In the midst of all the inequality, racism, bigotry and belligerence that life in Britain can put in your way, one thing stands out above all, in giving me a sense of belonging and hope. It’s a tie that in essence keeps me emotionally connected to this place. When weather, nastiness and snobbery do their best to grind and I begin to dream of sunnier, happier distant lands, this ‘thing’ has the power to anchor, brighten and give hope.
For me, it sums up the best of what Britain is and can yet become. It’s the one facet or ‘asset’ of British life that I believe encapsulates not just my Britain, but a broader Britain too. One that is marked by strength and creativity, humility and inclusiveness. It was born out of a gritty fusion of peoples, cultures, values and place. I’m talking about the only music that has ever been British born and which has become a world-wide movement that unites people from all over the world. My Britain is Drum & Bass or DnB. Also known as Jungle music.
Laugh if you want and then think about it. What is Britain? What makes Britain? What defines the British? Arguably there can never be one thing that defines anything, so, more precisely, what has the potential that can help define us in way that unites and which is a truer and way more interesting image than we’ve ever had before. Is it pubs? Tea? Cricket? Royalty, football or even ‘queuing’ as I heard one air passenger saying jingoistically as he stood waiting at passport control at Stanstead last summer? Maybe it’s this sense of ‘fair play’ I have regularly heard vacuous politicians spout on about? The same politicians who have turned Britain into one of the most unequal societies in the Western world. Whatever tired, syrupy soundbite you hear, usually from some none personality TV presenter or ex-pat past it actor who now lives in L.A, they all fail. If that’s all on offer then we’re lost. We’ll continue to be mired in the past of two world wars and one world cup and of tea sipping colonial administrators. We’ll continue to equate identity with a money grabbing family who’s wealth, status and history is meant to somehow define our own shared values. On present course, Britain becomes a relic, nothing more. Politics aside, I’m writing this because I feel as though I have to tell this story. I’m fed up with an image of my birthplace that just doesn’t feel right and rather than accepting it I need to tell the world about something that highlights silenced aspects of British life which instead should be celebrated.
The best way I can think of to express what I want to convey, is to explain where I think it all began for me on a personal level. As a young teenager in the late 80’s who was born to a mother of Irish Catholic descent and a father who came to Britain as a 9yr old from Barbados, growing up on a very tough council estate in the Midlands, Britain could often feel like a hostile, cold and violent place to be. Racist language was a common occurrence on TV, at school, on public transport and on the street and the image of Britain as a strictly white Anglo/Saxon nation was pronounced. Some girls didn’t “…Go out with Wogs!” And walking past a group of sturdy looking white men was a whole episode in trepidation, possible humiliation or relief. The only respite black people had was a widely reputed athletic prowess and fighting ability that had been bred from the likes of Mike Tyson, Frank Bruno and Linford Christie and a musical talent eptomised by NWA, Public Enemy or Bob Marley. However, for an athletic but insecure teenager who enjoyed school, didn’t really swear and wasn’t that much into Hip Hop, Britain was a confusing place.
My father, who I was estranged from at that time and his generation had this place they always referred to as ‘back home’. ‘Back home’ seemed to act as a sanctuary he could escape to either abstractly or physically and acted as a kind of shield that helped them deal with the harsh realities of a life in Britain. I myself did have ‘Brazil’. At that time my image of Brazil was a highly romanticised and naïve one. For me, Brazil was this place that I dreamed of which offered me sanctuary and normality. Here was a land where people looked like me, had the most beautiful girls and undoubtedly the best footballers and football team in the world. How could I support an England team whose supporters booed and threw bananas at John Barnes and continually chanted ‘No surrender to the IRA?’ In short, although I was born in the UK, had spent all my life here I did not feel that I could call it my home. I cheered for Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Curtly Ambrose not Botham, Gatting or Gower. I was English by birth but to say that I was English would possibly bring laughs of derision from non-white Britons and aggressive confrontations from whites. In short, I was lost.
