Interview with Martin James, Author of State of Bass: The Origins of Jungle/ Drum & Bass

State of Bass by Martin James is a book that delves into the complex origins of Jungle and Drum & Bass. First published in 1997, it has been brilliantly returned to by the author and reissued now by Velocity Press. Threads of how the music developed are woven thick with first-hand accounts from key figures of the scene, discussions on social issues, technology, and the music media. In the new introduction, Martin states he is writing “for the multitude of newcomers, in love with the sound but baffled by its history.”

I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Martin to discuss the book.

Could you start by talking about your original motivation for writing State of Bass, and what made you return to it in this moment?

I was a journalist in the ‘90s writing for the mainstream music press and the music basically surrounded me… I was interviewing a guy called Jake Lingwood from an urban publishing group called Boxtree and we started talking about the potential of doing a Drum & Bass book. We got very drunk together and by the end of the conversation we had a book agreed. But it was too early really, it was 1996 that we agreed to do this book, and it came out in ‘97 just as things were going massively mainstream. I missed that kind of really key moment when it went from being everyone’s best-kept secret to becoming this over-ground phenomenon, so I really wanted to capture that and return to it… I knew Colin (Steve, owner of Velocity Press) from back in the day, and was a big follower of Knowledge Magazine and K-Mag that he ran, and he asked if I’d be interested in updating it and I said yes. But I didn’t want to do a full update right until the current day because that just becomes a trainspotter story, what I’m really interested in is that early stage and actually at the point where it goes mainstream as well… so it’s been 22 years in the making.

I think it’s interesting the way you say you “returned” to the book because I was wondering if there is currently a general return to this early moment in the 90s? I think similar to people coming to this music in the last few years, I’ve felt a weird sense of nostalgia for that time through reading things like your book, listening to the music, and also being told by the generation above ‘you weren’t there, you don’t really know”…

I always think I don’t really know about your generation, you’re experiencing this music in a way I’ve never experienced it and I’d never say that we had it better…I’m really anti nostalgia actually. I think nostalgia is a kind of political tool to encourage people to think things were always better in the past and they weren’t necessarily. I think we had a lot more opportunities to do things that were particular to that period in time, but what I would have done back then to have the technology we have now…

The part of nostalgia I don’t like is the rewriting of history and prioritising certain things. Like how Mixmag prioritised certain aspects of House culture, they’re very accurate on certain aspects, but then they rewrite it. For instance, the first place that House was ever played in the UK was Nottingham at a venue called Rock City, but that doesn’t sound like it fits with the narrative of London and Shoom, and then the Haçienda in Manchester. So Nottingham is cut out of the story, and the Midlands is cut out which was incredibly important. Over time nostalgia has the effect of rubbing off the edges of those key places and spaces are forgotten in favour of a dominant narrative. The edges give you the full story and creates the whole picture and they’re the bits that I’m interested in, the nooks and crannies, the hidden histories.

Yeah, that’s what I got that when I was reading the book because it very much complicated the idea that Jungle/ Drum & Bass was a product coming out of a specific diaspora scene just within London…

I think there are a number of issues going on in the way we talk about the whole Jungle/ Drum & Bass scene and this idea of a diaspora. Again, even making it out to be simply part of an African diaspora, a Jamaican diaspora or a Caribbean diaspora, ignores that it’s also a North European diaspora in its construction. There’s an essence that comes from the sound system culture, but the sound system culture leading into the large Dancehall events was very much influenced by the technology being introduced, and this was through Kraftwerk. So you have Jamaican artists being inspired by European artists. What worries me when we talk about diaspora is that it’s a little bit like… a Cultural Imperialism in reverse, as a one way traffic or one way flow… In terms of diaspora there are a number of diasporas going on in a post-colonial flow of networks. This is what the Jungle/ Drum & Bass nexus is all about, where things come together and they fuse multiple sources that are coming from multiple cultures. To bring it down to being just about a small group of people from a particular borough of London is disingenuous.

