Renegade Snares: The Resistance And Resilience Of Drum & Bass
(Jawbone Press, 2021)
Every genre of music has its myths, and drum and bass is no different. Renegade Snares joins a bibliography of recent titles, not to mention reissues and repackages, taking to task a resurgent interest in junglism, its origins, and its cultural legacy. Written jointly by Ben Murphy and Carl Loben, it uneasily stakes ground between hagiography and oral history. Renegade Snares is not merely concerned with jungle’s urban UK origins—as a late 1980s derivation of rave and breakbeat hardcore music. Rather, it is invested with the music’s later pretensions to the global, as embodied by the international reach of such genre stalwarts like Goldie and Dillinja, as well as by the pop-wise embrace of the genre’s elements by artists like Björk. Though the book is far from uncritical, it is cautiously celebratory, leaving the conventional historiography of drum and bass fundamentally unbothered. In this vein, it shadows jungle’s favoring of the in-group, taking few liberties with the kind of subjectivity that makes the music what it is. All of which is to say, it is a text clearly written for—and by—the heads.
Nonetheless, Renegade Snares takes considerable pains to center the music as a fundamentally Black British export, one entangled with transnational nodes locating it within the Jamaican sound system convention, and paradoxically lending the genre a seemingly post-racial and recuperated appeal. To read Renegade Snares, then, is to bear witness to Black Secret Technology and to the gloss: the book is a litany of lists, name-checks, and who’s who echoing the sequenced and often collaborative nature of the music in question. Though written in journalistic prose, it manages to be as encyclopedic as drum and bass music at its most focused and historically astute. Renegade Snares is dense with references and simultaneously atomized and expansive—as well as basically textual.
Any given golden-era (1991–95) jungle track is an exquisite corpse of generic styles and sonic histories that come together to produce what Murphy and Loben gleefully term mini-suites of “Amen-breaking … impossible symphonies.” The most important factor in jungle is the breakbeat. These were initially sampled from jazz and funk tunes, and manipulated on hardware with limited RAM, stretched to 160 beats per minute and beyond. Renegade Snares aspires to similar tempos, but where the book really shines is in the biographic detail it affords to its subjects. The book is worth reading for the chapter on Goldie alone; it is not unlike his music. At turns vulnerable and epic, it ranks among the most powerfully sympathetic treatments of an artist who, while sometimes seen as a caricatured avatar of drum and bass itself, has yet to be completely or evenly appraised.
Along this axis, Renegade Snares provides brief glimpses of each artist or DJ or promoter’s bildungsroman, highlighting rhizomatic exchange, and concerning itself with how to render agency. The chapters chronicling the awkward pop embrace of DJ Rap and the rise of Metalheadz label-founding duo Kemistry & Storm are similarly potent, dealing at once with the scene’s sexist, gate-keeping paternalism that made their success as women DJs unlikely, as well as with Kemistry’s tragic death in 1999. While reading the book, it occurred to me that what possibly distinguishes this from other entries in the same genre is the sheer number and caliber of artists who made themselves available to speak on the record. OG junglist pioneers like 4hero, A Guy Called Gerald, Congo Natty, et al., all make meaningful appearances here, along with lesser-known but still central figures like Ragga Twins and Lennie de Ice.
Each musician offers spirited wisdom, taking obvious pleasure in speaking to memory. Their stories form the crux of Renegade Snares, and they are entertaining to read. Yet, in rendering the testimonies of jungle’s elder statesmen, the book’s authors seem to have passed up the opportunity to present much in the way of generative conflict, and instead seem to minimize differences. The book touches on some alternate aspects of jungle’s history—read: the mid-1990s “junglist committee” controversy, which centered debate around whether DJs, vocalists, or producers formed the genre’s vanguard—but the larger contexts feel curiously under-explored, as if the book is more interested in rebuilding connections than reexamining the past. The book’s impressive level of access is no doubt due to the pedigreed authorship: Murphy and Loben are past and present DJ Magazine editors-in-chief. Despite this, Renegade Snares at times lacks critical mass. Somewhere in the book there is a sharper historical argument—a guiding question other than why now?—but it hesitates to reveal itself more fully.
Ultimately, Murphy and Loben’s writing feels most thoughtful when re-assessing the sense of community drum and bass has spawned. Music aside, it is this quality that is jungle’s most edifying, what makes it stand out among electronic sub-genres. Toward the end is a brief sort of credits, shouting-out the ones who didn’t make it, who went solo or “back to day jobs,” who went deeper underground, etc. It seems a poignant and respectable way to end it. In music right now, there is a (particularly obnoxious) premium placed on forms readily marketable as “forward-thinking.” Renegade Snares doesn’t pretend to cultural history, no more than it lays claim to its place among the sonic scripture, but it succeeds at mirroring the past.