Attack Mag talks to the authors of new jungle/drum & bass book ‘Renegade Snares’.
Ben Murphy is a freelance music writer, former Editor in Chief of DJ Mag and has written for music publications for twenty years, often covering areas outside house and techno like jungle, drum & bass and broken beat. Carl Loben is current Editor in Chief at DJ Mag and has been writing about music professionally since the start of the 1990s, taking in stints at Melody Maker and Billboard before starting at DJ Mag over twenty years ago.
The pair have been in love with jungle and drum & bass since the early 90s and turned that three-decade obsession into their ‘Renegade Snares’ book, a history of jungle/drum & bass from its very beginnings to the present day. It features interviews with a lot of the main players and pieces together the entire story of the genre.
We sat down over Zoom with the pair to talk about the importance of documenting club culture and the influences and impulses that created jungle/drum & bass.
Attack Magazine: Why did you write ‘Renegade Snares’?
Ben: We felt that jungle/drum & bass had been under-represented and under-appreciated in terms of its importance to the cultural history of the UK. There have been several excellent books about it before but we felt that there was quite a lot more to say, especially about the post-97 years after drum & bass fell out of favour a bit and UKG took over. There was so much more that happened after that and a lot of other histories seem to lose interest in that latter period
Why do you think drum & bass has been under-appreciated?
Ben: I think because it’s been viewed as something less sophisticated than house and techno, less musically driven and also partly because of its Black and working-class roots. It’s been considered to be ‘not proper art’, it's been derided and apart from that mid-90s period when the more ‘musical’ thing of ambient jungle like LTJ Bukem that could be presented to a middle-class audience was popular, I think that beyond that it hasn’t broken through. And especially in the early years, it was derided by a lot of music titles, and broadsheets just hadn’t understood it or its cultural impact and relevance.
Carl: Even during jungle/drum & bass’s breakthrough moment in 96 - 97 when Roni Size won the Mercury prize and it came through to the mainstream, even then there was still prejudice from sections of the dance music community. It’s one of the bastard offspring of dance music that was almost frowned upon and there was definitely an element of discriminatory thinking in those views.
People were like “It’s full of Black people, guns and crack” which was such a ridiculous stereotype. But I remember things like that even in London in the 90s: having an essentially Black music night in central London was almost impossible to have until the mid-90s when you had midweek things like Speed, Movement and Metalheadz. Until then there were very few Black music outposts for dance music in central London and that was due to discrimination.
So presumably you both think that documenting club culture is worthwhile; can you tell us why?
Ben: It’s a vital aspect of our culture, something which if you look at how club culture is presented by - I’m not going to name names here but I’d say broadsheets etc. - they just don’t seem to understand club culture at all. But for so many people it’s been so much a part of their lives, it has this cohesion effect on society, it's bought so many people together.
Certainly, rave culture in particular and then some aspects of club culture, it’s bridged the gap between ethnicities, class, sexualities. It’s been a vital transformational force, a force for good, for progression in society. So to ignore that and sweep it under the rug is stupid.
Carl: Absolutely. So much creativity has emanated from club culture, it’s trickled into the art world, the media, TV, every sort of cultural sphere, they’ve all been influenced in one way or another by club culture and rave culture. And lots of creativity comes from club culture too.
For a lot of younger people particularly, it is the most important thing in their lives. People spend a lot of time making art in the form of electronic music, making events and making those events have as much ‘wow factor’ as possible, and the view of some people that it’s just a load of druggy drongos dancing to repetitive beats is way far off the mark really.
Turning to the book, you say in the intro that jungle/drum & bass was ‘modern music’s last completely new language’ - do you think that innovation within electronic music slowed or stopped after drum & bass?
Carl: Well we’ve had things like dubstep come along since but at the time in the early 90s it just sounded so futuristic so off the hook, like nothing I’d ever heard before. While I was at Melody Maker all these journos were wanking on about Travis and Embrace and these boring Brit Pop bands who were just duplicating other white boy indie guitar bands of the previous era, but jungle was a sound that was like nothing I’d ever heard before. The beat scientists creating futurist sounds, it was just so exciting, experimenting, pushing the envelope.
And Ben, would you say that drum & bass is the last great innovative electronic music genre?
Ben: You could say that this is hyperbole but I personally think it’s true. Obviously, there have been things like dubstep and other genres and sub-genres which have created their own subcultures and things since, we’re not denying those vital forms of music. But I would say that in terms of something really, really different, which went on to influence the genres that came after, I would say yes. Because not only did you have the speed of the music - no one else had done anything like that before - you had sounds being used as texture, in a completely different way through the medium of the sampler, which no one had really done before either.
It just felt like a completely new language and I think that the things that have come since in terms of broken beat music are influenced by that and are offshoots of that. So to me that does still ring true.
If you had to sum up the key elements that went into the creation of drum & bass, what would they be?
Ben: I would say sampling was vital and the ability to make music in a DIY sense on home computers, certainly as the 90s progressed anyway.
I would also say pirate radio was absolutely vital in disseminating the music, getting it out to the audience in an underground way, way before the internet existed. pirates were also a way for people to keep in touch, you could give shout outs, put messages up that people would hear, so you had a hive-mind situation. Then you also had dubplate culture which was vital too, being able to get music out and test it - which is another continuation of reggae/sound system culture which was obviously a huge influence on jungle/drum & bass.
Carl: The multi-cultural nature of most of the main English cities was highly significant in the development of jungle/drum & bass and the fact that it was such a black/white mixed thing from the start. My first independent musical love was Two Tone which was a black/white scene around 1980,81 and I loved the fact that jungle/drum & bass was such a mixed scene too.
We trace it back in the start of the book to the coming of the Windrush generation of people coming over from the West Indies and making their home in the UK at the invitation of the British government to help rebuild the country after the second world war.
Fabio, Grooverider, Roni Size etc. they’re all children of the Windrush generation. The scene was a reflection of the way black and white kids at schools in inner cities, they’d just play together, hang together and that was the case with DJs, producers crews, party promoters and crews.
Finally then, if you had to name a single track that sums up the spirit of drum & bass, what would it be?
Carl: I’m going to say the Foul Play remix of ‘Renegade Snares’ by Omni Trio because it has a bit of everything and also gave its name to the title of our book.
Ben: Splash ‘Babylon’ because to me it’s like the perfect expression of jungle, the epitome. It’s got everything, it’s got the chopped amen breaks, the barking pit bulls, it’s got an amazing bassline, reggae samples and it's executed in such a way that it’s just pure excitement and pure joy every time you listen to it.
Renegade Snares by Ben Murphy and Carl Loben is available now.