A Short History of the Foghorn: The Most Divisive Sound in Drum & Bass
A Short History of the Foghorn: The Most Divisive Sound in Drum & BassNovember 12, 2020
The last five years of drum & bass have been dominated by the foghorn. Loud, rough, and garish, the foghorn has been as polarising as it has popular. Steeped in the long history of jump-up’s tendency to ruffle feathers, and birthed from an in-your-face mentality, the foghorn is unashamed, unabashed, and unbowed. It takes the grating textures of jump-up and pulls them in all directions. It removes the four-four stabs previously dominant in jump-up, replacing them with long, distorted tendrils that ripple with reverb and move through the air in fits and screams. Rather than the traditionally flat, wide-angled drums of jump-up past, the foghorn saw movement towards small, tapping percussion which left ample space for honks of ever-larger size. Exemplified by Serum’s “Black Metal” or Benny L’s ‘“Vanta Black,” the foghorn has bled into the whole genre, with tracks like Enei’s “Sinking” or Waeys “Objection” offering dynamic fusions of jump-up, rolling tech, and biting minimal beats.
You only have to look at the Drum & Bass Arena Awards to see how influential the sound has become. Back in 2015, the winner for Best Newcomer was Cartoon, a synth-heavy producer who leaned towards the mainstream, whilst Best Track went to Noisia & The Upbeats’ “Dead Limit,” a dance floor anthem that in hindsight was the high watermark of neurofunk. Fast forward to 2019 and Best Newcomer went to Kanine, whose breakthrough hit “The Shadows” landed in 2017 on long-time jump-up imprint Subway Soundz. Perhaps more significantly, Best Track went to Urbandawn’s “Come Together,” a Beatles cover that drew heavily from the foghorn’s trademark drawn-out bass notes. That it came on Hospital Records, the biggest label in drum & bass and one not exactly known for its nods to jump-up, shows the sound’s pervasiveness.
But where did the foghorn come from? And how did it take over drum & bass?
Where this story begins depends on whom you ask, since it’s impossible for the foghorn to be precisely defined. For the purposes of this article, the word “foghorn” refers to not only the signature drawn-out bass notes of Serum and Benny L, but the accompanying wave of jump-up they inspired — a necessarily broad definition if we’re to fully appreciate the stylistic shift over the last three or four years.
Some trace this wave’s origins all the way back to Doc Scott’s “Shadow Boxing” in 1996, which, following a video by Stranjah, was rumoured to have been based on an actual foghorn sample until Doc Scott issued a correction in a thread on Dogs on Acid. Not only is “Shadow Boxing” a far cry from the twisted, snarling feeling of the modern foghorn, there’s very little direct linkage between its production in the mid-1990s and the foghorn era of the late 2010s. The history doesn’t add up.
The best candidate for the honour (or dishonour, depending on your opinion) of the first true foghorn is Tyke’s “Buzzards,” released in 2012 on Twisted Individual’s Grid Recordings. A high-resonance, drawn-out bass sound with a distinct horn, “Buzzards” not only sounds the part but can be directly linked to the onset of the foghorn era in 2015 and beyond.
Tyke tells me that “Buzzards” was “definitely” the first foghorn track, but that it “wasn’t supposed to be a foghorn or any of that stuff. When I made it I didn’t think ‘oh that’s a horn,’ that’s not what I was going for.” He had made similar sounds before, “like this tune called ‘Nightmares’ that sounded similar but the bass wasn’t as extended,” he recalls. But the game-changing track sat on his desktop for ages, “until one day Lee [Twisted Individual] came over and asked about it, I played it and he thought it was wicked. That night we went out and DJed, I was on before him but didn’t play it because I thought it was shit, and then Lee played it and the place went crazy. I had producers coming over to me asking about it, and so I went back and finished it a couple days later. It was a talking point at the time, but then nothing happened.” Trends don’t start overnight, after all, and for a certain idea to move beyond its original innovator requires the right timing and a handful of influential early adopters.
Enter Serum, who in 2015 released his remix of DJ Sly and Bassman’s “Quarter Pounder Bass.” With a drawn-out bassline coated in reverb and pumped with valve distortion, “Quarter Pounder Bass” screams foghorn both literally and figuratively, and its wobbling call-and-response format was to later appear in various incarnations and numerous rip-offs. By 2015, Serum had been releasing a blend of jungle and old school jump-up for eleven years across labels as diverse as Critical, 31 Recordings, and Philly Blunt. But this remix marked a turning point that would see him come to dominate jump-up’s new wave.
