Conceptual funk

In the world of drum and bass, less is more

It used to be that the double album was a notable achievement—the apex of an artist’s career. The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Pink Floyd’s The Wall—these records signified a group’s fully realized artistic moment. But in the realm of jungle and drum and bass, double LPs have become so common that they’re almost mandatory. So the response to the recent double-disc sets from two of jungle’s most influential acts, 4 Hero and Grooverider, has been one of nonchalance. And who can blame the fans for this blas頲eaction after the grandiose statements of Roni Size/Reprazent’s New Forms, Photek’s Modus Operandi, and Goldie’s Timeless and SaturnzReturn?

4 Hero, Two Pages (Mercury)

Grooverider, Mysteries of Funk(Columbia)

In the case of Grooverider’s Mysteries of Funk, this is a shame. A man whose reputation and notoriety in the jungle scene is such that he’s commonly referred to as the Don, Grooverider delivered a magnificent record. Mysteries of Funk carries all the best of jungle—funk and soul redesigned to fit a new form—with seemingly endless hooks couched in superb production. The record sounds just as good on your home stereo system as it does on your local club’s dance floor—an achievement that Size, Goldie, and LTJ Bukem’s Logical Progression series have yet to equal. For all the hype surrounding New Forms, Size’s creation pales next to the Don’s raw power. Though Size has always claimed to care about funk, his magnum opus sounded more like a jungle-jazz hybrid, lacking the kick needed to overhaul a dance floor (unlike the Bristol producer’s 12-inches on Full Cycle and V Records, which sizzle by comparison).

If Size introduced the jazz-jungle hybrid to the mainstream, then 4 Hero perfected it on Two Pages. Depending on your vantage point, this will cause your heart to either swell or sink. Mine? It sinks. Never a fan of jazz (hold the gunfire, please) thanks to an overzealous jazz fiend called Dad, I cringe at the prospect of jungle unnecessarily fusing with other genres— a frequent and unfortunate occurrence. After jungle’s birth (which, admittedly, couldn’t have happened without the prior existence and influence of jazz, blues, and hip-hop), junglists began deviating from the form’s original hardcore noise. Jungle suddenly started to sound like musical soup, one big mushy mess (Bukem) with synths producing cheese instead of stupendous sounds, and with the artists reaching for sophistication by grabbing onto a sax solo and chopping it up into so many little bits.

A recent interview with Bristol jungle DJ/producer Krust had him snarling that jungle needn’t borrow from hip-hop or jazz to gain acceptance and accolades. No, he stressed, jungle should acknowledge the past, but create the future—borrowing from itself and feeding instead on its own young blood, rather than waiting for handouts from the musical establishment. Marc Mag and Dego, the duo behind 4 Hero, would probably disagree—they can’t wait to incorporate every other style. They don’t want to make drum and bass, but the new pop.

Creators of the indestructible track “Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare,” and part-owners of the influential label Reinforced, 4 Hero spearheaded the movement of junglists releasing long-players. But on Two Pages, all that jazz melts away the jungle. While the production is flawless—a construction of beats ripe with intricacy and sophistication that it took the duo years to perfect—the music drowns under Latin flavors and R&B-diva vocals; it’s riddled with esoteric lyrics, and drenched in so much reverb it sounds like a new-age production. Two Pages is so weighed down with hybridization that you can no longer hear the funk.

Why then, must we listen to two CDs of this? Well, because these drum and bass artists are big into concepts—elaborately designed themes tucked into every corner of the music. At least in 4 Hero’s case, there’s a message, though you may be hard-pressed to decipher the meaning of lyrics like “Feel the temperature rising . . . The golden sun shimmers on a hazy horizon/Quantum fluctuations lead us back to another reality.”

For Grooverider, the double record just means more music, with longer tracks spanning any and all areas of drum and bass. Mysteries of Funk, like New Forms or Goldie’s faulty epic, the 60-minute “Mother,” seems to be the result of its creator’s inferiority complex (i.e., If I don’t put out 300 hours of tough beats, everyone’s going to think I’m a one-hit jungle wonder!)

Aye, there’s the rub. Jungle artists are one-hit wonders: They communicate through the dance floor, and the tool of choice in that arena is—and probably always will be—the 12-inch. Jungle is worlds more forgiving than pop. Jungle artists can have one hit after one hit; change their names, identities, and styles; go in and out of vogue in ways pop stars can’t (something to which both 4 Hero and Grooverider can attest).

Instead of striving for excellence the way their rock ‘n’ roll forebears did with pretentious double records (What’s next? The quadruple record?), these artists should just accept that it’s a searing 12-inch that really brings it all home to daddy. For all of the sublime noise and graceful, artful packaging of Mysteries of Funk, it still comes down to one tune that makes your knees buckle, your lips tremble, and your feet quiver. “Where’s Jack the Ripper?”—nastiness sent through a tech-step shredder—delivers the point to the heart with a sharpened drum-and-bass arrow.

Where’s the funk? No mystery there at all.