Old-School Jungle

In the early 1990s, London’s underground club scene was a seething cauldron of musical excitement and innovation. Perhaps the most interesting and influential product of that musical ferment was a style of music that spun out of the vortex of techno, breakbeat, and acid house and quickly developed its own centrifugal force, eventually giving birth to drum and bass, hardstep, and a dizzying variety of other subgenres.

Originally called “jungle,” this new music was fundamentally characterized by the juxtaposition of double-speed breakbeats and slow, reggae-derived basslines. That juxtaposition created a delicious tension, as well as a lot of sonic space into which all kinds of effects and samples could be thrown. In the early days, jungle sounded like a particularly hyperactive manifestation of dancehall reggae – the stars (Shy FX, General Levy, Rebel MC/Congo Natty, etc.) tended to be Londoners of West Indian descent, and the vocals on early jungle tracks were invariably delivered in a thick Jamaican patois. Jungle remixes of reggae and dancehall tunes – notably Cutty Ranks’ dancehall smash “Limb by Limb” – also quickly became popular.

But jungle was also deeply influenced by 1970s roots reggae, and particularly by the producer’s art form that had come to be known in the early part of that decade as “dub” – the precursor of modern remix culture. To create a dub mix, a reggae producer would take the original vocal version of a song and rearrange it drastically, dropping instruments in and out and applying echo and delay to create huge sonic spaces and unpredictable shifts in musical texture. Brief snippets of vocals would often appear suddenly and then ricochet off into the distance, leaving behind a trail of echo. The influence of dub was deeply felt in the early days of jungle, which was often characterized by a similarly extravagant use of echo, delay, reverb, and other special effects. In fact, early hints of jungle’s trademark double-speed breakbeats can be heard in some 1970s dub tracks, at moments when a particularly aggressive use of echo created the illusion of drums playing in double time.

As time went on, the reggae-derived elements of the music began to fall away, and old-school jungle gradually took a backseat to a fundamentally similar but darker, more abrasive, and more instrumentally focused genre called drum and bass. In early drum and bass, the dubwise sound effects were, if anything, even more pronounced, but were used in the context of musical ideas that drew on jazz, techno, and industrial music while still maintaining that structural basis of high-speed breakbeats riding atop deep, slowly-rolling basslines. 

Jungle continues to be a feature of the musical landscape, but as a commercial matter it has now been thoroughly eclipsed by the subgenres it spawned and the many variants and subvariants that emerged from those subgenres over the years.

Rumble in the Jungle: Volume One cover

This split album was released in 1995, the high-water mark of jungle’s popularity and influence. It consists of twelve tracks, six each by Top Cat and General Levy, both of them early masters of the genre. Rumble in the Jungle features mixes by the likes of DJ Rap, Project One, and Blackboard Junglists, and while each of these producers or teams has a different style the overall vibe on this album is hard, spare, and sharply funky. Even though it features only two vocal artists, this album offers a great introduction to the classic jungle sound.

Jungle Hits, Vol. 1 cover

Still arguably the best compilation of old-school jungle tracks, Jungle Hits Vol. 1 brings together tracks by the likes of General Levy (of “Original Nuttah” fame, here delivering the equally classic “Incredible”), Leviticus (“The Burial”), Echo Minott (“Murder Weapon”), and Lloyd Crucial (“Ribbon in the Sky”). Not everyone here went on to greater fame, but there are really no weak tracks on this outstanding collection.

Rumble in the Jungle cover

This compilation on the mighty Soul Jazz label serves as an overview of the “ragga jungle” sound of the mid-1990s. This was the jungle subgenre that drew most deeply on roots and dancehall reggae, as exemplified by Asher Senator’s deeply conscious “One Bible” and the horticultural combination track “Under Mi Sensi” featuring Barrington Levy and Beenie Man. There are classic numbers like Cutty Ranks’ “Limb by Limb” and UK Apachi’s “Original Nuttah,” but also some obscurities that even longstanding jungle fans may not have heard.

