History Sessions: DnB Enters The Mainstream (1996)

In 1996, Dance music’s reign at the forefront of public consciousness had mostly been eclipsed by the rise of Britpop, with Bands such as Blur, Oasis, and Supergrass, providing the soundtrack to a distinct period of British cultural identity that had resulted in the whole “Cool Britannia” phenomenon. Bubbling away in the background however, and now freshly detached from the jungle scene (which had since sunk into oblivion), drum & bass was busy carving out its own place in this perceived cultural upsurge of the mid-90’s.

Unlike the Rave, Hardcore, and Jungle which preceded it, Drum & Bass was positively embraced by the wider music community. Radio One was now hosting a weekly show called ‘One In The Jungle’ which was a fantastic conduit for getting the music out to those previously outside the reach of pirate stations, and after the success of Goldies ‘Timeless‘ album artists such as Photek, Wax Doctor and Alex Reece were securing major record deals.

However the major labels had gambled that Drum & Bass would become ever more sophisticated with an increasing shift towards live instrumentation, yet it was the opposite that proved true. Hopelessly mired in hotel lounge saxophones and clichéd fender Rhodes licks, the artier side of D&B proved that it could be just as creatively bankrupt as any other. With the exception of Roni Size’s Reprazent outfit which won the Mercury Music Prize in 1997, most of those who had secured major deals were fading stars that had already produced their most innovative and defining work.

For me, the best music being produced was coming from established independent labels such as Moving Shadow and Metalheadz who had built their own empires from humble beginnings and still maintained complete control over their output. Likewise, Bukem’s Good Looking Records managed to establish its own distinctive sound that balanced soothing ambient sensibilities without ever losing sight of the dancefloor, and looked set to be the first D&B label to achieve major success outside of the UK.

What I really like about the D&B scene in 96 is that creatively it was still a blank canvas – Breakbeat enthusiasts still found new ways to dissect and arrange classic funk breaks whilst others experimented with the new 2-step beats made popular by Alex Reece’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ – Bukem’s warm floaty soundscapes battled with No U-Turn’s baron dystopian wastelands – The improvised live instrumentation of Intense contrasted the militant planning and precision of Boymerang – Complex ideas met simplistic ones – organic sounds met digital – the old met the new…

I tried to reflect a bit of that diversity in this month’s mix by showcasing some of my favourite ambient D&B alongside the harder amen tear-outs and early techstep. The scope for being able to shift styles around in this way makes 1996 one of my favourite years when the music was still fresh, and the rules that dictate it must fit a certain criteria were yet to be written; its limitation was simply the imaginations of those who were creating it.

Download “1996 DnB Mix”

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