Without noticing it something was happening though. Looking back maybe it first began when a school ‘friend’ who would regularly goad himself into haranguing me about who were the hardest, blacks or whites? And who delighted in telling me that his sister’s new boyfriend was in the NF, handed me a TDK cassette. That tape first introduced me to a new, fresh type of sound which he told me was House and which had been started by black gay men in Chicago. ‘House Nation’ by the House Master Boyz had me spellbound. There was no way I was giving that tape back. Not until my friend’s sister turned up at my door one evening with her NF boyfriend waiting in his car. But now I had been turned on. Soon it felt as though every streetwise kid, black or white knew the score. House was now and, hang on a minute, House was actually black. The House pioneers may have been American but hey they were black. Fuck your racism! We did this!
I was 14 at the time. I had never been to a club or a rave. I did however, spend one fruitless evening the following year with a friend searching for an illegal party supposedly taking place in a warehouse not far from where I lived, but I wouldn’t fully appreciate House music for another 3 years. I would however avidly record The Jeff Young Radio Show every Friday, stay alert for any mention of Ibiza on one of the 3 television channels, or check out Dance Daze in the early hours on TV. But I was still also listening to Top of The Pops, singing along with Vanessa Paradis and recording the Top 40 on Sunday afternoons.
Soon, on House’s heels came another innovation, (Detroit) Techno, which arguably even more so than House pushed the known limits of what black people were supposed to be. In the UK, House became ‘Acid House’ and soon “Hip-House was going on”. For me though, whatever its name, it was just in the background, shaping the style, outlook and attitudes of my generation, but not much of a conscious aspect of my life yet. If I’m honest, it scared me a bit. You’d hear crazy drug stories, usually about one of the older, nuttier kids you went to school with. For me at that age it all just seemed a bit too risky and edgy. Instead, I spent the next two years revelling in putting on a shirt and suit and heading out with my mates on a Friday and/or Saturday night to one of the City’s pop clubs. Getting drunk, showing off my ‘Running Man’ dancing skills and getting at least a kiss from a girl at the end of the night was all that mattered. That my home city was Europe’s most violent place to live (per capita) seemed like just a normal part of life, even something to be proud of. Scuffles, fights, brawls, unprovoked attacks and even riots could kick off at any moment in the town centre and bravado, posturing and acting hard was the normal state of affairs. Racism could and did still raise its head, but now it first had to size up a muscled 16yr old who was the reacquainted son of a Coventry baldhead Rudeboy and club bouncer.
Then in 1990 something significant happened. Coventry became home to Britain’s first legal all night club. It was called The Eclipse. Yes in Coventry! A group of ex-Coventry football hooligans whom some of them, my dad reminds me, were known for driving around in their van doing something they called ‘Paki-Bashing’ (“Pakis”, “black bastards”, according to my dad they didn’t discriminate), had gone to Ibiza, got high and had fallen in love with House music so much that they returned to Coventry on a mission. ‘Amnesia House’ was formed and would go on to become the Midlands No 1 rave organisation with legendary parties at the Eclipse, Donnington Park and the Sky Blue Connection in 1990 (which in fact hosted Detroit’s Derek May, New York’s Frankie Bones, Brighton’s Carl Cox and Coventry’s own Doc Scott) among others.
One of the other faces formed The Eclipse. It sat right in the heart of the city, stayed open until 7am and much to the amazement of the local newspaper and their reporter it served absolutely no alcohol. Again, at first, apart from now being even more alert to those crazy, mad trip drug stories, it wasn’t a part of my life. However, there was something definitely happening though. In the pubs or walking through town, drunk, cocky and wearing a suit, you’d bump into another group who seemed to give off an air of knowing something you didn’t and who would be dressed casually but coolly on their way to the Eclipse. Some of these groups would contain some of the city’s best fighters but you never saw them acting hard or getting into any trouble.
All I can say is that it was Jomanda’s ‘Got A Love For You’ Steve Silk Hurley Mix that finally turned me away from pop and into the world that House Music had created. Maybe, not necessarily the song, great though it undeniably is, but rather a girl who I’d seen dancing to it and who I’d long had my eyes on. She brought me closer to a group of peers who had themselves just started experimenting with substances other than alcohol and who were testing the waters of raves. My eyes were literally opened. Weed was funny. Strawberry Fields, Purple Ohms and Microdots blew my mind, put me in touch with Hendrix, Huxley and put a whole new take on the Beatles Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Speed got me doing ‘spring-cleaning’ for my mum at 2am while he was working a shift at one of her 2 jobs. Mushrooms had an ancient wisdom and made me ponder going off to become a New Age Traveller. Along with the pre-Eclipse Amnesia Raves at the Mercia Sporting Centre, Coventry’s Tic Toc club and Cambridge’s post Strawberry Fair raves they all served as appetisers to the main course; The Eclipse and Ecstasy.