“Sly wanted a release from me and I wanted to do a tune with a vocal from Bassman, who was Sly’s MC at the time,” Serum says about the remix. The all-important bassline began life as a “big screechy sound” made on a Moog synth, onto which Serum “slammed a load of reverb before lengthening it out and applying a lot of valve distortion.”
For Serum, it was an attempt to “contrast where jump-up was at the time, because I was playing the Belgian scene, which was kicking off, but I didn’t like any of the music. It was very much a reaction against how jump-up was being mechanised. It was sounding very four-four to me. Instead of having these stabby four-four bass notes, I was trying to do long, drawn-out notes, putting a lot more space in the tune and letting the drums do a bit more of the work.”
“Quarter Pounder Bass” first saw the light of day at the Drum & Bass Arena 2015 Summer BBQ, which took place in the Ministry of Sound courtyard on an overcast day in July. It was the second track in an hour-long B2B with Bladerunner and the debut appearance for Serum’s new stylistic direction. The set was uploaded to YouTube and created instant hype, leading to a huge spike in Serum’s bookings.
“If I had to pick a turning point, it would be that video. I played those tunes, and then that sound developed into the thing that allowed me to sack in my job,” Serum says. Two years later with Benny V he launched Souped Up Records, a label that’s come to define the sound, and which has helped launch the careers of pivotal figures like Bou, Dutta, Simula, and others. In hindsight, his success on that cloudy day at Ministry of Sound would come to be a seminal moment in the foghorn’s evolution.
Although Tyke wasn’t at the summer BBQ, a crucial piece of his hardware certainly was: the sound of the Thermionic Culture Vulture. Originally released in 1998, the Culture Vulture is a rack-mounted valve processor that is normally applied to guitars but which also works fantastically well if you want to create long, distorted basslines. It was the method behind the madness of “Buzzards,” and Tyke says that following the track’s release, “a lot of people asked me how I made it, so I told them and they went off and bought the Culture Vulture.”
Voltage remembers buying a Culture Vulture around the beginning of 2015, a discovery he made following a studio session with Serum, who had stumbled upon one the year before. He explains that this specific processor “drives the resonance of the bass through the filter, that’s what gives it that really disgusting, horn-like sound.” Although neither producer was tipped off directly by Tyke, their adoption of the Culture Vulture parallels the sound design and high-resonance originally debuted with “Buzzards.”
By 2015, Serum, driven by dissatisfaction with the mechanisation of jump-up and utilising the valve distortion of the Culture Vulture, had, according to Voltage, “figured out the process for creating these big fucking horns.” “Quarter Pounder Bass” relied on the Moog synth rather than the Culture Vulture, but it’s crucial to the story because it represents Serum’s role in the sound’s evolution. But it wasn’t the beginning of the trend. Voltage thinks it was “too much like shock tactics, people couldn’t figure out the process, it stood out on its own too much, just like “Buzzards.”
At this point, Bladerunner was also using the Culture Vulture, a continuation of his long history of shared musical purpose with Serum and Voltage. Serum and Bladerunner had collaborative releases going back to 2009 on Fabio’s Creative Source, and in 2015 the three were releasing broadly similar music. Voltage describes it as “the same kind of rolling drum & bass, that bubbly Bristol style a lot of us were making at the time, keeping that sound alive, really, doing things over on Philly Blunt and introducing it to Low Down Deep.”
Philly Blunt is a sub-label of Bryan Gee’s V Recordings, and it was this connection that would prove critical to the next chapter in the foghorn story. Voltage recalled that “Bryan was doing a Philly Blunt takeover on Rough Tempo in April 2016, and he hit us up because we’d all just had releases on the label. It was supposed to be a set each, but me and Serum had been getting booked together for the past two years and Serum and Bladerunner had a longstanding relationship, so we just thought fuck it, let’s go B2B for three hours.” The reaction to this set would lead to the trio’s reincarnation as Kings of the Rollers, a supergroup that tied together several threads key to the story: knowledge of the foghorn and experience in its production, a drive to push jump-up in new directions, and a growing momentum within the scene.
“When we came off, the Internet just exploded. It was wild, absolutely wild. It was everywhere. Everyone was like, ‘What the fuck was that?’ I got a phone call from my agent the next day just like ‘Mate, what the hell happened last night? I’ve had agents clambering over themselves to try and be the first to book you three.’”
