Drum and bass (also written as drum ‘n’ bass and commonly abbreviated to D&B, D+B or DnB) is a type of electronic music which emerged in the mid 1990s. The genre is characterized by fast breakbeats (typically between 160–180 bpm, occasional variation is noted in older compositions), with heavy bass and sub-bass lines. Drum and bass began as an offshoot of the United Kingdom rave scene of the very early 1990s. Over the first decade of its existence, the incorporation of elements from various musical genres led to many permutations in its overall style.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a growing nightclub and overnight outdoor event culture gave birth to a new electronic music style called rave music, which, much like hip-hop, combined sampled syncopated beats or breakbeats, other samples from a wide range of different musical genres and, occasionally, samples of music, dialogue and effects from films and television programmes. But rave music tended to feature stronger bass sounds and a faster tempo (127 to over 140) beats per minute (BPM) than that of early house music. This subgenre was known as “hardcore” rave but from as early as 1991, some musical tracks made up of these high-tempo break beats, with heavy basslines and samples of older Jamaican music, were referred to as “jungle techno” and later just “jungle”, which became recognised as a separate musical genre popular at raves and on pirate radio in Britain. It is important to note when discussing the history of Drum n Bass that prior to Jungle, rave music was getting faster and more experimental. Professional DJ & producer C.K. states, “There was a progression as far as the speed of music is concerned. Anyone buying vinyl every week from 1989 to 1992 noticed this.”
By 1994 jungle had begun to gain mainstream popularity and fans of the music (often referred to as junglists) became a more recognisable part of British youth subculture. The genre further developed, incorporating and fusing elements from a wide range of existing musical genres, including the raggamuffin sound, dancehall, MC chants, dub basslines, and increasingly complex, heavily edited breakbeat percussion. Despite the affiliation with the ecstasy-fuelled rave scene, Jungle also inherited some associations with violence and criminal activity, both from the gang culture that had affected the UK’s hip-hop scene and as a consequence of jungle’s often aggressive or menacing sound and themes of violence (usually reflected in the choice of samples). However, this developed in tandem with the often positive reputation of the music as part of the wider rave scene and dancehall-based Jamaican music culture prevalent in London. By 1995, whether as a reaction to, or independently of this cultural schism, some jungle producers began to move away from the ragga-influenced style and create what would become collectively labelled, for convenience, as drum and bass.
As the genre became generally more polished and sophisticated technically, it began to expand its reach from pirate radio to commercial stations and gain widespread acceptance (circa 1995–1997). It also began to split into recognizable subgenres such as jump-up and Hardstep. As a lighter and often jazz-influenced style of drum and bass gained mainstream appeal, additional subgenres emerged including techstep (circa 1996–1997) which drew greater influence from techno music and the soundscapes of science fiction and anime films.
The popularity of drum and bass at its commercial peak ran parallel to several other homegrown dance styles in the UK including big beat and hard house. But towards the turn of the millennium its popularity was deemed to have dwindled as the UK garage style known as speed garage yielded several hit singles. Speed garage shared high tempos and heavy basslines with drum and bass but otherwise followed the established conventions of “house music”, with this and its freshness giving it an advantage commercially. London DJ/producer C.K. says, “It is often forgotten by my students that a type of music called “Garage House” existed in the late 1980s alongside Hip House, Acid House and other forms of House music.” He continues, “This new Garage of the mid 90s was not a form of House or a progression of Garage House. The beats and tempo that define House are entirely different. This did cause further confusion in the presence of new House music of the mid 1990s being played alongside what was now being called Garage.” Despite this, the emergence of further subgenres and related styles such as liquid funk brought a wave of new artists incorporating new ideas and techniques, supporting continual evolution of the genre. To this day drum and bass makes frequent appearances in mainstream media and popular culture including in television, as well as being a major reference point for subsequent genres such as grime and dubstep and successful artists including Chase & Status and Australia’s Pendulum.
Opinions vary on what constitutes “real” drum and bass as it incorporates a number of scenes and styles, from the highly electronic, industrial sounds of techstep through to the use of conventional, acoustic instrumentation that characterise the more jazz-influenced end of the spectrum. The sounds of drum and bass are extremely varied due to the range of influences behind the music.
Drum and bass could at one time be defined as a strictly electronic musical genre with the only “live” element being the DJ’s selection and mixing of records during a set. “Live” drum and bass using electric, electronic and acoustic instruments played by musicians on stage would emerge in the ensuing years of the genre’s development.
A very obvious and strong influence on junglefever and drum and bass, thanks to the British African-Caribbean sound system scene, is the original Jamaican dub and reggae sound, with pioneers like King Tubby, Peter Tosh, Sly & Robbie, Bill Laswell, Lee Perry, Mad Professor, Roots Radics, Bob Marley and Buju Banton heavily influencing the music. This influence has lessened with time but is still evident with many tracks containing ragga vocals.