It was 1991. Why would anyone want to drink alcohol, get dressed up and go to one of those plastic, fake city centre clubs, listen to crap and have to deal with aggression and mindless violence? If they could only experience what I was experiencing, they along with the rest of humanity would see the light, stop the bullshit, drop an E and bring about world peace. This was heaven on earth. Black, white, Asian, disabled, female, male, young, old, rich, poor or even gay, it didn’t matter. Everyone was together. Everyone was dancing, laughing, joking, talking and sharing. Everyone was part of the music and the music part of everyone. The world was going to be ok.
But it was an illusion. 1988’s Summer of Love was 3 years ago. Things had moved on. Many of those original ravers had started turning their noses up at the next generation and the faster beats which we craved for. They could remember “When the Doves were spot on and the vibe was pure unity”. Funny though, many of these same people seemed to forget about the roots of House music. Ibiza, not Chicago was now where it all started. Clubs with a strict, i.e. racist and snobby door policy rather than raves were their territory. These were the base which gave rise to a corporate movement whose whitewashed version of House music, ‘club culture’ or ‘EDM’ as they now call it still brings in massive profit margins and mainstream acceptance. Others of this same ilk didn’t want or need some cocksure youths with their ‘moodiness’ spoiling their high. I’m probably being overly cynical, but what was definitely happening at this time was a break in the music with what had gone before. Breakbeats with sweeping, heavy baselines were being made by and attracting a new generation of British kids. The music and the scene were taking on more of a British, what might now be referred to as an urban vibe. It wasn’t necessarily ‘black’ per se, but it was definitely rooted within a Windrush history and fused within a British industrial city context.
Masters At Work ‘Just a “Lill” Dope I think clearly highlights the change taking place. Rather than playing it at 33 bpm as was intended, British DJ’s such as Top Buzz and Grooverider were playing it at 45BPM at which it took on a whole new sound which perfectly captured the scene in the autumn of 1991. MAW were and still are two American House legends in Kenny Dope Gonzalez and Little ‘Louie’ Vega, but that tune played at 45 bpm, along with Lenny De Ice’s We Are I E and The Rebel MC The Wickedest Sound, V.I.M’s Maggie’s Last Party from earlier in the year and not forgetting 1990’s 4 Hero’s Mr Kirk’s Nightmare and 1989’s A Guy Called Gerald’s Voodoo Ray, were some of those first prototypes of what was to become a distinctly British sound.
And so it continued. There was still a predominantly ‘Hardcore’ sound being played at raves but these faster, bassier, more ‘rooted’ sounds were appearing more and more. If anyone had asked me in 1991 or even in January 1992 what music I was in to I would have replied ‘Hardcore Dance Music’. But then in February 1992 one Friday evening in the Eclipse I heard something that I’d never heard any DJ do before. Stu Allen from Manchester played a whole set of Jungle. There was no other word to describe it. Top Buzz had been calling it Jungle Techno for quite a while, but for me not until that set by a white DJ from Manchester in a Coventry club did the term Jungle music perfectly sum up the sound and vibe. I can see myself right now, kind of slowing my dancing, looking around and becoming slightly uncomfortable when he began to mix in and play ‘Do you remember the Days of Slavery?’ by the Rebel MC with the original Burning Spear chant sample . Every tune exuded what can only be described as a West Indian, Rudeboy attitude enmeshed in beats, bass, horns, symbols and sounds.
But it wasn’t only in the music though that this cultural change was happening. It was in the dancing also. Up until then I’d along with everyone else had been shuffling away, bending the knees back and forth furiously, arms either pumping away or holding a magic wand casting spells across the dance floor. I loved it. With Jungle, all that changed. The dancing style edged closer to a version of Dub or a Blues kind of skank. The way I remember feeling it and describing it to a mate was ‘Bass Riding’. We were now riding the bass. It was cooler, edgier and much more rhythmic. I loved it even more. Not everyone could do it and I suppose that was part of the ingredients that made some embrace and love Jungle and others who just didn’t feel it.
