Buoyant Beats for the Turbulent Twenties
The article below accompanies a DJ mix of resurgent jungle featuring recent releases (2017 — 2022) in a genre that’s remained largely underground for more than a quarter centry.
When I first heard jungle music nearly 30 years ago it was a transformative experience, combining a number of the genres I’d been listening to deeply (hip-hop, reggae, jazz, ambient, etc.). The stylistic juxtaposition made for an entirely new and futuristic musical form; a sound defined by sped-up hip-hop breakbeat samples sequenced into extended jazz-drum-solo-like patterns, underpinned by deep, rumbling, half-time reggae baselines made from 808 kick drums and other synths, with sampled layers of Jamaican dancehall, house, techno, and ambient washes over the top. Jungle truly spoke to me.
Its pinnacle came quickly. In 1994 and ’95 the growth of the sound was fast and furious as its creators, mostly based in London, pushed hard to see where the edges of their experimentation would take them and their dance-floor devotees. A couple of jungle hits climed the charts in that era, but only in the UK. The music never became mainstream in the US, and quickly faded out in the UK too; obscured by its own evolution into drum & bass. For me, something was lost in that translation as the sound became stripped down, darker, and more focused on audiophile sound quality than the raw, emotional dance-floor energy of its origins.
That more minimal form of drum & bass had a longer shelf life, remaining popular in the underground dance music scene throughout the 2000s. By the teens though, other UK bass genres like 2-step and dubstep had overtaken the reign of drum & bass, and aside from minor resurgences here and there, the original jungle sound remained deep underground.
But now, over the past few years something remarkable has emerged; a resurgence of quality jungle, true to its ’94-’95 roots, but with modern twists. Last year for example, Virgil Abloh (yes the Louis Vuitton artistic director and former Kanye West creative director who recently passed away) released a track with the otherworldly R&B vocalist serpentwithfeet called “Delicate Limbs.” It’s a modern jungle classic remixed by Special Request who’s just one of the artists diving head-on into the nu jungle resurgence. He often works with Tim Reaper, who’s sound sometimes feels like pure ’94 jungle euphoria.
Some of the originators are back too. Shy FX, who scored one of the few jungle hits back in the mid ’90s with “Original Nuttah,” is making new music that hearkens back to the creativity of original jungle, but updated with a nod to drum & bass precision. And artists like Chase & Status and Breakage who rose to prominence in the post-jungle, drum & bass era have been developing their own nu-jungle sounds too.
This time around though, it’s a more international scene. Aside from Americans like Virgil Abloh and serpentwithfeet, there’s Russian music from A.Fruit, and Kenyan vocalist Nah Eato raps over jungle in a mix of English and Swahili.
Even though jungle has been around for more than a quarter century, and I don’t tend toward nostalgia, listening to this music makes me elated. Maybe it’s because the sound was so transformative for me at a pivotal point in my young life. Maybe it has to do with the style periodically bubbling up from the underground but never quite becoming mainstream. Whatever the reason, this 21st century version of an under-appreciated sonic innovation from the end of the last century speaks to me now as much as it did then.
Give it a listen: