Jungle: The New Era
The sound is unmistakable. Explosive beats at breakneck speed, otherworldly soundscapes either sampled or synthesized, and that driving-but-dubby low end formed from pure, uncut sine waves. From the early to mid-1990s, this new style known as jungle ushered electronic music into a bold era of technological experimentation while opening a fresh chapter in UK club culture more indebted to Jamaican sound systems than acid house raves. Yet another innovation of Black musical creators, jungle took the hyperactive breaks of hardcore rave and set them against the heaviness of dub to become the discontented roar of England’s working-class youth. The music could be menacing and raw, like the British answer to gangsta rap, but it could also sound like a space-age reflection of jazz. While the musical moods and stylistic tendencies differed between artists, DJs, and labels, the blueprint remained consistent: samples, bass, and breaks at 160 beats per minute.
However, the rapid evolution of jungle also led to its dissolution, and soon its frenetic beats gave way to the propulsive rhythms of its chiseled-down successor — drum & bass. By the late ’90s, commercial interests had infiltrated the underground, employing the sound for countless video games, cartoons, and commercials. Goldie was a household name in England, Roni Size had won a Mercury Prize and glitchy breakbeats were the sonic stamp of impending Y2K. Soon, drum & bass bore little resemblance to its junglist roots, and the sounds of UK garage bubbled up, paving the way for dubstep and grime.
But along with all things ’90s, jungle is having an undeniable resurgence in dance music circles. The signs of a jungle comeback have been around for a while. Techno and house records feature breakbeats again and the price of classic jungle on Discogs has steadily inflated. It has also become more common for DJs within the wider underground dance music scene to weave jungle tunes into a set. Take New York DJs AceMo and MoMA Ready, who are known for a fusion of breakbeat science and high energy techno. And in London, standout DJ Sherelle and her 6 Figure Gang collective are bridging the gap between jungle and other forms of uptempo dance music.
Along with the genre-bending DJs who’ve folded jungle into their repertoires, a loose cadre of producers and labels is rebuilding jungle into its own small but dedicated scene. Much like Dâm-Funk’s modern funk movement applied crate-digger wisdom to reboot boogie, modern jungle offers new tracks that draw heavily from the past. In 2020, old-school jungle is more than a nostalgia trip written in YouTube comments. Once again, this music is alive and well.
Coco Bryce, who hails from the Dutch city of Breda, grew up on skate video soundtracks and began DJing gabber and hardcore as a teen in the 1990s. Although he’s always had a deep appreciation for jungle, Bryce took a roundabout route to producing it, moving from the European squat rave genre known as “tekno” to instrumental beats in the vein of Flying Lotus and Scandanavian “skweee” music. “It wasn’t until six or seven years ago that I really got back into jungle and properly started producing it,” he says. Today Bryce is one of the most prolific artists in the jungle scene, churning out fresh music for his own labels Myor and Diamond Life, and others including 7th Storey Projects and Lobster Theremin.
“Five years ago there were only a handful of producers doing it,” says Bryce, describing how the scene came together. “If you only have a couple of names that are doing it and regularly releasing records, then it’s only a matter of time before they connect.” But unlike in the original jungle era, when specific musical and cultural happenings in London forged a sound that was synonymous with the city, this new strain of jungle was born online.
Photo: Tim Reaper
London DJ and producer Tim Reaper discovered drum & bass and later jungle through a school assignment in 2007. “When I found out what jungle was, I was so taken in by it that I felt like I had to get involved somehow,” he says. “The only places I found myself fully able to talk about jungle were the Subvert Central forum and the chatroom for an internet radio station called Jungletrain.” Facebook groups, such as Long Live Beautifully Crafted Jungle, have also been instrumental in introducing contemporary tracks to old school junglists and curious newcomers alike.
Jordan Leal, who makes jungle music as Rebuilder, is about as far from London as it gets. Residing in the California desert town of Calexico, situated on the Mexican border just over 100 miles east of San Diego, Leal got acquainted with jungle through the Warp Records website, where he discovered Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. “Before producing jungle and drum & bass, I made hip hop beats,” he says, citing the influence of LA beat producers like Ras G, Samiyam, and Madlib. Leal came into the modern jungle scene through connections made online, and now has a release on Amenology and a collaboration with scene stalwart Msymiakos on Meditator Music, one of the scene’s flagship labels.
