Join The Future: Bleep Techno & The Birth of British Bass Music is a new book telling the story of British dance music’s first sub-bass revolution, tracing the origins, development, impact and influence of bleep techno, and the subsequent musical styles it inspired, on UK club culture. So what’s that got to do with drum & bass you may ask? In this exclusive extract author Matt Anniss shows how Bleep influenced proto-jungle pioneers Shut Up And Dance, DJ Hype, Production House and Reinforced Records.
Chapter Fifteen: Rage Against The Machine – The Rise of Bleep & Breaks
The lack of records coming out of London that matched the specific swing and style of the Bleep & Bass tracks being made elsewhere is not that surprising when you consider the popularity of Hip-Hop, Soul and Rare Groove in the capital. When Bleep-influenced records began emerging with increasing frequency from 1990 onwards, many of those behind the tracks had spent their formative teenage years running soundsystems dedicated not to pure Dub Reggae, but rather a more mixed sound that became much more Hip-Hop focused as the decade progressed.
One of the leading exponents of this developing sound was Shut Up & Dance, a Hackney-based soundsystem, party crew and DJ outfit whose reputation was red-hot in 1989. They’d been a feature of the local scene since 1982, when the trio behind the project – school friends Philip ‘PJ’ Johnson, Carlton ‘Smiley’ Hyman and Kevin Ford aka DJ Hype – hand built their first Reggae style “sound”.
‘You had to have a sound if people were gonna hear you and take you seriously,’ Hyman told Bill Brewster in 2005. ‘As you know, Hackney is a big soundsystem place. It was mainly Reggae and Dub we were playing to begin with because Jah Shaka was very big then. The sound was called Heatwave. We played the odd Soul thing, but the only big Hip-Hop tunes were [Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force] “Planet Rock” and “The Birthday Party” by Sugarhill Gang.’
When Hip-Hop increased in prevalence, Johnson, Hyman and Ford became converts to the cause; not only did they re-focus their sound to play more Rap records with breakbeats, but Hyman and Johnson also took to the mic as fast-talking hosts with rhymes for days. They took the job of putting on parties seriously, frequently breaking into abandoned houses to run their own Blues style events with the aid of Hyman’s electrician brother. They also out-did other sounds by including Ford’s impressive scratch routines in their sets.
‘We actually did it like a performance, with Hype cutting up two breaks and doing his thing on the decks,’ Hyman explained to Brewster. ‘We were the first sound to do that. And we had a Reggae MC, which was my brother Daddy Earl, and me and PJ rapping. We thought we was a Hip-Hop soundsystem. We wasn’t, but we thought we were.’
Those impressive routines and relaxed rap flows over dancefloor-focused Hip-Hop beats were enough to win them a London-wide competition in 1987. Their prize was a week’s worth of recording in a professional studio. Taking the name Private Party, they delivered a double A-side single that boasted Hyman and Johnson’s tribute to Run DMC’s “My Adidas”, amusingly titled “My Tennents” (a reference to the super-strength beer so beloved of street drinkers), on one side and a silly cut-and-paste affair from Ford called “Puppet Capers” on the reverse. This featured all manner of snippets from puppet-based TV shows and, like the A-side, was an early warning of the tongue-in-cheek silliness and outrageous sample sources that would become a hallmark of their later production work.
‘Obviously, we wanted to pursue it, get a proper deal and make more demos, but nobody wanted to know,’ Hyman explained to Brewster. ‘No major label, no indie, because they were all like, “This is too fast. This isn’t going with the norm.” So we thought, “Fuck you lot – we’re going to do it all ourselves”.’
When they re-entered the studio 18 months later, their style had significantly altered. While still dedicated to the Hip-Hop cause, they were operating at a significantly faster tempo than the toe-tapping, head-nodding 95-105 beats per minute tempo preferred by most Hip-Hop heads. The rise in popularity of House music in Hackney in 1988 made Hyman, Johnson and Ford push the tempo further; regardless of how fast a Hip-Hop record was, they’d push it up to 120 or 125 beats per minute, roughly the same as most jack-tracks from Chicago.
‘We liked fast Hip-Hop, like what Big Daddy Kane was doing,’ Hyman told Brewster. ‘We liked the breaky stuff that was a bit faster, but we still wanted to take it further because we wanted to be able to dance to it. So we made our music much faster. The sort of Rap we made, at that House tempo, was unheard of then. There wasn’t even such a thing as Hip-House back then.’