Parts of the book did touch on structural or institutional racism involved in the treatment not just by media but also by venues and promoters, I don’t know if you want to say a bit more about that or how much has changed now…

I think we’ve got to be really careful about the idea of institutional racism against a scene because if we look at Jungle, the initial rejection was the rejection of breakbeats. You can see a class split happening, the working class rave scene becomes belittled and this new thing emerges where “London is cool and all you people in the North that are still raving like lunatics are stupid.” So this is a part of the narrative that comes into club culture and breakbeats get banned. At the same time it’s undeniable that Junglism gets banned- not necessarily Jungle music but Junglism. That comes down to an institutional fear of black people, especially black men, and I don’t think that’s any different now…I’d like to say this has all changed but there was this point in Clubland where you’d go in and the only faces you see that aren’t white were the DJs and the bouncers. What happens as scenes build is the media builds cannons that are just replications of themselves. I worked in the music media and trust me, I can count on less than one hand how many black people I worked with. It was a white middle class and predominantly male environment.

And working as a music journalist, was that your entrance into this music?

I was a student in Nottingham and I used to go to regular events at the Marcus Garvey centre, it was a really vibrant environment and there was a regular rave there. I heard ‘Eye Memory’ by Nebula II, and you know when you’re out and you hear something that stops you in your tracks, you know “what’s this?!”. That was one of those tracks…So I became aware of this sound and when I moved down to London I could latch onto stuff a lot quicker. As a music journalist I would be out every night of the week, and get three or four sacks of records and CDs everyday so it was a constant flow of music and that enabled me to discover a whole load more music. But I loved the breakbeat sounds. Jungle and Drum & Bass drew on all of my favourite music genres.

The ‘90s were an incredible time to be in London for all types of dance and electronic music cultures, there was always something happening. I’m not saying we had it better but it was an amazing time for my generation, and now we’re all old and we just sit and ponder it.

In December Fabio and Grooverider held a Return to Rage night, it was amazing, the music was incredible but what was great was that at one point the MC said everyone over the age of 40 put your hands up, it was most of the crowd and it was just such a joyful celebration of like “yes this was our time!”

There’s an amazing unity amongst people, I think it’s probably in every youth subculture. Me and my wife went to see Leftfield play their Leftism in full and we were down at the front dancing with other people of our generation, we were all aching in our knees and our backs but we all knew we experienced this thing together – that whole club culture era from ‘87 through to 2000 when it starts coming to a close. We could see it in each other’s eyes. That misty eyed ‘we were there’ glow. Also, a lot of us are still involved in a lot of ways, I find it amazing how many of my older friends are still plugging away DJing and producing.

I really liked a lot of the phrasings in the book, could you say more about ‘breakbeat science’?

Breakbeat Science is a phrase that’s used often, it comes from hip hop and as I say in the book the concept comes from the Five-Percent Nation, they were an extreme breakoff group from the Nation of Islam, you probably know that until 9/11 Islam was the unofficial religion of hip hop. Five-Percent Nation had this idea that their role was as scientists…So the concept of science comes from that but it fits really nicely with Drum & Bass and breakbeat culture because a lot of producers like the idea they’re little boffins in white coats working breakbeats, cutting and splicing them…

Also breakbeat is a derivative of the Musique Concrète movement from France where they developed all the tape splicing techniques, so that in itself is an incredibly scientific approach to music…the breakbeat culture was a version of that.

An aspect of this was that with our generation it was primarily boys that were encouraged to do science at school. Women weren’t encouraged to be scientists at all. The breakbeat scientists were similarly mainly men. Boys and their toys. I talk about this in the book but don’t really go into a huge amount, a lot of phrasing in Drum & Bass and Jungle culture was very masculine, and in fact there were very few women on the frontline. If you look at the Committee -let’s say that’s the inner sanctum of the scientists- they were effectively shutting women out…

Ugh!!
I really loved having the recommended listening included at the end of each chapter and tried to follow my reading with it. I was wondering how you narrowed down your selections, are they pieces that personally stood out for you or ones that you knew were impactful for the scene as a whole?

A part of it was those moments when it doesn’t matter where the club is in the world you know when a tune is going to be huge because you hear the reaction. Not just generally from the people in the space, but when you see people from the music industry who are cynics and are stopped in their tracks going “wow!” you know a tune is going to be huge… A lot of that list is from the original version, it’s a very live list. It’s me, my friends, the industry, the scene all responding to tracks at a particular time.

I was going to ask more about the watery imagery that you used to describe the scene, could you say a bit about that and maybe the media’s influence on the creation of these eddy’s and then how it goes into something else…

It’s the media acting as both gatekeeper and tastemaker. At that point in time the media were very powerful. The way we discuss music and genre is almost as if we talk in terms of a business- we define a sound, give it a name and that becomes a thing solidified in time and space forever more. Then you go to a record store and go to the Drum & Bass section and know roughly what to expect, and then you say actually there’s a world of difference between Goldie’s Mother and UK Apache & Shy FX.

