It's Halloween night. Two silver Technics turntables sit on the snack bar of a low-ceilinged student lounge at the Massachusetts College of Art, bathed in the iridescent glow of black-lit graffiti-art murals and psychedelic video collage. Wearing a white lab coat, ESP, a/k/a Mike Esposito, hovers over the turntables and sends frenetic shards of accelerated hip-hop beats skittering across the small room.
A crowd of 50 or so has gathered for the rhythmic ride. A skinny twentysomething artist dressed as Oedipus, eyes smeared with fake blood, and a bald woman, cigarette butts glued to her head, mingle with Tommy Hilfigered teenagers wearing exponentially oversized pants. The event, "Tricks and Beats," organized by the Boston-based Toneburst music and arts collective, is neither a rave nor a club nor a concert, but it is one of the few public opportunities in Boston to hear the sound that may yet bring electronic dance music to the masses: the unmistakable aural assault called drum 'n' bass.
A musical genre spawned by the UK rave scene around five years ago, drum 'n' bass -- or jungle, as it's often called -- synthesizes the relentlessly fast pulse of techno music and the funked-up groove of hip-hop (see "Jungle," Arts, page 14). The essence of the compositional technique is to take drum samples digitally lifted from jazz, funk, and hip-hop records, speed them up, rearrange them with computer editing tools, and lay them over sinewy bass lines moving at half the tempo. The result is a complex and fierce rhythmic stew that some say is impossible to dance to and others say is impossible not to.
Fast-forward a few weeks to Sessionz, a regular drum 'n' bass night at the Spot, on Boylston Street. Al Fougy, who hosted Boston's first drum 'n' bass club nights more than two years ago and has been a tenacious promoter of the music ever since, is cuing up a record in the DJ booth. After fiddling with it for two minutes, he looks disappointed. "Too damn slow," he says. "I like the speed."
Costumes aside, the crowd at Sessionz looks similar to the Toneburst audience: predominantly under 30, dressed down to dance rather than up to impress. There is one well-oiled couple, dressed in black, whose glam posturings stick out a little painfully among the laid-back kids in warm-up jackets and Mecca gear. The dance floor gets increasingly packed as the night goes on. Most dancers move in the jerky, twitching style that has become a characteristic accompaniment to drum 'n' bass, with some throwing in old-school break-dancing moves that pay homage to the music's hip-hop roots.
This scene is relatively small in the dance-music world; there are only three weekly drum 'n' bass club nights in Boston, compared with nightly opportunities to hear house, which is probably the city's most popular dance beat. But even within that small scene, differences are evolving: Toneburst and Sessionz, for instance, are distinct enough in atmosphere and sound that they could be considered the two faces of Boston drum 'n' bass.
Toneburst represents the more experimental side. Organized a little over a year ago by a group of students hailing mostly from Mass Art and Harvard, the collective has since hosted numerous events: multimedia feasts that include video, sculpture, poetry, food, and live electronic performances.
"We look at the events like installations," says Jake Trussell, a founding member of Toneburst. "The whole thing is like the work of art, as opposed to just focusing on the music."
From a musical standpoint, Toneburst members are not drum 'n' bass purists. Inspired in part by the New York City illbient scene and late-'80s UK rave culture, Toneburst exhibits a musical eclecticism that mingles drum 'n' bass with hip-hop, Jamaican dub and dancehall, ambient, and whatever else is floating around the fringes of electronica. At a September event called Junk (a contraction of "jungle versus punk"), drum 'n' bass DJs alternated sets with local punk bands and noise artists.
"I've been thinking about it in terms of lab experiments," Mike Esposito says. "By the nature of the type of experiments I've been trying to do -- and we've been trying to do in general with Toneburst -- I guess a style is emerging, but it's a style of experimentation and a style of testing out different possibilities.
