Autonomic, jungle footwork and slow/fast: how drum’n’bass got its groove back
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
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.”
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/4)
The Chicago Connection and The Return of Slow/Fast
As the Autonomic project started winding down in the early 2010s, with Instra:mental moving on to other things under their individual aliases, another unexpected burst of creativity shook the drum’n’bass scene. It came from Chicago, and had been brewing on the streets for over a decade with little interest from outside the city. It was a local style of music and dancing known as footwork, and between 2010 and 2012 this local Chicago sound went global and revived another side of the drum’n’bass equation: its jungle and rave roots.
I discussed the history and implications of this transnational movement in a piece for RBMA last year. To summarise: after footwork – and its sister genre juke – exploded onto the international scene circa 2009, a new generation of producers, mainly based outside of Chicago, began synthesising key elements of the music – its fast bpm and rhythmic syncopation – with jungle and rave, two ageing UK dance movements that shared those same DNA strands. The result was a string of bootlegs and official releases in 2011 spearheaded by Om Unit (under the Phillip D. Kick alias), Machinedrum and Mark Pritchard.
While all this was unfolding primarily outside of drum’n’bass, within the scene dBridge’s Exit label continued to act as an incubation chamber for new ideas, carrying on the Autonomic tradition. In early 2011 Mosaic Vol.1 acted as a snap shot of the post-Autonomic days, a collection of spacious, meditative and at times subtly energetic music from names including Manchester’s Synkro & Indigo and Romanian guitarist Dan Habarnam. Preceding the seismic shock of ‘Get Busy’ – itself an Exit release – was the late 2011 release of ‘Marka‘ by Manchester producer Dub Phizix and Skeptical. Where those outside the scene were busy experimenting with aesthetics largely in opposition to drum’n’bass’s mainstream, ‘Marka’ provided a shock by placing itself firmly within the confines of the music’s high tempo, circa 174 bpm, while stripping away all the machismo. In its place was a barebones rhythm that borrowed from the all conquering 2-step rhythm but edited it with a loose flair and a chest-rattling bassline that gave the song a strange shamanic energy, made all the more potent by the lyrics from local MC Strategy. ‘Marka’ shook people out of their comfort zones. Its lyrics and rhythm also reached out to the music’s hip hop roots, drafting (back) in heads who by this point had wandered away.
The last element in this drum’n’bass revival was the idea of slow/fast, or when a producer shifts between full and half time tempos in a production, playing with rhythmic energy but also samples. The idea itself was nothing new: it’s been around in drum’n’bass and hip hop for years – even Pendulum had cunningly used it at the height of their drum’n’bass fame in the early 00s. In recent years, however, slow/fast has reached a level of popularity and ubiquity that I’ve not seen before.
In a recent interview with Mark Pritchard we discussed the excitement – both in the dance and the studio – surrounding this revival of slow/fast in productions. As an experienced producer who was around and active during drum’n’bass’s first golden age, Mark’s involvement in the current revival shows that it’s a intergenerational movement rather than the preserve of a new, younger breed. Mark admitted that he’s been writing a lot of “hip hop style at 80bpm, but then the rhythm is at 160 on top of it. There’s so much scope there, it opens up lots of samples I’ve wanted to use but couldn’t … There’s definitely a feeling at the moment that there’s an endless amount of ideas to be done around the 80/160 axis. There’s a whole world of music you can try, endless possibilities at that tempo again, which is really exciting.”
For his part Fracture sees slow/fast as separate from Autonomic, linking it back, unsurprisingly, to jungle. “What excites me is that it re-explores grooves and rhythmic feelings that were left behind by jungle. Some of my favourite parts in old jungle tunes are when you have a rare groove loop running at say 80bpm and then all the breaks running at 160. That’s not to say you need a rare groove loop today, but the overlapping of tempos can work with a number of different elements.” For a good example of this, including slow/fast ideas at slower tempos, the recent Re-Animation EP by Dawn Day Night on Fracture’s Astrophonica label is a good place to start.
