Surviving the Jungle

Electronic music never erupted the way the faithful hoped it would, but jungle, and DJs like AK1200, still thrive in the underground

The 1990s brought two great technology hypes: the Internet and electronic music. Both were supposed to refashion the culture; both fell far short of their predicted impact. Both balloons fell back to earth – a host of Internet stocks can be had for pennies, and "electronica" poster boys like the Chemical Brothers are having trouble filling 1,000-seat venues on their tours.

Of course, dance music and the Net are still alive -- it's just that very few people made sustainable money on either. Some, though, managed to keep their shirts on and tucked in. How about Meg Whitman and AK1200? Huh? Not exactly household names, but both weathered the fallout. Whitman's the chief executive of eBay, and Orlando's AK1200 was one of the very first, if not the first, DJs to push jungle, the subgenre of electronic music that was hyped more than any other during the frenzy.

Jungle is the U.K.-born hybrid of techno and hip-hop built out of lightning-quick, jarringly syncopated breakbeats that you hear every time a hot rod does a doughnut out on the salt flats in a TV commercial. Originally, it wasn't meant to be X-Games theme music. It was supposed to recast the world of pop music in its own hypermodulated, drum-blitzkrieg image. Britain's music journalists heralded it as the only true musical innovation of the '90s.

Mark Poutenis

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Now, electronic music publications are falling over themselves to write jungle's eulogy in the gloomiest terms possible. "Yeah, that's always how it's been with the media and jungle," AK1200 (a.k.a. David Minner) remarks via cell phone while driving between Orlando and Miami. He was headed south to meet with the producers of a new Lakeshore feature film he will help score called Underworld. "The problem is that no one really understood it. It's not music for the neat club kids in their tight Gucci sweaters, and it's not for ravers lying in ecstasy puddles, either. It's really closer to hip-hop than electronic music – it's a whole world unto itself."

Ironically, the actual popularity of jungle is apparently not as grievous as the press wants to believe. Raves, which still draw tens of thousands of kids to parties each weekend across the nation, almost universally feature jungle DJs on at least one sound system. In the annual readers' poll in URB magazine, the leading American electronic music journal, jungle regularly wins out as the most popular style, despite the fact that its editors declared the music comatose multiple times.

"That's just how it's always been," AK1200 says. "Popular with the kids; missed by the magazines. We're never going to be superstars, but the crowds still keeping coming out."

You can blame AK1200 for a large share of that unacknowledged jungle ubiquity. The DJ's not quite the Bill Gates of the scene; more accurately, he's its Bill Joy. Come again? Joy is a much lesser known but arguably just as influential figure in the Internet nerd world – he created the Java language, which Web programmers use extensively. Without AK1200, jungle might easily have withered on the vine when it was obscure, bizarre and difficult to listen to. Now it's a little less obscure.

"Yeah, I'm definitely proud of where it's come to," he says. "I just happened to be the first guy doing it, but without people like me pushing it so hard, God knows where we'd be now."

His claims of being the first are difficult to verify, since a score of different American DJs were rifling through the same British imports all over the country. But AK1200 was certainly one of the very first to play it out, promote it, and swear by it. And he gave the genre a great leap forward with the Planet of the Drums summer tour he founded and organized. He rallied the troops for the tour – DJs Dieselboy, Dara, Messinian and himself – with a war whoop: "Our music has languished in small back rooms on undersized sound rigs for far too long. We are taking a firm stand – enough is enough.' Promoters need to either represent fully or not represent at all... and as Planet of the Drums we will not support those that try to use our scene strictly as a means to line their pockets."

What exactly are the natives so restless about? "It got to the point where 75 percent of the kids at a party would be coming to see one of us [Planet of the Drums DJs], but someone like [veteran house DJ] Donald Glaude would be in the main room and we'd be stuck in back," he remarks. "All we wanted was to be treated on the same level as any crowd-drawing talent would be."

AK1200 has actually garnered less exposure than his contemporaries – Dieselboy, for example, got the cover of URB recently. Meanwhile, AK's underrated debut album as a recording artist, Shoot to Kill, which dropped last September, barely caused a ripple. The disc features a host of guest producers, including wunderkinds Rob Playford and Danny Breaks, and vocalists like former A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg and toaster Junior Reid of Black Uhuru. The long-time-in-coming record, AK says, was his way of paying homage to the music that's fascinated him for well over a decade. Dieselboy called it "360 degrees of diversified sound" in Mixer magazine, adding for anyone who cares to know: "AK1200 is the foundation of the American drum and bass scene."

Diversity is AK's calling card. His discography, which consists mostly of mix CDs, reflects a deep inclusiveness rare among jungle selectors. While many DJs brand themselves with a particular subgenre – say, new school tech-step – AK1200 tends to pull from here, there and everywhere. The distinctions might be impossible to hear for the jungle novice, but his liberal taste is what makes programs like Prepare for Assault and Mixed Live (both Moonshine) more enduring than the 4,000 or so other jungle mixes released each year.

Despite listening to this specialized and quite esoteric music since its conception, AK1200 says its energy and ingenuity still blow him away. He's especially excited by the latest micro-movement within jungle – "there's a whole new school of jump-up starting to happen, and that's going to be the next thing, I think," he enthuses. "The bass lines are really techy, but they're melodic and they move around a lot. They go across the scale, instead of being real distorted and scary. I'm sure you'll be hearing it soon."

The irony of jungle, and electronic music in general, in 2003 is that although the mass market never really sat up and took notice, the authorities and lawmakers finally have. Congress is clogged with no less than three anti-rave bills, which call out electronic music by name. But despite the pressure, AK1200 reports that the parties are actually getting better "as more people become interested in the music, and less so in the drugs. Things had to evolve anyway – the promoters are getting smarter, and you know what? The music's getting better.

"As long as I can say that, I'm a happy man."

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