Article by Natalie Esquire, SuperSuper Magazine #20 2009 (not reproduced in full)
Rewind to a now infamous documentary on prime time BBC. A girl with hugely dilated pupils is staring into the camera and talking/shouting ten to the dozen about a new sound which ‘touches you here’ (points to her heart) ‘and touches you here too’ (points to her, er, bits!). Welcome to the club night Speed which was located, for those familiar with the geography of London, behind the Astoria on Sutton Row – near where Ghetto (itself home to such seminal clubs as Nag Nag Nag) used to be. The sound she’s talking about is one which is characterised by uplifting melodies, euphoric crescendos and choppy vocals that move hand in hand with fast flowing drum beats.
This is a sound which at its peak had record companies putting literally millions of pounds on the table in an attempt to buy into what the broadsheets and the wider musical press were hailing as being ‘the future of music’. One that was born out of a collective desire to develop a genre from darkness into the light; a fledgling scene which redefined and split a musical genre in two. A scene with so much importance that its pivotal club night Speed saw many a 90s icon (from Bjork to All Saints to the in vogue Brit Pop stars of the moment) regularly pass through its doors in search of sonic inspiration, and where the then (pre-BBC era) ‘tabloid bad boy’ Goldie chose to stage fist fights wit, amongst others, his nemesis and Bjork love-rival Tricky. One that, rather strangely considering all the optimism and hype that surrounded its inception, seems to have been all but forgotten by those writing the history books of late 20th century culture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the sound of ‘liquid’ or ‘intelligent’ drum & bass…
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
– Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning
As the rave sound began to diversify, the element that came to become drum and bass developed out of this world into an exclusive genre. Before long, sub-divisions within the then nascent D ‘n’ B scene began to form, with DJ and producer LTJ Bukem using this split in musical sensibility to begin developing his trademark melodic strand of the music. However, the full potential of this sound wasn’t realised until Bukem and partner in crime, Fabio, started the infamous club night Speed at the Mars Bar in 1995 that the liquid drum ‘n’ bass sound truly came into its own…
According to legendary BBC Radio1 DJ Giles Peterson, “Not since the first days I started Dj’ing at the Electric Ballroom have I had such a rush as at Speed”, while LTJ Bukem notes that Speed was a “very pivotal point” for both himself and the scene in general. It first launched on Monday nights but initially struggled to pull in the crowds. However, aided by the fact that Bjork was regularly seen hanging around the club with her fiancee Goldie (and the small matter of a switch to Thursdays), Speed soon became the place to be. i-D Magazine ran a piece on the club in March 95, and on visiting found ‘the sounds are immaculate: divine harmonies and crystalline breaks that float and massage the dancefloor… at times it looks like a scene from William Gibson’s imagination as sci-fi, skate and B-Boy fashions collide under the sounds of the next millennium’.
Amongst this diverse crowd of devotees in attendance you could also typically find everyone from Calvin Klein clad media types, to key drum and bass figures such as Dillinja, Grooverider (and the not-so-key Noel Gallagher), to what i-D identified as ‘stray hippies and tantric types taking to the floor for some wildly expressive dancing, while small groups of skinny boys lean against the speakers and solemnly nod to the rhythms’. Speaking of their visit to the club, Kruder and Dorfmeister stated “we went to Speed and it was one of those magic nights which you have maybe three times in your life.” Resident DJ Fabio soon took heed of liquid’s potential and started Speed’s ‘sister night’ Swerve at London club, Velvet Rooms, while LTJ was able to bring his particular spin on the sound to his regular ‘Progression Sessions’ night at the Ministry of Sound – no mean feat given that (fuelled by numerous CD releases and ‘superstar DJ’ residencies) this was the peak of Ministry’s reign over the prevalent dance/’superclub’ culture of the time.
The atmospheric sound championed by the likes of Bukem, Blame and Fabio at these nights was packed full of jazzy piano licks, etherial uplifting synths and deeply rooted sub-bass, which correlated perfectly with the ‘out-of-this-world’ aesthetic of the solar system used on Bukem’s Logical Progression series. The popularity of these mixed compilations brought increased exposure, including a further Progression Sessions residency at legendary London club The End (later home to Erol Alkan’s famous ‘Trash’ and the DURR night), and saw the label’s roster embarking on huge international tours.
But it didn’t last forever, and the glory days would soon be over. Hard drum and bass eventually pushed the intelligent movement aside and although people often speculate about a reincarnation of the scene via the ‘liquid funk’ sound, intelligent drum and bass is part of musical history that never truly returned. It’s all part of the circle of life in the music industry, something ‘Rip it Up and Start Again’ author and confirmed liquid D ‘n’ B fan Simon Reynolds cites as the ‘life cycle of genres’. Genres are born, they live, they die and if they’re good, they might experience a reincarnation… but always in a different, slightly altered form.
How come this sound got so incredibly close to global movement status that it could see it, but never fully taste it? It’s hard to understand how intelligent drum and bass could be internationally adored from Europe to the Americas, Asia and back again, yet barely exist fifteen years later. Sony Music reps were like crazed gamblers on the Vegas strip, literally throwing million dollar deals at it, yet amazingly, these deals were never snapped up on the basis of retaining independent integrity and the scene was eventually dealt that dreaded ‘downwards spiral’ card. Trophy nights Speed and Swerve closed their doors, along with the genre’s seminal label, Good Looking Records.