One of the amazing things about the Jungle and Drum & Bass scene is that it was incredibly influenced by all different types of music and you start to get the idea all music is part of a flow, like a stream. Music is very fluid, producers don’t always make music to be a part of a sound, they’re creative. The industry has to put it into a space and place in order to write about it and to sell it. So, things get a lot of energy and somebody comes along and puts a marker in and you’ve got that moment of power, that eddy…but then most creatives have moved on anyway.

Where this new version ends in the new millennium as the music is being pronounced as ‘dead’ by the media, I felt it was important how you discussed it went underground again after it’s mainstream peak. So many people still live for this music but when you have writers like Simon Reynolds saying that what happened when everything moved into the club and became legitimised was the creation of ‘state sanctioned pleasure prisons,’ it invalidates people’s experience of this music now. Is rave a historical thing? We still refer to ourselves as ravers or that we’re going to a rave…

Well there’s a continuum that Simon talks about. Rave is a state of mind…there was a whole way of living your life surrounding that. It makes a lot of sense that the concept of rave is so powerful at the moment and so popular in an underground way because there’s a certain antiauthoritarianism about it. The whole concept is about a challenge to traditional ways that the Government makes money out of us. We were putting on parties in spaces we created, turning the spaces into temporary autonomous zones. We introduced the music that was being produced in our bedrooms, pressed up in an independent publishing plant, then we were selling it from the backs of our cars. Every aspect of our scene was driven by the D.I.Y. ethos of Punk, so it’s a really handy narrative to say that somehow rave sold out….

I get very angry about club culture and Electronic Music historians who have this very limited view with this very white male middle class perspective of what this music was, and also this idea that it died. My son’s 20, he DJs, he’s a student, and its exciting to see that this music is still inspiring people in the same way.

In terms of the Punk D.I.Y. ethic, in Matthew Collins’ book Altered State, he goes into how people putting on these early parties were following a different D.I.Y. imperative coming from Thatcher to be an entrepreneur, there’s quite an interesting line between the two sides?

Matthew does talk about the other side of this because you do have the super raves by Tony Colston-Hayter, and people who were making a huge amount of money from the rave scene. The rave scene certainly had an entrepreneurial drive, but at its core was an ideology that celebrated collective over individual. At the same time the free party scene was still going with that original rave ethos…we would go off onto the moors and hills near Derbyshire Dales with a D.I.Y. sound system and people didn’t come and shut us down, we just had a sound system and danced for the weekend. The whole Castlemorton thing didn’t come out of people making lots of money, it came out of the free party scene and that was a politically dangerous movement because that was all about alternative lifestyles, and not paying your poll tax, and so on. There’s an inevitability in all youth scenes that there are going to be key people involved who have the money to make money out of it. In that way it’s no different to early Punk, the key early people in the Punk scene were certainly wealthy enough to make money out of the scene…

I was on Channel 4 being interviewed about the Sex Pistols reunion and I had bright orange hair and they thought fantastic an old Punk he’s going to be very positive, and I said “look, if you want to see Punk now go to Rage, go to the Jungle clubs.” Around about the same time, Mark Perry, the guy who did Sniffin’ Glue fanzine, said the same thing in an interview. He said Punk isn’t happening in Punk anymore, Punk is happening in the underground breakbeat scene.

Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak to me! Do you have anything else you’d like to add about the book?

State of Bass is very much a work of passion. I still love the music and it will always be part of my family. My wife was pregnant with my eldest daughter while I was writing the original version of the book. So we were out raving all of the time. At home we had Jungle and Drum & Bass constantly playing and when my daughter was born the only music that would settle her when she was crying was breakbeat. Other parents played classical to calm their babies, we played Drum & Bass. She’s a breakbeat baby. The bass is in her soul. That’s how this music gets you… in your soul.

State of Bass is available NOW from: https://velocitypress.uk/product/state-of-bass/ or other shops from 3 April 2020.

Due to current mad circumstances, Book launch dates for State of Bass have been postponed, so sign up to the Velocity Press newsletter to be notified when they’re rescheduled: https://velocitypress.us20.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=c0f96b713aa3c32f11a006886&id=e49f2510aa