I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A London Somet’ing

by Ian McQuaid
Jan. 23, 2016

If you wanted to make an amazing junglist mixtape, you could do worse than cribbing it entirely from A London Somet’ing. It’d open with the UFO wails of ‘Just For You London’, hit a high energy stride with the Congo Natty ragga stormers Kunte Kinte and Jah Set It, then slink into the liquid melodies that characterise Deep Blue’s "Helicopter Tune". No lie, the most vital thing A London Somet’ing offers is shot after shot of amazing music. Later drum & bass may have been more detailed, more technical, smoother, harder, darker, whatever, but – to these ears- every jungle blue print that matters was smashed out in a period of intense creativity from ’92 to ’95. After that it was just a question of refining the lingo and playing with the form. And what a crazy form....

Breakbeats sampled from hip hop records, sped up (and up), made hardcore, the prevailing sound of London’s early 90s raves. The tracks were getting faster and faster, then faster again, with helium vocals rubbing alongside harsh Euro noise, until somewhere along the way the soul got lost. A whole host of London ravers didn’t want to hear Belgium’s monoculture hoover sounds anymore— Label boss Paul Ibiza nails it--“bein a Londoner, I’d had enough”

It’s rare that a music’s origins can be so accurately pinpointed; even the genesis of something as modern as house music can be argued over for hours—were the Italians making it in ’82 ? The Germans in ’72 ? With jungle there’s no such debate. The simple fact is that before 1990 there is next to nothing that could be considered to be jungle. And then, by 1994, the year of this documentary (not ’93 as it is misleading titled in youtube1) the fusion of 160+ bpm break beats with dancehall chat, reggae bass and techno futurism had exploded. Punks claimed to have instigated Year Zero by playing rock n roll faster and louder and swearing more. Junglists didn’t have time for bragging situationist slogans- they were too busy dancing to the future.

Tellingly, most of the interviewees in A London Somet’ing- despite acknowledging this futurism- nurture a clear link between the alien forms they are sweating over in the studio, and the reggae dancehall culture most of them grew up with. You can see it in MC Moose’s pilgrimage back to the Harlesden record shop he used to pick up reggae cuts from-

“It ain’t gonna be accepted in Harlesden... until they hear the reggae orientation... I’m chatting reggae slang on jungle music”

This link, and the immigration that created it in England, is probably the most important factor in the genesis of jungle. The UK has had a strong relationship with Caribbean music since the first en masse wave of immigration arrived on the ship Windrush in 1948. After losing so many men to WWII, England needed rebuilding, and looked to her West Indian colonies for manpower. The Caribbean subjects, schooled on a diet of rampant empire propaganda came willingly, believing, as they had been told, that England was their mother country. They bought with them the jumping, dance floor pounding music of the islands. Whilst the British people might have, in the main, treated the new comers with emotions ranging from general mistrust to out and out hostility2, they also loved the calypso bought by artists Lord Kitchener. This combination of a passion for the Caribbean sound, and an antipathy towards its creators has gone on to characterise the majority of the black British musical experience to this day.

In the 70s, mainstream society was switching on to Chris Blackwell’s smoothed out productions of Bob Marley, the punks were referencing the heavy dub of U-Roy and Burning Spear and Notting Hill was burning in race riots largely stemming from heavy-handed policing. By the start of the 80s white or mixed English bands were running amok in the charts with the 2tone sound – a fusion of ska, dub and socially conscious lyrics with angular new wave guitars. In some cases – notably UB40 and The Police- the bizarre ice-to-eskimos spectacle of a white man singing in a Jamaican accent was successfully sold back to the Caribbean diaspora3. Under the radar of all these daytime radio shenanigans there was an alternative country wide culture of soundsystems, reggae crews putting together the biggest bassbins, the best selectors and the finest MCs and throwing massive underground parties4. It was only a matter of time before the kids growing up watching their dads smash down dances would start to want a piece of it for themselves, and it was inevitable that the nascent house music scene along with the reggae and hip hop scenes—all reliant on the similar central dynamic of a DJ behind the turntables—should start to blend into one another. In some ways it was a repetition of the multicultural meeting of 2Tone, although this time, with the massive leaps in affordable home technology, the results would be far more outlandish than anything heard before.

Acid house had been viewed fairly indulgently by the British media (until they cottoned on to the fact that hordes of E’s were being necked-)5, but jungle got a bad press right from the start, and the siege mentality this pushed the scene into has remained ever since—Rebel MC is in no doubt as to the bad reputations source—

“Jungle is viewed as a black musical form... all the stereotypes are creeping back in”

The major cartel of UK dance media (Mixmag, DJ etc) vilified the genre- the name itself was eventually dropped in favour of drum & bass- D&B was free from potential racial overtones and a lot easier to market. By this point though the scene had got the message- if you were constantly bad mouthed in the press the obvious and necessary thing to do was create your own information networks, and allow your scene to flourish in isolation, free from major label interference and the disorienting negatives of mainstream celebrity. This isolationist stance may not have made many stars, but it did lay strong foundations for some amazing music to be created. The junglists knew, that what they were making would ‘blow away all the house stuff being made in the UK’, and over the years as the sound has spread the globe, til we have a time when drum and bass patterns can be heard in parties from Brazil to Bangladesh, it turns out they were absolutely, gloriously right.

1 A London Somet’ing Dis was part of a 1994 UK TV season called Black Xmas, commissioned by arts/ culture network Channel 4.

2 The situation for most immigrants is fairly succinctly summoned up by one of the Windrush passangers—“They tell you it is the 'mother country', you're all welcome, you all British. When you come here you realise you're a foreigner and that's all there is to it.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/arrival_01.shtml

3 Sting’s crap patois on ‘Walking on the Moon’ really takes the biscuit for this sort of nonsense.

4 80s cult film Babylon is a great introduction to early London dancehall culture- it’s got it all—haggling over dubplates, racist neighbours, copious weed smoking, shitty policemen and heavy dub basslines.

5 Improbable, but true - “ The national press' initial coverage of the Acid House scene was a positive one, with [right wing tabloid] The Sun promoting the famous craze of 'Acid Smiley Face T-Shirts', now accredited with 1988/89 E-culture, as the latest fashion to impress your friends with. They described Acid House itself as 'cool and groovy' “ http://www.fantazia.org.uk/Scene/press/magazines.htm

Ian McQuaid writes for www.offmodern.com. He is a tiny despot. He has vice like gripping claws. He owns a chain of dry cleaners and a life size sculpture of armageddon. Last week he 'cracked a funny', as he calls it, and a deathly silence gripped the room. He lives in London with an aggressive wife and an angry dog.