both the amphetamine-fuelled ravers and black youth more familiar with marijuana. Crucially, though, we can see the way in which Jungle innovated a unique style which remained thoroughly rooted in Afro-diasporic musical priorities.

Jungle, and its preoccupation with low-end frequencies, also exists within a continuum of black cultural practices in its subversive approach to technology. Broadly speaking, the development of electronic dance music was determined greatly by technological changes and widespread growth in the availability of hardware such as drum machines, samplers, and synthesizers. Nevertheless, musical innovation in this field also spawned directly from the deliberate dismissal of the technologies’ purported purpose, rejecting those “technological parameters [which] adhere most stringently to the Western classical legacy of restricted rhythm in composition” (Rose, 1994: 77). In 1985, DJ Pierre stumbled upon the acid sound that would go on to define a whole subgenre through the wilful abuse of his Roland TB-303, a “bassline machine… designed to provide an automatic bass accompaniment for solo guitarists” (Brewster and Broughton, 1999: 335). Similarly, Hip-Hop producers, “working in the red” and recording well into the distortion zone, drew the ire of formally-educated sound engineers in their relentless mission to achieve a booming bass. This practice can similarly be seen as constitutive of Jungle music, and is even referenced visually in the music video for Congo Natty’s (formerly known as Rebel MC) anthem “Junglist”, which despite being released in 2004, retains the quintessential musical elements of Jungle. Dave Jenkins (2020) a.k.a. Dillinja, a highly respected producer known widely for his pioneering basslines, also mentioned this practice whilst discussing the intuitive and carefree manner of his early production techniques:

“I used to ram DAT [Digital Audio Tape] machines with loud volumes and the DAT has an analog-to-digital converter so I was getting my level by ramming the inputs. I put everything in the red. I never looked at any equipment, I just went with my ears.”

This practice is common to many of Jungle’s leading innovators. Goldie has characterised his approach to music’s production as “joyriding technology, [and] pushing it to the edge” (James, 2020: 97). Indeed, as heard in his early tracks “Terminator” (1992) and “Angel” (1993), Goldie is credited with pioneering the revolutionary technique of time-stretching, a process permitting the speeding up or slowing down of a sample without changing the pitch. These practices, much like the music itself, echo the against-the-odds innovations of Jamaican Dub and Reggae musicians, who pioneered ground-breaking sound processing techniques such as echo and reverb, as well as the practices of dubbing, versioning and remixing. Jungle producers, therefore, can be seen as continuing a rich tradition of rule-bending black cultural innovation through their subversive approach to technology.

Jungle music’s use of samples also demonstrates the fundamental impact of black identity, as well as offering possibilities for future identity formation. Like Hip-Hop, Hardcore and Jungle relied greatly on the sampler for its production, reinforcing the music’s intertextuality. This often led to accusations of ‘thievery’ and scepticism of the art form’s ‘musicality’. Instead, this process should be seen as both deconstructive, in its dismantling of recorded material, and recuperative, in its re-contextualisation and re-purposing of cultural sounds (Rose: 1994: 65). Jungle producers’ sampling of old Reggae, Funk, Soul, Rare Groove and Dancehall records represented a clear stamp of black identity on the music. As early as 1991, the proto-junglists Shut Up and Dance slipped explicit anti-racist rhetoric into the raves when they released “Slaves”. This track sampled the voice of KRS-One who boldly declares “the African is not a slave… the African has a history far more advanced than this nineteen-ninety history we’re in right now.” 2 On A Tip’s “Rare Groove Jungle” (1994) surveys an array of black musical influence, sampling Reggae toasting, soulful vocals, Funk loops, as well as a vocal snippet from The Bizzie Boyz’ US Hip-Hop track “Droppin’ It” (1990). Gerald Simpson, the child of Windrush migrants, frames this clearly in terms of a new generation reshaping and reinvigorating their parents’ music (Gerald Simpson, RBMA Lecture, 2018). In this sense, Jungle’s use of samples, much like the genre name itself, can be viewed as a repurposing of black music traditions to fit the new contexts of inner-city diaspora life in 1990s Britain. In other ways, these samples were crucial in drawing black youth back into the raves. Terror Danjah (2018: 292), who went on to be influential in the Grime scene, recalls this explicitly from his experiences as a young raver.

“Going out and hearing a tune and the way it grabbed a lot of the black people, I’m hearing tunes I heard as a kid resampled into this music. “Aah I know that tune!”… It was like “This is ours for the taking.”

As we will explore in greater length in the final section, the increasing presence of black youth in the raves was not welcomed by all and within a year of Jungle exploding on the scene, cracks were beginning to show. Just as had occurred in the Hardcore era, the use of Ragga samples, as well as the alleged intrusion of Ragga MCs, began to draw dividing lines in the Jungle scene, as people saw the growing influence of Ragga Jungle as allegedly reflecting an attitude that went against the traditional rave culture ethos of Peace, Love, Unity and Respect (PLUR). This concern had its roots in the broader split between the “happy” and “dark” ravers in the wake of what many deemed to be a period of intense commercialisation in 1992. Importantly, sampling can be seen as playing a crucial role in the development of Jungle music, just as race fundamentally shaped the way Jungle producers used samples. More broadly, black identity was woven into the fabric of Jungle, and whilst many in the scene were quick to declare its existence as a multicultural British music form, it is clear that black cultural practices and Afro-diasporic musical priorities were fundamental to the development of Jungle.


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