Generally with electronic music, it’s easy to follow the threads of DNA right back to the slurry of the original gene pool. Even today, all these long, cold, years on, we can trace them from their beginnings, slender filaments of light illuminating the creation of the genres. We can see the paths from soul and disco, from jazz and rhythm and blues, from primitive experiments on archaic synthesizers and drum machines which sounded like a child beating a tin can against the future. And we can see the eras webbed together, common highways always running forwards from their yesterdays and into the big bang of house and techno and everything else, and onwards. What ever other data might be hidden away in the invisible flow, there will always be the knowledge of the ways in which A became B.
There are gradual changes; tiny, cellular alterations which provide the foundations for the next step. It took time for Detroit techno, for example, to morph from its earliest forms, to exchange its experiments with house for a wider approach, and to slowly tighten the sounds, adding weight and philosophies, until the musical style the mid 90s bore few surface similarities with what Juan Atkins and others had being doing more than a decade earlier. House, too, took time to evolve. From disco to acid, to the interplay with harder European forms which sharpened the music. A slow change, played out over a decade and a half, led outward to a larger world. What is worth pointing out though is that the beginnings of house, like techno, are recognizable to the outsider, to the stranger whose interest in the music may be no deeper than the aural wallpaper of a club on a Saturday night. They know the rules to this stuff, they understand – largely – where it came from, even if they don’t realise it or care. The DNA forms deep, scarlet, channels through the chromium surface, as visible as the sun on a bright day.
With Drum & Bass, however, it’s not always so easy follow the paths. It’s not because D&B appeared suddenly from a vacuum, an emergent organism born out nothing more than an act of sheer will. The roots are there, the DNA is there. D&B grew just as organically as the rest, shoots of growth rising out from hardcore’s fertile garden of Eden, and bringing with it rave, and breakbeat, dub and sound system culture. Like all the others, it is a child of many parents.
Yet what astonishes even now is the speed it grew; virtually fully realised in the womb it arrived as something almost complete. When placed in its original time, amongst the other electronic brats, it seemed almost alien. It felt like a profound break with the past. The other genres, as futuristic as they are, are continuations, variations on a theme. D&B, though, was a year zero, its history curtailed, its growth accelerated. And the xenomorphic nature of the sound, the flexing, razor-edged, tendrils of its breaks, the curling, twisting bass, the interface of raw fury with delicate beauty, separated it from the others who were still finding their way. It was that rarest of things: something genuinely new.
There will be many people who don’t like Inner City Life, that it doesn’t embody the right stance, the right ethos, to represent a genre. Maybe they’re right. After more than twenty years I’m still a tourist when it comes to Jungle, skirting the land and looking for a way in. I’m a lightweight who remains happy to hear what there is to hear. What I know about it all you could write on a stamp. Even so, I think of this tune as something defining, something that encapsulates all of what I’ve just written. It’s easy to be cynical now, so long after the start, but when you get back to it, what remains shocking about Inner City Life is how beyond almost everything else it seemed to be. I don’t just mean house and techno, yet to break away from the worlds they lived in, but against the backdrop of the larger musical world, the charts, the rock, the pop. The language we developed, all the concepts of underground or overground, were essentially meaningless because this was music which existed in a time and place entirely of its choosing, with little regard for what came before or what would come after.
The shockwaves contract, change becomes ever more gradual, and it might be that Drum and Bass will eventually be remembered as the last true explosion of invention within electronica. Techno was always supposed to be the embodiment of a science-fiction mindset as music, yet here was a sound that really was all that, and more. it didn’t wear it on its sleeve; it simply was. An echo from a far future. And whatever else might happen, within its rolling thunder it made it possible to remember that regardless of how important the past, we always need tomorrow too.