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

Jacob Tucker delivers the third and final part of his discussion on Rave, Race and Rhythm in the Jungle. For part 2 follow the link HERE.

Cover photo via: No Repetitive Beats

“Worries In The Dance”: Culture, Criminality, and Collapse

As we have seen, Jungle can be characterised by its unique blend of supposedly disparate cultures and sounds, as well as its existence within a tradition of black cultural practices and musical approaches. Whilst the earlier Acid House explosion has been widely regarded as a moment in which historical boundaries of class, race, and gender were transcended through the power of rave, many black Brits remained suspicious of both the “devil music” and the ecstasy-fuelled hedonism of rave culture. Of course, Acid House was far from just a white phenomenon. Black British DJs such as Carl Cox, Fabio, Grooverider, and Frankie Valentine, were leading figures in the Acid House scene and instrumental in inspiring black youth who would later go on to shape and remould British electronic music. Indeed, in contemporary reappraisals of the era, there is a growing recognition that black British clubbers were dancing to house music long before Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker, and Nicky Holloway went on their notorious life-changing trip to Ibiza in the summer of 1987.

Nevertheless, the Jungle explosion significantly increased the involvement of black youth in a scene that had branched out of rave culture, and more specifically, its predominantly white working-class mutant child: Hardcore. The differing experiences and approaches of black and white youth played a central role in Jungle’s cultural development, and in this section we shall look more specifically at the decline of Jungle. We will come to understand how the term became synonymous with criminality, crack cocaine usage, and stupidity; notions that are inseparable from historic stereotypes levelled at the black youth of Britain. As Gerald Simpson put it simply, many years later, “when jungle came out people were scared of it.” Importantly, through the shift into ‘Drum and Bass’, Jungle succumbed not only to implicit pressures stemming from structural racism, but also to much of the racialized musical discourse outlined in the previous section, leaving in its wake a scene which many felt was increasingly out of control.

As we understood in the first section, Jungle culture was formed at a nexus of race-based and class-based experiences located in the multi-cultural hubs of urban and suburban Britain. Benjamin Noys argues that Jungle, as a subculture, “floats in a space made common by an experience of class, the continuing emerge of the under-class with its reliance on both legal and illegal economic activities.” Such a reading appears to echo Stuart Hall’s writings on the decade following the brief outbreak of anti-racist violence in 1985, in which he describes growing “internal class gaps” for ethnic minorities in Britain, “between a minority rising middle class and the majority poor.” The rise of Jungle had also coincided with the forced reorientation of rave from the illegal countryside gatherings dotted around the M25 and beyond, back into inner-city clubs and licensed venues. Despite the increasing regulation and police presence, Jungle raves were renowned for violence. Terror Danjah recalls, albeit perhaps hyperbolically, that he would “always see someone get stabbed or bottled” and that “it wasn’t a joke.” Jumpin’ Jack Frost agrees that “there was violence [and] it did get a bit out of hand.” Accordingly, electronic dance music magazines such as Mixmag posed the question to readers, “Is Jungle Too Ruff?”, whilst others, such as Ravescene were clear that “Rave is dead” and “Jungle killed it.” Of course, “the scripting of blackness as associated with violence” was a crucial aspect of this, and served to reinforce perceptions of Jungle culture as promoting criminality, aggressive behaviour and ‘darkness’. Kool FM’s Eastman argued that Jungle raves were no more violent than an average nightclub in any British town, and that the media sensationalised the criminality of the scene. This valid point reinforces the idea that the “panic about Jungle commenced when black people ceased to be a minority and were visibly in control of the scene.”

The allegedly criminal nature of Jungle is perhaps best represented in its foundational infrastructure of pirate radio, hidden away in the high-rise tower blocks of London’s council estates. Indeed, pirate radio stations faced not only frequent raids from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) but also police allegations that they were a front for large-scale drug-selling networks. These reports were not without explicitly racialised language. Such is the case in Evening Standard coverage of the 1993 raid on Rush FM, with the paper quoting police assertions of a “Yardie connection.” As Anita Kalunta-Crumpton points out, the term ‘Yardie’ constituted a specific reference to organised Jamaican crime and “enriched media representations of race, blackness and drug trafficking.” Police allegations were thus driven by the racially-informed assumption that the pirates could only “go to such elaborate lengths” of working to secure their stations from potential raids if they were “ruthless drug dealers” running “a highly-organised network.”

