In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a growing nightclub and overnight outdoor event culture gave birth to a new electronic music style in the rave scene, which combined sampled syncopated beats, or breakbeats, and other samples from a wide range of different musical genres and, occasionally, samples of music, dialogue and effects from films and television programmes. A faster subgenre was known as “hardcore“, but from as early as 1991, some musical tracks made up of these high-tempo break beats, with heavy basslines and samples of older Jamaican music, were referred to as “jungle techno“. (influenced by Jack Smooth and Basement Records), and later just “jungle“, which became recognised as a separate musical genre popular at raves and on pirate radio in Britain.
It is important to note when discussing the history of drum and bass prior to jungle, music was becoming faster and more experimental. Professional DJ and producer Costica Kristian di Vogli (known professionally as C.K.) stated, “There was a progression as far as the speed of music is concerned. Anyone buying vinyl every week from 1989 to 1992 noticed this.”
By 1994, jungle had begun to gain mainstream popularity, and fans of the music (often referred to as junglists) became a more recognisable part of youth subculture. The genre further developed, incorporating and fusing elements from a wide range of existing musical genres, including the raggamuffin sound, dancehall, MC chants, dub basslines, and increasingly complex, heavily edited breakbeat percussion. Despite the affiliation with the ecstasy-fuelled rave scene, jungle also inherited associations with violence and criminal activity, both from the gang culture that had affected the UK’s hip-hop scene and as a consequence of jungle’s often aggressive or menacing sound and themes of violence (usually reflected in the choice of samples). However, this developed in tandem with the often positive reputation of the music as part of the wider rave scene and dancehall-based Jamaican music culture prevalent in London. By 1995, whether as a reaction to, or independently of this cultural schism, some jungle producers began to move away from the ragga-influenced style and create what would become collectively labelled, for convenience, as drum and bass.
As the genre became generally more polished and sophisticated technically, it began to expand its reach from pirate radio to commercial stations and gain widespread acceptance (circa 1995–1997). It also began to split into recognisable subgenres such as jump-up and Hardstep. As a lighter and often jazz-influenced style of drum and bass called “intelligent drum and bass” gained mainstream appeal, additional subgenres emerged including techstep (circa 1996–1997), which drew greater influence from techno music and the soundscapes of science fiction and anime films.
The popularity of drum and bass at its commercial peak ran parallel to several other genres native to the UK, including big beat and hard house. Towards the turn of the millennium, however, its popularity was deemed to have dwindled, as the UK garage offshoot known as speed garage yielded several hit singles. Speed garage shared high tempos and heavy basslines with drum and bass, but otherwise followed the established conventions of “house music”, with this and its freshness giving it an advantage commercially. di Vogli says, “It is often forgotten by my students that a type of music called “garage house” existed in the late 1980s alongside hip house, acid house and other forms of house music.” He continues, “This new garage of the mid-90s was not a form of house or a progression of garage house. The beats and tempo that define house are entirely different. This did cause further confusion in the presence of new house music of the mid-1990s being played alongside what was now being called garage.”
Despite this, the emergence of further subgenres and related styles such as liquid funk brought a wave of new artists incorporating new ideas and techniques, supporting continual evolution of the genre. To this day, drum and bass makes frequent appearances in mainstream media and popular culture including in television, as well as being a major reference point for subsequent genres such as grime and dubstep, and producing successful artists including Chase & Status, Netsky, Metrik, and Pendulum.
Drum and bass incorporates a number of scenes and styles, from the highly electronic, industrial sounds of techstep to the use of conventional, acoustic instrumentation that characterize the more jazz-influenced end of the spectrum. The sounds of drum and bass are extremely varied due to the range of influences behind the music. Drum and bass could at one time be defined as a strictly electronic musical genre, with the only “live” element being the DJ’s selection and mixing of records during a set. “Live” drum and bass using electric, electronic and acoustic instruments played by musicians on stage emerged over the ensuing years of the genre’s development.
