Bleep, bass & breaks: the real roots of jungle

0

In this exclusive full extract from our 25th-anniversary book, Matt Anniss, author of Join The Future: Bleep Techno & The Birth of British Bass Music, explains why the seeds of jungle revolution of the early 90s began not in London, but in a terraced house in Bradford.

In the eyes of many commentators, critics and cultural historians, the emergence of jungle and drum & bass marked the moment when British dance music finally found its voice. When the first “proto-jungle” and “jungle techno” records emerged, mostly from London and the South East, in the very early 1990s, they sounded like little that had come before, mixing high tempo, fiercely cut-up sampled breakbeats with the booming bass-weight of Jamaican soundsystem culture and nods to the reggae, ragga and dancehall records that had been a formative influence on many of the scene’s pioneers. Jungle was loud, extreme and forthright, ripping up the rulebook while sticking two fingers up at British dance music’s established order.

It was a key moment in the development of what would become British “bass music”, a varied and nuanced collection of interconnected sub-genres born from the same sub-heavy blueprint. Be it UK garage, dubstep, grime, UK funky or bassline, the UK-pioneered styles that followed over subsequent decades all owe much to the sweaty, bassbin-bothering thrills of early jungle and drum & bass.

Yet jungle itself did not arrive fully formed. It was merely the most culturally significant step on a journey that had begun not in London, Essex or Bristol, but 200 miles north in Yorkshire. You see, the music you love may have been revolutionary, but the seeds of that revolution began not in Brixton, or on the dancefloor of Rage at Heaven, but in the spare bedroom of a terraced house in Bradford.

A Guy Called Gerald

In late summer 1988, a DJ, a bedroom producer and an MC sat down to make a record in response to A Guy Called Gerald’s peerless rave-era anthem “Voodoo Ray”, the first house or techno of British origin to sound like it had been beamed down from another planet. Unlike the disco-influenced Chicago house records and sci-fi loving Detroit techno tracks that had come before it, “Voodoo Ray” was heavy, industrial, clanking and otherworldly, distilling the raw essence of the interconnected influences that had inspired its creator, Manchester jazz dancer and electro breakdancer turned soundsystem enthusiast turned bedroom producer Gerald Simpson.

The record was not particularly bass-heavy, but the space Simpson left around each of his intoxicating rhythmic and musical elements echoed the spaced-out aesthetic of the dub records he’d heard growing up in Moss Side, or at one of the many illicit, after-hours “blues parties” hosted within Manchester’s Afro-Caribbean neighbourhoods.

The drumbeats he programmed popped with the swing of electro and the loose-limbed shuffle of jazz-funk, both sounds that had dominated underground dancefloors in the North of England. Yet like Chicago house, “Voodoo Ray” was also raw, sweaty and intoxicating, providing perfect fodder for the legions of serious dancers who spent their spare time heading to club nights and Sunday’ all-dayer’ parties in Yorkshire, the Midlands and the North West.

Unique 3

When those three men – part of a slightly larger crew of DJs and promoters known as Unique 3 – gathered in the Bradford bedroom to record their response, they were partly inspired by the man behind “Voodoo Ray”. Like him, the members of Unique 3 were obsessed with hip-hop, house, techno, electro and Jamaican soundsystem culture. They had battled Gerald Simpson as breakdance rivals; if he could make a record that shifted the agenda, so could they.

And boy, did they. Released in its first white label form in October 1988, “The Theme” was even more shockingly revolutionary than the record that partially inspired it. Not only was it raw, stripped back and tough, with the same electro-inspired shuffle, but “The Theme” also boasted two unique elements that marked it out from everything that had come before: insanely heavy, distorted bass, rich in sub-bass frequencies, and sparse, ear-catching “bleep” sounds that could have come straight off a Kraftwerk record. This was “Bradford bass”, later to become “Yorkshire bass”, “Sheffield bleep” and, ultimately, “bleep & bass”.

Over the 24 months that followed the release of that first, bedroom-produced version of “The Theme” (it was later re-recorded and re-released on Virgin Records offshoot 10 Records), Bleep & bass became the first distinctively British style of dance music.

Significantly, it owed much to the dancefloor-focused “steppers” rhythm that was then popular within soundsystem culture, as well as the echoing, head-mangling effects of dub and the sheer bass-weight of reggae and its related genres. Combine this with the metallic clang of industrial music and the futuristic intent of Detroit techno, and you had a sound fully formed by its roots in Yorkshire’s once-mighty post-industrial cities.

Warp Records

Bleep & bass first began to prick the public consciousness thanks to the work of Warp Records, a label established by two record shop owners (Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett) and soundsystem-mad Sheffield producer Robert Gordon. The latter claims he was motivated by the idea of releasing records that united both his black and white friends in appreciation, fixing his love of heavy bass, steppers drums and the sounds of “future dub” to the glassy-eyed rush of the growing acid house movement.

Whatever his motivations, in the first 18 months of Warp Records he oversaw the signing, mixing and mastering of a string of initially Yorkshire-produced bleep classics: Nightmares on Wax’s “Dextrous” and “Aftermath”, LFO’s chart-bothering “LFO” – the origin, perhaps, of jungle’s obsession with the devastating sub-bass drop – Sweet Exorcist’s “Testone” and Forgemasters’ “Track With No Name”, a cut Gordon co-produced with Sheffield DJ Winston Hazel and school friend Sean Maher.

