For about five years, between 1992 and 1997, jungle sounded like the future rushing in. During that period, jungle was involved in a process of ceaseless reinvention, dismantling and reassembling itself – and assumptions about sound – before our amazed ears. It began as a mutation of rave, configured from elements of techno, dancehall, dub, rave, house, hip-hop and electro, but the volatile composite made for a sound that was completely unprecedented: futuristic and experimental, yet designed for the dancefloor.
Most rave had run on a 4/4 metric, but jungle was driven by the breakbeat. What fired this development was the enthusiasm of some ravers for hip-hop. Rave tracks ran at high bpms, and speeding up hip-hop breakbeats to nearly double tempo would have produced an unintentionally comic effect, but the technique of timestretching, which allowed producers to increase the tempo of a sample while keeping the pitch the same, enabled their use. The timestretched breakbeats, which subjected the funk of human drummers to machine-driven processing, gave jungle an uncanny cyborg-like feel. It wasn’t music entirely produced on machines, like techno. Moreover, the breakbeats weren’t simply sampled and looped. Instead, they were fine tuned and micro-engineered, with individual drum hits manipulated on the sampler. The most important break in jungle was the so-called ‘Amen’ loop – a six second break taken from a funk track by forgotten group The Winstons. It had arrived at jungle via hip-hop. But unlike the hip-hop break, the jungle breakbeat did not function to keep time. Rather, it multiplied it, twisting and splintering it into an explosion of rhythmically polyperverse foldings and weird angles. At one level, jungle’s odd sense of time arose from running half speed dub basslines alongside 180 bpm breakbeats. Yet it was also the intricate involutions of the breakbeats themselves that produced the sense of temporal delirium, their enfolding recalling the impossible geometries of MC Escher’s work and justifying Kodwo Eshun’s description of jungle as “rhythmic psychedelia”.
Like rave, jungle fed off clubs, pirate radio and white label pressings. Unlike rave, though, jungle was an urban culture. Its constituency, defined by class rather than race, reflected the mixed ethnic make up of the inner city, and it was remarkable for being a sound made in equal parts by black and white producers. It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that one of jungle’s most famous figures, Goldie, would be mixed race. Jungle’s heartland was London and the Midlands (Coventry, of all places, was a particularly significant node), and in many ways the music developed out of the disintegration of the rave dream. By contrast with rave’s Ecstasy-fuelled rural arcadia, jungle’s feral geography seemed as if it was derived from dystopian science fiction. Films were a massive presence, both as the source of samples and as something that coloured the mood and theme of tracks. The Alien films, with their paranoid spaces and techno-fetishism, the crashed ecosphere and artificial humans of Blade Runner, the cyborg stalker and timebending of the Terminator films, and Predator 2, with its dreadlocked monster and voodoo posse, were frequently referenced. But by fusing elements of science fiction and horror, jungle constructed its own Afro-futurist and cyber-gothic sonic fiction, set in the derelict arcades of a near future populated by millenarian rastas, cyberspace cowboys, voodoo loa and malign shape-shifting entities. The jungle was a fictional space as much as a genre, a brutal ‘90s update of William Gibson’s cyberspace. Jungle’s innovations were collectively driven, not attributable to individual auteurs, but to ‘scenius’, the interaction between DJs, producers and the ‘massive’ on the dancefloor. Breakbeats and bass sounds would evolve from track to track, as if they were audio lifeforms subjected to an intense process of unnatural selection…
An early jungle classic, courtesy of one of the aliases of former graffiti artist turned sonic conceptualist Goldie and longtime collaborator Rob Playford. Rave flashbacks stab, breakbeats flare and fold in on themselves, while samples from Terminator’s Sarah Connor – “you’re talking about things I haven’t done yet” – sound as if they are commenting on the process of timestretching itself.
02. BABYLON TIMEWARP
(SUBLIME RECORS, 1992)
Named after a type of ganja, this track by the gloriously named Babylon Timewarp seems to follow a drug trade route into a UK housing estate. Beginning with slow skank guitar and heavy dub bass, it’s abducted into double time by breakbeats, rasta vocal samples and, incongruously but brilliantly, strings that sound as if they have a Middle Eastern provenance.