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The City That Skanks : 25 Years of Bristol Drum and Bass

Between about 160 and 180 beats per minute sits the boundaries for dance music’s sprinting black sheep. At 25 years old, Drum and Bass is in the midst of a revival, with new sounds and styles that push the boundaries of its once loved guidelines. The genre is characterised by its sped-up break beats, heavy leading basslines and the occasional synths. Originating in London and Bristol in the early 90s, Drum and Bass arose from the ashes of the rave scene. Its first popular sub-genre laid the foundations taking breaks from the popular Hardcore music and melding them with Jamaican Dub basslines before evolving into many more sub-genres.

The rolling, heavy sounds of Jungle, that came first, contradicted the softness of Italian House that was thriving at the time. By 1994 it had become a part of British youth culture with General Levy and M-Beat’s ‘Incredible’ being heard on national radio.

That said, the past 25 years of Drum and Bass haven’t always been progressive. The bad press which followed Jungle at it’s debut, with rumors of violence and the associations of drug abuse at raves made it harder to cement itself as a legitimate genre. However, Jungle filled the gap which had been left by the hedonism of the Hardcore rave scene, providing a new cultural identity in the UK.

Following the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, the party was over. Clubs went back to playing softer House music that appealed to mostly middle class audiences, the scene began to plateau. The diversity and unity that had been celebrated in the rave scene faded. But, in a city where creativity is encouraged and the confines modern capitalism are abhorred by entire communities, the genre was allowed to flourish.

Junglist Pioneers Bristol's First Lady of Drum and Bass, DJ Dazee, talks us through the early days of the Bristol Jungle scene with her crew Ruff Neck Ting

The early days of Jungle in Bristol were pioneered by groups of young people that were eager to bring back the never-ending parties of the rave scene. By building sound systems and making their own events young people began to choose the music they wanted to hear on a night out. Of these was Ruffneck Ting, a group of friends that became a crew once they realised there was a lack of places that could play the music they loved.

DJ Dazee or Mari Stott founded the crew with Markee Ledge (Mark Davies) and her housemates in 1993. “We all lived together, it was a bit cult like for a while. We’d live, sleep, eat Drum and Bass, Ruffneck Ting”

The crew was founded by devotees of the genre who were eager to share their ardour. “I specifically remember where I actually fell, properly, in love with the sound of Jungle” Mari’s career has spanned over the last 25 years since she started DJing and producing at the age of 20 “I remember specifically the. sound of the pitched up breakbeat, that sort of clicky-clack sound combined with the low subs”

Mari’s dedication to Drum and Bass and Jungle in Bristol is outstanding, however her hard work wasn’t always appreciated, “When I first started I remember going to parties, queueing up for my go on the decks and then someone would be like ‘No! We’re not having Bristol Mutant Hardcore!’”.

Experiences like this that lead a young and determined Mari to become a self-proclaimed ‘Jungle Jehovah’s Witness’. “People always dismiss it as this face-paced crazy music so it was always my mission to reveal to people the qualities you can find in it if you really listen”, the qualities that Jungle had weren’t only as deep as the music. As a woman, Mari wasn’t an anomaly within the genre. Fellow female artists like Kemistry and DJ Rap pioneered the music alongside Mari.

The D.I.Y ethos that came with Jungle in its early days meant it could be made by anyone who was open to a varied audience. This attitude was already in the frameworks of Bristol, following the St.Paul’s riots in 1980, which led the police to step back and gave citizens more creative freedom which has remained consistent since that time.

“We were cocky little gits I think! When you’re young you think ‘Yeah well I can do that so I’m gonna do it!” so we just did it really. We wanna start a night ? We’ll do it. We want the night to get bigger? We’ll do it. We wanna start releasing music and make our own label? We’ll do it’” Mari says, bringing Ruff Neck Ting’s position as a founding institution of Bristol Drum and Bass into perspective.

The modesty of Ruff Neck Ting’s success is not meek, of the crew there were many that went on to do more for the genre other than releasing music and promoting events. “Of our crew a lot of things happened, Knowledge Magazine which was one of the biggest Drum and Bass magazines, carried on up until recently from the early 90s.”.