Timeless cover

The music of Goldie represents an important transitional phase in jungle’s development into drum and bass. Where jungle tended to draw deeply on reggae tradition, Goldie’s music turned to soul and R&B for inspiration and vocal source material. Timeless, his 1995 debut, is filled with smooth atmospheres and soul-derived vocals (notice in particular the piano-driven “State of Mind,” with its strings and bedroom R&B singing by Lorna Harris), but these are regularly complicated by the jittery double-speed breakbeats and freaky dubwise effects of old-school junglism.

Jungle Revolution cover

The title of this 2013 release is a bit puzzling, because the last thing it represents is a “revolution” in jungle music; on the contrary, it’s a wonderful celebration of old-school junglism, circa 1997 or so. Produced by the great Congo Natty (formerly known as Rebel MC), it features a nice mix of choo-choo, Amen, and jump-up rhythms — with the occasional subtle nod to dubstep — underlying vocal contributions from General Levy, KRS-One and others, all mixed with dextrous ingenuity. Don’t sleep on Jungle Revolution in Dub, either.

Rumble in the Jungle Volume 2 cover

The first volume in the Rumble in the Jungle series featured vocal performances by Top Cat and General Levy; this 1995 release is split between contributions by Cutty Ranks and Poison Chang. While the latter would eventually sink from sight commercially, Cutty Ranks had already achieved notoriety through his work on the Gemini, Killamanjaro and Arrows sound systems before joining the Fashion Records stable in the early 1990s. This positioned him nicely when the jungle juggernaut took hold a few years later, and several of his hits in that genre (notably “Limb by Limb”) are featured here. Poison Chang acquits himself well too, with sharp tracks like “God Head” and the gritty “Over You Body.”

Busy Curious Thirsty cover

Spring Heel Jack (not to be confused with the ska band Spring Heeled Jack) were innovators of what I’d call avant-junglism. Early on (Busy, Curious, Thirsty was originally issued in 1996) the duo realized that jungle’s conventions allowed plenty of room for experimentation, and they went there with a vengeance. Check out the way jazz horns and awkward side effects get together and dance on “Bells,” for example, or the frantically fragmented orchestral samples on “Happy Baby.” This is jungle as art music, not as dance music.

New Forms cover

Like Goldie, Ron Size & Reprazent helped to shift jungle from its reggae-derived origins into a more soul-, jazz-, and hip-hop-based genre that came to be called drum and bass. New Forms is practically a textbook for that transition — check the jazzy bass sample that underlies the spare jungle breakbeat on “Brown Paper Bag,” the way an Amen break cuts through the atmospherics of “Matter of Fact,” and the subtly swinging and aptly titled “Jazz.” Old-school jungle is still present on this album, but you can hear it kind of gasping for air.

Inna City Pressure cover

Brooklyn-based deejay and producer Dr. Israel burst on the scene with his dark and dubwise debut album 7 Tales of Israel in 1996. It hinted at the direction he would eventually take: a conscious, roots-reggae-derived junglism that accommodates a certain amount of experimentation and more than a little rockishness. (His later collaborations with bassist/producer Bill Laswell would yield some of his strongest work.) Inna City Pressure, released a few years later, is the best introduction to his concept: frenetic jungle breakbeats rub shoulders with distorted guitars and message-heavy chatting, to powerful effect.

Super Ape Inna Jungle cover

The legendary reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry gets top billing on this 1995 release, but it’s really a showcase for the junglist production skills of Neil Fraser, a.k.a. Mad Professor. It features tight, dense, and sometimes almost airless jungle tracks, often based on Amen breaks, crafted by the Professor, over which Perry intones his usual pronouncements related to black magic, thunder, lightning, water, fire, etc. It’s a fine — if ultimately exhausting — illustration of how far the art form had come even this early in its development.