The decision to form a permanent partnership was near-instant, although for the next year it would remain limited to the DJ booth. Voltage saw it as “a chance to push the type of music that we loved. People wanted to see it at the time, everyone was making jump-up, we were in the middle of jump-up raves every week but at that point, rolling drum & bass wasn’t a popular, primetime sound.”
The next step was deciding on a name, because Serum, Voltage, and Bladerunner is, in the words of Voltage, a “fucking mouthful.” The name Kings of the Rollers was born following a suggestion from Serum on a Whatsapp chat, but the day prior to the group’s launch, Micky Finn suggested a phone call to Doc Scott to make sure it wasn’t an issue, since 31 Recordings had released a series of EPs with the same name in the early 2000s. Voltage remembers Scott’s response: “If anyone is going to run with that name at the moment, it should be you guys.”
Kings of the Rollers has proven to be a controversial name. Many don’t see the trio as more deserving of the title than producers like Break or Skeptical, but Serum points out that “our thing was a more rolling sound that fitted in with jump-up and, at the time, it really did fit. It’s just a name,” he says. “But these things exist and work at that little point in time, when there’s a big hole where that sound fits.” At that point, he saw drum & bass as either “really abrasive, mechanised jump-up or very deep, quiet stuff. It was either boot your face off or go to sleep, and that was how we came through the middle.”
The importance of this moment in allowing the sound to spread can’t be overstated. In 2012, when Tyke released “Buzzards,” drum & bass was dominated by sounds from the likes of a British tech step duo Calyx & Teebee, who won Best Producer, Best Track, and Best Video at that year’s Drum & Bass Arena Awards. Tyke’s innovation was lost against the prevailing wind of neurofunk, a subgenre arguably just as popular in 2016 but which, perhaps with the exception of Noisia’s Outer Edges album, was no longer a prominent source of sonic innovation.
The terrain was therefore open to occupation, a fact spotted by the Hospital A&R team in 2017. London Elektricity emailed the trio out of the blue that year to ask if they would be interested in writing three albums, which Voltage says was a big shock considering they hadn’t even made any music. Individually, they were jump-up artists, and didn’t consider themselves Hospital Records material. But Hospital had seen their string of sold-out shows and knew which way the wind was blowing.
Their first track, “Burnt Ends,” debuted on Sick Music 2018, and it’s then that Serum believes people started using the term foghorn, “that’s what coined the phrase,” he says. Voltage was responsible for the bass sound — a high-resonance, tonal horn-driven through a filter via the Thermionic Culture Vulture. It draws clear parallels to Tyke’s “Buzzards,” so much so that Voltage remembers he “rang Tyke as soon as it was done to tell him we’d made it, and that if he wasn’t into it we wouldn’t put it out.”
The green light duly came, and “Burnt Ends” was released as a pre-album single in late 2017, which is a notable point in our timeline for another reason: Benny L’s “Low Blow.” The title track to Benny L’s debut EP on Metalheadz, “Low Blow” followed a string of hugely popular releases on Shimon’s Audioporn that established Benny L as one of the most significant players in jump-up’s new wave. With an all-encompassing, gravelly bassline, “Low Blow” blended a darker version of the foghorn with broad, punchy drums grounded firmly in the Metalheadz tradition. Benny L’s music embodied Serum’s rejection of samey, abrasive jump-up by twisting the once-familiar genre into something almost unrecognisable in form and character — music that incorporated the foghorn ethos but which applied new and exciting formulae.
At the 2018 Drum & Bass Arena Awards, Benny L won Best Newcomer, while Souped Up Recordings won Best Newcomer Label and received a nomination for Best Label. Drum & Bass Arena’s Dave Jenkins hosted interviews during the ceremony, and in a short cutaway segment, noted that the sound of Voltage, Serum, and others had “dominated drum & bass this year.” The foghorn’s rise was now complete.
It’s impossible to pin down exactly how and when these transitions happen, but it’s clear that between that overcast day at Ministry of Sound in 2015 and the Awards in 2018, the foghorn completed its ascent. The stylistic journey started by Tyke and continued by Serum was, in 2017 and 2018, picked up by the entire scene, and the list of artists involved is almost inexhaustible. Our story has focused on only a handful of them, but it’s important to note that no trend can exist without the hundreds for whom it resonated creatively, as well as the thousands of fans who bought music and went to gigs.
