Roni Size, Icon, March 6, 1998
As electronic music evolves, a breakout messiah moves in
You can hear it pounding from the downtown rooftop of Cairo as you drive down Magnolia Avenue on Wednesday nights or blasting from the back patio of Barbarella on Thursdays as you wait for a slice at Planet Pizza on Washington Avenue. The once-underground sound of drum 'n' bass, or jungle, has risen to dominance in the rapidly evolving world of electronic music, and 1998 promises to be the year that drum 'n' bass will infiltrate the mainstream.
Popular music increasingly draws on its past to create the future, as in the rechristening of swing and ska as full-on movements. Music introduced as acid house at the dawn of the '90s opened the doors to techno, acid jazz, downtempo and various other forms. But as the local house scene began looking to the past, "old school" began to dominate, helping to transform Florida into a mecca for funky breaks.
Drum 'n' bass became a haven for club kids looking for new horizons in dance music. British DJ LTJ Bukem broke through in '95 with the "Logical Progression" full-length, featuring ambient turns at relentless rapid-fire jungle beats. With the '96 release of "Timeless," drum 'n' bass had its first superstar in Goldie, whose metallic grimace graced every major dance magazine last year.
The year also saw the emergence of an artist who may establish himself as the breakbeat messiah. Drum 'n' bass as a genre is reaching maturity, and the up-and-coming stars are adamantly establishing their own identities through the music. While Orlando artists like AK1200, DJ Jeffee and Redcoat have preached the jungle gospel to Central Florida club-goers for years, the head of a Bristol, England, drum 'n' bass collective is blazing a trail toward the future for a wider audience. This will be the year of new forms in breakbeat culture, and the chief sonic architects will be Roni Size and his crew: DJ Die, DJ Krust, DJ Suv, MC Dynamite and Onallee. Collectively they are known as Reprazent.
Size has been testing the waters of superstardom since the U.K. release of Reprazent's debut full-length recording last summer. A sprawling testament to the possibilities of drum 'n' bass, "New Forms" was released to rave reviews, and made nearly every music critic's top 10 list for '97. Once Size decided to take Reprazent on the road, a torrent of media attention resulted. Size has appeared on the cover of nearly every electronic-oriented music magazine, and has yet to burn out from a nonstop series of interviews between shows. "I don't mind talking about things I'm passionate about," he declares via trans-Atlantic telephone lines. "I'm still looking to reach musical maturity, and I think I haven't even started yet. I think I'm a baby in terms of making music."
Size comes from Bristol, the multicultural mecca of modern-day English "electronica." The town had witnessed a massive migration of Jamaican immigrants in the '50s, as did many parts of Great Britain, when the residents of the West Indies were promised good jobs in towns paved with streets of gold. "We've had a different kind of cultural upbringing," says Size. "I call it a 'cultural landing,' where a whole family of people, or 'family area' of people, moved to Bristol and brought something with them."
The expression of West Indian cultural identity took the form of festivals and carnivals, house parties and pirate radio stations, blues and reggae. Probably the most relevant thing that was brought over was the concept of the sound system, where a massive system with powerful speakers drenched in echo and reverb played tunes from the West Indies, especially the instrumental form of reggae known as dub. A similar thing happened in the boroughs of New York in the '70s that eventually resulted in the block parties and park events that spawned hip-hop.
Size grew up in Bristol's housing projects, witnessing these parties and the sound systems that fueled them. The parties became a distraction from the menial labor jobs that West Indian immigrants were offered. "Bristol is so small, yeah? My next-door neighbors were white, and we were black. For the first two years there was confrontation, but then it got to be so pathetic that, rather than work against each other, people started to work with each other, and then the cultural way started to rub off on your neighbor, and through that ... the culture just bred and bred and bred."
The sound systems sprung up everywhere -- both in the streets and in the schools. By the time Size entered his teens, hip-hop had splashed ashore and was fusing with the sound-system culture. The underground film, "Wild Style," gave young Bristolians their first taste of hip-hop. Size remembers being transfixed watching Grandmaster Flash cutting up breaks on his turntables and was soon reading everything he could about the new culture.
The trend toward "gangsta" culture made Size turn away from hip-hop for a while. It was hard for a young Bristolian to relate to L.A. gangland subject matter, but he still liked the beats. Like many of his peers, he was turned on by the technology that made the music, and soon he was immersed in the art of the breakbeat -- the sampled loops and drum-machine programs from which hip-hop rhythms were constructed.
The rave scene soon dominated youth culture, but Size was turned off by the trappings of drugs and the love-vibe rhetoric that characterized the scene. He and friends such as Krust and Die began taking the rave rhythms they liked and mixing them with hip-hop samples and removing the vocals; simultaneously, many other youths were doing the same. The underground chemists kept at it even as Bristol started getting recognition for favorite "trip-hop" sons Massive Attack, Portishead and, eventually, Tricky. Size was witness to the evolution of Massive Attack from their origins as a DJ collective, because he was part of the same scene.