As a niche interest shared by a relatively small number of participants scattered across the globe, modern jungle takes place largely over the internet. “There’s no real geographic center, we’re from all over the place,” says Dutch artist Tommy De Roos, who records and DJs as FFF. Compared to the original jungle boom, which was nurtured in London by DJs Fabio and Grooverider at Rage and sustained at the Blue Note during Metalheadz Sunday Sessions, the role of clubs isn’t as prominent today. However, as the genre’s birthplace, an undercurrent of jungle has remained in the UK capital. “There were jungle nights going on, but also more mixed genre events taking place where jungle had a strong presence. I also noticed lots of techno DJs were ending their sets with jungle,” says Mantra, co-founder of the long-running drum & bass club Rupture. Along with the all-vinyl night Distant Planet and a handful of others, Rupture carved out space for contemporary jungle, but the genre still only makes up a small fraction of London nightlife, with far less activity in other cities. “Besides Rupture, I would say that the club aspect for it has not been very present,” says Reaper. “That was the main reason I felt like I had to start Future Retro, initially as a club night dedicated to the modern jungle scene. But the pandemic got in the way of the first night and it transitioned into being a record label for new jungle instead.” With many UK clubs in a government-sanctioned freefall and music venues the world over suffering the fallout of COVID-19, this new wave of jungle seems unlikely to establish a formidable club scene anytime soon.
During jungle’s first wave, producers and DJs were equally essential to the progression of the genre, and many figures did both. Although plenty of modern jungle producers are DJs themselves, you’d be hard-pressed to find a DJ in the scene who doesn’t make tunes. Some factions of the scene, such as the Sheffield-based Green Bay Wax label run by Kid Lib, are focused on pressing vinyl. But most releases are widely available digitally, on Beatport, Bandcamp, and other sites. It’s also hard to underestimate the role of YouTube in disseminating new jungle tunes. Through his channel mickeybeam75, Mickey Beam shares the latest and greatest in modern jungle. However, he initially started the account to post selections from the encyclopedic collection of jungle and rave music he’s been amassing since the early ’90s. “I noticed a considerable amount of tracks that were missing, so it was my intention to fill the gaps,” says Beam, who experienced the original scene firsthand in London but now lives in New Zealand. As contemporary labels and producers approached him with freshly minted tracks, the channel became an essential destination for keeping up with new releases.
Photo: Coco Bryce
Since its inception, jungle has been home to numerous subgenres — from the snarling ragga of Remarc and the horror movie atmosphere of Source Direct, to the lush soundscapes of LTJ Bukem and perfectly balanced craftsmanship of Just Jungle and Lemon D. But those are only a few of the distinct sounds being revisited today, and behind the various styles are different ideals and production techniques. Artists like Kid Lib and Phineus II take a decidedly old school approach, using vintage gear to make rough and pummeling tracks that emulate the harder styles of the early ’90s while sounding convincingly aged. But for every traditionalist wading through the tiny menus of an Akai sampler and resurrecting ancient PCs from the junk heap, another is hammering away on a laptop and digital audio workstation. “I haven’t got any outboard gear in my production setup,” says Reaper, while Bryce explains, “I am not that interested in just making it sound like it was produced in ’93. I want my tunes to have that kind of vibe, but I don’t mind if it sounds like it was produced in 2020.”
Regardless of how artists achieve it, chasing that vibe is a big part of why modern jungle exists. A quarter-century on, there is still something singular and enchanting about the music. “I was just captivated by the sound and the vibe, it spoke to me and made me feel something special. The balance of light and dark, softness and toughness, emotion and edge,” says London DJ and producer DECIBELLA, who discovered jungle in the late ’90s by way of UK garage and drum & bass. “I got hold of a DJ Rap tape from around ’93 and I loved this tape — when I found out that it was a woman DJing, it planted the seed in me that I could play and make this music too,” she recalls. That reverence for the sound of jungle’s golden era is something many modern jungle producers share. “Jungle music from the mid-’90s had such a beautifully unique sound. There’s something in how it combines various genres of music that I love,” says Leal, while Tim Reaper muses, “The formula of the classic jungle style and how all the elements come together is so spot on.”
