In an exclusive extract abridged from their new book, ‘Renegade Snares – The Resistance And Resilience Of Drum & Bass’, authors Ben Murphy and Carl Loben pick their way through the origins of the more mellow offshoot, and it all starts with LTJ Bukem
There was a flipside to the rugged beats, raw samples, and pummelling sub-bass happening in early 90s UK dance music. Amid the wild abandon of acid house, hardcore, and jungle, there was chill-out culture.
DJs like Mixmaster Morris and groups such as Global Communication and The Orb played and made mellow ambient records, infused with all the synths of the past masters but with an ear cocked to modern dance beats. Chill-out rooms proliferated in clubs and at raves, offering a calming counterpoint to the frenzies elsewhere, and records like Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ and the Warp ‘Artificial Intelligence’ compilations offered armchair raving to soothe dancers into a post-ecstasy calm. Blissful beatific textures proliferated through the work of Sueño Latino, B12, and Carl Craig – and jungle was not immune to the musical worlds conjured by digital synths either.
While swirling tones had already become a regular feature of jungle as early as 1993 – mainly in the intros or breakdowns of tracks, before an avalanche of breakbeats and bass – some pioneering artists dared to imagine ambient atmospheres as a key feature.
LTJ Bukem (real name: Danny Williamson), a classically trained DJ and producer from Watford, was introduced to the jazz fusion of Chick Corea and Lonnie Liston Smith by his schoolteacher, Nigel Crouch, at a young age. He started going clubbing and had his own sound system – Sunrise, not to be confused with the big rave brand – for a while, and despite working as a chef was still going out nearly every night.
When he started making some inroads into the rave scene, he had the idea to foreground lush textures in his productions. One of his earliest tunes, 1991’s ‘Logical Progression’, followed the early hardcore template to some extent, with its 4/4 kick-drum, breakbeat, and pianos, yet it also had an oceanic, dreamy quality.
The follow-up made the ambient aspect explicit: 1992’s ‘Demon’s Theme’, which rapidly became a rave/club classic, placed soaring digital chords in the middle of the action, providing a dramatic juxtaposition to the intense rolling drums of the Amen break that hammered away below. As if to explicitly state a link with the ambient past and future, ‘Demon’s Theme’ featured, among its samples, the bird call also used on 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ and a synth lift from Rhythmatic’s bleep house missive ‘Frequency’, as well as a small snippet of pan pipes from Germany’s arch cosmic rockers Tangerine Dream, arguably one of the first bands to pioneer the ambient/new age sound.
Bukem’s ingenious idea worked not because it lulled the listener into a blissful stupor, but because it existed between two states, at once dreamlike and rhythmically rugged; dancefloor-ready yet stimulating to the mind. The follow-up was even more gorgeous – 1993’s ‘Music’ centred around a hypnotic techno loop and soaring strings, plus orgasmic moans from a Raze house classic. Combined with offbeat rolling Amen breaks, it felt like a camera panning over a verdant landscape, before a low melodic bass note added a sublime additional musicality.
“You had a record collection, you loved a piece of music from it, took a snippet, and off you went,” Bukem told XLR8R in 2019.
Bukem was acknowledging his influences with his sample choices, though the ambient elements that would increasingly populate his tracks also emanated from further back in time. Heavily inspired by jazz and soul in his formative years, he also had in his mix the cosmic tones and searching melodies of 70s greats like Roy Ayers and Pharoah Sanders. At eight minutes, 49 seconds long, ‘Music’ wasn’t afraid to stretch out either, just as these exploratory jazz epics had done. Larry Heard’s ‘Washing Machine’ had been a big game changer for Bukem. “Cosmic soul, man, that was my link between Lonnie Liston Smith and the electronic age,” he told DJ Mag. “That blew my head off. Took me somewhere I’d never been before and I didn’t want to come back.”
“Personally I’m a big soul head, and people often look at me weirdly when I tell them this,” Bukem later told FACT, “but what I see is that there’s a parallel from soul to jazz to reggae to 80s soul to hip hop, early house to hip house to the early acid to techno to drum & bass. In that way they’re all connected.”
Bukem began to attract attention for his different take on jungle – though, to start with, his style was simply considered part of the rich blend of influences the genre could exhibit, and he could be found on many a club or rave flyer amid acts more known for playing hard beats. Still, his open-ended approach made his Good Looking Records label a home for other like-minded producers who were also interested in exploring the combination of musicality with tough drums and bass.