A very obvious and strong influence on jungle and drum and bass, thanks to the British African-Caribbean sound system scene, is the original Jamaican dub and reggae sound, with pioneers like King Tubby, Peter Tosh, Sly & Robbie, Bill Laswell, Lee Perry, Mad Professor, Roots Radics, Bob Marley and Buju Banton heavily influencing the music. This influence has lessened with time, but is still evident, with many tracks containing ragga vocals.
As a musical style built around funk or syncopated rock and roll breaks, James Brown, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Supremes, the Commodores, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Michael Jackson acted as funk influences on the music. Jazz pioneer Miles Davis has been named as a possible influence. Blues artists like Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters and B.B King have also been cited by producers as inspirations. Even modern avant-garde composers such as Henryk Gorecki have received mention. One of the most influential tracks in drum and bass history was “Amen Brother” by The Winstons, which contains a drum solo that has since become known as the “Amen break“, which, after being extensively used in early hip hop music, went on to become the basis for the rhythms used in drum and bass.
Kevin Saunderson released a series of bass-heavy, minimal techno cuts as Reese/The Reese Project in the late ’80s, which were hugely influential in drum and bass. One of his more famous basslines (Reese – “Just Want Another Chance”, Incognito Records, 1988) was indeed sampled on Renegade’s Terrorist and countless others since, being known simply as the ‘Reese’ bassline. He followed these up with equally influential (and bassline-heavy) tracks in the UK hardcore style as Tronik House in 1991–1992. Another Detroit artist who was important to the scene was Carl Craig. The sampled-up jazz break on Craig’s Bug in the Bassbin was also influential on the newly emerging sound. DJs at the Heaven nightclub on “Rage” nights used to play it as fast as their Technics record decks would go, pitching it up in the process.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the tradition of breakbeat use in hip hop production had influenced the sound of breakbeat hardcore, which in turn led to the emergence of jungle, drum and bass, and other genres that shared the same use of broken beats. Drum and bass shares many musical characteristics with hip-hop, though it is nowadays mostly stripped of lyrics. Grandmaster Flash, Roger Troutman, Afrika Bambaata, Run DMC, Mac Dre, Public Enemy, Schooly D, N.W.A, Kid Frost, Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, Mos Def, Beastie Boys and the Pharcyde are very often directly sampled, regardless of their general influence.
Clearly, drum and bass has been influenced by other music genres, though influences from sources external to the electronic dance music scene perhaps lessened following the shifts from jungle to drum and bass, and through to so-called “intelligent drum and bass” and techstep. It still remains a fusion music style.
Some tracks are illegally remixed and released on white label (technically bootleg), often to acclaim. For example, DJ Zinc’s remix of The Fugees‘ “Ready or Not“, also known as “Fugee Or Not”, was eventually released with the Fugees’ permission after talk of legal action, though ironically, the Fugees’ version infringed Enya‘s copyright to an earlier song. White labels, along with dubplates, played an important part in drum and bass musical culture.
The Amen break was synonymous with early drum and bass productions but other samples have had a significant impact, including the Apache, Funky Drummer, “Soul Pride”, “Scorpio” and “Think (About It)” breaks. Early pioneers often used Akai samplers and sequencers on the Atari ST to create their tracks.
Of equal importance is the TR-808 kick drum, an artificially pitch-downed or elongated bass drum sound sampled from Roland‘s classic TR-808 drum machine, and a sound which has been subject to an enormous amount of experimentation over the years.
Many drum and bass tracks have featured more than one sampled breakbeat in them and a technique of switching between two breaks after each bar developed. Examples of this can be heard on mid-90s releases such as J Majik‘s “Your Sound”. A more recent commonly used break is the “Tramen”, which combines the Amen break, a James Brown funk breakbeat (“Tighten Up” or “Samurai” break) and an Alex Reece drum and bass breakbeat.
The relatively fast drum beat forms a canvas on which a producer can create tracks to appeal to almost any taste and often will form only a background to the other elements of the music. Syncopated breakbeats remain the most distinctive element as without these a high-tempo 4/4 dance track could be classified as techno or gabber.
