Sayan Ghosh: History of Jungle music

Sunday, October 6, 2019 - 4:17pm

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Skepta / Courtesy of Facebook

Even 20 years after its heyday, the rallying call “junglist massive” is sure to raise hell in certain circles. One of the main appeals of jungle music is the variety of its appreciators (colloquially known as “junglists”) beyond the London youth who first championed and created it. From (fictional) Irish priests to many more beyond the British Isles, thanks to the internet and a brief revival, the manic energy that jungle can still conjure today is one of the main reasons behind its enduring popularity.

Jungle, like the hundreds of genres all sprouting up in the early and mid-1990s in North America and Europe, can loosely be traced back to house music, invented by black DJs in Chicago in the mid-1980s. Eventually, house jumped the pond and grew in popularity in the United Kingdom, especially among youth in urban centers such as London and Bristol. Already existing in these urban music scenes was the influence of Jamaican musicians through the form of dub reggae and dancehall. Jungle was the result of natural crossovers between the nascent House-influenced scene and these existing genres.

While house is characterized by familiar repetitive 4/4 beats, jungle redefined what it viewed as a rhythmic focus. Pioneers of the genre took breakbeats from a variety of genres and sped up, chopped and transformed them beyond recognition to lay the foundation for the aggressive raves where their tracks would be played. Combined with these breakbeats was heavily distorted, earth-shaking bass. This was a genre made for DJs to play around with at the (mostly illegal) raves in which the genre was first introduced to the public. And unlike a lot of music from the era, the genre still sounds fresh and futuristic, with much room to revive and experiment with today. Even fans of Aphex Twin, ostensibly someone who makes a widely differing form of music, can appreciate and recognize the unpredictable, intoxicating percussion of jungle in tracks such as “Flim.” 

Moreover, jungle retains a sort of utopian aspect to it, in that it is inseparable from a political ethos of multiracial equality, unity and anti-austerity against the Tory (conservative) government that held power in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and today. Ben Murphy of DJ Mag notes, “Jungle, though occasionally peppered with funk, reggae and euphoric rave samples, tends to be moody and dark … it’s a heads-down sound that revels in hypnotic or sometimes fearful vibes.” Jungle practitioner Dead Man’s Chest, in the same feature, says, “That it should be back at the fore when America is run by a bigoted businessman and political uncertainty reigns across the globe, propagated by duplicitous governments through social media, makes a certain kind of sense.” Jungle at its core is a form of rebellion against the divisive, harmful politics that the Trumps and Boris Johnsons of the world peddle against the increasingly multiracial societies their countries have been and are becoming. Part of the genre’s decline in popularity was its dogged refusal to become commercialized and to be used in peddling advertisements. 

Even though jungle is long past its prime, its influence has reached far and wide. The even more chaotic energy of drum and bass comes out of the original jungle sounds, not to mention the early works of grime pioneers such as Dizzee Rascal and Wiley as well as more modern practitioners such as Skepta, who have gained worldwide notoriety. Encouragingly, small revivals have been popping out. Producers who never actually lived through the scene are trying their hand at making jungle, and younger DJs are themselves introducing the classics into their own sets, proving the timeless nature of the genre as well as its uniting power.