Right at the cutting edge of dance music, breakbeats are being joined by deep basslines as techno goes ragga, ragga goes future, and dancefloors start skanking.
Techno and reggae are an unlikely couple. Like Normski and Janet Street-Porter. Bananas and Marmite. Norma Major and cycling shorts. But dance music constantly re-invents itself, and like the lethal combination of Euro-style Kraftwerk electronics and overblown Philly soul that became house music, techno and reggae are embarking on a deep and loving relationship. Ever since Shut Up And Dance started toasting over bass-heavy hardcore and the likes of Kickin’ Records began chucking deep basslines and frantic breakbeats under techno, ragga house has been a reality. Now ragga is exploding allover techno, basslines are dropping deeper and skanking looks like putting gurning out to pasture. Techno, long since hijacked from its original black Detroit pioneers by a generation of white British Northerners, is being stolen back and turned black.
And the result is a host of new styles. That original breakbeat and bassline formula pioneered by Shut Up And Dance and Kickin’ has dropped the hardcore noises and chainsaw synth stabs and mutated into ‘Jungle Techno’, a strictly Southern rave style that’s currently exploding all over. There’s ‘Future Ragga’, a newer, more dub-based style, and a whole host of other techno-ragga mutations. “A lot of the reggae boys are making the stuff,” says champion techno DJ Grooverider. “They’re adding basslines to the breakbeat stuff. Deep basslines.” So while Northerners are turning techno into pop with acts like Dream Frequency and Control, down South it’s going the other way. It’s going deep, it’s going underground, it’s going ragga all the way and it’s going black.
“There’s an increasing number of black youth making techno music, and I guess the only influences they can draw on is what they know. It’s been happening for quite a while, people have been converting from reggae to house.” So says Marc Williams, the homeboy in A Homeboy, A Hippie And A Funki Dred, who as Project One has Just followed the massive ‘Cheeba’ EP with the ‘Ruffneck’ EP – deep dub trance on one side, bumpy break beats and child toasting on the other – future ragga throughout Williams also writes for Rising High Collective and works on HHFD, but he reckons he has more fun with the Project One material. “It’s more DJ stylee, it’s kicking off more nicely,” he says. “DJs are now doing more cutting, more breakbeats. That’s what Project One is, ragga to the bone.” And down his North London manor, he says, “that’s all they talk about. Jungle techno and dark vibes.”
Mike E-Bloc, of Manchester’s most famous record store, knows his music well. Which is one reason why his E-Lustrious act (with Danny Hibrid) are following the superb garage/house of ‘Dance No More’ with a strict ragga tune. ‘On A Ragga Tip’ features an electro bassline and the verbal pyrotechnics of Manchester toaster Shine (who also rhymes for The Family Foundation, formerly Franschene, one act set to rock jungle/ragga circles when their remixed ‘Express Yourself’ finally comes out proper).
“People aren’t into the Belgian hardbeat any more,” he says, “they’ve gone ragga mad.” House music needs to stay in motion. Hence the move. “One of the problems with dance music is it can never remains static,” says Mike. “One of the new directions is this kind of ragga base, be it jungle techno or whatever.”
So where has “this kind of ragga base” suddenly come from? The truth is, it’s always been there, under the surface. Reggae has long influenced dance music – from Soul II Soul to ragga hip hop. House uses reggae tricks: starting a track with melody and drums, then dropping the bass. Since the ‘88/’89 ‘Summers Of Love’ – when house suddenly became communal property – the scene has been sub¬dividing, and all reggae needed was a way in.
As the orbital scene died, house music split. One faction wanted the music back in the arms of the select few, those who deserved it, who dressed for it, those who – they felt – understood it. Those who could gather in exclusive clubs to celebrate. The rest joined the rave scene in going overground, and went legal. Big, licensed all-night events like Perception and Rain Dance flourished and the music got harder. Techno, the bastard daughter of Chicago and Detroit, was hijacked by a generation of computer kids from Bradford and Leeds. And youth, too young, too straight, or too poor for ‘88 and ‘89, embraced it.
Raving became High St but it also became street. Being street level, being less elitist and more egalitarian, techno was more open to change. To new ideas. To mad formulas and heavy bassbeats that just weren’t trendy or Italian or made by kids wearing Michiko Koshino, but by kids and dreads wearing big trainers who have never heard of Venus or Justin Robertson and who would never splurge six quid on a club called The Milk Bar when they could spend fifteen and rave all night.
