GANGSTA RAVE: LONDON'S JUNGLE SCENE
director's cut, Vibe magazine, early 1994
by Simon Reynolds
Five years on, British rave culture is fragmented. In the late
'80's, when acid house and techno first inspired a mass movement, the
talk was of "love and unity". But as the music evolved and
diversified, rave culture--like rap in America--split into hostile
factions, each of which regards itself the Way Forward for rave.
In a striking parallel with hip hop's schism between arty
bohemians and gangsta rap, middle class ravers have fastened on
'intelligent techno' (which ranges from trance's frigid frenzy to
ambient techno's chill-out serenity), while working class kids have
rallied to the banner of 'hardcore'. Hardcore (or ardkore, as it's
sometimes mis-spelled to intensify its delinquent aura) is the
subculture; jungle is the soundtrack. A mutant mongrel of techno and
hip hop, jungle is based around insanely accelerated break-beats (150
b.p.m and rising), overlaid with oscillating synth-riffs and a mind-
storm of mad samples: soul and reggae vocals sped up into a 78 r.p.m
helium-shrill babble, ghostly swathes of sonic ectoplasm, firework
explosions--you name it, jungle will (ab)use it. Deep beneath this
frenetic barrage, seismic bass rumbles, sometimes sampled from dub
reggae, but increasingly just bowel-quaking, sub-bass ooze.
As with rap, 'hardcore' means underground, anti-compromise, no
sell-out. It also means hard living. Ardkore takes the druggy
hedonism of rave culture to new levels of debauchery. Like all
ravers, ardkore kids love Ecstasy (or E), but they also often
mix'n'match it with speed and LSD. Marijuana is also popular, because
it mutes the nerve-jangling speediness of too much E, boosts the bass
and enhances jungle's roiling mesh of polyrhythms. Jungle's enemies
blame the music's manic tempo on an alleged degeneration in the
quality of Ecstasy, which is believed to be adulterated with
amphetamine or substituted altogether by speed/acid cocktails. In
fact, the real problem may be that longterm E use causes the drug's
lovey-dovey effects to wear off, leaving only the amphetamine
effects. As ravers endeavour to recover that fading, feels-like-the-
first-time bliss, they're tempted to take more and more pills. The
result: a generation of speed-freaks. Which explains why the average
ardkore rave is such a staccato experience, all jittery, juddering
beats and epileptic strobes, and why ardkore dancers twitch and jerk,
grind their teeth and "gurn" (pull faces).
As the junglist scene has solidified, it's taken on a
criminal-minded identity: you could call it gangsta rave. This simply
reflects the desperate reality its fans face. The recession has hit
Britain hard, inner city youth face unemployment and a welfare system
that's being systematically dismantled by a Conservative government
now in its 15th year of blundering misrule. "American" problems like
guns and crack are taking root. Many kids can only afford to
participate in rave culture by becoming dealers. Jungle tracks
reflect this with "bad boy" samples and choruses that declare "I
gotta be strong to survive". On pirate radio stations (illegal
broadcasters that the government struggles in vain to crush), MC's
send out "big shout"s to "all the wrong 'uns and liberty-takers". One
track, "Organised Crime" by Naz Aka Naz, sampled dialogue and
soundtrack motifs from "The Godfather", while, continuing the Mafia
theme, London's ruffest-and-tuffest pirate is called Don FM.
Jungle's gangsta vibe is influenced by Jamaican ragga (a.k.a
dancehall), a word which comes from 'raggamuffin' (a hoodlum or
street-wise rascal). Jungle tracks often sample ragga's insolent,
uproarious chants. White youth have adopted the 'rude boy' postures
and rasping patois slang of their Black British peers. Jungle is the
soundtrack of Britain's burgeoning underclass, black and white kids
who live in the same inner-city tower-blocks and estates (i.e.
projects), and share the same hatred of the police and love of The
Chronic. The jungle scene is relatively multi-racial in comparison
with the almost totally Caucasian make-up of other post-rave
subcultures. Far more Black British kids are involved as music-makers
and DJ's than in the decidedly Aryan techno scene, probably because
jungle's break-beat syncopation is funkier and grittier than trance's
programmed rhythms and purely electronic textures. Some say that
jungle has eaten UK's hip hop scene whole. And so junglist slang
mixes terms from rap and rave (see side-bar). Like early rap, jungle
is DJ-dominated rather than based around artists. Junglist DJ's have
revived scratching and other turntable-manipulating techniques
largely abandoned by rap, and are taking the art of cross-fader
cut'n'mix to new heights. Over this jarring, jolting mayhem, MC's
holler self-celebratory chants, party-on exhortations, and druggy
gibberish: "buzzin' hard! oh-my-gosh, what-a-rush, what-a-rush!
Believe me, ardkore's firing!!".