In addition to jungle’s enduring allure, there may be a historical reason for why the genre is providing fresh inspiration. “[Jungle] was only around for a very short time before it morphed into something else,” says DECIBELLA. “Since it only lasted a small number of years,” Reaper speculates, “there is still some room for exploring the blueprint.” FFF agrees. “From a producer’s standpoint, I think styles and subgenres back then were happening so fast and things changed so quickly that it left so much open to explore.”
Reaper proposes that people who’ve fallen in love with jungle but were too young to experience it in its heyday are also adding fuel to the scene. “The fact that a lot of people currently into it may not have had the chance to be a part of the original ’90s scene means that [modern jungle] serves as an opportunity to be able to get involved,” he says. DECIBELLA confirms that theory. “I was too young to go to the jungle raves when it was a new sound. I felt sad that I had missed jungle and that it wasn’t really being made anymore,” she says, adding, “I think a lot of the newer producers who are making jungle now came from the same era as me — just a bit too young to experience jungle the first time around.”
With his YouTube archive spreading the gospel of jungle to a new generation of artists, Mickey Beam has a lot of appreciation for their musical contributions. “The thing I love most is some of these new jungle producers were way too young and in some cases weren’t even born during the main ’94 boom in jungle, yet they’re making some really good stuff that would’ve been hammered back in the day.” Leal, who has several of his tunes hosted on Beam’s channel, is one such producer. “The internet has allowed for anyone to go back and listen to the classics or overlooked tunes while discovering current producers who are carrying the torch forward,” he says. “I think the audience and artists appreciate the history and foundation of the music and hold it up with high regard.”
However, the proliferation of tracks that convincingly mimic the past, made by people who never lived it, reveals a tension at the heart of modern jungle — between past and present, current and classic. Can a scene obsessed with recreating retro sounds offer something innovative? Or is modern jungle mostly a rehash of a bygone sound? It’s an important question, especially because so much ’90s jungle was built around a futurist aesthetic that approached the digital frontier of music with a cyberpunk attitude. “Instead of simulating the already-existing qualities of ‘real’ instruments, digital technology was exploited to produce sounds that had no pre-existing correlates,” wrote Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life, his essay on the groundbreaking 1993 track of the same name, produced by Goldie under his Rufige Kru moniker. According to Leal, “It’s undeniably clear how boundary-pushing the music was with the limited equipment available.” Bryce agrees: “Back in the day they were actually pushing their kit to the limit,” he says. But nowadays, all it takes is a laptop to imitate alien time stretches and superhuman snare rolls — the hard-fought sounds wrestled out of obsolete gear with far less computing power than a cell phone. “I’ve read many differing opinions online where people don’t like how new producers are pumping out copies of that era,” says Leal.
“I could see why a lot of people would think it comes off sounding a bit pastiche and a bit regurgitated,” Bryce reasons. Despite their clear debt to the past, many artists driving this new era in jungle want to offer something fresh, while still retaining jungle’s defining qualities. According to Bryce, “It’s a fine line. If you make it too different then it doesn’t sound like jungle anymore.” In his own work, vocals that invoke UK garage are fairly common, creating an R&B feel that endears the music to home listening as much as a club environment. Jack Robinson, who makes music as The Meditator while running Meditator Music and its parent label WhoDemSound, takes a similar approach on the stunning “I Wanna Know.” It’s also a sound that FAUZIA of 6 Figure Gang pushes on “When It’s All Over,” a lighter-than-air roller with a sultry vocal from Kelela that pulls the jungle format through a timewarp into the 2020s. Other artists, such as Sully and Alex Eveson — who made a name for himself in drum & bass before moving into jungle as Dead Man’s Chest — incorporate detailed sound design that points toward the precision of advanced DAWs. Then there is AceMo’s full-length Mind Jungle. While AceMo is adamant about his dedication to the lineage of Black and Brown music above any one genre, Mind Jungle stays true to the core elements of jungle. At the same time, the record creates an atmosphere of arpeggiated patterns and sharp melodies that sounds very different from the style’s old school iterations. “Americans have barely been exposed to this,” he says regarding his East Coast peers and noting the work still needed to uplift the Black and Brown history of electronic music. “It’s like people have heard it in their subconscious and have yet to hear the style harped upon.”
