“It’s just good energy!” How TikTok and Covid made drum’n’bass hot again | drum’n’bass
OWhen Lincoln Barrett started doing drum ‘n’ bass in the late 90s, he says, “People kinda made fun of me for being into it. People were already saying that drum’n’bass was dead. Walking into Cardiff’s record store, Catapult, you’d kind of get pissed on by people who were, I guess, in a trance.
He’s laughing. In the meantime, Barrett has become High Contrast, one of the most respected drum’n’bass producers in the world: he is about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his debut album, True Colours. Drum ‘n’ bass, meanwhile, has staunchly refused to die – in fact, it’s enjoying an unexpected moment in the sun, refreshing the pop music of 2022. “These are people who aren’t really part of the drum’n’bass scene coming in and doing jungle in their own way, and it’s really in a separate lane from established artists and what drum’n’bass is now,” says Barrette. “It’s amazing that it’s also run mostly by young female artists.”
At its extreme, the drum ‘n’ bass pop wave manifested itself in Australian producer Luude Men at Work’s ’80s breakbeat redesign hit Down Under, a Top 5 novelty that features Men at Work frontman Colin Hay, and which, as Dave Jenkins, journalist, author and Drum&BassArena Awards presenter delicately notes, “has caused all sorts of debate.” He laughs, quoting drum ‘n’ bass legend Shy FX: “If any self-respecting drum ‘n’ bass DJs play this, they have to look in the mirror and slap themselves twice.” At last count, the track had amassed 102 million streams on Spotify alone.
Less obviously adjacent to the cheese factorythere are the artists whose work finds its way to Spotify’s Planet Rave Playlist, reportedly the fastest growing playlist on the platform among 18-24 year olds. Not everyone cares about drum’n’bass. There are today’s two-stage garage producers, people dabbling in trance, old-school hardcore, and even the occasional appearance of venerable electronic artists including Aphex Twin. Despite this, the volume and variety of artists married to 175 bpm breakbeats sound striking. There are indie bands getting into drum ‘n’ bass, most notably Porij, with the wispy single My Bloody Valentine-esque Figure Skating. There are hyperpop-adjacent artists who weld lightning-fast breaks to floor-four bass drums. There’s PinkPantheress, the bedroom producer and chart star whose track Reason did a lot to open up the genre to a Gen Z fanbase. There’s emo-looking guys with manga artwork. instead of artist photos, lots of X’s and V’s in their names and song titles that are supposed to be ironic: xxtarlit has an online mix called Bad Goth Bitch Music To Cut/Worship Lucifer Pour.
There’s Vierre Cloud, a 20-year-old Australian catapulted to online ubiquity when a Fortnite player used one of his tracks as the closing music for his YouTube videos, and Nia Archives, a singer/producer/DJ half-Jamaican born in Yorkshire who claims inspiration from Roni Size, Remarc and Lemon D, writes tracks that deal with mental health and body dysphoria, has been outspoken in his attempts to attract more women of color in the drum’n’bass scene and shows all the signs of becoming a breakout star.
And there’s goddard., a fan of august drum’n’bass labels Hospital and Ram as a teenager, who makes soulful vocal tracks that seem squarely destined for the dancefloor, but end in pop singles; almost nothing he does exceeds three minutes. “When I was studying at university, one of the things we talked about was people’s attention through the digital revolution, how it got shortened,” he explains from his studio in Kettering, Northamptonshire. . “The need to get people’s attention right away, and to keep it, is really important. When you create content to broadcast on streaming services, you have to ask yourself: are people going to listen for five minutes? Probably not. It’s just the way we’ve evolved.
Almost everything has a distinct pop side to it: even artists with manga imagery and dark song titles tend to sample the lovely strains of Opus III’s It’s a Fine Day or Ellie Goulding’s Starry Eyed. Indeed, there seems to be a whole sub-genre, hovering somewhere between drum’n’bass and chamber pop, which pits breaks against soft, open female voices: Mr Valentine from Yaz; Take Van’s time; oOo’s Frou Frou-sampling Wedbecutetoget-her; piri and the feathery Soft Spot by Tommy Villiers, and Beachin’.
