UK Jungle is a harsh, uncompromising, disruptive form of music. And that’s probably exactly why it sticks.
Typically conceived by low-income black youth in Britain and born into the London club scene in the early 90s, jungle was a piece-by-piece reversal of the dominant European dance-music paradigm, which consisted of simple, trance-like, 4/4 disco-esque music and over-the-top melodies and harmonies. Old school jungle beats were almost entirely incompatible with standard dance music. They consisted of slices out of vintage soul and funk drum breaks — the famous “Amen Break” is ubiquitous in jungle — that were sped up, chopped up and warped, twisting out any recognizable form.
The early jungle sound is best heard in Shy FX’s classic “Original Nuttah,” which features the lowest of low dub-reggae bass, UK Apache’s deranged Jamaican Ragga vocal ramblings, minimalist atmospherics and, of course, the “Amen Break” — transformed into a delightfully non-standard breakneck drum rhythm. Other good examples of this minimalist Jamaican-influenced style can be found among Congo Natty, DJ Hype and Remarc.
Jungle evolved to incorporate more synths, more layering, higher-quality production and better cross-pollination with other genres — but the old-school, minimalist, rhythm-centric days of jungle seem to be influential even today. Yes, the new school jungle and drum and bass scenes did bear some fruit — listen to Goldie’s album “Timeless” if you haven’t already for its, well, timelessness — but many current and trendy artists are working jungle idioms into their music.
You can hear jungle in the frenetic percussion of Chicago’s burgeoning footwork scene, most notably the work of the late DJ Rashad. There are hints of the raggamuffin-vocals and drum breaks in Four Tet’s last album, “Beautiful Rewind.” You can definitely hear it in last year’s critically lauded work “Special Request” by Soul Music (Paul Woolford’s vintage production alias).
Given that jungle, as a genre, consists almost entirely of different re-workings of a single drum break, one may understandably wonder when it gets tiresome. The answer is that it never does. For these artists, and all those who pine for the days of “Amen Break” tomfoolery, jungle is a way to subvert mainstream musical norms of song-structure, melody and quality. Where Avicii gives you maximalism, jungle can give you minimalism. When Daft Punk give you cleanliness, organization and sheen, jungle puts a bit of much-needed grit and ugliness into the mix. And since every musician in the history of Western music will tell you melody and harmony come first, listening to jungle shows you — originally — that nothing matters but the breaks.