The Samplers and Breakbeats Behind '90s Jungle/Drum & Bass

Photo of 4Hero, CC BY 2.0.

The story of how jungle/drum and bass was born, cultivated, and evolved in the UK—and the racial and class dynamics behind the genre's name—is impossibly rich and complex. Rather than a straight linear sequence of events, the genre's evolution has played out as the result of an interconnected web of social forces and technical innovations that have propelled the music forward.

When Parliament passed The British Nationality Act 1948, creating a pathway to British citizenship for people from the colonies (most notably Jamaica), the racial and cultural dynamics of England would be forever changed. In the 1950s, Jamaican immigrants brought the practice of building soundsystems to England, establishing a distinctly Afro-Atlantic culture of bass, rhythm, and spoken word in the country.

In subsequent decades, disco, soul, jazz-funk, and hip-hop emerged and established their own unique scenes in the UK, each permanently transforming the country's music culture. When acid house touched down in the UK in 1988 during the Second Summer of Love, electronic music moved to the forefront of English popularity and cultural impact.

The music spread rapidly and influenced everything. Its lightspeed evolution happened likewise in urban clubs in the city and massive raves in the countryside. It was out of this volatile cultural stew—reggae, house, soul, jazz, hip-hop, and rave—that jungle first emerged.

4Hero - "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare"

As the late '80s gave way to the early '90s, several records came out of the UK that represented an important transitional step in the evolution from rave/acid house to jungle. In 1990, London-based duo Shut Up and Dance released "Lamborghini," a quirky track that still retained the four-on-the-floor beat of acid house, but added a sample of The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" and some choice reggae-style toasting from British reggae duo The Ragga Twins.

Another Ragga Twins/Shut Up and Dance release from this era, "Hooligan 69," included a dramatic sample of the intro from Prince & The Revolution's "Let's Go Crazy"—and a pitched-up sample of the drum break from Rufus Thomas' 1971 novelty dance hit for Stax Records, "Do The Funky Penguin (Part 2)."

Around the same time that Shut Up and Dance was reintroducing breakbeats into the UK dance music lexicon, another duo named 4Hero was conducting similar experiments.

4Hero. Creative Commons. CC BY 2.0.

In 1990, 4Hero (a duo made up of Marc Mac and Dego, who would also release several genre-defining singles under the Tom & Jerry moniker), released "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare"—a bizarre, breakbeat-infused rave track that would become an unlikely hit. With its horrific sample of a phone-call where a father is flatly informed that his son has died of an overdose, the song is a surprisingly sober anti-drug anthem delivered at the height of England's drugging and raving heyday.

Musically, "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" is one of the earliest examples of this new breakbeat-based dance music. Taking drum loops from Lyn Collins' inescapable "Think" (a break that was also becoming an essential part of another burgeoning genre: Baltimore club), and Tommy Roe's "Sweet Pea" (a foundational break in jungle/drum and bass later), "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" pointed toward a new direction for British electronic music.

The fact that many of these DJs and producers experimenting with breaks and sampling were veterans of the soundsystems and England's Black musical community was significant. Shut Up and Dance were members of the Heatwave soundsystem alongside drum and bass pioneer DJ Hype. Marc Mac of 4hero was a member of Solar Zone. These producer/DJs would take their familiarity with Black musical forms to inject the sub bass, toasting, and hip-hop–style sampling that would be integral to jungle's early DNA.

More so than any other track released during this era, Lennie De Ice's tune "We Are I.E." is a classic. In It's a London Thing: How Rare Groove, Acid House and Jungle Remapped the City, author Caspar Melville points to several musical elements that make "We Are I.E." a clear forerunner to jungle.

He writes that the song "combines electric acid washes with a sampled breakbeat (an early use of the 'Amen' break), a digital 'ragga' bassline and a sampled vocal line from 'N'Sel Fik', a Rai song by Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sariouh." Melville also points to Rebel MC's 1991 release "The Wickedest Sound" as a precursor to jungle, with its dynamic reggae toasting and sampled breaks.

Lenny De Ice - "We Are I.E."

Speaking with Reverb for this piece, Marc Mac explained how soundsystem culture influenced jungle, and talked about the gear that he and Dego used to craft those early classics: "The last bit of the hardcore/jungle evolution was the use of Jamaican soundsystem live recordings on cassette tapes, giving the music more edge, and with the technology of samplers also evolving, more sample time and techniques enhanced the production."

