Rumble in the Jungle
The sheer, nervy excitement of drum 'n' bass once made the most pleasurable swirl of color in the post-techno rainbow. Its unhinged polyrhythms, swatches of convulsive breakbeats, endless ostinatos, and manic bass rolls made for an unhinged delight. So imagine my surprise when--slowly at first, then rapidly and inexorably--the music turned into...progressive rock, sinking deep into the who-cares realm of concept albums and "real instruments." By 1997 the Jamaican-influenced, London-born genre formerly known as jungle began trading balls-out populism for sniffy connoisseurship. Now the most dynamic range in contemporary dance music has shriveled to the size of the Grinch's heart.
A classic jungle DJ might fling six sonic ideas at an audience in quick succession, sure that at least one would provoke ecstatic reaction. Their "purist" successors prefer to milk one bad one--then impatiently protest that if you only knew they were using this really rare mixer made in an edition of 50 back in 1984 you'd surely appreciate it. If such epicurean taste tests aren't much fun to dance to, things are far worse for listeners at home, where the music has always translated better than it's usually given credit for. Here DJs determined to put the poser back in composer and the art back into party have unleashed excruciating hourlong "orchestral" suites and two-and-a-half-hour debuts, custom-designed for armchair electrodorks too cool for new age, but not too smart for it.
Still, all is not lost, if you know where to listen. One such place was Seattle this October. At a set by DJ Die and Roni Size of Bristol's Reprazent and Breakbeat Era, I felt a wah-wah bassline and heard a brain-gnawing whoo-whoo whoo-whoo whoo-whoo zooming over splintered snare cracks that sounded "dread" in both the Rastafarian and Babylonian senses. The track turned out to be by Krust, also from Reprazent. Imagine my excitement when I got hold of the new Coded Language (Talkin' Loud/Mercury), Krust's solo debut, and my disappointment to find that particular track nowhere on it. (Incidentally, the show I attended has been archived online at www.groovetech.com/gtradio/.)
Despite the omission, Krust's album is a fine model of latter-day drum 'n' bass track construction--tense, minimal, and full of surprises when it doesn't have to be. Even its simplest programming and bass loops command attention. Coded Language would be exceptional if it were all-instrumental, thus leaving no room for Krust's pet vocalist, a perennially off-key woman named Morgan. The "theatrical bent" of this chanteuse is lauded by the press kit and, no doubt, will be embraced by jaded cabaret bottom feeders cadging well drinks nationwide. (She could learn something from spoken-word icon Saul Williams, whose controlled shouting on the title track actually outrocks Krust's beats, which aren't exactly laying back.)
"If I could rearrange it," Morgan sighs, "I'd change the past." Why not rearrange the present, Krust? Here's a suggestion: Start by rearranging your record to transform its third-rate thespian affectations into a thing of the past.
Like a lot of "serious" junglists, a drum 'n' bass DJ acquaintance of mine hates Aphrodite, the London-based DJ who represents Krust's main competition in mainstreaming the music. "I know exactly how every one of his records is going to sound before I even hear it," she complains. "He's gonna break it down here, and then he's gonna put the hip-hop sample there." She has a point--except knowing that James Brown was going to scream here and give the drummer some there hasn't made his records any less galvanic.
The DJ born Gavin King is far more than a processed pompadour who's a prison record and a spate of chart-topping funk smashes shy of Brown's stature. But like his spiritual Godfather, Aphrodite hones his style to a fine edge, exploring the variety of delights hidden in formally challenging, minimalist beatsmanship. Over his eight-year recording career, Aphrodite's m.o. has been to cold rock a party by any means available, blissfully ignoring nearly all of the genre's "developments" since 1995. Take "B.M. Funkster," the album's lead single. With hooks as ultrafamiliar as a JB baritone sax riff and the low-slung bass figure of the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money," the track flashes back idyllically to a time when drum 'n' bass was still jungle.
In other words, Aphrodite is as deliberately regressive as the Ramones, which in a way makes it more daring--both musically and conceptually--than the merely ambitious Coded Language. Instead of hedging his bets with lame attempts at "real songs," (if I want those I'll listen to people who know how to write them, thanks), Aphrodite stacks his chips on the idea that 75 minutes of fairly unadulterated dance-floor fodder can hold up on your home stereo.
And despite lapses of taste on a par with Krust's (a cover of "Summer Breeze"?!), the album's roil, shorn of the overdriven overload of techstep, makes good on its promise to settle comfortably at low volume, and unsettle thrillingly when amped. Appropriate to Aphrodite's overarching lack of interest in the passage of time, the tracks on his long-player are plucked from throughout his career, with "King of the Beats" dating from way back in 1993. Granted, the genre's well-wishers might want the future of drum 'n' bass to be a little more, well, contemporary. But that just proves Aphrodite's stubbornly regressive point: Sometimes you gotta take a giant step backward to make any progress.
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