Founded by Colin Stevens and Rachel Patey, Knowledge Magazine is still available online, continuing to provide the latest news on the genre as it has done for decades. The magazine also enabled Bristol’s drum and bass scene to spread its influence to suburban youth, some being inspired come to the city as a part of the ‘Bristol Bass’ scene.

The distinctive ‘Bristol Bass’ that is ingrained in so much of the work that comes out of the city is still prevalent in Mari’s work “I would say that Bristol Jungle is Soulful, pioneering” she says.

Mari’s got a maternal instinct over drum and bass and jungle which seems to be shared amongst it’s fans and producers alike.

Putting Drum and Bass on the map Born and bred Bristolian DJ, D-Product talks about the aftermath of international success with Reprazent

Following the success of Jungle, other genres built with the same frameworks began to gain more popularity. More relaxed sub-genres that drew from Jazz and the Blues, such as Liquid and Jazzstep were accepted by a broader audience. In Bristol, these sub-genres were fronted most famously by Reprazent, a collective founded by renowned DJ Roni Size and their record label Full Cycle (formerly known as Full Circle).

Of those that worked with Reprazent is D-Product, a producer known for his technical skills which have fine-tuned many Full Cycle releases.

Dave Maso was born and raised in inner city Bristol and after leaving school in his mid-teens he became involved with 1994’s rave scene. Dave eventually was offered a job at a music store in Clifton called ABC Music. It was here that he was able to develop his skills at sound engineering and producing music with the latest technology. It was also where he first met Roni Size and DJ Krust, who were at the start of a sound that would leave an everlasting imprint on Drum and Bass.

“I liked the energy, the bass and I loved the beats. That’s all it was and all it still is. I come from loving House and hip-hop, so I was all about 808s, beats and basslines.” Dave recalls. Bristol’s early connection with the Hip Hop scene coming from the U.S.A inspired many of the city’s leading artists. The soft rap of Massive Attack and Tricky that came to be known as Trip-Hop has been the legacy of Bristol music for almost 30 years. Their relaxed form embodied the ‘weed culture’ and DIY punk ethos found in the city, sharing it with the world and influencing local young creatives.

Maso applied the new skills he had developed to the sounds of Drum and Bass, emulating the styles of his heroes in Reprazent. “I was listening to Roni’s tunes, Die’s tunes, Krust’s tunes and Suv’s tunes and dissecting them until I understood what was going on in each track and trying to get the same break”. Fortunately, for Dave, regular customers Ryan Williams and Kirk Thompson were introduced to him outside of work under their DJ pseudonyms and soon invited him to work with them as a part of their collective and record label in 1998.

Having recently won the Mercury prize for their album New Forms in 1997, Reprazent became the face of Drum and Bass on a global scale. “We put it on the map. It’s been great to be a part of it. I mean travelling around the world with Reprazent, you’re never gonna do that again.” Once D-Product had become a part of the team, the world of drum and bass was already starting to change due to its newfound attention, opening doors that would’ve previously seemed blocked. “I got to work with people like Methodman and Zach De La Rocha in amazing top class studios.”

Within 6 years the genre had progressed from the reggae dub basslines of the Bristol sound systems mixed with a mutated Amen break into a genre so universal that it was being rapped over by American rap legends.

“For all of us there was this kind of interesting vibe in the studio because we were kind of scared and they were scared too that they’d never done that tempo before. They’re used to 100bpm and here we are coming in with double time basically. It was a really quiet vibe in the studio and everyone was doing their thing and then the track just happened.” The understanding of Drum and Bass that is shared across the globe today wasn’t always what it is now, but through Reprazent’s success in the charts a keen interest in Drum and Bass was sparked across the globe.

Drum and bass had been solidified as a legitimate genre not only in its home country and with that as a way to make money. Dave is proud of the independence he’s had from big corporate organisations over his career but is not ignorant of it’s benefits “The corporate thing is all about money and what’s hot at the moment so all the corporates jump on whatever it is which is fine but it will get chewed up and spat out like it is every year…. We might not get as much airtime but the club nights are still going on and there is still music being released.”

This reluctance to become a capitalist venture is true to Reprazent’s Bristol roots. A city where riots occurred in April 2011 fundamentally due to the opening of a new Tesco express store and the impact that could have on independent business. As a Bristolian, it’s no surprise that D-Product is so willing to go his own way.

