State of Bass: the Origins of Jungle/Drum & Bass is a revised reissue of the first book on jungle and drum & bass, is out now. Originally published in 1997, State of Bass explores the scene’s roots through its social, cultural and musical antecedents and extends the original text to include the award of the Mercury Prize to Reprazent and the release of Goldie’s Saturnz Return album. In this exclusive extract author Martin James looks at darkcore, the immediate precursor to jungle/drum & bass.
Chapter Three: The Media Blackout and the Rise of Dark
‘Dark came from the feeling of breakdown in society. It was winter, clubs were closing, the country was in decline. As an artist, I had to reflect it.’ Goldie, 1996
Darkcore emerged very much as a reaction to the dodgy raves, the unimaginative populist tendencies of toytown and the increasing dominance of happy hardcore, and also as a reflection of the times. It was 1993, and the nation was gripped by the worst economic slump in years. The cost of living was soaring, unemployment prevailed, and houses were being repossessed after the ‘never had it so good’ bubble of the 1980s had finally burst.
The people who were being hit hardest were those already living on the breadline. Twelve years previously, the populations of the inner-city housing estates had united against the authorities in a series of nationwide riots. In 1993, however, the sense of unity in the face of authority became increasingly represented by the proliferation of black market operations. An underclass had fully evolved where mass generational unemployment hit families hard.
Urban youth had next to no chance of gaining meaningful employment and the gradual introduction of student loans in place of bursaries shut down possibilities of escape through the education system. The only hope being offered came through Youth Training Schemes, which paid little more than pocket money for a full week’s work and provided little real training. Social mobility was coming to a standstill with the only shift coming through downward mobility, which stood at its worst numbers since 1954.
As a result, an alternative black market culture arose. Drug dealing, theft and benefit fraud became a more commonplace way of life for many. People living in the inner cities of Britain were increasingly forced to live an underclass lifestyle as the socio-economic fabric of society crumbled.
This environment nurtured the junglist’s combative frontline mentality of minimal trust. In the urban housing estates a different set of principles in which disenfranchisement as a core identity marker was becoming entrenched. From Goldie’s youth in the urban wastelands of the Midlands to Jumping Jack Frost’s upbringing among London’s tower blocks, many of the originators of dark grew through the struggle of the underclass.
Darkcore found rave at its most sombre. The sound of dark was typified by Rufige Kru’s 1993 tune, Ghosts of My Life which offered a wash of phased, minor chords, harsh rhythm patterns and brooding, paranoid sonics, complete with a sample of Ghosts by 80s band Japan. It was a nightmarish vision of a dystopian future where cyborgs are possessed by human frailty. The ‘ghosts of my life’ vocal refrain echoed over a breakbeat that twisted and spun in all directions, cutting the ether with a surgeon’s precision. Belting out of rave soundsytems the track seemed to get inside your cranium, pushing and pulling your synapses in untold directions; an eerily dark masterpiece.
Darkcore was the sonic equivalent of a horror movie. As early as 1992 Doc Scott released Here Come the Drumz, under the Nasty Habits monicker. It was a monster of a track that hinted at the darkness to come. Insane and frantic beats, a harsh, claustrophobic atmosphere that made you feel like you were dancing in a sandstorm with only occasional synth passages for light. However, the heart of darkness that had inspired Here Come the Drumz had dropped even earlier in 1990. Taken from their second EP Combat Dancing, the track Mr Kirk’s Nightmare by the then four-piece band 4hero saw them move away from the bleep sound of their previous material instead delivering a slice of breakbeat noir built around the Isley Brothers’ Get Into Something break. Crucially the tune had a spoken narrative that introduced the real life horror of drug related tragedy through the narrative of a police officer informing the victim’s father of his son’s death.
Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare was embraced for its encapsulation of the reality of taking E and subsequently captured a mood of defiance among ravers where dropping ecstasy was literally dicing with death. There was a growing nihilistic energy among ravers, which seemingly encouraged people to push themselves to limits of chemically enhanced endurance. A pivotal tune in the development of the breakbeat scene, Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare was also a track that nearly destroyed DJ Rap’s career. During one particular rave the tune seemed almost prophetic as someone died just as Rap, ignorant to the unfolding tragedy, dropped it into her set. Still shocked by the experience she explained:
‘I played this rave called Telepathy and someone got stabbed. There was this record at the time called Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare. Guess who played it just as the guy got stabbed? I didn’t realise it had happened, but the result was that I lost every booking I’d ever worked for. When the police came to my house, they said, “so you’re the DJ everyone hates”. I had no idea the guy had been stabbed, but people didn’t believe me.’