As a musical style built around funk or syncopated rock & roll breaks, James Brown, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Supremes, the Commodores, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Michael Jackson, are funky influences on the music. One of the most influential tracks in drum and bass history was Amen Brother by The Winstons, containing a drum solo which went on to be known as the “Amen break“, which after being extensively used in early hip hop music, went on to become the basis for the rhythms used in drum and bass.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s the tradition of break-beat use in hip-hop production had influenced the sound of breakbeat hardcore which in turn lead to the emergence of jungle, drum and bass, and other genres that shared the same use of broken beats. Drum and bass shares many musical characteristics with hip-hop, though it is nowadays mostly stripped of lyrics. Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Schooly D, N.W.A, Kid Frost, Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, Mos Def, Beastie Boys and the Pharcyde are very often directly sampled, regardless of their general influence.
Miles Davis has also been named as a possible influence, and blues artists like Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters & B.B King have also been cited by producers as inspirations. Even modern avant-garde composers such as Henryk Gorecki have received mention.
Clearly drum and bass has been influenced by other music genres, though influences from sources external to the electronic dance music scene perhaps lessened following the shifts from jungle to drum and bass, and through to so-called “intelligent drum and bass” and techstep. It still remains a fusion music style.
Many tracks belonging to other genres are ‘remixed’ into drum and bass versions. The quality of these remixes varies from the simple and primitive adding of broken beats to a vocal track or to complete reworkings that may exceed the original in quality and effort put into them. Original artists will often ask for drum and bass remixes of their tracks to be made in order to spark further interest in their tracks (for example, Aphrodite’s remix of Jungle Brothers’ “Jungle Brother”).
Some tracks are illegally remixed and released on white label (technically bootleg), often to acclaim. For example, DJ Zinc’s remix of The Fugees’ “Ready or Not”, also known as “Fugee Or Not”, was eventually released with the Fugees’ permission after talk of legal action, though coincidentally the Fugees’ version infringed Enya’s copyright to an earlier song. White labels along with dubplates play an important part in drum and bass musical culture.
Other notable influences
Kevin Saunderson released a series of bass-heavy, minimal techno cuts as Reese/The Reese Project in the late ’80s which were hugely influential in drum and bass terms. One of his more infamous basslines (Reese – “Just Want Another Chance”, Incognito Records, 1988) was indeed sampled on Renegade’s Terrorist and countless others since, being known simply as the ‘Reese’ bassline. He followed these up with equally influential (and bassline-heavy) tracks in the UK hardcore style as Tronik House in 1991–1992. Another Detroit artist who was important for the scene is Carl Craig. The sampled-up jazz break on Carl Craig’s Bug in the Bassbin was also influential on the newly emerging sound, DJs at the Rage club used to play it pitched up (increased speed) as far as their Technics record decks would go.
Both the New York breakbeat and the Miami Bass scenes were strongly influenced by the ‘freestyle’ sound of New York, Chicago and Miami in the 1980s which incorporated electro, disco and Latin flavours, and which was in turn a key influence on the UK’s acid house/hardcore/rave scene.
Drum and bassline elements
The genre places great importance on the “bass line”, a deep sub-bass musical pattern which can be felt physically through powerful sound systems due to the low-range frequencies favoured. There has been considerable exploration of different timbres in the bass line region, particularly within techstep. The bass lines most notably originate from sampled sources or synthesizers. Bass lines performed with a bass instrument, whether it is electric, acoustic or a double bass, are less common but examples can be found in the work of bands such as Shapeshifter, Squarepusher, Roni Size and STS9.
Of equal importance is the “808” kick drum, an artificially pitch-downed or elongated bass drum sound sampled from Roland’s classic TR-808 drum machine, and a sound which has been subject to an enormous amount of experimentation over the years.
The complex syncopation of the drum tracks’ breakbeat, is another facet of production on which producers can spend a very large amount of time. The Amen break is generally acknowledged to have been the most-used (and often considered the most powerful) break in drum and bass.
The Amen break was synonymous with early drum and bass productions but other samples have had a significant impact, including the Apache, Funky Drummer, “Soul Pride”, “Scorpio” and “Think (About It)” breaks.
Many drum and bass tracks have featured more than one sampled breakbeat in them and a technique of switching between two breaks after each bar developed. Examples of this can be heard on mid-90s releases such as J Majik’s “Your Sound”. A more recent commonly used break is the Tramen, which combines the Amen break, a James Brown funk breakbeat (“Tighten Up” or “Samurai” break) and an Alex Reece drum and bass breakbeat.
The relatively fast drum beat forms a canvas on which a producer can create tracks to appeal to almost any taste and often will form only a background to the other elements of the music. Syncopated breakbeats remain the most distinctive element as without these a high-tempo 4/4 dance track could be classified as techno or gabber.
Drum and bass is usually between 160–180 BPM, in contrast to other breakbeat-based dance styles such as nu skool breaks, which maintain a slower pace at around 130–140 BPM. A general upward trend in tempo has been observed during the evolution of drum and bass. The earliest forms of drum and bass clocked in at around 130 bpm in 1990/1991, speeding up to around 155–165 BPM by 1993. Since around 1996, drum and bass tempos have predominantly stayed in the 170–180 range. Recently some producers have started to once again produce tracks with slower tempos (that is, in the 150s and 160s), but the mid-170 tempo is still the hallmark of the drum and bass sound.
A track combining the same elements (broken beat, bass, production techniques) as a drum and bass track, but with a slower tempo (say 140 BPM), might not be drum and bass but a drum and bass-influenced breakbeat track.