* * * * * *
In its early days, when the music was simply known
as hardcore or breakbeat house, jungle was actually mainstream pop
music. From '91 to mid-'92, bands like The Prodigy, Altern-8, and SL2
had Top Five hits with their ardkore anthems. But when The Prodigy's
"Charly" inspired a rash of copyists to put kids' TV samples over
lame breakbeats (Smart E's "Sesame's Treet" being the most infamous),
pundits proclaimed the death of rave. Public taste shifted back to
softer, song-oriented house, and hardcore went back to the
underground. Strongest in London and its surrounding counties (Essex,
Hertfordshire, Kent), the jungle scene has something of a siege
mentality/persecution complex: it's a ghetto within rave culture,
scorned by hipsters and tastemakers. Some 'progressive' techno clubs
advertise "no breakbeats", on the grounds that jungle draws a bad
crowd. In response, jungle has bunkered down into a defiantly self-
sufficient community, based around indie labels, specialist dance
shops, pirate radio and small clubs. But despite the media black-out,
at the massive commercial raves it's always the junglist sound-system
that draws the biggest and most boisterous crowd.
Although a number of labels specialise in 'ardkore, jungle's
lifeblood resides in the endless torrent of 'white label' releases,
which are self-produced dirt-cheap (nobody bothers with sample
clearance) and sold direct to shops. The DJs' premium on obscurity
and exclusivity feeds the frenzied turnover, which ensures short
shelf-life for everything but the most innovative or anthemic tunes.
It also means that most fans can only acquire the music through DJ
mix-tapes or by bootlegging it direct off pirate radio. The pirates--
there are a dozen or more operating in London alone, with names like
Chillin', Rush, Eruption, Impact--are crucial, sustaining the
subculture's sense of itself as massive yet subterranean, a shared,
secret underworld. The MCs' cryptic slang and slogans like "you know
the key" create a conspiratorial air. Kids page in messages:
sometimes coded, suggestive of clandestine, nefarious deals, but
mostly just salutations--"big shouts" and "'nuff respects", sent out
to other "massives" (any gathering of youths bigger than two),
huddled 'round the radio, rolling spliffs and getting "red-eye".
For all its futuristic sound, jungle is firmly in the British
working class 'weekender' tradition, sharing a love of pill-popping
and uptempo beats with earlier speed-freak, insomniac dance cults
like the Mods and Northern Soul. 'Ardkore also has an uncouthness
reminiscent of Oi!, a lumpen-and-proud-of-it offshoot of punk. Oi!
fans defined themselves against the arty bohemians who they believed
had hijacked punk from "the real kids"; similarly, ardkore youth
sneer at trendies and "lightweights" with their "fluffy" tunes.
Sometimes you'll hear the raucous chant "Oi, Oi!" (which roughly
translates as "yo!") rise up on junglist dancefloors. But what
distinguishes jungle from its ancestors is the sheer desperation that
fuels its hedonism. Facing the same "No Future" that goaded the
punks into revolt, junglist youth live for now - for a present that's
ever more attenuated and circumscribed as the recession bites harder.
As a fan who's nonetheless not really part of the subculture (in
class and age terms, I'm slumming it), the jungle scene fills me with
ambivalence. The music's ruffneck avant-gardism is exhilirating: ears
glued to the pirates, I know I'm living in the future. At a junglist
den like Club Labrynth in North East London, the euphoric vibe can be
amazing. On a summer night, Labrynth's garden --where over-heated
ravers retreat to chill out and skin up--can seem like a sacred
grove. But increasingly, there's a squalor seeping around the edges
of the scene. You'll see teenage girls throwing up because they've
taken too many pills on an empty stomach. In the Labrynth's
fluorescent catacombs, faces start to look haggard as dawn
approaches. One of the nice things about rave culture is that you
fraternise with people you might never normally meet; class and race
lines are transgressed, drinks shared. But when conversation
revolves around drugs--whether you've procured decent gear or been
ripped off, which brands of E (often named, in a sinister, infantile
touch, after brands of candy like Refreshers or Love-Hearts) are the
best--you start to wonder if this is a lost generation. Despite its
affinities with early rap, jungle has a long way to go before it
blossoms into a counterculture like hip hop has. At the moment,
ardkore is an anti-culture, shortsighted and apolitical, looking no
further than the weekend's pills'n'thrills'n'bellyaches.
Ardkore is haunted by a dawning awareness that the subculture is
going nowhere fast (faster and faster as the b.p m. soar according to
an inexorable, drug-fuelled logic). Last year, a track called "King
Of The Jungle" sampled a song from Disney's "Jungle Book",
inadvertantly capturing the impasse that faces the hardcore hedonist:
"I'm the King of the swingers/the jungle VIP/I've reached the top,
and had to stop/And that's what bothering me". Burn-out looms. In
'93, the jungle sound shifted decisively from "happy hardcore"
(rapturous, babytalk vocals and tingly piano riffs) towards "dark"
tunes. The dark style consists of stark drum-and-bass minimalism
overlaid with spooky horror-movie noises and soundbites that hint at
a deep ambivalence about fast-living: "boy, that stuff can give you a
brain damage', "we're not gonna die... we gotta get out of here", and
most unnerving of all, a girl--possibly sampled from a documentary on
mental illness or near-death experiences--murmuring "I felt that I
was in a long dark tunnel".
