To celebrate 100 entries on SubVersion, I’ve decided to republish an article from November 2006 on the Drum & Bass leftfield. Titled “Subversive Beats”, it was written for ATM, a worldwide-available urban music monthly. Thanks to the eloquent editing skills of Naphta and Statto, we managed to consolidate the meat of my final draft, creating a sum greater than its parts.
Subversive Beats - Are We Going Too Leftfield?
Every scene has a side that follows its own path – that works according to its own definition of what the form means, of what it ought to be doing, of where it ought to be going. Right now, there is a corner of drum n bass that is following its own path, making and playing drum n bass without regard for its likelihood of making them into stars or of it making them any real money – pushing it solely because it reminds them of all that they loved in the history of the music, and reawakens them to the possibility that the music can still be taken somewhere new.
Musically, the origins of this drum n bass ‘leftfield’ can be traced across a wide variety of influences, many of which were long ago abandoned by the scene’s hallowed originators. Famed cuts such as Omni Trio's anthemic ‘Renegade Snares’, Goldie’s electrifying ‘Terminator’, and the ragga-jungle shenanigans of Remarc’s ‘RIP’ all helped sculpt the foundations of this new structural and rhythmic shapeshifting that sharper-eared dnb headz are checking out today.
Of course, ever since the overwhelming techstep phenomenon of the late nineties (and the subsequent demise of experimental labels like Certificate 18, Partisan, Droppin’ Science and Reinforced) the influence of such ground-breaking tracks has been felt less and less in the drum n bass scene proper. Prodigious beat-smiths such as 4Hero, Danny Breaks, Foul Play, Polar and Sonar Circle (to name just a few) all waded off into new musical waters, leaving behind only a confusion over which bracket these spellbinding tracks could be safely filed away under in drum n bass history.
Certainly, names can prove troublesome. Just think of ‘hardcore/jump-up Jungle’ versus ‘Intelligent drum n bass’ back in the day. And ever since Breakage’s brain-bending update of Equinox’s ‘Acid Rain’ garnered attention for a new wave of break-butchery in recent years, we’ve had to endure gems such as ‘choppage’, ‘dubby dnb’, and even the godawful ‘edits’ being bandied around as possible titles for any dnb that is different. Yes, arguments regarding associations and tags can seem petty, but on the other hand, arguing about how to define what you do can also help define what’s really at stake – it can help make you think about just what you’re in this game for – make you question your own motivations (in a healthy way). And in this case, the root question (why do we still make and play drum n bass music when we no longer identify with where the ‘Scene’ is at?) has acted as a breeding ground for a whole new wave of hybridised, highly creative and essentially deviant music to emerge.
“I’m not really into labels such as ‘leftfield’, and don’t really consider us to be so,” explains Bassbin mainman Rohan, owner of an imprint whose output is now in high demand across the board. “I have seen us labelled as drumfunk / liquid / dubwise / purist... but to me, Fabio came up with the best tag for Bassbin: ‘Roots Music’.” It’s good to hear that he disagrees with the stereotypes, but clearly, one generic name can be better than another. And as anyone who works in the scene will tell you, applying a generic name to what you do can be a practical advantage in selling records. Think Fabio’s ‘Liquid’ style, which initially did the promotion of Calibre’s sound no end of good. Or consider Paradox – and how the term ‘Drumfunk’ has helped to promote his funk and hiphop-rooted interpretation of drum n bass. Seemingly both pigeonholing and separating himself, he has since managed to win over a whole new set of drum n bass audiences (most notably Hospital Records in 2004 through his collaborations with Seba). In doing so, he’s been able to set up and run four labels while also taking time to bring through a bunch of underexposed artists in his wake.
But new or different sounds need a context, an arena in which to be heard. Enter Chris Inperspective. A pivotal personality in pushing an underexposed side of dnb, he launched the now infamous Inperspective label in 1997, with the intent of releasing material from criminally under-rated producers like Equinox. “I just wasn’t hearing what I wanted to in drum n bass at the time,” he remembers. Back then, at the height of the two-step sound in drum n bass, the first Inperspective release fell on deaf ears. Stubbornly optimistic, Chris set up a night called Technicality in the heart of London in 2000, and with DJ/producers like Equinox, Senses and Breakage providing the musical backbone, he set out to demonstrate that breaks-heavy dnb could mash up the floor. During this period the club was one of the only in London to push everything truly breakbeat-orientated – one where the shapes and rhythms were pulverized and remoulded to a musical and atmospheric soundtrack. It’s an ideal that older heads noted bore comparison to the now defunct Metalheadz sessions at the Blue Note – where a melting pot of gender, colour and age was cooked up on the dancefloor by a block-rocking selection of freshly-cut tracks that consistently pushed the form of the music into new and exciting shapes. Of course the night itself could only reach so many people, despite the fact that dedicated beat enthusiasts from across the globe were making the pilgrimage. Word of mouth promotion only gets you so far. “It is hard to make people get what you’re doing sometimes,” Chris notes. “But I think that the scene as a whole needs to take more responsibility for promoting itself.”