Hyman and Johnson’s first single as Shut Up & Dance, “5 6 7 8”, was a perfect expression of their very particular take on Hip-Hop. Heavy, rolling and undeniably dancefloor friendly, it was a chunky, breakbeat-driven treat that quickly became a club anthem in their native Hackney. ‘My younger brother was well into House, and he was down at [key local club] Dungeons every week,’ Hyman explained. ‘One week he came home and wouldn’t stop talking: “They played your fucking tune! The place was going crazy! You have to come next week”.’
The buzz around the record in London was such that major labels came calling. Having previously had their demos rejected by the very same label, the pair told them to ‘fuck off’. Instead, they founded Shut Up & Dance Records, pressed up the record themselves and sold a shed-load of copies.
People were clamouring for a follow-up, so they headed back into the studio and recorded a pair of tracks that became big records in 1990: “£10 To Get In”, a comment on the rising cost of entry to raves that fused Acid House with Funk breakbeats, Suzanne Vega and a brief snatch of The Beatles, and the bass-heavy, Bleep-influenced breakbeat jack of “Lamborghini”.
While popular and influential, I’d argue that the two records Hyman and Johnson produced for the Ragga Twins the same year were far more significant. Although not known outside of the Capital, brothers Trevor and David Detouche were well known in North London as Flinty Badman and Deman Rocker, the fast-rapping, patois-speaking MCs involved with the popular Unity soundsystem. Thanks to their involvement with Shut Up & Dance, the brothers would soon become unlikely rave royalty.
‘When we got the Ragga Twins down I said to ‘em, “What we’re going to try and do with you has never been done before”,’ Hyman told Bill Brewster. ‘We wanted to give a Reggae feel into it to see if it worked. We didn’t know what people will think and we didn’t know what would happen.’
Those two early Ragga Twins records were undeniably groundbreaking. Joining together contemporary Ragga style Reggae sounds – complete with booming sub-bass frequencies – with Shut Up & Dance’s beloved breakbeats and nods towards the hottest British Techno and House, they were almost as influential as the Bleep & Bass records that had been arriving in the Capital since the beginning of 1988. In terms of the scene in and around London, they were even more influential, offering a fusion of soundsystem culture and rave that was more in keeping with local tastes than anything that had previously been made up north.
Arguably the best track across the two EPs was “Hooligan ’69”, a track that owed a debt of gratitude to the Bleep & Bass records that had come before it. The track was the epitome of what would become “Bleep & Breaks”, the end of the developing Breakbeat Hardcore spectrum that owed more to records from Yorkshire and the Midlands than some of its creators would now admit. The track was naturally powered by a House-tempo breakbeat, but its booming bass and alien electronics were straight out of the Robert Gordon playbook.
Another to apply similar ideas to his early studio productions was Kevin Ford, their school friend and long-time crew DJ. By the time “Hooligan 69” came out, Ford was one of the biggest DJs on rave-focused pirate station Fantasy FM, which became a must-listen for fans of Acid House, Techno and breakbeat-driven club cuts after it launched in August 1989. ‘Other cities didn’t have pirate radio like we had,’ Ford told Marko Kutlesa in 2017. ‘New ideas don’t come out of Radio 1 and the like, they come from the little guy doing his pirate radio station with his crew, which in the beginning is probably awful, but he builds on it and then all of a sudden it builds.’
Ford’s first forays into the studio were alongside another pirate radio presenter, Lightning FM regular Phivos Sebastiane aka The Scientist. The two met at a party at the Fridge club in Brixton through mutual acquaintances – Lightning founder members Jumpin’ Jack Frost and Bryan Gee – and began working together on tracks for the freshly founded Kickin’ Records imprint.
First was “The Exorcist”, a Hype arranged beast that peppered a sped up James Brown breakbeat and nagging bassline with Bleep style lead lines, glassy-eyed synth chords and plenty of cheeky vocal samples. There were fewer bleeps on speedy follow-up “The Bee”, but the fuzzy, industrial strength bass underpinning Hype’s funky breakbeats recalled the raw energy of tracks such as “The Theme” and “Soul Thunder”. It was accompanied by an alternative “Base Mix” that was stripped-back and heavy, sounding like a particularly funky Hip-Hop head’s take on the Bleep & Breaks sound.
Both records were enormous, reportedly selling well over 35,000 copies apiece. The pair followed it up with an even more Reggae-influenced chunk of Techno/Breakbeat fusion as Kicksquad, the booming dancefloor Funk of “Champion Sound”. It was another excitable Bleep & Breaks roller, with “Testone” style electronic melodies rising above more up-tempo Hip-Hop breaks and moody bass that sounded like it had been plucked from a Dutch Gabber record.