The freedom Bristol offers its people has been pivotal to Drum and Bass and the city has reaped the benefits. “It’s given a lot of club nights. Club nights that have moved up to London from Bristol. Like full cycle had a residency at Fabric and we did a Friday every three months”. The reputation of Bristol’s nightlife is dependent on the city’s Drum and Bass.

The new sound that D-Product pioneered with the rest of Reprazent is now remembered fondly and regarded as one of the iconic sounds that moulded the UK’s youth & dance music culture. “At Full Cycle nights we get so many different people because of the history we’ve got. Now I see dads there with their kids, which is wicked. It’s awesome, because you kind of recognise the dads from 15 years ago”, envisaging the impact that Reprazent has made on multiple generations.

The Expiration of Drum and Bass By the late 2000's Drum and Bass had began to loose attention from wider audiences, Record shop owner and label manager, Chris Farrel looks back on the effects new genres had on Bristol nightlife and vinyl sales

Bristol had gained international attention for its bassline heavy music, leading many people to make pilgrimage to the city. However, in the mid-noughties Drum and Bass dwindled and Bristol began to give more space to fresher genres such as Dubstep.

Dubstep had been influenced heavily by drum and bass, but it’s increase in popularity left the genre on the periphery, getting pushed back down underground, with the ‘Bristol Mutant Hardcore’ where it had come from.

“When I came to Bristol it was mainly for uni, but really it was because I liked smoking weed and I liked drum & bass which was around 2000 – 2001” Owner of institutional dance music record store Idle Hands, Chris Farrel, is a proud member of Bristol’s bass boom population.

“When I came to this city you could hear it everywhere blaring out of cars. Anywhere in Bristol you could hear it, you could be up in Clifton or Barton Hill and you would hear drum & bass or jungle tracks blaring out of cars” Chris remembers. This however didn’t last for long, “It kind of changed a bit over the years, around 2003-2004 it was just on the wane a little bit.” Chris’ involvement with Dance music in Bristol over the last 17 years has given him an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre’s culture in the city. “Dubstep hit and it completely wiped it out as a creative force. A lot of people who had been making drum & bass jumped ship to that, which wasn’t a negative thing but more like another opportunity to make music at a different tempo”.

The opportunity of a different tempo allowed Bristol to spawn some incredibly talented and influential artists in genres other than Drum and Bass. However, the cultural impact of Drum and Bass was never reproduced with the new darker, moodier and dirtier genres and subsequent revivals in dance music.

“I go out raving these days and a lot of House raves are very white and very middle class”. Chris has had a first-hand experience of what Bristol created and shared with the world, “It brought everyone together, white, black, Asian, it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t all peace and love I mean there was a lot of screw facing but everyone was in the same place having fun together”.

Although Chris’ store has enabled Bristol’s House and Techno scene to thrive so well, he is still able to see the short-fallings of today’s mainstream dance music. “If you look at how it developed as a genre, it’s one of the first multi-cultural creations of this country. It’s punk, it’s dub, it’s fucking techno. It’s all these things thrown into a pot and out came Drum & Bass. That’s what special about it.”

35-year-old Chris’ passion for Drum and Bass is typical of his generation. Drum and Bass was something that marked the new age of people coming together that had started in the rave scene and became not only Bristolian but inherently British. “I mean I’m not a patriotic person but when you’re in a rave and an old Jungle tune comes on it does make you feel proud to be British, whatever that means. I mean you won’t see me waving a Union Jack at any point soon but I might wave a tape pack round.”

 The drum and bass that embodies Bristol’s youth now is different and looks back further into it’s roots of hardcore rave music. EDM inspired genres such as, Jump Up, dominate the scene with highly energized beats and robotic elements. “There’s never been a golden age to any kind of music, you have periods of up and down, but it’s always good music, always” Chris says when asked about the sounds of today, “Never think the best is behind us, there is always something in the future.” Offering a home for Bristol’s new generation of drum and bass producers a home at his record store.