Much-needed help for pushing Technicality and the less obvious side of drum n bass soon came. Originating in the veteran Streetbeats camp, the ‘Subvert Central’ online forum provided a platform for highly passionate, forward-thinking DJs, producers and fans to come together and outline their own versions of a dnb future, to loosely define a shared set of principles to operate by, and to communicate their message to newcomers. With chat and debate ranging from the deadly serious to the downright silly, Subvert Central enabled Chris and other dnb adventurers who had been similarly alienated from the mainstream to brainstorm, and to share their love and enthusiasm for a legacy in dnb that had seemed to have been all but forgotten. Indeed probably the most productive debate in the forum’s history was launched by Chris himself back in 2003, when he enquired as to what he might have in common with the other users on the forum. The huge and impassioned exchange of thoughts that followed unlocked an abundance of previously unaired ideas, and laid the foundations for plans that have since, for the most part, been followed through on by all those with enough savvy to take them from the computer screen and into real life. There were plenty of differences of opinion as to where to take the music, but at the end of the day, the common link for all who came to make up this little community was a shared willingness to experiment with the form of drum n bass in a way that embraced the experiments of the past – while still looking to the future. “It’s simple,” Chris states. “Every movement needs a beacon, a lighthouse for people to look upon... and for open-minded music fans, whether you’re a label owner, a fan or an artist, Subvert Central has been that beacon. I know that there’s plenty I couldn’t have done for Inperspective without it.”
High praise indeed. True to its intent, Subvert Central not only helped inspire new directions in the music, it also acted as an important resource for communication between like-minded headz in different countries, best exemplified in the success of Dutch promoters IchiOne and their ‘Subversive Renaissance’ club nights. Here Rico IchiOne began to push a fresh definition of drum n bass club night: one that actively encouraged musical diversity in a true party atmosphere. With the provision of food setting a relaxed tone that attracted a notably older crowd of music-lovers, the nights nonetheless worked their way up inevitably to a sweaty intensity. Guest appearances from the likes of Paradox, Outrage, Amit, Alpha Omega and DJ Trax have given the event’s international presence a hefty bite (helping it win it the Best Club Night at the Dutch dnb Awards in 2005). “It’s always a privilege to play at IchiOne,” says Trax. “Every Ichi party to me feels like it’s a one-off great night, and the reaction I’ve gauged from every other guest has been the same. But the thing is that these events are never one-offs – they are consistently special. Maybe it’s Rico and [brother] Ray`s relaxed and inspirational attitudes; maybe it’s the crowd the party attracts; maybe it’s the consistently good line-ups that ensure the people keep coming back and the word keeps spreading. Who knows. But personally, I feel it’s probably a combination of all of the above.”
Targeting that vibe has become something of an inspiration to a whole bunch of maverick producers ever since, with a bucket-load of otherworldly musical gems resulting. Sileni, Graphic, Dissident, Cycom and Martsman have all emerged as key pioneers in drawing from the ideas associated with dnb’s earthier roots in dub, jazz and soul, and filtering them through a futuristic palette of sounds drawn from techno and electronica. Furthermore, a crop of new imprints have since fastened onto the legacy championed by Offshore's Brett Clever in 2001, with labels such as Counter Intelligence, Intasound, Subtle Audio and Make:Shift all offering producers new platforms to flip the proverbial script – and so far, with frequently devastating results.
The final link in the chain comes in the form of radio. 1xtra has proved an undeniable force in assisting this subversive movement, with soldiers Bailey and Flight continuing to drop a selection of tracks from subversively inspired producers on their shows, while the likes of Jungletrain, Power FM and Life FM have provided key support in spreading the message online.
All in all, 2006 has been a positive year for this drum n bass that dares to be different – while still respecting, and learning from the great music of the past. “A really good night gives me such a buzz, and seeing a venue full of happy people is what it’s all about,” ends Rohan with a smile. “It doesn’t matter how big the venue is, or if there’s 100 or 600 people – as long as the vibe is there and the people are happy then I will always continue.” And who would want to argue with that? Let’s just hope 2007 is the year that sees some of these sounds projected back into the larger drum n bass scene worldwide. But if it doesn’t? I, for one, am betting that this little ‘leftfield’ will keep on doing what they do. Because for them, it’s still not about commercial success; it’s about making and playing and getting down to the music for one reason and one reason only – because they love it.
Make your New Year’s resolution to visit www.subvertcentral.com
Breakout Box - The five subversive must-haves list:
1. Fracture - Visions Of Amen [Subvert Central]
2. Equinox - Retroism [Where Are You?] [Subtle Audio]
3. Graphic feat. Beans - I Am Metal [Offshore]
4. Macc - Hallucination First [PlainAudio]
5. ASC - Windchime [Inperspective]