Though Toneburst events occur irregularly, Toneburst DJs did organize a weekly club night called Microtone, held at Central Square's Phoenix Landing, in September. Microtone is tentatively slated to start up again when the bar finishes renovations in early 1998. In the meantime, Toneburst's particular take on drum 'n' bass can be heard on Herbanism , a CD produced by Trussell under the name Electro-Organic Sound System and released on Bliss, his own label. A Toneburst compilation CD should also be available in the next month or so, according to Esposito.
The other face of the local drum 'n' bass scene is more club-minded than Toneburst, but it wouldn't be fair to paint this aesthetic divergence as a rift. On the contrary, club regulars like Al Fougy, G White, and Lenore have played Toneburst gigs, and Toneburst members are quick to offer their support for drum 'n' bass promoters' efforts in the clubs. Fougy, the driving force behind Sessionz, and DJ Bill Crook of Bassline, a regular Tuesday drum 'n' bass night at Axis, are among those working more consciously to bring drum 'n' bass into Boston's clubland mainstream. But so far progress has been slow.
"It's not an easy music to get into," Fougy admits. "It's not one solid beat like the four-four time signature in house music, where you could be the worst dancer in the world but still get it 'cause the beat is so repetitive." Even so, Fougy sees drum 'n' bass primarily as dance music, an effort on the part of producers "to incorporate house music with that hip-hop flava."
In September 1995, Fougy's Jungle Roots party at Quest (now the Spot) became the first regular drum 'n' bass night in the city. His early crowds were made up of regulars at the Loft, where area house DJs Jason Mouse and Overload would spin an occasional jungle track between house records. Since then, the fan base has grown slowly; Fougy and Crook estimate that about 100 people attend their nights regularly, with larger turnouts for big-name DJs from out of town. Many DJs admit that attendees are fans already ensconced in the area rave culture. Crook, however, points out growing pockets of diversity that reflect the music's potential to bridge subcultural divides.
"People were talking on the Boston raves e-mail list about how a lot of punk -- no, hardcore -- kids were starting to convert to jungle because their scene was kind of dying. They were seeing similarities of a dark, hard, evil music, or however you want to put it. Another night, I caught some Gothic people [at Bassline]," says Crook, who got his start in New York City and moved to Boston to attend BC. "The scene's definitely growing."
Indeed, last spring saw the opening of 4 Front Records, Boston's first drum 'n' bass-only record store, located on Newbury Street. Owner Scott Gottesman, who spins at Sessionz as DJ Static, calls drum 'n' bass a "highly evolved form of dance music" that still suffers from underexposure in the Boston area. Although he asserts that "there is a market here in Boston" for drum 'n' bass, the store depends on a national mail-order service to sustain itself. As seems to be the case with most of the scene's DJs, Gottesman's almost obsessive dedication to the sound is what keeps him going: "If you're a junglist, you're a junglist. It's the power of the music driving us, no doubt."
Brynmore, a/k/a Brynmore Williams, an area DJ who spins regularly at Spacecakes, a Thursday event at Western Front, in Cambridge, takes an approach that seems typical of the Boston drum 'n' bass scene. He's dedicated to electronic music, but he doesn't feel constrained by the rigid subgenre divisions that usually limit what individual DJs play. Although he spins mostly drum 'n' bass, Brynmore does not consider himself a drum 'n' bass DJ.
"For me, if you're a DJ, it should be a story that you're telling," says Brynmore, a student at UMass/Boston. Translated into strictly musical terms, "telling a story" means blending other music -- techno, ambient, dub -- into the drum 'n' bass mix. "In that context, you see the relation between considerably different styles of music. You realize that it's all electronic music and the categorization of it is a bit pointless."
Brynmore's attitude may point to the most likely future of drum 'n' bass in Boston -- that it will find its place both in DJs' dance mixes and with serious critical listeners.
"Whereas the DJ has a job to provide and play good music and play it well, the listener also has a job to be critical enough and aware enough to understand if it's a good mix," Brynmore says. "I know that might be a tall order for a listener, but quality control comes from both ends. The goal for a Spacecakes audience is, yes, to dance, but also to appreciate weirdness and diversity when it's happening."
- Marcus Wohlsen