A New Generation Drum and Bass has faced an astonishing revival in the last 5 years. Three young Bristolian women, Emily Davis, 21, Amy Humphries, 19 and Lucy Parkinson, 18 open up about today's thriving Drum and Bass scene in Bristol

The Bristol Bassline is what the city’s music is famous for, however young people are now taking it even further. “The stuff we listen to is different to what a lot of older people think drum and bass is. It’s not even drums any more really” Emily Davis, 21 and her group of friends are born and bred Bristolians, that go pretty much solely to Drum and Bass nights in the city. Like other Bristolians, the three girls know very well their hometown’s reputation for Drum and Bass, that said, they are reluctant to thrive off the glory days of Roni Size and other ‘Bristol Bass’ legends from the 90s. “It’s jump up, it’s something that’s come off of drum and bass. There’s not really any drums at main drops, they have them in little bits, but it’s pretty much just bass. I like it, it’s something different. I wouldn’t necessarily listen to a set from like 1992 or something.”

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Emily (far left) and Lucy (3rd from right) out with their fellow ravers.

Emily May Davis

The genre of Drum and Bass that the girls love, Jump Up, first emerged in the 90s and has artists which travel from all over the country to come perform in one of Bristol’s many nightclubs. Despite attending Jump-Up raves almost religiously, Emily and her friends Amy Humphries, 19 and Lucy Parkinson, 18 struggle to word what it is about Drum and Bass that they have loved so dearly over the years .“It just gets you gassed! It gives me goosebumps, I love it.” Amy says, the excitement that is conducted by the music gives the young girls a chance to escape and although Jump Up is often defined by its humorous qualities it still has a great impact on the girls. “You cry at raves though sometimes. I’ve seen you, when a drops so good you cry.” Emily points out to Amy “Music does that to you though. It is it does get you emotional, the same way all music does.”.

Whilst the sound has been swapped for something more aggressive and possibly taken less seriously in the mainstream, it’s still attracting all sorts of people, holding onto Drum and Bass’ unifying quality that is celebrated in Bristol. “You get such a diverse mix of people. If you look through pictures of raves and nights in Bristol, it’s almost like a different rave from each picture to picture because of the people you see” Emily tells me, despite being only 21 this will be her seventh year of raving. Continuity seems to be inherent in Drum and Bass’ fans, with many carrying on raving throughout their lives. “I’ll be at Lakota when I’m 40” Emily admits.

Whilst the three girls are able to provide a clear example of what Drum and Bass in Bristol is now they are also the perfect example of a generation whose nightlife culture has been totally defined by the last 25 years of drum and bass. All three of them attended their first over 18 raves at Black Swan, a club known for showcasing the heavier styles of dance music and their lenient door policy. This seems to have almost become a tradition for rebellious teens in the city and along with it an early experience of heavy dance music.

The three girls and their fellow raving friends are keen to prove to the world that they are of a new ilk of Drum and Bass fans. “There are crusty people but we are a new generation of drum and bass ravers.” Emily says, this of course is in reference to the popular view of some dance music snobs, that drum and bass fans in the south west are crusty, dirty hippies or as they are more often referred to in Bristol, ‘Nittys’.

“We spend hours getting ready, hair, fake tan, make up. It’s just like girls getting ready to go out in town but we were glitter, trainers and a nice two piece or unitard.” Representing the new generation, Emily reminds everyone that “It’s not just us who look nice, a lot of people our age take pride in what their wearing.”

The consistency of Drum and Bass nights in Bristol has allowed it to form now into a past-time shared by members of the city’s community. “There’s something drum and bass on here every weekend and throughout the week as well.” Emily says. The community which Drum and Bass nights thrive on in Bristol lacks divisions. Fans in the city are able form relationships with their comrades in Drum and Bass and the artists they adore. “Because they’re not big DJs they’re out in the smokers, we have a drink and a chat with them.” Emily says “That’s the thing about Bristol, if you go out a lot you get to know all the DJs, what it’s gonna be like, who’s gonna be there. You can crack a bit of banter with them. It is quite nice, if you go to London you would see the MCs but you’re not gonna go and chat to them are ya?”

Bristol’s success with Drum and Bass has given the city an established place in Dance music culture in the U.K. The three girls are asked what it is that has made the city such a great hub for the genre, Amy is the only one to come up with a concise answer “It’s just vibes. Bristol is just pure vibes.”

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