All three records were indicative of a growing trend. Record labels dedicated to this kind of heavy, House-tempo Breakbeat Techno were springing up at a rapid rate across the capital, while others gradually adapted their style to match. In this category was Production House, a label initially founded in 1987 by former Galaxy member Phil Fearon. While the label’s early releases mixed Reggae, Soul and House, by 1990 in-house writer/producer Floyd Dyce was happily working with artists whose tastes lay in the developing Bleep & Bass and Bleep & Breaks sounds.
One of the first Dyce-produced singles from future rave heroes Baby D, “Daydreaming”, was a rare vocal Bleep & Bass outing – complete with heavy Steppers drums, dialling tone bleeps and SH-101 clonks – while DMS’s “Brand New World” came with a “Dubplate Mix” that explored similar sonic territory to Ability II’s “Pressure Dub”. Production House’s 1990 releases also included The Brothers Grimm’s “Soul Thunder” style workout “Déjà vu”, whose three mixes added snatches of the Apache break to driller-friendly bass and intergalactic bleep melodies.
Of the new breed of London labels that popped up to rival the likes of Production House, there’s no denying that Reinforced Records was one of the most significant. It was founded by a quartet of North London DJs collectively known as 4 Hero (Mark Clair aka Marc Mac, Dennis McFarlane aka Dego, Gus Lawrence and Ian Bardouille). Like others in London, they had a background in both soundsystem culture (Clair and Bardouille ran the Soul, Hip-Hop and later US House focused Solar Zone sound from 1986 onwards) and pirate radio, joining forces to establish the Strong Island station in Camden.
‘We played a lot of Rare Groove, Soul, Funk and Hip-Hop, but there was a guy on there called Funky Militant who was the first person I ever heard play Acid House,’ Mark Clair remembers. ‘Then one of the guys on the soundsystem started to play House, and you’d hear it in a whole new light. The bass on those early Chicago records was weak, but the soundsystem made the bass sound heavy, and people liked that. The input from the soundsystem almost morphed those records into something they weren’t. We took that on and ran with it.’
When they started hearing the sub-heavy Bleep & Bass records from the North, Clair and his 4 Hero colleagues were smitten. ‘Ital Rockers’ “Ital’s Anthem” was a big favourite with us at the time, because it had massive dub bass,’ Clair admits. ‘It was like a Jah Shaka sort of bass sound. What they were doing up north was almost “dub-ifying” House. Those Bleep & Bass tracks from Yorkshire featured drums that were almost like dancefloor dub records. That was unique and totally different to the swing of American House records and Detroit Techno.’
4 Hero’s first few EPs – released in 1990 and early ’91 – drew far more influence from the Bleep & Bass sound than those by The Scientist and Shut Up & Dance. “Combat Dance” was a Kraftwerk-sampling, sub-heavy Electro workout, while “The Scorcher” peppered one of Hip-Hop’s most recognizable breakbeats (naturally sped up to the rave-friendly tempo of House) with Reggae MC samples and addictive Bleep melodies. That was backed with “Kirk’s Back”, which was arguably the most ludicrously subsonic of the lot.
None of these were quite as influential as their most famous early record, “Mr Kirk’s Nightmare”. Thanks to its dialling tone bleeps, surging breakbeats, quirky vocal samples, booming bass and razor-sharp synth stabs, it became one of the biggest Bleep & Breaks/Hardcore rave tracks of the period. ‘We used to go to raves up north and think, “Where’s the breaks man?”,’ Clair says. ‘We took the influential sound of Bleep & Bass and brought it down to London. We made sure we had a heavy sub thing going off the synths, and the bleeps, and mixed them with the drum breaks of Hip-Hop. We loved the Yorkshire sound, but there was definitely a divide between what they were doing and what we were doing.’
The inspiration provided by Bleep’s obsession with weighty Dub bass was explored on another early Reinforced Records 12” single, Dennis McFarlane’s 1991 “Kingdom of Dub” EP as Tek 9. This sported heavier Dub bass than almost any other early Reinforced release, offering a breakbeat-powered take on the music of Robert Gordon, Mark Millington and the Bassic Records crew.
‘Down here we were listening to those Yorkshire records and going, “How the hell do they get the sub-bass like that”,’ Mark Clair laughs. ‘If you took all of the music that was playing on pirate radio at the time, you just couldn’t join the dots together. It was the sound systems that joined everything together because of the sub-bass frequencies. It was making everything make sense. The heavy bass of the soundsystems made one thing lead to another.’