That spring I remember standing outside a local pub in Coventry which was the haunt of the local gangsters and their hangers on. The conversation got onto the Eclipse and after a while one older, loud mouth, uncouth bully who I’d gone to school with took a drink from his pint and said “No offence like, but I don’t need some big fucking nigger shouting down to me all that fuckin lingo!” I look back and eye myself for not at least trying to smash his face in, but all I did was just shrink. What this bigot was referring to though was another aspect of change that Jungle was responsible for. Previously, for the most part MCing at a rave consisted of shouts out and expressions of emotions related to the tune or its associated E rush with maybe a few simple rhythms thrown in. However, pioneered by the likes of Top Buzz’s MC Mad P and now becoming more audible, was a Jamaican patois, toasting, Junglistic style.
Jungle definitely divided the scene. Was it racial? Undoubtedly it was. But I think it was also classist also. If you had issues with black culture and black/mixed-race youths, if you had a snobbery towards white working class youths and their culture and attitudes and if you didn’t like the edgier, more ‘urban’ vibe, then Jungle maybe wasn’t for you. In reality 1992 was a hybrid of the Rudeboy Junglistic sounds and the lighter, happier sounds that would do on to be called ‘Happy Hardcore’ but it still marked out those who just weren’t comfortable with this new ‘blacker’ (not so much as in individuals but more in style and culture) British ‘rave’ scene. The scene was still very much alive but now it partied to a heavier, bassier, faster vibe which was a product of a distinctly British urban culture and which celebrated the racial and cultural markers and dynamics of that culture.
Luckily for me I still lived in Coventry. Still home to the Eclipse and also historical home to another British urban musical sound and culture that had the power to bring youths of different backgrounds and ‘races’ together; Two Tone. It seemed apt that the city that gave birth to Two Tone was now also home to one of the most well-known and legendary rave clubs that was giving birth to another British multi-cultural movement. The Eclipse was also in many ways unique. Coventry was a long declining industrial city that was and still is a very tough and edgy place to live. The Eclipse, with their ex hooligan owners and promoters and the core of Coventry kids who would frequent the Eclipse gave the club a vibe that reflected its surroundings. If you were having a bad trip or were finding the E’s a bit too powerful that night then you had to have your wits about you. There was a definite street-vibe about the place. But it was also this vibe that made the club so special. The Eclipse owners, promoters and ravers all preferred the sound of certain DJ’s and those DJ’s would always love playing at the Eclipse. Mickey Finn, Top Buzz, Fabio, Carl Cox (before he left the sounds of early Jungle and headed off in a Techno direction), Doc Scott, Ray Keith, Randall, SS, Jumping Jack Frost and Grooverider (who in the June 1992 was the best man for Mr Amnesia’s Micky Lyonis wedding which became the world’s first ever Rave Wedding) were all regulars and are all in some way influential in the birth and life of Jungle music or DnB. The Eclipse may have closed after the summer of 92, but it reopened, refreshed and regenerated as ‘The Edge’ that September. I was there for that memorable opening night and still cherish the tape I have of DJ Slipmatt’s set.
Not long after that night, I left Coventry for Perth W.A. One of the first questions that I asked my cousin as we drove back from the airport to their house was “Do you have Raves here?” “Of course!” She replied a bit put off by my naivety. It wasn’t the same though and it wasn’t as good, but they did had raves. And they had Carl Cox and The Prodigy on tour. They both brought those early Jungle sounds to an Australian audience and along with Rave culture in general and my mixtapes from back home, provided me with a cultural crutch which grounded me in a new version of Britain that even Western Australians were coming to be aware of. “Fuck me I didn’t know that so many Negroes lived in London.” Said a recent returnee to Perth as we stood smoking weed and drinking at a party. If racism in Britain could be bad then fuck me, racism in Australia was like its raw, ignorant hillbilly cousin.