The complex syncopation of the drum tracks’ breakbeat is another facet of production on which producers can spend a very large amount of time. The Amen break is generally acknowledged to have been the most-used (and often considered the most powerful) break in drum and bass.
The genre places great importance on the bassline, in this case a deep sub-bass musical pattern which can be felt physically through powerful sound systems due to the low-range frequencies favoured. There has been considerable exploration of different timbres in the bass line region, particularly within techstep. The bass lines most notably originate from sampled sources or synthesizers. Bass lines performed with a bass instrument, whether it is electric, acoustic or a double bass, are less common, but examples can be found in the work of artists such as Shapeshifter, Squarepusher, Pendulum, Roni Size and STS9.
Atmospheric pads and samples may be added over the fundamental drum and bass to provide different feels. These have included “light” elements such as ambient pads as found in ambient electronica and samples of jazz and world musics, or “dark” elements such as dissonant pads and sci-fi samples to induce anxiety in the dancer.
Vocal and melody elements
Old-school DnB usually included an MC providing vocals. Some styles (such as jazz influenced DnB) also include melodic instruments soloing over the music.
Drum and bass is usually between 160–180 BPM, in contrast to other breakbeat-based dance styles such as nu skool breaks, which maintain a slower pace at around 130–140 BPM. A general upward trend in tempo has been observed during the evolution of drum and bass. The earliest forms of drum and bass clocked in at around 130 bpm in 1990/1991, speeding up to around 155–165 BPM by 1993. Since around 1996, drum and bass tempos have predominantly stayed in the 170–180 range. Recently, some producers have started to once again produce tracks with slower tempos (that is, in the 150-170 bpm range), but the mid-170s tempo is still a hallmark of the drum and bass sound.
A track combining the same elements (broken beat, bass, production techniques) as a drum and bass track, but with a slower tempo (say 140 BPM), might not be drum and bass, but instead may qualify as a drum and bass-influenced breakbeat track.
Many mixing points begin or end with a “drop“. The drop is the point in a track where a switch of rhythm or bassline occurs and usually follows a recognisable build section and breakdown. Sometimes, the drop is used to switch between tracks, layering components of different tracks, as the two records may be simply ambient breakdowns at this point. Some DJs prefer to combine breakbeats, a more difficult exercise. Some drops are so popular that the DJ will “rewind” or “reload” or “lift up” the record by spinning it back and restarting it at the build. The drop is often a key point from the point of view of the dance floor, since the drum breaks often fade out to leave an ambient intro playing. When the beats re-commence they are often more complex and accompanied by a heavier bassline, encouraging the crowd to begin dancing.
Smaller scenes within the drum and bass community have developed and the scene as a whole has become much more fractured into specific subgenres, which have been grouped into “light” (influenced by ambient, jazz, and world music) and “heavy” (influenced by industrial music, sci-fi, and anxiety) styles, including:
Mainline drum and bass
Ragga drum & bass was inspired by the original ragga jungle style, with influences from reggae and dancehall music. Notable artists include Shy FX, T Power, Congo Natty, Potential Bad Boy, Marcus Visionary, Serial Killaz, Ed Solo, Deekline, Isaac Maya, Run Tingz Cru, Psychofreud, Benny Page and vocalists such as David Boomah, Top Cat, Tenor Fly and General Levy.
Jump-up, appearing in the mid-1990s, employs heavy and energetic drum and bass, characterized by robotic and heavy bass sounds. It also is generally less serious and contains more humor than other subgenres. Notable artists include DJ Hazard, Generation Dub (Original Sin & Sub Zero), Baron, Desire, Cabbie, Macky Gee, Clipz, Nightwalker, Callide, Hedex, Epsy, Taxman, Jaydan, Sub Zero, Original Sin, Annix, Konichi, Decimal Bass, Spaow, Nu Elementz, Tyke, DJ Zen, Majistrate, Twisted Individual, Distorted Minds, TC, Heist, DJ Guv, Looney, Premium, Upgrade, DJ Pleasure, DJ Hypeand his label Playaz Recordings.