One last side to the slow/fast revival brings it back to dubstep. As Sam Binga explains: “there have always been half-step tunes in drum’n’bass, from Digital’s dread-like pieces in the ’90s to Hazard’s recent jump up versions, but the whole approach of dubstep allowed people to realise that you didn’t need to batter people over the head with constant drum pressure to create danceable music.”
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 2/4)
Once a Junglist…
Many of the producers currently held up as ‘forward thinking’ within this new wave of drum’n’bass come from a jungle background – not as established producers like dBridge or Fracture but rather as fans. Om Unit [above], Sam Binga and Machinedrum are all avowed enthusiasts of the classic ’90s era. They’ve all mentioned this youthful passion as a driver for revisiting the music in recent years, sparked by the inspiration provided by footwork and Autonomic.
In a recent interview with Om Unit I asked him about the idea of a new school of drum’n’bass emerging. He noted that, for him, the movement feels more like “sped-up dubstep … Dubstep at 160, I know myself and Mark Pritchard have been on that tip for a while, it’s fun.” Om Unit will be the first to downplay the impact of his work in public, yet his and Machinedrum’s releases over the past two years have inspired a lot of people, including Sam Binga. “I have to give props to Om Unit”, Sam tells me, “for opening up my eyes to working at different tempos and feels.” When the pair met in Bristol last year and sat down to collaborate they originally intended to go for a slow house vibe, following some respective forays into that world; however things took a turn for the jungle and they came out with the track ‘Triffidz‘, recently issued on Mosaic Vol.2.
For many of these producers it’s a story of rediscovering their first love, and being able to do it justice in a way they couldn’t before. In the space of a few years this aesthetic melting pot of footwork, jungle, Autonomic, slow/fast and core drum’n’bass elements has breathed a new lease of life into a genre that many had written off. Add the internet as a technological and communicational hyper-catalyst and you have all that’s needed for a musical renaissance.
Call It What You Want, Just Enjoy It
Coming from both in and outside the scene, the wave of producers taking a shot at this new idea of drum’n’bass is growing by the month. Despite a clear alignment with drum’n’bass, most of the music has evaded facile genre boxing. At its best it’s music that is simply infectious, exciting and hasn’t yet been pinned down to a set of easily replicated sonic tropes.
This follows from ‘Gamma‘, taken from Sam’s Small Victories EP with Om Unit on Exit, a hat tip to the grime classic ‘Pulse X’ at 170. “I’ve been trying to find ways to bring grime, possibly the next great UK musical innovation after jungle, influences into this tempo range,” Sam tells me. He adds that he also wants to “bring southern hip hop feels in without it becoming trap-lite or Urban Takeover 2.0,” echoing the established practice of blending, primarily southern, rap beats with faster dance music. 10 or more years ago this remained the preserve of the more adventurous and technically skilled DJs, but today it’s a lot more acceptable and easy to pull off.
Having played a big part in bringing footwork to a worldwide audience, Planet Mu has continued to quietly foster its own corner of this revival. Boxcutter‘s new alias The Host has provided another take on the ideas invigorating the scene, one that’s more spacious and ethereal but still draws from Chicago’s ruggedness, as exemplified by his recent mix for Fabric. Another Mu artist operating at the intersection of 160/80 and 170/85 is Brighton’s Ital Tek, whose last three releases have offered a darker, dystopian take on the sound.
Om Unit is about to release an EP on Metalheadz, which he calls an idea rather than a straight up drum’n’bass record. “I can’t go in and make drum & bass like the masters,” he explained in our recent interview. “It’s not my world as such so I’ve done my own thing and it turns out that the Headz team love it.” While I’ve not mentioned it until now, Goldie’s label has played its own part in this story balancing its role as one of the scene’s cornerstone labels – requiring it to churn out releases and parties – with its tradition as a home for forward thinking, leftfield productions. In early 2012 they released dBridge’s ‘Cornered‘, a masterclass in breaks chopping, editing and minimalism that celebrated both Exit and Headz’ love of risk taking.
