Riding the Rhythm

LTJ Bukem takes a pragmatic view of the co-opting of drum 'n' bass by corporate America

You've heard the sound of drum 'n' bass. So has your grandma. She probably just doesn't realize that as she's glued to the TV, her Chihuahua on her lap, the music playing as the fancy new Ford Focus rounds the corner of the oceanfront highway during that cookie-cutter car commercial -- the music intended to provide the bang she needs to rush out and buy a Ford Focus -- exists in a genre all its own; that drum 'n' bass-heads who pride themselves on keeping cutting-edge are either smirking or totally pissed that the music they love is being co-opted by the Man in order to sell cars, Whoppers and CNN.

This is the reality of drum 'n' bass in America: You can either hear it at raves and club nights, where you'll find the young, hip and beautiful grooving to its frantic rhythms, or, oddly, you can park your ass on a couch, turn on the tube and sit and wait for the commercial breaks.

LTJ Bukem is at least partly responsible for the music's popularity in both American clubs and advertisements. His landmark tracks in the early '90s set London on its head, and over the course of the decade he and his countless record labels -- the umbrella Good Looking Records imprint and its subsidiaries, Looking Good, Cooking, Earth and 720° -- have continually expanded the scope of drum 'n' bass.

And though many jungle (a descriptive virtually synonymous with "drum 'n' bass") purists are understandably bummed at the music's leap from clubs to commercials, Bukem thinks it's great. "I'm all for that," he explains during a recent phone conversation, "because if I can get a chance to put one of my songs, unchanged, in an advert that gets heard and seen by millions, then let's go. There's obviously a line you gotta draw there. You don't want to put it on everything, but you can choose certain things and get some good publicity from it." The threat of his music's ending up intertwined with a television commercial doesn't bother him. "I don't think about that. I think about how many millions of people are now turned on to Good Looking Records, which will happen. People may say, 'You're the Volkswagen guy,' but some of them will say, 'You're the Good Looking Records guy,' and that's what means more to me than anything else. It's like a club environment: I don't care if there are 10,000 people there and only 1,000 actually understand what I'm doing and link with my mind and get into it. To me, that's what it's about."

The sound of drum 'n' bass is the sound of funk, techno, reggae and soul funneled through a frantic beatbox/drum machine/computer, distilled to a nervous thickness and infused with machine-gun snares and deep bass. It's a sound that draws on both American and British influences but that, at the time of its emergence in the late '80s and early '90s, seemed to have been dropped from an unidentified flying mother ship onto the streets of London. It sounded little like its influences because it wasn't derivative of them, but at the same time it sounded like a logical progression of each of the genres. Mainly, though, the music was the product of the collision of Britain's 1989 Summer of Love, the season during which techno exploded in the U.K., and the concurrent love affair the city had been having with American soul, rhythm and blues, jazz and groove music since the mid-'80s. This latter affair manifested itself as daylong parties where the music was spun, and LTJ Bukem (then known as Danny Williamson) was there, front and center.

"It was a mad time," he says from a hotel in Denver, a stop on his tour. You can hear the smile on his face as he lists the various DJs and club nights. "The mid-'80s soul, jazz, rare-groove kind of thing. You could go to Soul to Soul, Special Edition, Rapattack, Mastermind, Norman J., Gilles Peterson, David Radigan -- there were too many. There were radio stations doing all-dayers, all-nighters. It was mad. I was out every night of the week with a notepad and pen."

That a bunch of Brits were going crazy for the sounds of black America is nothing new, of course; it's what got the Beatles, the Stones and the entire British invasion running. Bukem, though, mentions another ingredient that was moving the early jungle DJs, one that's often ignored: "The mod-punk-rock thing that was going on in England -- the Jam, the Police, Bad Manners, the Specials, the whole Two Tone movement. There was something there that I got into and connected with. Some of the rhythms that those guys were beating out were not too different from what you now hear at the drum 'n' bass clubs, which is quite interesting. I could sit with my headphones on and listen to Rick Buckler of the Jam all day long -- same with Stewart Copeland -- as much as I could listen to jazz and soul."

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