“Clownstep” is a derogatory term sometimes used to describe excessively silly and/or cliched jump-up.
Drumstep or halftime is a combination of drum and bass and dubstep, where the beat structure is half time, while the remaining elements still adhere to the usual sub-bass and tempo of drum and bass.
Drill ‘n’ bass (also known as Fungle and Spunk jazz) incorporates double-time drum ‘n’ bass with undanceable rhythms, low-brow humor, and ambient vibes. The subgenre was developed by Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, whose rapid and irregularly syncopated basslines discouraged dancing. Other pioneers include Bogdan Raczynski and Datach’i.
Light drum and bass
Intelligent drum & bass or intelligent jungle is a smoother style, influenced by ambient music, chillout, jazz and Soul music. It was pioneered by such artists as Omni Trio, Foul Play, Seba, Blu Mar Ten, Nookie, Hyper-On-Experience, DJ Pulse, Higher Sense, Deep Blue (Sean O’Keefe, Cause4Concern Records), Photek, Jack Smooth (Basement Records), Blame, LTJ Bukem and his label Good Looking Records, and the label Moving Shadow.
Atmospheric drum and bass creates a calmer yet more synthetic sound. It was pioneered by Calibre, Zero Tolerance (Zero T) & Beta 2, London Elektricity, High Contrast, Logistics, Nu:Tone, Danny Byrd, Cyantific, Netsky, Lenzman, Technimatic (Technicolour & Komatic), Hobzee & Zyon Base, Paul T & Edward Oberon, Hybrid Minds and labels such as Hospital Records, Fokuz Records and Liquid V.
Jazzstep or jazzy jungle demonstrates heavy influence by jazz. It uses typical jazz scales, rhythms and instrumentation. Notable artists include Roni Size & Reprazent, Goldie, Utah Jazz, Morgan Sullyvan, Makoto, Alex Reece, and DJ Dextrous.
Liquid funk (or simply “liquid”) draws heavily on harmonic and melodic grooves, and samples from funk, jazz, soul, R&B, disco, house and breakbeat. The first liquid-only event was “Liquidiser” at Bristol Academy.
Heavy drum and bass
Darkstep is characterized by fast drums and a general dark mood, drawing influences from dark ambient, industrial and hardcore music. Prominent artists include Technical Itch, Dylan, Kryptic Minds & Leon Switch, B-Key, Resonant Evil, Infiltrata, SPL, Counterstrike, Evol Intent, The Panacea, Limewax, and Current Value.
Techstep is characterized by sci-fi soundscapes and samples from science fiction culture. Pioneered by artists such as Bad Company UK (DJ Fresh, D-Bridge, Maldini & Vegas) Ed Rush, Optical, Konflict (Kemal & Rob Data), Dom & Roland, Dillinja, Ram Trilogy (Ant Miles, Andy C & Shimon), Moving Fusion, Decoder & Substance, Digital & Spirit, Future Cut, Dylan, Loxy & Ink, Total Science, D.Kay, Stakka & Skynet and Keaton with Usual Suspects or Universal Project, Klute, Concord Dawn, and the label Moving Shadow.
Neurofunk or neuro is the progression from techstep incorporating more elements from jazz and funk. Prominent artists include Ed Rush, Optical, Matrix, Bad Company UK, Cause 4 Concern, TeeBee, Future Prophecies, Black Sun Empire, DLR, Calyx, Hive, Gridlok, Noisia, Phace & Misanthrop, Silent Witness & Break, State Of Mind, The Upbeats, Chase & Status, Jade, Mindscape, Spor, Psidream, Catacomb, Rregula and The Clamps.
Breakcore is a style of electronic dance music largely influenced by hardcore, jungle, digital hardcore and industrial music that is characterized by its use of heavy kick drums, breaks and a wide palette of sampling sources, played at high tempos.
Hardstep is a harder style which uses gritty basslines and heavy yet simple electronic melodies. Notable artists include Dillinja (early work), DJ Krust, Mampi Swift, Dieselboy, Current Value, Tre Technics, MachineCode.