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 3/4)
The move by new, ‘outsider’ producers into established drum’n’bass labels such as Metalheadz [above] and Exit, as well as support for their music from other veterans like Doc Scott, Flight and Storm, is another tell tale sign that this revival goes beyond trendy hype. While I was disconnected from drum’n’bass when Autonomic happened, the sound never seemed to make a huge impact within the scene itself, instead remaining confined to its periphery where it was free to interact with dubstep and others. But after footwork gatecrashed the party, tapping into a lot of the classics that had made drum’n’bass what it is today, and ideas such as slow/fast began to re-emerge and become refined, the likes of Goldie – heroes and gatekeepers of the music – soon came calling to support the new school of risk takers. Perhaps they too saw this movement as a vital evolution of the music and scene they’d helped build and make a living from.
There have always been labels within drum’n’bass willing to take risks, including Metalheadz, Exit and Shogun Audio, and they are now being rewarded. Equally important, however, have been smaller, sometimes non-drum’n’bass artist and labels, able to push through new sounds thanks to a lack of definite affiliation to a scene. Already mentioned are 50 Weapons, Planet Mu and Warp, on which Mark Pritchard releases. Back in Bristol, Adam Elemental recently revived his own Runtime imprint to release the Exile EP, a record that reminds me a lot of classic Photek releases from the late ’90s – spacious and airy, with intricately edited rhythms and a rare organic quality. And then there is Cosmic Bridge, the label started by Om Unit – him again – in 2011, at the time of his Footwork Jungle edits. In its first two years the label has acted as a platform for both his own work and that of new and established talent seeking an outlet for their ideas.
Elsewhere, Kromestar and EAN are two more established talents who’ve found new creative life at this tempo. Kromestar is best known for his foundational work in dubstep, while EAN was one of the artists responsible for Various Production. Machinedrum’s new album, Vapor City, is notable for a movement away from 160 and jungle/rave influences and towards the tempo and vibe of Autonomic, which he has admitted has been an influence.
Most interesting, perhaps, is that the influence that Chicago footwork gave to this new school seems to have already come full circle, barely two years later. For a while now there’s a been clear tinge of rave and jungle to some of the music coming from Chicago: footwork pioneers such as DJ Rashad have acknowledged the influence that these primarily European producers have had on his own work, and a listen to his upcoming album, Double Cup, proves this to be more than public back slapping. This recent Tweet by Rashad’s Teklife affiliate DJ Earl speaks for itself.
Cycles or Spirals? History Repeats Itself
There is a theory that things in life move in roughly 10 year cycles. It’s a theory I subscribe to, especially in terms of arts and creativity. Though perhaps instead of perfect cycles, which would imply stale repetition, it’s more about spirals: aesthetic ideas do repeat but the cultural, social and technological surroundings that they happen in are never quite the same, making the ideas feel fresh again.
Apply this theory to drum’n’bass and we are due a revival. For many, 2002 to 2004 marked the end of an era and the beginning of a period of stagnation in the music. dBridge refers to the 2004 release of the ‘Bellini’ and ‘True Romance’ 12″ as a new beginning. Listening to both tracks today, you can see how they would ultimately lead him to Autonomic.
In the Footwork And The Future piece I argued that what we were seeing between 2010 and 2012 felt more like a synthesis than a mix of pre-existing ideas repackaged for a new generation of listeners and club goers. With some of this new music arching back to drum’n’bass’s greatest ’90s moments, for example Digital’s 1998 masterpiece ‘Special Mission‘, some may dismiss this new groove as a mere rehashing of existing ideas. I choose to see it as a part of the ongoing aesthetic spiral: with the first half of 2013 behind us there is, more than ever, a renewed sense of excitement about drum’n’bass’s tempo and rhythms. There’s fresh blood willing to experiment and established pioneers seeking the same excitement they first felt twenty years ago.
A couple of weeks ago I was at the SATTA festival in the Lithuanian countryside. At 4am on saturday morning I heard what I would later find out is a new Dom & Roland track. Pulsing out of the speakers it sounded as threatening and exciting as the best late ’90s techstep productions – a style that had quickly become abused in the machismo rush. The drop kicked in and mayhem ensued in the dance. I turned to my friend standing next to me and saw the same look on his face I felt on mine. Where it goes to from here is anyone’s guess, but as always, the first signs will come from speakers in the dance.