Pop: Size does matter

Critics describe Roni Size as selling out to popularity. But, as he explains to James McNair, to him it's much more important that everybody gets a go.

Stephane Grappelli is dead, the World Cup draw has just been announced, and Roni Size Reprazent are about to play live on French TV. Canal Plus is the Paris-based equivalent of Channel 4, and I'm reliably informed by the local pop cognoscenti that New Power's chat and live music format is where it's at.

Tonight's first guest, however, is DJ, drum 'n' bass evangelist, and managing-director of Talkin' Loud records, Giles Peterson. It transpires that he's here to gently prime the - rather conservative-looking, actually - audience for what is to come. With my limited French, I glean little from his conversation with the sharply-dressed suit presenting, but even I know that "une nouvelle musique fantastique" translates as "a fantastic new music".

When the 8-piece, Bristol-based collective Reprazent signed to Talkin' Loud in 1996, it was with a view to taking their urban underground sound overground and across the world. Roni Size and fellow-DJ Krush had been releasing jazz-influenced drum 'n' bass records on their own Full Cycle label since 1993. "We were just kicking it around, doing our own thing," Roni remembers. "But then we reached a stage where we couldn't take it any further on independent labels. We were offered a few deals, but Giles and Paul Martin at Talkin' Loud could really hear our music, and they were willing to take a gamble. They didn't demand vocal tunes, and they didn't demand hits."

Peterson has since described Reprazent as "a break-beat supergroup", and that "gamble" proved well judged when the outfit's truly innovative sonic melange, New Forms, won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize last August. There will always be room for great guitar bands, but at the saggy, arse-end of Britpop, how refreshing it was to see an album which actually beckoned the next millennium, coming in at 16-1 to trounce the traditionalists. Quite rightly, the victory was judged to have symbolic significance too. Here was clear proof that drum 'n' bass had mass appeal; a view which was further cemented when New Forms achieved gold sales status just two months later.

Though the album was almost universally praised as a masterpiece, in recording a debut which most critics deemed far more accessible than those of established supremos like Alex Reece and LTJ Bukem, Reprazent were open to criticism from an ill-informed minority. Naturally, Roni found their cries of "sell-out" annoying: "Mainstream. Commercial. Sell-out. I've really only come across those words since we've become a part of the industry," he begins with a frown. "Let's talk about streamlined. Let's talk about universal. Let's talk about successful. You see, there's people in Israel, Ecuador, Prague and Finland who would never have heard our music if we were still on an independent label. I'm sorry, but I have a problem with people who want to promote our music with such negative terms, because we're trying to promote self-belief and a positive attitude," he continues, beginning to build up a head of steam. "Where we come from there was no industry and no mainstream. We had to build things up ourselves, tag-teaming it around. Now you can see the momentum building. I think that's beautiful."

It's to Roni Size's credit that he doesn't point to an even more obvious proof that Reprazent's primary motivations are aesthetic, rather than financial. Not so long ago, he was a youth-worker at a community music- workshop in St Paul's, Bristol. He taught the kids there how to use sampling and sequencing technology, and remembers that once he'd fired their interest with some hands-on tutorials "They'd get in before me the next morning so they could hog the drum-machine."

When Reprazent won the Mercury Music award, Roni donated all of the money to The Basement Project. "I just thought it was important," he says, "because the government were talking about axing it, and it's a great place for kids who have all that creative energy, but no focus for it." And what was the response from the local council, I wondered? "It's funny, because now we're getting letters from the Lord-Mayor of Bristol," he smiles. "They even asked us to switch on the Christmas lights this year, but unfortunately we were in New York at the time."

There are those who assert that, with its 160 beats-per-minute plus tempos, and it's often chord-less - and thus almost key-less - harmonic flexibility, drum 'n' bass is the only completely new musical genre to originate in Britain this century. But in 1997, nothing stays even remotely parochial for long, and many key figures in the dance music industry are watching to see if America's youth can get its collective head around drum 'n' bass and jungle. With - admittedly rather different - acts like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers already priming the U.S. market for British dance music in general, drum 'n' bass might well become next year's most desirable export. Roni agrees.

"It's really exciting, because I phoned home yesterday, and there were messages from about six American promoters wanting to book us. Also, a friend of mine from Chicago had called to say that it's really kicking off over there. You wait until next year, man - it's going to be wicked!"

So what about America's indigenous junglists, I ask him. Are they cutting it yet?

"Listen, there's good drum 'n' bass coming out of America, France, Finland, Austria... you name it." Ah, so they're catching up, then? "Well, they're catching on," he smiles, without missing a beat.

As Everything But The Girl's Ben Watt explained on a recent documentary about Roni & co (screened for BBC2's The Works) both visually and sonically, Reprazent's particular strain of drum 'n' bass really comes into its own in a live context. For clubbers tired of the PA event's one-man-and-a- deck visual impasse, Reprazent's complex hybrid of live instrumentation, sampled sound, rap, MC-ing and singing is a tonic for the sensorium.

Even without their trademark strobe-lighting, their frenetic, flawless performance of "Heroes" for New Power is incredibly arresting. The interplay between vocalist Onallee and rapper/MC Dynamite is fresh and fluid, while bass-player Si John punctuates the scattershot beats with awesome precision. Watching the polite, but somewhat non-plussed reaction of some of the older members of the studio audience, I'm reminded of the scene in Back To The Future where Michael J Fox plays 1990's guitar licks to a 1950's audience. To paraphrase Michael, they don't quite get it yet, but their kids are going to love it.

Reprazent are playing for Essentials at the Palace, Alexandra Palace, London on New Year's Eve. Tickets: 0171-935 1173

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