Drugs had of course been an essential feature of the Acid House explosion of 1988-1989 and a much-celebrated aspect of the Hardcore scene in 1990-92. Conversely, black British producers, such as 4Hero and Shut Up And Dance, had actually taken a more sceptical stance on the liberating and unifying possibilities of ecstasy usage than Hardcore’s “amphetamine-addled headbangers.” Despite its prevalence in Hardcore raves at the time, the lyrics of Shut Up and Dance’s anthem “Raving I’m Raving” (1992) told the story of a raver who had bought a pill and headed to the rave, opening with typical utopian representations of rave, before begging the question, “do I really feel the way I feel?” Jumpin’ Jack Frost has discussed his bemusement at seeing people on ecstasy for the first time, as has Dego McFarlane of 4Hero, who could not understand why sweating strangers were eagerly asking him for his water. An EP by 4Hero entitled “Where’s the Boy” (1992), would trace 'one raver’s ecstasy-induced death by heatstroke in tracks titled “Burning” and “Cooking Up Yah Brain.” Importantly, the stage was set for a clash of cultures, as junglists became accused of destroying ‘happiness’ in the rave scene. One raver wrote into Mixmag complaining that “a lot of [the Jungle scene] is quite moody” and that “it doesn’t promote hand shaking and sharing bottles of [sic] water.” Indeed, Jungle’s explosion in 1994 had emerged directly from a period known as Darkside in which “’Ardkore’s anthemic choruses and sentimental melodies were stripped away in favour of gloomy, slimy-sounding electronic textures.” This development paralleled a significant decline in the quality of ecstasy available to ravers, due to the rising demands that followed rave’s dizzy heights of popularity in 1992.

These conflicts were certainly informed by racial divisions, and reflected Jungle’s existence as a musical and cultural “response to the whitening of rave.” For white youths of the Hardcore and Acid House era, ecstasy spelled an end to the endless cycle of week-end violence, both on the football terraces and in nightclubs, and often helped them “overcome their social inhibitions and heteronormative social programming which coded dance as unmanly.” Conversely, many black youngsters had grown used to all-night dancing at sound-system and blues parties of the preceding decades, without the help of synthetic drugs. Indeed, Fabio recalls, albeit not totally seriously, that the Acid House explosion “was the first time I realised white people could actually dance.” Moreover, Melville notes that black clubbers’ aversion to drug-taking was informed by “”the dangers of being out of control in public space, patterned by racial antagonism.” Even so, Jungle came to be increasingly associated with the growing presence of crack cocaine in the clubs, an issue that was often presented by police as a black problem, despite the fact that “white people made up the vast majority of users of these drugs.” This is corroborated by a 1998 study of drug service delivery to black communities in Greater Manchester, which concluded that the use of crack cocaine is “stereotypically associated almost exclusively with African-Caribbean men.” Such an association, for media onlookers, was inevitably tied up with both the 1993 move to Darkside and the increasing influence of explicitly Afro-Caribbean dance forms such as Ragga and Dancehall music and culture in the Jungle scene, manifested most clearly in Jungle’s two chart-topping hits: “Incredible” by M-Beat featuring General Levy, and “Original Nuttah” by Shy FX featuring UK Apache.