While Warp’s early releases were amongst the most popular and influential of all bleep & bass records, there were plenty of others that carried significant sub-bass and made an impact elsewhere in the country. Records such as Ability II’s “Pressure”, Ital Rockers’ “Ital’s Anthem” and Juno’s “Soul Thunder” – all engineered and co-produced by a little-known figure called Martin Williams in a studio above a skateboard shop in the centre of Leeds – proved particularly popular elsewhere in the UK, first inspiring producers in the Midlands (see Rhythmatic, Demonik, Nexus 21 and Cyclone) before those in Hertfordshire, Essex and London began making their own bleeping, bass-heavy records in response.

Fabio & Grooverider

Few were more inspired than the founders of Britain’s breakbeat hardcore scene; DJs and producers such as Fabio & Grooverider, Jumpin’ Jack Frost, Bryan Gee, 4 Hero, DJ Hype, Mark ‘Ruff’ Ryder, Romford’s Boogie Times Records crew (later to found the hugely influential Suburban Base imprint), Paul Ibiza, Shut Up & Dance and James’ Noise Factory’ Stephens. Hooked on the sparse bleeps and booming sub-bass but keen on finding their own groove, the records they made in tribute replaced Detroit and Chicago influenced grooves with breakbeats sampled from rare groove and hip-hop records.

As has been previously pointed out, the club where this gestation took place was Rage at Heaven, where resident DJs Fabio & Grooverider championed sparse, alien and insanely bass-heavy records whatever their origin. Initially, that meant tougher and more intense forms of mutant acid house and Detroit techno, as well as stomping, rave-friendly techno records from Belgium and Holland. “Fab and Groove” loved bleep & bass, too, turning weighty and intoxicating records from “up North” into anthems.

Yet their heart always lay in music with breakbeats, so it was the London and South-East centric “bleep & breaks” sound – early, often house-tempo breakbeat hardcore records that otherwise bear all the aural hallmarks of original bleep tracks – that helped shape their sound.

As these records began to get darker and tempos soared, some of their punters began referring to “jungle techno” and later “jungle”. It was not a codified sound just yet, but rather a loose stylistic idea; something screamed out from the dancefloor when the two Rage residents dropped a particularly heavy, breakbeat-fuelled cut.

By 1992, bleep had all but died as a standalone genre, with its original pioneers either out of music entirely or making records that bore little stylistic similarity. Some were merely bored with the over-saturation of bleep sounds and the low quality of many of the records that had been made in tribute, while others had seen life – and the need to earn a living – take over.

The hardcore split

Yet the enduring influence of the tracks they produced, and the bass-heavy blueprint they collectively crafted, remained hugely influential. After the natural full stop on the mass movement that was rave took place at Castlemorton Common in 1992, the hardcore scene split bitterly.

On one side stood the giddy over-excited ravers who wanted the rush-inducing piano riffs, sped-up vocal samples and mind-altering “hoover” noises of happy hardcore; on the other, the acolytes of Rage and the people who made records to be played there. They didn’t want silliness, but darkness: the claustrophobic intensity of poverty and drug-induced paranoia coursing through soundsystems capable of rocking bodies to their very core.

This was darkcore, the style that pushed hardcore towards what would soon be described as jungle. Faster, moodier and more intense than anything that had come before, the earliest darkcore records mixed booming bass and elements from horror movies with blistering breakbeats and – in the case of some of the earliest examples – sneaky samples from bleep & bass records.

Many of those producers, DJs and labels who would become stars of the early jungle scene produced or released key darkcore cuts, including DJ Hype, 4 Hero and the Reinforced Records crew, Goldie/Metalheadz, Rob Playford and Moving Shadow, Origin Unknown, Boogie Times Tribe/Suburban Base, and Noise Factory/Ibiza Records.

Then there was the man who arguably started it all, Gerald Simpson aka A Guy Called Gerald. After cutting his ties with major label CBS, Simpson left Manchester, headed to London and delivered a string of “proto-jungle” records on the Juice Box label. A fanatical hip-hop head with a deep-rooted love of soundsystem culture – something shared by many of those within the formative jungle scene – Simpson not only embraced breakbeat hardcore and darkcore, but pushed it even further, offering up ragga and reggae-sampling cuts such as “28 Gun Badboy”, “King of The Jungle” and “Free Africa”; tracks made in 1991 and ’92 that would now be considered key early examples of the jungle sound.

Robert Gordon

He was not the only UK house and techno pioneer to embrace what would become jungle, either. Robert Gordon, the producer who did more to define the sound of bleep & bass than any other, was also a fan. While it would take years for his experiments in jungle and d&b to be released (see his 1996 debut album “Rob Gordon Projects”), the Warp co-founder was a keen advocate of both breakbeat hardcore and jungle.

He argues that many of the earliest jungle records simply sound like sped-up versions of the tracks contained on Warp’s first compilation, Pioneers of the Hypnotic Groove, ‘with added breakbeats’. He also says that had fellow founders Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell not ousted him as a director of Warp Records in late 1990, the label would have eventually championed jungle. “Warp should have been a pioneer in the jungle scene,” he told me in a 2018 interview. “It would have been if I was still there. But ours wouldn’t have been dirty street music, it would have been accurately produced and very well mixed.”

It’s all conjecture, of course, but there’s no denying that the roots of jungle lie just as much in the sparse, alien and sub-heavy sound of bleep & bass as they do in London’s soundsystem scene, on the dancefloor at Rage or in the illegal raves that popped up around the M25 from 1989 onwards.

There were plenty of other things happening musically that fed into the development of what would become jungle, but little quite as significant as Britain’s first fully homegrown, bass-heavy style of dance music. Perhaps it’s time for drum & bass culture to recognise and celebrate this fact.

About Author

Colin Steven co-founded Knowledge Magazine in 1994. He also runs a book publishing company called Velocity Press specialising in electronic music and club culture.

Comments are closed.