4hero’s role in the development of darkcore is indisputable. Their Reinforced Records imprint was home to numerous breakbeat experiments that were inspired by the success of Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare. In early 1993, they would release the epic Journey From The Light EP, which saw darkcore become a clearly definable subgenre. In the intervening period however their Dollis Hill studio became a space for seemingly unlimited sonic explorations that would solidify not only their status but also become a training ground for Goldie to learn and practice his chops.
‘I remember one session which lasted over three days,’ said Goldie. ‘We were sampling from ourselves, and resampling, twisting sounds around and pushing them into all sorts of places.’
At the end of 1992, Goldie created an EP from the fruits of these experimental sessions. Called Terminator, it would represent the first time that the timestretching technique had been used on the breaks; an effect that allowed you to alter the tempo of a sample without changing the pitch. As a result, Terminator played at 160 bpm without the sensation of moving faster, adding a hallucinogenic ambience to the metallic beats.
The winter of 1992/1993 was a period of music quality for darkcore with tracks like Mass Confusion by 2 Bad Mice taking the dark theme through deeper contortions, cutting up, reversing and manipulating breaks that seemed to slip in and out of focus. Ed Rush’s Bludclot Artattack on No U Turn had similarly heartstopping weightlessness to its construction. The darkcore period was a time when video libraries offered endless possibilities for sampling. Discordant strings and haunting refrains would be lifted from horror films and dislocated ambience appropriated from sci-fi movies. Occasional phrases were lifted and placed in a track for added effect, providing the spoken narrative with unintended new meanings.
Never was this more powerful than on Origin Unknown’s 1993 track Valley of the Shadows, the b-side of The Touch. The track combined metallic, cut up and reversed breaks with sub-bass intensity and two repeated phrases. The key phrase ‘Felt that I was in this long dark tunnel’, was sampled from an episode of the BBC documentary series QED about out of body experiences. A second phrase ‘thirty-one seconds’ was lifted from the Apollo 11 Apollo countdown to the 1969 lunar module landing on the moon. The resulting track saw Essex boys Ant Miles and Andy C creating a Dante-esque vision of hell in the urban-scape; the use of the girl’s voice mumbling the long dark tunnel phrase ensuring a near perfect slice of breakbeat noir.
Inevitably the horrorcore visions of dark were taken too far by some. The scene started to attract the kind of kids that might have been into death metal, or goth a few years earlier. Indeed, this was a period during which heavy metal labels such as Earache had been experimenting with electronic music such as the hard gabber techno of Ultraviolence, who was also deeply immersed in horrorcore sampling on his I, Destructor album. The dark scene quickly turned into a cartoon-esque version of itself with people talking of hidden messages in the tracks. ‘All these kids have turned it into a joke. They think dark is about devil worship,’ complained Goldie in an interview with Vibe in early 1994.
In reality, the sound had less to do with worshipping at the altar of Beelzebub than it had to do with developments in technology that were able to enhance the mood of the times. This may have been an era when the art of timestretching was first explored, but the proliferation of horror samples came from people discovering what they could do through the far less sophisticated action of altering the pitch on a keyboard.
Pete Parsons was the in-house engineer for Dee Jay Recordings and Lucky Spin throughout this period. As a result, he worked on a multitude of tracks including DJ Crystl’s seminal Warpdrive where both he and the DJ developed a strong working relationship. The same was true of his partnership with DJ Rap on the duo’s album Intelligence.
You get these people playing around the keyboard,’ explained Parsons in 1995. ‘There would be a bit of dialogue sampled across the whole keyboard and people would play things really low down and think it was fucking amazing, like the best thing they’d ever heard. For the engineers, it was quite normal really, but somehow these deep voices fitted into the music which we were making deliberately horrible, just to keep people out!’
At a time when many of the people creating tracks were DJs with a couple of ideas and an armful of records to sample, the engineers were rapidly becoming the unsung heroes of the scene, slaving over a hot mixing desk, tweaking the finer nuances and sifting through the mathematics of samples while the DJ sat in the background, smoking copious quantities of ganja and occasionally nodding their head when things were sounding good. For people like Parsons, the final insult would come when the record came out with the DJ’s name emblazoned across the label, while the engineer’s name was effectively the almost hidden small print.
As darkcore gained in popularity, it quickly became a parody of itself. Sounds got bleaker; vocal samples became more obvious as the music became less the product of a creative hive mind than the sound of sheep following leaders. However, these leaders had already moved on to different pastures, disregarding dark as a passing phase and taking its spiritual essence forward into the future.
State of Bass: the Origins of Jungle/Drum & Bass by Martin James is out now on Velocity Press