When I returned to Coventry a year later, the only way that you could describe the change in the scene was that it had become ‘Dark’. The recession was biting hard and Britain was not a cheery place to be. The BNP were on the verge of getting their first ever councillor in Tower Hamlets and the media had Yardie gangsters taking over. In the Eclipse for Amnesia’s 1993-94 NYE party, the sounds were still Junglistic but they had a much darker and arguably more mystical edge to them. Q Project’s ‘Champion Sound’, LTJ Bukem’s ‘Music’, Origin Unknown’s ‘Valley of the Shadows’ and Boogie Times Tribe’s ‘Dark Stranger’ stand out as leading the way into and through the darkness. That peace loving, happy-go-lucky Rudeboy warrior of the earlier Jungle sound was now on his way to becoming a devious gangster. The E’s that were being taken such as ‘China Whites’ or ‘Apaches’ were probably packed with Ketamine or even a bit of smack. Smokeable cocaine was also probably creeping in to the scene a bit more too. This was the era of the £10 ‘Payback’ raves and when rave organisations used their flyers to explicitly address the deteriorating racial situation and the need to come together. This era was also the end of The Edge and of The Eclipse. These were worrying times.
At the end of the summer of 1994, I left Coventry for university in London. South East London and Coventry were similar in many ways and it felt great to now be living in the spiritual home of Jungle. My first taste of the London Jungle scene was Kool FM’s 3rd birthday party at the Laserdome in Peckham. The bouncers walked around with Pitbulls and Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Shy FX’s ‘Gangsta Kid’ was the tune of the night. It was like Coventry’s Hillfields on steroids. London had Kool FM, Eruption, Rude and countless more Pirate radio stations that played Jungle and every other genre of House music 24 7. The streetwise London kids were juggling on the next level to anything I’d seen in Coventry.
By now Jungle had exploded and despite its Rudeboy edge it was going mainstream. There were plenty of middle class girls and boys I was at University with who were loving the tunes and who were spinning new vinyl in the halls of residences. Plenty were also venturing out off campus at night to soak up the clubs and raves across the capital and beyond. There was a surge of ‘Ragga’ based jungle tunes which along with mainstream interest brought a new, younger and more diverse audience into the scene. Shy FX and UK Apache’s ‘Original Nutta’ and General Levy very commercial ‘Incredible’ even put Jungle on Top of The Pops. It many ways it was great that Jungle was finally getting recognition. America had Hip Hop, Jamaica had Reggae and now Britain had Jungle. Jungle was a reflection of a multicultural Britain that had always been here, but which was now proudly saying ‘we’re here to stay and this is us!’
However the new popularity brought along its own issues. Mainstream recognition brought with it the fakes and the trendies who just wanted to be cool by being into the latest new thing and who would eventually jump ship as soon as the UK Garage explosion took off. Many of the newcomers were also ignorant of the roots of Jungle. To them there was no family tree back to Chicago House, Detroit Techno, Electro and Hip Hop. To them the Ragga based sounds were proof that Jungle came straight from Reggae/Ragga. For one group this meant that House, Techno and Hardcore could more easily be whitewashed into Ibiza, Pete Tong and Judge Jules. For another it meant that they saw Jungle and Ragga as symbiotically connected and so was a strictly ‘black’, Jamaican or Yardie music not ultimately related to a British multicultural rave history.
I remember walking along Well Hall Road in Eltham just over a year after Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racist thugs and reading some graffiti at a bus stop. “Fuck Jungle we are Hardcore!” Read one scribble sat next to a load of racist insults. At another bus stop, presumably written by some of the black kids who went to school around here had written “Jungle Music! Ghetto boys!” The division in the scene was reflecting stark racial divisions. For many, Jungle was black and Hardcore was white. For me at the time and I expect a lot of others, the whole Ragga explosion was becoming a bit plastic and cringy. Sticking a Ragga sample onto a breakbeat was not true Jungle, but for many that’s exactly what it was. Even some of my older Bajan relatives and their peers were dancing, in suits and smart dresses to Jungle in clubs that also played Reggae, Ragga and RnB, oblivious to its true roots and the drug fuelled raves that gave birth to it. Some of the Jungle raves too were losing their way, with the gangster culture smothering out the party, happy go lucky vibe. The scene was changing and was about to give birth or more precisely, rather morph into what became known as Drum & Bass.