With footwork, hip-hop and dubstep influencing it from the outside, there’s a creative buzz around drum’n'bass that hasn’t been present in years. FACT’s Laurent Fintoni speaks to Sam Binga, Om Unit, Fracture and more to find out why. Recommended soundtrack to the feature – Laurent’s playlist of 10 recent tracks pushing d’n'b forward.
I wasn’t around when drum’n'bass was born. I grew up in the south of France, hundreds of miles from England’s rave revolution. My ’90s were spent obsessing over hip-hop: on one hand, losing myself in US raps I had little cultural understanding of, and on the other the booming French rap scene that surrounded me. By 1996 some of my friends were going to local raves, though I didn’t really understand what they were. That year a girlfriend played me a jungle tape she had got from London. It had a hand drawn cover that reminded me of hip hop but when I heard the music all I remember is not quite understanding what was happening. Two years later I was lost in the bass bins at a squat party in the suburbs of London. By then I understood.
Drum’n'bass was the first dance music I really fell in love with. Growing up as a hip hop kid it made sense to me in a way no other dance music did. Years later, I came to realise that drum’n'bass and jungle were the UK’s answers to the hip hop onslaught coming from America: they took many of the same breaks, sped them up and often chopped rap a cappellas on top. The music tapped into the same rhythmic energy as hip hop but with a UK sound system twist.
I came into drum’n'bass at a time of change. While I felt it remained exciting for a while, involving myself by working for ATM magazine, by 2004 I began to lose interest. At this point the music had reached global ubiquity while sonically it had fallen prey to the same issues as other populist dance music genres before it: paint by numbers templates and lowest common denominator tropes that kept clubs busy and 12″s rolling off the assembly lines. Bristol-based producer and self-confessed lifelong jungle/drum’n'bass lover, Sam Binga put it to me that the music “became stale for two reasons: the all-conquering 2 step rhythm making up 90% of the releases and an obsession with high production levels and super loud mix downs.”
In the mid 2000s dubstep came and changed my life. I found in dubstep what I’d missed in drum’n'bass: a first hand experience of the birth of a new musical genre. It was like those youthful moments so many of my British friends would recount when talking about going to raves or listening to tapes in the ’80s and ’90s. I didn’t know if drum’n'bass would ever come to mean much to me again.
Future Past: Club Autonomic
At the end of the 2000s something happened. Spasms of creativity on the edges of the drum’n'bass mainstream began to surface outside of the scene, giving people like myself hope that perhaps the music wasn’t dead and buried yet. That ray of hope was Autonomic, a label, club night and podcast series launched by dBridge [above] – one fourth of late ’90s drum’n'bass powerhouse Bad Company – and Instra:mental – the duo of Alex Green and Damon Kirkham. Together they championed a new sound and aesthetic that was far removed from the excessive machismo and rush for the drop that had come to define much of drum’n'bass.
Autonomic brought back two key elements to the drum’n'bass template: space and soul. The space came from a focus on half-time rhythms, circa 85 bpm, and an avoidance of the obvious breaks and drum patterns. As for the soul, reading dBridge’s recent interview for FACT, it likely came from their use of hardware, a practice that lets the human shine through machine-made sounds in ways that digital technology often doesn’t allow for. dBridge also echoes Sam Binga’s sentiments with regards drum’n'bass’s loudness wars, while Sam backs up dBridge’s reasoning that using hardware brings back a human element to the music, giving it “a fuck load of character and personality.”
Whatever it was, Autonomic made a big impact. That impact was arguably felt most outside of drum’n'bass, particularly in what was then an imploding dubstep scene. Dubstep had replaced drum’n'bass as the London dance floor sound, and within a few years had fallen prey to the same macho qualities that had stunted drum’n'bass’s growth years before. As dBridge explains, “once we did more of the 170 half-tempo stuff, people from [dubstep] were able to get with what we were doing – we were getting sent stuff from like Pearson Sound, Scuba, James Blake, people like that all sending us 85/170 things. I’ve still got a lot of that that’s never seen the light of day, some really great stuff.” Two of dubstep’s biggest names at the time, Scuba and Skream, did eventually appear on Autonomic-related releases including Mosaic Vol.1, a compilation of music indebted to the short-lived era that dBridge released on his own Exit Records label in 2011.
Charlie Fracture is a born and bred Londoner and long-standing producer within the scene, with his own label Astrophonica. Like dBridge before him, he’s spent the past few years trying to re-invigorate the music and scene that has come to mean so much to him. He sees Autonomic has having had a huge influence on modern electronic dance music, stating that “It definitely paved a way and gave drum’n'bass more possibilities to blend with other genres.” For Sam Binga, Autonomic’s importance was as an approach “really well presented, opening up the links and influences between and behind musical genres.”
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