The rise of Ragga Jungle, coupled with the increasing association of Jungle with crime and crack cocaine, would lead many leading producers, DJs, and MCs in the scene to eventually break away and form what came to be known as ‘Drum and Bass’. Such was the commotion caused by General Levy’s “Incredible” (1994), and his boasting of being “De Oriogional [sic] Junglist,” that a range of producers, artists and promoters formed a committee to ‘protect the scene’ from this Ragga intrusion and boycotted any DJ or promoter that played his track. Dave Stone, head of SOUR Records, has also claimed that he “had to fight tooth and nail to stop Original Nuttah being boycotted, and we’d done nothing wrong.” From a broader perspective, the rise of Ragga and Dancehall across the black Atlantic had represented a new generation’s rejection of “the Rasta solution… which often refused to engage directly with the harsh realities of ghetto and Third World life.” These “rude-boy” MCs who crossed over from the Ragga world to collaborate with Jungle producers, soon collided with many of those who had come up through the Hardcore years. Inherent to this conflict was a colliding vision of Jungle’s purpose and existence as a diaspora culture, demonstrated by Belle-Fortune’s claim that “Jungle threatened to become a poor Ragga hybrid, run by Jamaicans.” DJ Storm claimed that they “were talking about things we didn’t actually do” whilst others complained that Ragga had divided and alienated many “English”; or in other words, white ravers.

By 1995, most of the leading junglists had abandoned a scene they no longer recognised and ‘Drum and Bass’ came to replace Jungle as the marketable term for the music and culture. As Fabio explained years later:

The whole tag “jungle” took on a real sinister feeling. It just got so smashed in the press. We were like, “If we’re going to carry on we’re gonna have to change the name, because we’re getting slaughtered here.

Undoubtedly, the sensationalism of press coverage and the ‘sinister feeling’ that Jungle took on, as we have seen, was deeply linked to Jungle’s constitution as a response to the whitening of rave, and re-entry of black bodies into the dancefloor. Bret, a promoter and founder of the popular Telepathy raves, was clear that “there was a subtext with Drum & Bass meaning white, friendly, middle-class. Jungle meaning ‘A bad boy ting.’” Similarly, MC5ive’O declared even more sternly that “Drum & Bass is a white bwoys’ bizniss… Any music that comes to this planet, the white bwoys and record companies are in it and that’s the way it goes.” The claim that Drum and Bass constituted another development in a history of white commercialisation of black music is certainly a claim that would be worthy of further inquiry outside of the confines of this thesis. Crucially though, the racialisation of this process was clear to many participants in the scene both at the time and from our current perspective. After just over a year, Jungle had been hollowed out, and for those left behind by the Drum and Bass cohort, UK Garage became a new fertile site for both musical innovation and black British club culture.


To conclude, whilst Jungle should be celebrated as a unique cultural export, shaped by a multicultural underground network of British youth, we should not treat Jungle solely as a source for self-congratulation, as within its story lies the tensions and challenges of anti-blackness, as much as the weaving of blackness into Britishness. Jungle’s emergence was demonstrative of the way in which cross-cultural dialogues in British communities served to create a novel and forward-thinking music form that broke British music culture free of its lowly role as “librarian to the US.” More specifically, Jamaican sound-system culture must be recognised as playing an absolutely critical role in this musical development, and its influence has disrupted traditional, exclusionary notions of Britishness. As Brewster and Broughton summarise: “If you’re British there’s a bassline that’s part of you.” Jungle also radically disrupted conventional notions of musicality and demonstrated a “staggering formal novelty,” explicitly exhibiting Afro-diasporic musical priorities, such as polyrhythmic density, repetition, rupture, and bass weight. Equally, we have seen that Jungle, despite its constitution as a multi-ethnic dance music, was built upon a lineage of black cultural practices, transformed to the context of urban (and suburban) Britain, much like its trans-Atlantic cousin Hip-Hop. This unique moment was fused at the seams, and the disparate coalition that had been united by Jungle’s chaotic rhythms were just as quickly torn apart in a process that was inextricably linked to racialised perceptions, as well as issues that leaked from the wider structures of racism and socio-economic deprivation. The formation of Drum and Bass was undoubtedly a product of such racialised processes, and demonstrated the ongoing tensions present in wider British society, as well as within black British communities. Areas warranting further attention in Jungle history certainly include the role of sexuality and gender in the development of this music, recognising the vital contribution of gay nightclubs, as well as issues of homophobia and sexism in the Jungle and rave culture. Even so, writing this history of Jungle supports the important mission of breaking down ethnically exclusive notions of Britishness, and in a wider sense, may help challenge racial oppression in a country that was so central to the construction of the endemic and systemic racism that still plagues us today.


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