In dance music, it’s techno’ that works off the loosest format. It’s the most open. Because there are no songs to follow and fewer trends to keep to. “Definitely,” says Slipmatt of Slipmatt and Lime/SL2, who have just followed ‘DJs Take Control’ and the raggafied ‘Way In My Brain’ with the irresistible poppy ragga of ‘On A Ragga Tip’. “We thought, ‘why not take a chance and do something different, ‘“ says Slipmatt of the single. “If it does go big I think we’ll probably get more respect. Plus we’re right into it: He points to the sheer variety of techno forms in operation. “I think techno’s got to be more open, more extreme,” he adds. “It’s just another way of making it a bit different, innit? You always get different things coming into the music.” And ragga has always been street level, noisy, and extreme• best heard through a crusty system, slightly distorted and out of your head – unlike garage, which sounds best on the highest of hi-tech hardware.
It all really started going big time last year when the Rebel MC, having ditched his slightly cheesy ‘skacid’ phase, put out the ground-breaking ‘Black Meaning Good’ LP. Using established reggae men like Barrington Levy, he set up a serious ragga/techno crossover sound, but more importantly, a sound that was musically more serious than the rough ‘n ready Shut Up And Dance style. Now a whole shebang of small studios, labels and set-ups are following. Straight up ‘jungle’ or deeper dub, that’s what’s moving on the techno scene. “Deep basslines, fast breakbeats, and loads of drums,” says Grooverider. ‘And not too much noise. This is noise. free music.”
Noise-free music made by bass’n’rhythm maniacs house music’s new inventors, people like Marc Williams. Where after all are house music’s original pioneers today? Deep in the mainstream making pop records. Peek behind the deserved club hit that put Kym Sims in the spotlight, and you’ll find a bland radio album and Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley a long way from ‘Jack Your Body’ Frankie Knuckles’s current ‘Workout’ is a great, classy dance song, but a long way in innovation from ‘Only The Strong Survive’. And what of our own? Tim Simenon and Mark Moore? S’Express seem to have submerged without trace, while Bomb The Bass’s latest single falls well below the 120 beats per minute required to drop in all but specialised soul clubs. In the absence of established dance music movers, a new generation, often new to the music, are ringing in the changes. The trendy Balearic/house/garage scene might have some great clubs and some great DJs, but it’s far less multi-racial than orbital raving was. And techno still is. Check the current ‘tastemaker DJ’ roll: Justin Robertson, Graeme Park, Andrew Weatherall, Sasha, Phil Perry. They’re all white. Check an equivalent techno top five – Fabio, Grooverider, Carl Cox, Colin Favor, Trevor Fung, Eddie Richards _ and you’ll find much more of a mix. Just as you will at any decent techno night out – be it Perception or London’s Rage. Most Excellent is an excellent club, Venus deserving of its glorious reputation, but both clubs are less than mixed. Techno is far more democratic, far less conscious of its image.
Real ragga vibes require a mixed crowd. What drops beautifully in multi-racial London is not going to destroy an all-white crowd – “When you get a bit dark on them they can’t really handle it, “ says Grooverider of Northern and Scottish rave audiences. “That’s why you can’t go the whole hog with them. You have to know how to work your sets.” For a DJ of his, or Fabio’s, calibre it’s not a problem. Meanwhile Fabio and Grooverider are set to remix a track from Smith And Mighty’s epic, but confusing, future ragga gem ‘The Stepper’s Delight’ EP – a tune they’ve been playing at a speeded-up 45.
So now a host of outfits are putting out reggae-orientated stuff. lbiza Records regard their material as ‘jungle’ not ragga. Then there’s South London’s Digi-Dub set-up, whose current ‘Skunk’ from LS Diezel and Launch DAT is practically pure dub. “It is almost straight reggae,” admits mainman Lee, “because the other stuff really bores me – House music, rave music, I like it, but it’s got into a rut.”
Indeed it’s that desire for change that seems to be motivating the current shift. The saving grace of dance music, the constant urge for something new. Whether it skanks into straight dub or not, there’s little doubt the bassier, spacier end of techno is here to stay. “It’s another outlet,” says Grooverider. “Three years ago, who would have thought they’d be listening to reggae?” Marc Williams takes it further. “Towards the end of the year I can see it really progressing. You’re going to have a Jah Shaka [still active, legendary dub/ragga man] -like set•up, people skipping to dub beats.” Forget “make some noise,” and get ready for “wind me down selector.”
EASTERN BLOC RAGGA TEN
E-Lustrious – On The Ragga Tip
Criminal Minds – Baptised By Dub
Project One – Ruffneck EP
SL2 – On A Ragga Tip
New Decade – Beyond Understanding EP
Rebel MC – Rich Ah Getting Richer
Family Foundation – Express Yourself (Remixes)
Timebase – Fireball/Unity
Brothers Grimm – Exodus (The Lion Awakes)/Field Of Dreams
LS Diezel And Launch DAT – Skunk
© Dom Phillips
Originally published in Mixmag. May, 1992