By the mid-'90s, jungle/drum and bass had exploded into a full-on global phenomenon. Scenes popped up everywhere, but London (as well as the immediate towns surrounding it) remained the flashpoint from which the music's influence flowed.

Labels like 4Hero's Reinforced, Fabio's Creative Source, Grooverider's Prototype, Goldie and Kemistry & Storm's Metalheadz, LTJ Bukem's Good Looking, Tony Colman and Chris Goss' Hospital Records, and Rob Playford's Moving Shadow, and Bryan Gee and Jumpin Jack Frost's V Recordings were releasing groundbreaking singles pushing the music forward at an exponential rate.

As with the rave scene, several sampling techniques have animated the core of the genre's rapid evolution. With breaks like "Amen," "Think," "Apache," "Sweat Pea," "Funky Drummer," "Funky Mule," and others firmly established as the foundational elements of drum and bass, producers created fresh new techniques facilitated by new technology.

The Amen Break

Hardware pieces like Akai's powerhouse S950 rackmount sampler featured a time-stretch function that allowed producers to radically alter the tempo and pitch of an audio sample. This effect was used to manipulate breaks and create the kind of odd, metallic-sounding timbre to vocals on tracks like Dred Dred's 1994 classic "Dred Bass."

The Akai S950.

In Brian Belle Fortune's 2004 book All Crews: Journeys Through Jungle/Drum And Bass Culture, Foster details DJ Flapjack working on a track in the studio, showing the simple setups of samplers and computers that were being employed to make jungle records at the time. According to Foster, Flapjack's setup included "Yamaha NS-10m studio monitors, an E-Mu e5000 Ultra sampler, a Behringer DDX 3215 automated mixing console, and Cubase SX software."

In the same passage, Rohan of Bassbin Recordings explains how junglists were creating this radical sample-based music on very minimal setups. "We've got just the basics: a sampler, computer, and a mixing desk. The software revolution now means you can scrap most of the hardware and make tunes using one computer."

Marc Mac gives an insight into the gear that he and Dego were utilizing in the '90s: "Our early studio was built around the Akai S950 and Atari 1040 running Creator and Notator, a Fostex four-track cassette recorder, and a Sony DAT machine. Also had a Roland TR-808, TR-606, 727, Yamaha SY22, and Juno-106."

In addition to hardware samplers like the S950, E-Mu's e5000 and the Emax, Roland's W-30 sampling keyboard workstation, and more, jungle producers had fully embraced two newly released home computers that hit the market in the mid-'80s and provided endless inspiration for a generation of producers.

In 1985, Atari released the 520ST. The model would become a key instrument in the production of rave and jungle/drum and bass. In his fascinating 2017 Redbull Music Academy piece on the AtariST, writer/DJ Matt Anniss explains that the inclusion of MIDI capabilities in the 520ST made the computer a logical choice for the type of complex music being created by electronic musicians at the time:

"What made it so attractive to budding computer musicians though, was the computer's MIDI capability. The ST was the first computer to come with MIDI 'In' and 'Out/Thru' ports built into the casing. Right from the start, it was production-ready."

In the same year, the Commodore Amiga computer was released, and it was also a wildly popular tool among electronic musicians. When paired with the OctaMED software, the Amiga became a powerful instrument for creating tracks, showing up on many jungle classics, including DJ Zinc's 1996 "Super Sharp Shooter," an underground smash that featured brilliantly chopped samples of Fred Wesley & The J.B.'s "Blow Your Head" and Method Man's "Release Yo' Delf" over a barrage of "Amen" and "Sweet Pea" breaks.

DJ Zinc - "Super Sharp Shooter"

As the '90s gave way to the 2000s, drum and bass has continued to splinter, evolve, and mutate. Contemporary genres and subgenres like grime, breakcore, neurofunk, liquid, and beyond all carry pieces of jungle/drum and bass' DNA with them today.

As music sampling techniques and the music-making technology that facilitates those techniques have advanced, many of the old tools used to create those early classics have fallen out of favor, for the most part. Atari home computers and rackmount S950 samplers have been replaced by high-powered laptops and comprehensive DAWs, stocked with software samplers, virtual mixing desks and powerful soft-synths.

Despite this, the sense of experimentation and adventure that made jungle so special continues on. Producers and DJs continue to make magic out of a wide variety of source materials. Nearly three decades removed from jungle's initial explosion, samples are still being flipped and "Amen" breaks are still being chopped.

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