Somnambule - Writing About Music

Grime ~ Rephlex compilation

Breakbeat Overview (skip if you know the history already)

Breakbeat has exhibited an incredible tenaciousness since it infected popular music in 1974. The victim in that case was one Kool Herc in the West Bronx and hiphop was the epidemic that followed. The second outbreak occurred at the beginning of the ‘90s in the UK. Beat scientists traced the virus’s inception back to 1959, to the ‘b’ side of the only hit by a little known soul group called The Winstons. That track, an instrumental, was called ‘Amen Brother’ and yielded up the Amen break which came to exert such a fascination on a whole host of UK producers. As hardcore sped up at the end of the 80s a truly exciting, new form of music was birthed.

Jungle melded the visceral thrill of hyperspeed, fractally multiplying beats to often literally monstrous, slow-motion dub bass and extended that crucial tension with synth stabs, diva vocals or an MC, and a sheared off sample or two. The hyper/half speed progress of bass and drums and the resulting tensile strength are at the heart of the thrill of Jungle. Symptoms of the infection included heightened pulse, euphoria, high levels of perspiration and a distinct ringing in the ears. In its early years between ’92 and ’94 Jungle explored a plethora of possibilities from the upbeat, saturated hues of Omni Trio and the temporal experimentation of 4 Hero to the exacting science of Photek, the baroque amibition of Goldie and the marshal dystopias of Doc Scott, Subnation et al. In the mid ‘90s Jungle began to sample string sections, tone down the bass, smooth out the rough edges and make references to jazz. Accordingly it acquired a new, more respectable name: drum’n’bass. The seeds of this more sanitary and less viscerally exciting hybrid had already been planted back in ’91 by LTJ Bukem’s Demon’s Theme. The music went overground in the mid ‘90s led by Goldie and later Roni Size’s Mercury Prize. Partially in reaction to this recognition and in fear of the dissolution of their beloved music hardcore junglists chose to reject mainstream popularity. As part of their strategy they chose to focus on the dystopian aspects of a cutdown version of the fractal breakbeat in a style known as 2-Step. Under this banner breakbeat shattered into myriad subgenres (breakcore, darkcore, hardstep, techstep and so on) which were difficult for any but the cognoscenti to tell apart – which was probably all part of the plan. The music was harsh, minimal and rigid like an MDMA hit that refuses to kick in and instead locks the jaw in a rictal grimace. The discarded upbeat and crowd-pleasing vibe of early Jungle found its home in UKGarage which mixed slower tempos but with added kick and bounce.

Grime (The Album Review, at last)

Grime. The name’s been bandied around for a while and Rephlex are first past the post with a compilation. The genre’s name is teasingly ambiguous: will Grime follow in the grim footsteps of 2-Step or mix the textural stimulation of smudged glitch with the excitement of early breakbeat?

The answer is that both guesses are mostly wrong. This compilation is first out of the paddock and on a relatively big label (Rephlex) and as a result the one getting the media attention. Whether’s it’s truly representative of the nascent scene remains to be seen. Grime presents four tracks each by three artists, MarkOne, Plasticman and Slaughter Mob. The music here has some common factors: it’s mid-tempo, loping stuff, about the pace of a large tank making its determined way over rough ground: it’s implacable, but not hyperkinetic like Jungle. Rhythms feel mechanised, methodical and only occasionally hint at the bounce of UKGarage. One or two tracks here verge on the ponderous, such is their deliberate feel. The low end is all present and correct and is the location of much of the action; it’s upfront in the mix and vies with the percussion for attention. A lot of the time it wins out. This bass is synthetic, man-made and stuffed full of polyunsaturates, oxidants and E numbers. Turn it up loud and it fills the ears and feels like a big, inflatable boat – something that would keep you afloat in rough seas. The overall feel of this music is at times reminiscent of Detroit techno but more plasticised, liquid and verging on queasy. It has the pinpoint accuracy of a gunsight on a high-calibre rifle and consequently recalls Photek circa Form and Function. It seems to be more open-minded in sonic terms than Two Step and its ilk, for example Plasticman’s Camel Ride is defined by a backwards flute-like sound and ethnic percussion, Industrial Graft features the sound of machinery as an integral part of its rhythm, MarkOne’s Raindance utilises African vocals and Slaughter Mob’s Creeky Door takes its title from just such a sample.

This music isn’t entirely unfamiliar: it’s like something recognisable seen through a distorting lense. As a result it’s not jawdropping like hearing Jungle for the first time on pirate radio in the early 90s and that music still sounds fresh, thrilling, threatening today. The brushed steel and angular typography of this compilation is a much more accurate reflection of the sound of this music than the name it’s been given.

It’s almost a truism that everything happens much more quickly in our networked, media age: two weeks before the release of Grime, The Observer’s Music Monthly supplement publishes a feature article on the budding scene which manages to conflate – or maybe confuse – grime with hardcore rap, UK Garage and Jungle. It also paints a much grimmer, narrower portrait of the music than the one conveyed by the relative eclecticism of the three artists featured on this compilation. Violence and crime always make a better story though. The music on Grime is reminiscent of transitional tracks like Lenny De Ice’s We Are E: like a baby bird – you can see roughly what it’s going to look like, but it can’t fly very well yet and you might be surprised when you see it fully grown. It would have been good to hear more artists to be more confident of getting a truer picture of Grime, but even so this is recommended as an interesting set of music, whether it’s a faithful snapshot or not.

Colin Buttimer
May 2004
Published by Milkfactory