Around the same time in Hertford, Omni Trio (Rob Haigh) was beginning to combine the ambient music he’d already been making as Sema as early as 1984, with the hardcore and jungle beats he’d heard and been excited by while working in the town’s Parliament record shop. With tunes like 93’s ‘Mystic Steppers’ and ‘Renegade Snares’, he was another formative influence on ambient jungle. And in Coventry, Skanna (John Graham) was another artist experimenting with ambient elements as early as 1993. His ‘Heaven’ EP followed two roughneck jungle cuts with ‘This Way’, a track full of soul soothing, sampler-stretched pads and warm bass booms.
In Luton, Blame and Justice began fusing influences from other dance genres with jungle beats, spurred on by hearing LTJ Bukem, and producing early ambient-tinged gems like ‘Anthemia’.
By 1994, records by Sounds Of Life (later to become one half of Source Direct), Blame & Justice, Peshay, Spring Heel Jack, and many more all provided a mellow contrasting sound with the dominant jungle club/sound system style. Artists more associated with the heavier incarnation, like Photek (as Aquarius, ‘Dolphin Tune’) and Doc Scott (‘Far Away’) tapped into the ambient mode, and 4hero’s galactic drum & bass masterpiece album ‘Parallel Universe’ featured tunes like the chilled and jazzy vocal gem ‘Universal Love’. Wax Doctor, who had made his name making raw hardcore and proto jungle on Basement Records, delivered the sublime, style-defining ‘Kid Caprice’ for Metalheadz, taking the break from Kurtis Blow’s ‘Do The Do’ (one of the earliest of many tunes to do so since) and merging it with a cascading ambient melody and languid funk flute to mesmeric effect. There was a collective realisation that jungle had many more musical applications, and that its fast tempo opened up exciting avenues when combined with influences from elsewhere.
This jazzier, more ambient style of jungle soon had a club to call its own. Just off Tottenham Court Road, near the old Astoria venue in central London, the Mars Bar hosted Speed from late 1994; LTJ Bukem could be found holding court there alongside resident DJs like Kemistry & Storm and Fabio.
“Things started happening,” says Storm. “The first night, Nicky Blackmarket and Bukem played. We met Photek there, Fabio was brought in. People started coming really early because they wanted to experience the whole night. It was exciting. It established, if you want to give it a name, drum & bass.”
One of the regulars at Speed was J Majik, the producer responsible for a host of classics, from ‘Your Sound’ to ‘Arabian Nights’ for Metalheadz. First breaking through at the age of 14 in 1993 with the storming ‘Six Million Ways To Die’ under the name Dextrous – the tune that led Goldie to sign him to the label – J Majik was inspired by the fresh sounds he heard at the club. “I thought, ‘How long can you keep making music with a ragga vocal in?’,” he told Melody Maker at the time. “Now production has improved, it’s become more mature.”
Speed was one of the seminal jungle club nights, and its signature combination of roughneck breaks and the more atmospheric side of the genre attracted a growing crowd of devotees. Bukem’s Good Looking label (and its Looking Good offshoot) was concurrently putting out a steady stream of soon-to-be classics. The Wild West saloon bar brilliance of PFM’s ‘The Western’ was followed by ‘One & Only’, a soul-soothing ambient hyper-ballad, combining crisp breakbeats with a yearning lovelorn vocal, aquatic chords, and a lush 808 bassline that made it equally powerful on the dancefloor.
Aquarius’s ‘Drift To The Centre’ showed Photek’s mastery of the mellower mode, while Seba & Lotek’s ‘So Long’ managed to make the swift velocity and damaging power of the Amen break a calming energy flow rather than a maelstrom. Bukem’s own masterpiece, ‘Horizons’, with its inspirational Maya Angelou sample and dramatic chord stabs, began to get him noticed outside the jungle scene, too. He headlined at the Big Chill, taking ambient jungle to a fresh set of left-field electronicists, and he started doing his Logical Progression nights at Ministry of Sound and other prestigious venues in the UK and beyond.
