Project X Gets Lost In The Jungle

Michaelangelo Matos | September 2, 2008 3:00 am

As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Michaelangelo Matos breaks down top-ten lists from every genre imaginable. After the jump, he sifts through two rundowns of jungle singles that hint at where the genre’s been and where it’s going:

When does a genre reach its breaking point? At which step does it fold into history, no one wanting to touch it, until a re-introduction makes it eligible for lost-classic status? I wonder this about jungle a lot lately. I think I already did back when people thought it was a fad, or when the coffee-table thing came around, or whenever trudgestep exerted its all-powerful hand. Trip-hop will never die because you can dress it in all sorts of nicknames: it’s a masterstroke in that way. Jungle you can’t, not even when you call it “drum and bass.” But surely, I figured, people would remember jungle for its mid-’90s tumult, a breathtaking explosion of sonic creativity, and leave alone the past decade’s overarching sense of “whatever.”

Needless to say, I’ve mostly been wrong so far. I actually like the more recent stuff when I encounter it, which has been more often lately than it has in a decade, thanks to the BBC Radio 1 Top 30 Independent Singles, about which I’ve written here before. But this isn’t about those songs, but some older ones, and about the very different perspectives they offer on the style–different from each other, and different from mine, meaning not stuck in the past as I am.

Well, that’s not strictly true. The first can’t be, by design, since everything on it is more than a decade old, and the magazine I found it in nearly as old. Near the end of 1999, the Los Angeles dance-culture magazine Urb put together a series of lists of its top recordings of the decade: the Top 100 albums (DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… on top) and eight separate lists for singles, with hip-hop, house, and techno each getting a Top 25 and jungle, trance, abstract, breakbeat, and experimental each got a Top 10; all were listed alphabetically by artist. Here’s Urb‘s Top 10 Jungle Singles of the ’90s:

1. 4 Hero, “Universal Love” (Talkin’ Loud, 1994) 2. LTJ Bukem, “Music” (Good Looking, 1993) 3. Jonny L, “Piper” (XL, 1997) 4. Krust, “Warhead” (XL, 1997) 5. Nasty Habits, “Shadowboxing” (31, 1996) 6. Omni Trio, “Living for the Future” (Moving Shadow, 1994) 7. PFM, “One and Only” (Good Looking, 1995) 8. Shy FX & UK Apachi, “Original Nuttah” (S.O.U.R., 1994) 9. Roni Size, “It’s a Jazz Thing” (Full Cycle, 1994) 10. Trace, “Mutant Revisited” (No U-Turn, 1996)

I’d seen this list when it was first published–I’m an obvious mark for this sort of thing, and in 1999 I was still doing a lot of clubbing–but had forgotten about it until the end of May, when I made Portland, Ore., the last stop of a month-long road trip via Amtrak and found a copy at a used bookshop heavy on magazine back issues downtown.

Reading that jungle list again, I had a peculiar response: it seemed too American. By which I mean that while all those songs were as often well known as tracks from crossover albums–the kind American listeners discovered the music through–as they were as singles-unto-themselves. Having listened to them again a few times, I was clearly overreacting. Call it identification panic–just because I can ID the albums and comps many of them first reached me doesn’t mean they weren’t chosen as singles-qua-singles. And call it clinging to a golden age, because the Urb editors got a few of the songs’ release dates wrong, skewing the list to 1996-97 on sight, which is the period where things started moving slower. Looking at it with the dates fixed (thanks, Discogs), it’s heaviest on 1994, a glorious year for the stuff, with the pre-’93 stuff left for the breakbeat Top 10.

Nevertheless, I have my after-the-fact cavils. I like all the tracks at least some, but the harder, darker stuff here leaves me coldest, particularly “Mutant Revisited” and “Warhead.” These are clearly classics, but both records, especially “Warhead,” with its wowing low end and hard one-TWO beat, points the way to the shape of boredom to come, and it’s hard not to hear them that way. “Living for the Future” is a very good record that I’ll never love nearly as much as “Renegade Snares (Foul Play V.I.P. Remix)” or (especially) “Mystic Stepper (Feel Better).”

Cavils are cavils, though, and what I’m most surprised (and gratified) by is how charming much of the more futurist aspects are, even if they’ve acquired a layer of kitsch now that we’re living in the actual future and not the one where ambient drum & bass would take us away like Calgon. I remember vividly the first time I heard LTJ Bukem’s “Music,” because I hated it. It was precisely the kind of softheaded pap I hated about the dreamier end of the post-rave spectrum; I wanted to be wowed loudly then. Today I think it’s remarkable, and for most of the same reasons. You ever see smoke going through laser ring, that weird glassy wisp of green light? The implacable loop at the center of “Music” is the audio version. Back then, this sounded like a bad idea. Today its soupy-eyed idea of the endless tomorrow seems touching, somehow, the way only old science fiction that shows its age can be.

A more recent list is a little wider in its outreach. KMag used to be called Knowledge; it’s a monthly devoted entirely to drum and bass, almost always packaged with a cover-mount mix CD. The July issue was its 100th, and in addition to a career spanning mix by Blame (quite nice, this), KMag asked its readers to send in their Top 5 D&B tracks ever for an overall Top 100. Tallied up, this is what the Top 10 looks like:

1. Fresh & Maldini )E|B( [a.k.a. Bad Company], “The Nine” (BC, 1998) 2. Goldie, “Inner City Life” (FFRR, 1994) 3. Konflict, “Messiah” (Renegade Hardware, 2005) 4. Roni Size/Reprazent, “Brown Paper Bag” (Talkin Loud, 1997) 5. DJ Marky & XRS ft. Stamina, “LK” (V, 2002) 6. D-Bridge & Vegas, “True Romance” (Metalheadz, 2004) 7. Omni Trio, “Renegade Snares” (Moving Shadow, 1994) 8. Ed Rush & Optical, “Gas Mask/Bacteria” (Virus, 1999) 9. LTJ Bukem, “Horizons” (Good Looking, 1995) 10. Shy FX & UK Apachi, “Original Nuttah” (S.O.U.R., 1994)

Given my biases, I should like this list less than I do the Urb one. But I might actually prefer it as a list, if not music. KMag‘s records aren’t better overall, but they present a more interesting dynamic range. Not just because they cover a longer span, either: the Urb list seemed to circle around its era without quite tying it together, while KMag‘s features items that defined their particular mini-epochs, whether or not I care about them as epochs. (Hello, Bad Company.) I definitely prefer Kmag‘s Roni Size and Omni Trio selections to those of Urb, which nabbed the far better Bukem track. (Though you could argue that “Horizons,” with its Maya Angelou sample–from the Clinton inaugural, how ’90s-nostalgic can you get?–and new-age-for-real ambience is more representative of jungle’s oceanic tendencies than “Music.”) But maybe it’s just that this one provides me more of an education. I’ll never care for this stuff the way I once did, but it’s nice to know it’s still around and still moving, whatever its direction.