Riding the Rhythm

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

Passion firmly established, notebook filled with want lists, Bukem began DJ-ing around the city. "It's funny," he says, "I can't remember the first-ever club I played at, but I remember, in the mid-'80s, all my friends and the people around me were all promoters putting on clubs and events, and I was always doing the gigs because I was the DJ of the area. Whenever someone was putting on a party, I'd definitely get a phone call. I wouldn't often earn any money, but I'd just go and play -- I just loved playing. I got recognition from that very early on, but only when I got given breaks by clubs like Confusions, Busby's Astoria in the '89-90 period. Then I went on to do Raindance, which is the biggest rave I'd done, in '91. It was only then that I started getting proper recognition for what I was doing in the underground."

Around the same time, Bukem was testing some of his self-produced tracks during his DJ sets, dropping them in to see whether his stuff would fly with the crowd. They did, and hearing these early tracks, especially his debut cut, "Demon's Theme," one realizes that it's no wonder: Starting with a peaceful, almost New Age atmosphere -- a synthesizer tone mixed with tropical birds singing their distinctive songs -- it was shocking at the time because of its mere beauty, which was a far cry from the anger and menace at the heart of the drum & bass music of the time. From there, the song gradually gathers momentum as a slow dubby bass acts as the rudder that guides the song on a steady course. It's simple and to the point. It booms. Then comes the standard jungle synthetic snares and toms, a perpetual breakbeat solo, one as relentless as it is magnetic. The drum and the bass are the stage, and Bukem builds a drama above as samples are hammered on top of samples and the track threatens to break under the weight of so much texture. Here's an African whistle; here's some strings; here's a stuttering distorted chorale sample; here's sound. Two things it's not, though: sinister and depressed. At its core are nature samples. Weird.

And beautiful. Whereas others where dealing in bad vibes, Bukem was creating music that was thick and pretty, with wide string swaths, dense shiny beats and a fusionlike sense of inclusion. It's a tone that was dismissed by the jungle community at the time as lacking backbone but embraced by a larger crowd alienated by the desperate nature (though totally great in its own way) of much drum & bass of the time.

LTJ Bukem:  "Inside of me there's loads of different styles, because I've been through so many different styles of music, and I really want to have fun in the studio."
N. Purser
LTJ Bukem: "Inside of me there's loads of different styles, because I've been through so many different styles of music, and I really want to have fun in the studio."

America was introduced to the sound of LTJ Bukem and Good Looking Records through a one-off major-label compendium of cuts called Logical Progression, which ended up as one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year it was released, 1996 (though much of the music had been released a few years earlier). It's one of the essential musical documents of the '90s, a brilliant time capsule of a landmark moment.

Throughout the '90s, Bukem has divided his time among his various responsibilities: the labels, the DJ gigs, the production work and his own compositions, which have usually consisted of the occasional 12-inch or EP. All are worth owning, and most can be found on one of the countless compilations his labels release. Nearly a decade after releasing "Demon's Theme," though, Bukem has landed with his debut full-length, Journey Inwards, a record that will perhaps throw some of his hardcore fans for a loop. The drum & bass is still wildly evident, but he mixes in some softer, less manic rhythms. Some recall early '70s Miles Davis jams; some recall classic Lonnie Liston Smith fusion.

Says Bukem of the departure: "I didn't chart it out at all. I just knew that inside of me there's loads of different styles, because I've been through so many different styles of music, and I really want to have fun in the studio. Whatever styles come out in expression come out, and I didn't want to hold any of that back. Obviously people were thinking that maybe I should just be doing a drum & bass album, but I totally disagree with that -- I think that's silly. The idea of making music is to make what you feel, not to make what people are telling you you should make. And that's why a lot of our musical society is broken down, I think. A lot of people make music for A&R men and dance floors, maybe, instead of making music from their heart."

LTJ Bukem performs at Velvet on Sunday, April 30, along with Good Looking Records producer/DJs Blame and Rantoul and emcees Conrad and DRS. St. Louis jungle DJ O.B. Juan kicks off the evening. Bukem will also spin at 7 p.m. that evening at Vintage Vinyl in the Loop.

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