This last duo is a couple; they went on a date in Manchester and then started making music together in a bedroom studio. Their ambitions were modest – piri says she paid three TikTok creators to use Soft Spot in their videos and asked for support from online community Manchester Student Group – but it went viral: it currently records 110,000 videos TikTok, with everything from images of someone laying laminate flooring to advice on how to get rid of period cramps. Charli XCX announced it was her favorite gym soundtrack (“it’s going so hard”) while PinkPantheress – whose use of drum ‘n’ bass breaks was “massively influential” on their sound – sent a direct message to the duo to tell them she loved the track. “I think people haven’t taken a very pop angle to drum ‘n’ bass beats until recently,” says Piri. “It makes it more accessible if there’s a pop song over it, those dreamy vocals, because a lot of people don’t just listen to instrumental music, they need a vocal and a song And obviously drum’n’bass is sick.
The question of what caused all this is intriguing. It is clear that some form of nostalgia plays a role. Sometimes it seems like the second-hand pink variety involving an era you’re too young to remember: Planet Rave is full of producers in their twenties using graphics derived from old PlayStation games or calling tracks like planet1995 ; the producers seem captivated by the way drum’n’bass was created at a time when technology had not yet evolved (“Adam F’s Circles, it’s one of the best songs in drum’n’bass of all time,” says Villiers, “and I don’t know how it was made, but it definitely wasn’t on a Mac, man”). Sometimes it’s more direct and personal. “I’ve grew up around soundsystem culture, because half of my family is Jamaican, and I’ve always been drawn to that sound, the drums and the distorted bass,” Nia Archives told an interviewer this year, adding — and all the original junglists might want to look away now, lest they feel incredibly old – “my grandma loves the jungle”.
Jenkins points out that drum ‘n’ bass had one of its rare pop crossover moments in the middle of the average Zoomer’s childhood. “DJ Fresh had the very first drum ‘n’ bass No 1 with Hot Right Now 10 years ago. Then you had Sigma and Matrix & Futurebound, artists who could see the potential to experiment with songwriting songs and see if drum’n’bass could exist in the mainstream It was controversial at the time, there was kind of a shark leap moment when Sigma collaborated with Take That…but when you’re young and you get that first flavor of something, you can dig deeper and hone in on your tastes. I think it brought that tempo and that kind of breakbeats into the mainstream pop vocabulary and that’s what we appreciate now.
There may be other more prosaic reasons. good God. thinks it could be linked to the world events of the last two years, that the elation in front of the fast breakbeats provided both an escape during the lockdown and a perfect soundtrack when the turned away children were allowed out. “I think when the lockdown happened people like [DJ] Dom Whiting has arrived, make videos of himself on his bike, playing drum’n’bass, all by himself, so you would see people coming out of their homes because they were low and this music made them happier. It really brought drum’n’bass into the mainstream, for all types of listeners, because it was just good energy. [Post-lockdown] It’s a very exciting time for drum’n’bass because there seems to be a lot of energy in the air.
Piri, meanwhile, suggests that pop artists might have gravitated towards the genre because of the way music is released in 2022. No latter-day artist I talk to has taken the more traditional route of doing playing his music in a club – all have relied on social media for exposure. “You can get a lot of information from the song in less time. It keeps you energized,” she says. “A verse in a house song will be longer than a verse in a drum ‘n’ ‘bass. On TikTok you have to create a really loud vibe in 15 seconds, and in drum’n’bass you can get a whole chorus in 15 seconds, just because it’s faster.
The means by which people now access music could also explain the current wave of producer preferences for a specific area of drum’n’bass history: on Planet Rave, you hear a lot of audibly influenced tracks by the jungle, raw, reggae-influenced and friendly precursor that, as Barrett points out, “was considered ancient history” in the late 90s. ‘bass was incredibly high,’ says Jenkins. “I think we find a reverse situation where a new generation has come up and they’re like, ‘I don’t care about mixes, I’m listening to this with headphones’ – especially the last two years, when they don’t even have to think about club reactions at all. Those really harsh, peppy, irritating breaks came back with a bang. If you put an incredibly well-produced sub-bass on a track, it will be completely lost on people watching TikTok on their phones.
What will happen to all of this in the future is a moot point. It could be a fad, it could produce lasting stars, it could establish itself as a permanent fixture in the pop landscape. “Maybe there’s a degree of fickle hipsters out there,” laughs Barrett. “I guess if it’s going to have legs, it’s whether this new generation doesn’t just think about what it was 20 years ago, it uses it as a tool today, to do something something different.”
Not that its continued success or failure affects the longevity of drum’n’bass itself, he says. “It’s all on its own in terms of tempo, it gives off an energy that no other genre can, so it sounds great at festivals, at a rave, in the open air… There’s always going to be a market for it, because you’re not getting it anywhere else. People will always want that boost of energy.