Photo: DJ Noir
One of the rare figures pushing jungle in the US since the mid ’90s is Los Angeles-based DJ Noir, co-founder of the international DJ collective Juke Bounce Werk. First exposed to the UK sound in 1995 when a rave promoter neighbor invited her to a party that led to a chance meeting with Goldie, Noir quickly became immersed in the scene. “I was drawn to the energy and the rawness of the sound, the references to American R&B, and the fact that it was a truly new innovation in electronic music at that time,” she recalls. While jungle may be catching on with a new generation, Noir explains that this music has had a dedicated underground following since day one. “It never went anywhere because it has been in my life every day,” she says. At the same time, Noir sees exciting developments happening in the genre, especially as it crosses over with footwork. “People are making incredible music with these influences that have been handed down. Things that we can no longer put into a genre category,” she says, adding, “The hi-tech era of music production is a truly inspirational time, and I think that’s why so many of us, now decades deep, are still inspired to continue to push the sounds and discover the future.” Mantra echoes that sentiment. “There’s an exciting new wave of young producers coming through whose music is heavily influenced by early rave and jungle,” she says. “These producers, alongside DJs such as Sherelle and 6 Figure Gang championing jungle on BBC Radio One have meant it’s reaching a really wide, young audience. It’s inspiring to see.”
Kush Jones, a Bronx-based member of Juke Bounce Werk, is one of the foremost producers melding jungle with footwork and other club styles. Turned on to jungle by DJ Noir and her Juke Bounce Werk co-founder Jae Drago during visits to LA, Jones notes a strong cohesion between jungle and footwork, from the shared 160-BPM tempo to a similar sense of melody and structure. “Good, timeless, powerful music doesn’t ever die, but is rediscovered by whoever finds it or is reintroduced to it by those who have always had the knowledge,” he says. Bryce and FFF are also optimistic about the creative potential of blends between jungle and other styles. “I hope music and music scenes will cross-pollinate even more, making more futuristic hybrids but with an old school feeling,” says FFF.
Ultimately, it’s the very existence of another 25 years of music that helps prevent this new jungle scene from repeating the past. For Tim Reaper, that means the “ability to sample new music that wasn’t existent in the original golden era.” There’s also hindsight. “The ability to look back in retrospect at the ’93 to ’95 era and see what worked and what didn’t — what was being done and what wasn’t being done, and using that to shape what’s being made nowadays,” he says.
With speed, aggression, and complexity that surpasses the limits of most other dance music, maybe jungle is also turbulent music for turbulent times. “It’s a very rebellious counter-culture music, and with what’s going on in the world right now it makes sense,” says DECIBELLA. Discussing jungle for The Wire magazine in 1996, Simon Reynolds wrote, “The pervasive sense of slipping into a new Dark Age, of an insidious breakdown of the social contract, generates anxieties that are repressed but resurface in unlikely ways and places. Resistance doesn’t necessarily take the ‘logical’ form of collective activism (unions, left-wing politics); it can be so distorted and imaginatively impoverished by the conditions of capitalism itself, that it expresses itself as, say, the proto-fascist, anti-corporate nostalgia of America’s right-wing militias, or as a sort of hyper-individualistic survivalism.” Sound familiar? Reynolds goes on to suggest that the darker and grittier aesthetics of jungle were a reaction to a society defined by hostile conditions and institutions that can’t be trusted.
Modern jungle may not be the same localized cultural movement as its predecessor, but the factors that originally fueled jungle’s musical intensity and subversive attitudes are more pronounced than ever. And maybe, the dystopian future conjured out of primitive PCs and 12-bit samplers during jungle’s heyday has finally arrived.
Joe Rihn is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter.