It's a jungle down there

Bristol gave the world Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. Now it's giving the world drum and bass with knobs on. What's going on? Phil Johnson meets the chief architects of tomorrow's rhythm

It's like wheels within wheels. On the outside rim, skittering drum beats stutter madly at 160bpm, though there's never a simple, metronomic regularity to their measures. Instead, the snare patterns remain doggedly unorthodox, the machine's virtual drum-stick rarely falling in exactly the same place twice, as if obeying a kind of indeterminacy principle. On the next rim, the beat is halved to 80bpm, propelled by a fat synthesized bass, and this is the tempo at which people dance, if they dance at all. Further in still come odd samples and bits and bobs of this and that, snatches of movie dialogue, spacy synth chords, stereo pans, crackly vinyl surface noise leading to a battered Fender Rhodes loop - almost anything will do, if it works. Further in than that, deep in the belly of the music, is the very heart of darkness: a loping reggae pulse and sundry dub effects. Or perhaps the slower-than-slow ghost of a slack trip-hop rhythm. The sound of Bristol jungle - or, more fashionably, "drum and bass" - is unlike anything the rest of the country is producing, and it's about to go global.

They're talking about Roni Size in Japan, in New York and LA. Though his debut Talkin' Loud album is still not released (it should be out sometime in June), he's already an underground dance-music legend and together with his compatriot producers on the Full Cycle record label, such as DJ Krust and DJ Die, he's part of a movement that is arguably the most important new musical force of the moment.

Its roots reach back into the golden age of Bristol hip hop, pre-dating the emergence of Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead, when in 1989 Krust and his brother Flynn (now half of Flynn and Flora, another brilliant Bristol drum and bass team, whose Native Drums album is just out on the Independent Dealers label) were part of the Fresh Four, whose Smith and Mighty-produced version of the old Rose Royce hit "Wishing on a Star" made the Top Ten and brought them a deal (albeit an abortive one) with Virgin. At Smith and Mighty's studio in Redland, the More Rockers label also puts out distinctive drum and bass releases, and revisionist dub- meisters Henry and Louis re-invent the sound of Lee "Scratch" Perry 20 years on.

At Full Cycle headquarters at Unit 23, Easton Business Centre, a shiny government-funded bulwark against the inner-city deprivation of downtown Bristol, the phone never stops ringing and the various mobiles of the principal partners are constantly pressed into service. Outside, a cameraman for a Channel 4 documentary bids Roni and Krust drive their battered saloon through the gates again and again to get a usable take. Inside, the sound of a trademark drum-loop jerks away unattended as the DJs get themselves ready for the weekend's trip to Amsterdam. "We've been to all kinds of countries," Krust says. "France, Germany, Vienna..."

Their schedule is fuller than full; for two years Full Cycle has been putting out a single a month - a selection of which are collected in the new album Music Box: a new era in drum and bass - and until recently, when it was acrimoniously axed, Roni and Krust did a weekly radio show on the local station Galaxy. The show became required listening, especially in the region's prisons whose residents' letters filled the post-bag each week. Forced into an interview, Roni - a small young man with long, braided hair tied back into a ponytail - sighs and begins to spiel, shutting the door of the studio against the ringingphone and the constant swearing of Krust.

"For me, what I was doing before, I can't really remember," he says. "I just remember making music and then people calling it jungle and then drum and bass. You used to have English rap groups trying to identify with American groups but it wasn't for me. I used to like the beats. But when it came to the lyrics I wasn't into none of it, so I moved on to instrumental music, and it was minimal and we were like minimalists. I liked reggae and I used to like the warmth of the bass so I took the breaks from hip hop and the bass from reggae and sped the rave up, so you come up with a different formula, and then it became English."

He started to work with reggae sound systems after being thrown out of school and began learning about recording at the Basement Project, a youth club-cum-community music facility that has become an important force in training up Bristol producers.

Flynn and Flora started to formulate their own form of jungle after travelling out to free parties as a sound system in the early Nineties. "Everybody was trying that hip hop thing so hard," Flynn says, "but it couldn't quite make it because it was so American. And then rave came out and suddenly boom! - everyone could get it, there were no lyrics and you could throw in all of these samples. The break-beat thing went into drum and bass while the kick thing went into heavy house and hardcore."

They work with primitive equipment in their home, at the kitchen table, sampling as they go. "It's very minimal," Flora says, "very low budget. It's really weird because everyone else seems to have the right samplers, everyone has Akais or whatever, mad machines that can do everything, whereas ours is ancient - the sampling time is about 14 seconds."

"We take anything from anything," Flynn adds, "videos, tapes from friends, old records." Their album includes a wonderful snatch of alto sax, perhaps Charlie Parker, and a dialogue excerpt that derived from mistakenly plugging their sampler leads into the television instead of the video. "We'd got the sample all lined up," Flora explains, "and then when we pressed the button this voice saying 'You can pull this switch' came out from the telly. We just thought, yeah, we've got to use that."

Back at Unit 23, Roni describes the lofty aims of the music. "When we were making Music Box, me and Die used to call it ozone-friendly music, meaning that everyone would like it. The beats wouldn't be too aggressive, the bass would be warm and melodic, the sounds would be universal. We used to sit and say to each other 'this is crossover music, you've got to like this'."

The much-touted jazz potential of jungle (though a forthcoming Jazz Jungle album on Acid Jazz manages to fall between both stools) is, for Roni, a matter of attitude. "To me, jazz isn't a music, jazz is a progression and we're always progressing, we never use the same sound twice." The layering process by which they assemble their productions is also more intuitive than rationalised. "You don't realise that you're doing it," he says. "You're just collecting all your favourite sounds, getting vibes from them and putting them in. If they fit, they fit. If not, you save them for another day. It's just experimenting and seeing what happens when we press a button. It's nothing out of the ordinary, just the simplest things. It's minimal, and it comes from experience, just like driving or learning to eat with chopsticks..."

All of them have a vision. He points through the window at a high- rise towerblock in the distance. "I want a building the size of that," he says. "A whole industry, with studios, cutting rooms, distribution, a bar and restaurant for the people who work there." He points up at the enormous Tannoy speakers squatting heavily on a rack close to the ceiling of the studio. "They cost five grand," he says proudly, "and we paid for them ourselves."

'Music Box - a New World of Drum and Bass', compiled by Roni Size, is on Full Cycle Records; 'Native Drums' by Flynn and Flora is on Independent Dealers, distributed by Vital; Phil Johnson's book on the Bristol sound, 'Straight Outa Bristol!', will be published in the autumn by Hodder and Stoughton

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own