"Dark side" tunes probably have everything to do with a long-
term effect of E usage - paranoia. If 1988 was a replay of 1967's
Summer of Love, rave culture has finally reached 1969, the year
psychedelia turned apocalyptic: bad drugs, bummer vibes, Altamont,
Manson, et al. But in another sense, "dark" is simply a development
of jungle's gangsta vibe: aligning yourself with "the dark side" is a
way of proclaiming yourself one baaad muthafucker. It's like heavy
metal kids signing up for Satan's army, or gangsta rap's current
flirtation with psychosis (Cypress Hill's "Insane In The Brain",
Onyx's Mad Face Invasion).
One of the trailblazers of dark jungle is Metalheads, the
alter-ego of Goldie, a young Black Briton who describes himself as "a
B-Boy". A graffiti artist in New York at the height of breakdancing
mania, Goldie still paints canvases and murals, and has a sideline in
making gold teeth (hence his name). Goldie was drawn to jungle
because of its breakbeat links to rap ("it was the only music around
that really provoked my instincts"), and doesn't even regard jungle
to be part of commercialised rave culture anymore. Metalheads'
tracks like "Terminator" and "Sinister", with their eerily treated
beats and ghostly synth-tones, have been hugely influential, but
Goldie is disparaging of his imitators. "'Dark' came from the
feeling of breakdown in society," he recalls. "It was winter, clubs
were closing, the country was in decline. As an artist, I had to
reflect it. But now all these kids have turned it into a joke, they
think 'dark' is about devil worship". And so Goldie is trying to
push the genre forward, developing sample-modulation techniques like
'timestretching' and releasing tracks like "Angel", which layers
jazzy female vocals and lush ambient textures over rollin' beats.
Citing influences like Brian Eno and Miles Davis, he talks of opening
up a "New Dimension" for hardcore.
And he's not alone. Metalheads are part of a progressive
vanguard in jungle: artists like Foul Play, Omni Trio, 2 Bad Mice, DJ
Hype, labels like Moving Shadow, Suburban Base and Reinforced (the
home of Manix, Tek 9 and another Goldie alter-ego, Rufige Cru).
After dark-core, there's a new strain of jungle coming through that
exudes the same heady poignancy as "Angel". With their strange
bittersweet alloy of bliss and sorrow, these tracks suggest that the
jungle scene is haunted by uncertainty. Take Omni Trio's "Stronger":
far from being another tougher-than-the-rest survivalist anthem, its
chorus mourns "I know I'm not strong enough". Another track's
chorus, "drowning in love", is a perfect evocation of E'd up rapture,
except that the soul-diva sounds harrowed, like she's overwhelmed,
Goldie crystallises the new jungle vibe when describing his
music's soundclash of langorous, Eno-esqe atmosphere and dangerous
beats: "I wish I could live in the ambient dream, but I have to face
reality". For ardkore youth, life is a jungle, and oblivion is
costly: not just financially (E costs about $25 a tablet, and most
hardcore ravers need two or three to reach nirvana) but physically,
and above all, spiritually.
"Buzzing", "rushing" - under the effect of E.
"Oooh-gosh!", "oh-my-gosh!" - a fey gasp emitted at peak moments of
bliss or excitement.
"Kickin'", "slammin'", "shovelling", "firing", "blasting", "flexing"-
a good tune, good DJ or good time.
"Boombastic", "rumblin'" - bass-heavy.
"Sorted" - blissed-out or fixed-up with drugs; a state in which you
want for nothing.
"Pukka" -Indian slang term that means both 'tough' and 'sorted';
generally used to mean 'good', as in 'pukka tune', 'pukka E's'.
"Love it to the bone", "love it like cooked food" -an expression of
extreme musical appreciation.
"Comin' on strong", "comin' at ya" -the pills are taking effect, or
the DJ's got a good groove going.
"Nutter" -someone who likes to party hard.
"(getting) red-eye" -Chronically stoned.
"Sledged" (as in sledgehammer)--out-of-it, wrecked, sometimes in a
good way, sometimes after taking a contaminated E tablet.
"Work it up", "get busy", "hold it down", "belief!", "wind your
waist", "big up"-- MC exhortations to get up, get into it and get
"Madding up da place", "lively bizness", "RUFF!", "dropping it
neatly" -- MC boasts that the DJ is on a roll.
"Running t'ings" -MC boast that his pirate station is the boss.
Various Artists compilations:
"The Joint" (Moving Shadow/Suburban Base)
"Callin' For Reinforcements' (Reinforced)
"Hardcore Leaders II" (Kickin')
"The Dark Side: Hardcore Drum and Bass Style" (React)
"Enforcers 4" (Reinforced 12 inch EP sampler)
"Subplates Vol 1" and "Vol 2" (Suburban Base 12 inch EP samplers)
"Hardcore has a hard time 'cos it's cultural, it's not manufactured.
The media ignore it 'cos they can't control it. So they dismiss
jungle as just a fun thing, something for 15 year old kids to get off
their nut to" - Goldie, Metalheads.