Photo: Tyke (by Chelone Wolf)
A key indicator of the foghorn’s spread can be found in labels outside the jump-up ecosystem. Critical Music founder Kasra notes that Enei’s “Sinking,” his label’s biggest track of 2019, was “quite heavily influenced by that sound.” Kasra describes the foghorn as “very impactful, because it’s just one sound that’s very distinctive, it works on any rig, it’s not about the sub’s weight but about catching the ear.” Critical signs music based on whether Kasra likes it or not, a high bar, and it’s unsurprising that he doesn’t like everything made in that style. It nonetheless shows that the foghorn has been impossible to ignore even by those outside its natural audience, and attempts at cross-genre fusion have resulted in some of the sound’s most exciting permutations.
Overview Music, an insurgent imprint based in Brighton with a stylistic history rooted in dark, minimal tech, has embraced the sound with open arms. Through artists like Klinical and Waeys, Overview has successfully merged this history with the rough attitude of jump-up, a fusion for which A&R manager Oliver Dumas (AKA Sub-Antics) credits “most of our success.” It was a natural direction for the imprint — label mainstay Klinical has a jump-up background, whilst Waeys got into drum & bass during foghorn’s ascent between 2017 and 2019 and quickly came to love it. Oliver believes it’s “given the label a unique identity” and an individual sound, which reflects both their history and the current contours of drum & bass.
Trends move in cycles, and given that the foghorn came to prominence three to four years ago, you would expect it to now be on its last legs. This is especially true considering all the low-quality knock-offs and uninspired copies the foghorn inspired, a trait attributable to its relatively simple production. Tyke remembers that “at one point, I was going into raves and every tune was just a honk. I was like, what the fuck is happening to drum & bass?” For Serum, who was originally reacting against a homogeneity of sound within jump-up, the foghorn’s saturation means he is now “having to react against my own music, which is really weird.” His new single, “Terrordome” featuring Bassman, is his final foghorn, and he says that he’s “done with that sound, really. I’m working on loads of other stuff.”
A post Serum made on his Facebook telling people that ‘Terrordome” would be his last foghorn evinced some happy responses, testaments to the foghorn’s controversial nature. Whilst some saw a breath of fresh air in a stagnant scene, others saw an invasion of a new and especially pernicious strain of jump-up. This reaction was partly due to the sheer amount of foghorn tracks released in its 2017-2019 heyday, but it’s not the whole story. As Serum says himself, in 2016 drum & bass had “a surge in popularity,” with a whole new cohort of young, eager ravers who pushed the sound in new directions. This influx was timed perfectly with the rise of the foghorn and this new, overwhelmingly student audience, many of whom were understandably unversed in the genre’s breadth and history, saw the foghorn and drum & bass as one and the same. That anticipation for a specific sound incentivised DJs to ignore diversity and focus on the horn, making the style even more monolithic and infuriating those, notably older fans, who weren’t particularly keen in the first place.
Its decline will come as music to the ears of some, but the impact of the foghorn will outlast its period of popularity. In just the same way that the sounds of the early to mid-1990s created the jungle generation, the last few years have birthed the foghorn generation. For them, the foghorn represents their youth, their time at university, and their initial exploration of rave culture. As Voltage points out, “every student that has been raving for the past three years are part of the foghorn generation whether they like it or not, because at some point some DJ in some rave somewhere would’ve dropped a foghorn and they would’ve lost their shit.”
The foghorn generation are the Gen Z of drum & bass, the first cohort to be more online than offline, and Instagram clip-sharing channels like DNB Allstars have been vital for foghorn’s spread. It’s no coincidence that DNB Allstars won Best Newcomer Label in 2019, representing not only a stylistic shift but an economic and social one. As Voltage describes, this generation “just rave in a very different way.” It’s this generation that will define drum & bass in the years to come.
Tyke may have made the first foghorn, but it’s not a widely known fact because, as he describes, “the kids are the people who buy music, the kids are the people who go raving, the kids are the people who read posts and share stuff and if they don’t know where things originated from, that’s because they’re young. I made a tune eight years ago and someone repeated it eight years later and they got all the credit and nobody knows about me, I don’t have a problem with that because it’s all about the kids at that specific time.”
Did this inspire any feelings of regret? “No, I don’t think so, not at all,” Tyke says. “I know I’ve got one track that’s been put down in history, I didn’t need to recreate it, it got re-created itself. I’ll never have any regrets.” Laughing, he continues: “Actually yeah, I would’ve preferred a bit more money.”
Ben Hunter is a freelance journalist living in London. Find him on Twitter.