The wider music industry eventually recognised this new strand of jungle – and its marketability. The media, especially the dance press, latched onto the sound. In the past, there had been a snobbishness towards hardcore and jungle in the magazines and weekly music papers, where they were sometimes viewed as less worthy of coverage than the more “sophisticated” likes of house and techno, and either too cheesy or too raw to be given column inches. Now, with the advent of Good Looking Records, LTJ Bukem, and Speed, journalists started to write more approvingly about the genre. Goldie’s ‘Timeless’ also contained more ambient-leaning material, like ‘Angel’ and ‘Sea Of Tears’, so music scribes had something they felt was worthy of writing about, while Bukem, accompanied by the smooth tones of MC Conrad, did an ‘Essential Mix’ for Radio 1 in 1995 – an indication that drum & bass could be canonised like other dance genres.
A big problem at this time, though, was rebranding. To differentiate the mellower sound, some began to describe the music as drum & bass rather than jungle. Some promoters used the term to compartmentalise DJs they saw as playing material that was less hard than jungle – and less lyrically focused than the ragga style that predominated.
“All of a sudden, when you were being booked by a big rave, you were seeing this: jungle in room 1, and in room 2, drum & bass,” says DJ Storm. “I was like, ‘Hang on a minute, I’m a junglist. Why are you doing this?’. The promoter would say, ‘You lot have got a slightly different sound, it’s drum & bass, not jungle’.”
The producers and DJs making or playing the more ambient style simply saw it as an extension of jungle – another branch of the tree, rather than a replacement for what already had strong roots. “In drum & bass, I don’t consciously play across the spectrum,” Doc Scott, who made and played everything from mechanical techstep to mellower ambient jungle, told Melody Maker. “Anything goes, I’m just into good beats at the end of the day. Whether a track has a jazz-tinged edge or an ambient feel or is some industrial techno kind of thing, it doesn’t matter. I don’t enjoy DJing on just one level.”
Nevertheless, the ambient producers and sound were placed in their own category, and for a while their style became the epitome of cool. Out of this arose the unfortunate terms “intelligent jungle” and “intelligent drum & bass” – a troubling genre descriptor that, while it aimed to describe the musicality and depth of the new sound, ended up insulting the entire community. By talking about “intelligence”, the implication was that all other iterations of jungle were somehow stupid or unsophisticated. Considering that most jungle was made or played by black and working-class artists, there was more than a hint of racism and class snobbery embedded in the idea. By rebranding the sound, the name seemed to imply, it could suddenly become acceptable to the ears of white middle-class hipsters.
Whatever the implications of the genre name, or what people chose to call it, this ambient jungle sound produced many classic records, and it would prove a gateway drug for listeners getting into the sound for the first time.
In 1995, 4hero, having already delivered the jazz-tinged classic ‘Parallel Universe’, produced a self-titled album for R&S ambient offshoot label Apollo under the name Jacob’s Optical Stairway. It nodded to their love of Detroit techno, adding deep jazz elements, astral synths, and soul vocals, creating a classic of the era that remains puzzlingly underrated today.
LTJ Bukem’s era-defining mix compilation ‘Logical Progression’, released in 1996, was a snapshot of the greatest tracks to emanate from this micro-scene. It contains tracks like Chameleon’s ‘Links’, made by Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard (who were behind the ambient/chill-out classic album ‘76:14’ as Global Communication), many of Bukem’s best tracks, cuts by Wax Doctor and Moving Shadow’s JMJ & Flytronix, and a tune apiece by DJ Trace and DJ Crystl, on hiatus from their usual roughneck material.
The ‘Logical Progression’ series and its companion set, ‘Earth’ – with their lush, sophisticated design on both vinyl and CD – helped set up Good Looking as the scene leader in this particular lane. “All my money goes straight back into Good Looking, ’cause that’s my dream,” Bukem told DJ Mag in 2000. “My dream isn’t to drive a Ferrari, do crack, have two mansions and 17 birds a night. Those things don’t turn me on… I’ve turned down the money, I’ve turned down the drugs. People have offered us millions for Good Looking. They’ve offered us money that makes most record deals look like pocket money. What would happen? OK, so I’m sitting there with 10 million pounds. Phew. Blinding. But what have I got? I’ve got nothing. My label’s gone to someone who’s given me 10 million pounds. I’m a music man at heart, and my whole music and everything I’ve built have gone somewhere else and I can’t control it. I’m like, you couldn’t do a worse thing to me than buy my label off me, for any amount of money… I’ve got 15 staff and 20 artists. I work 15 hours, seven days a week, for the last 10 years, and I don’t see it stopping for the next 10.”
‘Renegade Snares – The Resistance And Resilience Of Drum & Bass’ is published by Jawbone Press