There was one other influence that would cast a spell on the young Size: The Godfather of Soul. "The thing about James Brown is, right, he's responsible for so many different movements and so many different grooves, yeah? I just feel that he influenced me so much," says Size. "I used to stand there and cut up his tunes all day, and I never usually realized what time it was. That's deep. He had the grooves. He, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, they had something."
Size became increasingly dissatisfied with what he was hearing in other people's music and soon formed his own label, Full Circle, to realize his own vision. He soon began releasing cuts for V Recordings, along with Krust, Die and other soon-to-be jungle luminaries such as Ed Rush and Optical, Dillinjah and Lemon D. The V artists earned a reputation for constantly pushing the envelope, and soon Size had a vision of a close-knit collective comprising his peers. "Each person had their own identity already. What they've done for V or Full Circle anyway, it stands out. They've got more followers than I do. People are crazy about Krust -- absolutely crazy about what Krust is doing. And Die. It's just like everyone brings a flavor -- their own flavor."
The V recordings were already gaining respect on this side of the Atlantic, and Size, Krust and crew were held in awe by the burgeoning drum 'n' bass culture. In Orlando, Dave Minner had rechristened himself AK1200 and was absorbing the new styles of breakbeat, while Jeff Hindman, soon to be DJ Jeffee, bought his first record released by seminal jungle label Suburban Base. "I got it right after I bought my first turntables in '91," says Jeffee. "It was called 'I Get High' by Austin, and I thought, 'This is it.' Nobody else was spinning this stuff."
Early jungle was dirty and dark, emanating from bedroom studios and first dubbed hardcore breakbeat. At 130 or 140 beats per minute, the breakbeats of '91 and '92 were slower than the 180 bpms of today's drum 'n' bass. "It was just past the Belgian Acid House period," recalls AK. "Breakbeat started to come out on Suburban Base and Moving Shadow. Basically those were the two landmark labels. ... Everybody was into progressive house except for me. I followed the hardcore breakbeat to jungle/techno."
"The people in England making it were people that came out of the reggae/ dub/hip-hop sound systems," says Jeffee. "People that were DJing that stuff got into techno and got into rave during the acid house period in '88 or '89 in England, but instead of using drum machines they'd just sample the breakbeats off of hip-hop records and speed 'em up."
Then living in Pittsburgh, Jeffee eventually made his way to Orlando and obsessively devoted himself to the emerging breakbeat culture, working on a magazine called Junglized with AK1200. AK was well versed in the house and techno scenes as well, and soon started spinning at the now-defunct Edge, eventually landing a residency at Firestone. Both AK and Jeffee were featured in the only aspect of last year's Zen Festival that wasn't a disaster, the drum 'n' bass tent. According to Jeffee, it was a landmark for drum 'n' bass in Orlando. For the first time the crowds were enthusiastic and began to dance instead of scratch their heads.
Jeffee went on to start the first club night where drum 'n' bass was the main attraction instead of an afterthought. His Thursday nights at Barbarella were an immediate success and featured a host of guest DJs from around the state, including AK, Redcoat, Miami's Element, and eventually the U.K's Marvellous Cain. After a hiatus, Jeffee plans to get the ball rolling again this month.
AK still spins at Firestone, slowly getting the Firestone crowds accustomed to jungle. He has interviewed, or appeared with, nearly every major drum 'n' bass player. "Rob Playford (of Moving Shadow) is, like, God. He deserves the most respect out of anybody in the world," he says. "I think Bukem and Goldie represented last year. The next step is Roni Size and his whole crew."
That next step is well represented on "New Forms." Size and crew created a diverse sound, sometimes sensual and jazzy, other times moody and dark. The music has an extra dimension of expression missing from the relentless attack of most jungle. Sensual vocals provided by Onallee glide over tracks like "Heroes," "Share the Fall" and "Watching Windows," while MC Dynamite and special-guest rapper Bahamadia park staccato raps on their respective tracks. After the album won a Mercury Award, the British version of the Grammy Award, the next step seemed logical " playing live."
"Ours is vibe, man," explains Size. "The reason why we did it is because of the challenge aspect. The hardest part was thinking about how to do it; then it became easy."Size enlisted the rhythm section that recorded with Portishead, and Reprazent played their debut show last May before 5,000 people at the Tribal Gathering in England. Essentially, Size took his studio and put it on stage. He is not content to rest on his laurels, however. The culture of drum 'n' bass demands constant evolution. "I think our mentality is that we're not content to say 'Yeah, this is us and we're into this sound, and that's that.' We're like, 'OK, we've done that. What's next?' That's the energy in us, and that's the energy in the music, and that's what this is about."