By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
If anyone should understand the pitfalls of being labeled, it's DJ/producer Roni Size. Back in 1997, on the release of his innovative platter New Forms, made in conjunction with a crew collectively known as Reprazent, he emerged as the most public face of the dance-music style dubbed "drum & bass." But whereas that was fine when drum & bass was the flavor of the week, it became something of a drawback when fashion monitors moved on to other trends. Although In the Mode, Size and Reprazent's second full-length album, put out late last year, was a wide-ranging and eclectic offering that should have appealed to Americans of a wide variety of tastes, it was largely ignored by the anti-dance contingent in the U.S., who figured it was more of the same, even as it perplexed many homegrown drum & bass heads, who discovered it wasn't what they expected.
Yet Size, speaking from his native England, claims not to care whether he and his music are described as drum & bass, jungle, or whatever. With characteristic forthrightness, he says, "Call me anything but a cunt."
After delivering this salvo, Size laughingly tries to retract it (too late!). Still, he never refutes the sentiment behind his impolitic proclamation. Dance music, like every other musical form, has its share of rules and regulations, but Size sees no reason he should be limited by them. "Maybe the reason radio isn't picking up on what we're doing in different areas is because they don't feel we're working toward their format -- and we're not," he says, his accent thicker than most of his mixes. "There's no drum & bass station in America that I know of. But we are working toward a format. It's just that the format is in our world. The format is in our heads."
As Size sees it, his music "comes from all my experiences," beginning in Bristol, the English coastal city where he was born to a Jamaican couple who moved to Great Britain in the '60s. The family was hardly well-off, but, he says, "It was a great upbringing. I had brothers and sisters, so there was a lot of music around -- a lot of soul and R&B, before rap started. I can remember when rap was born, but before that I was interested in a lot of things, like reggae and really early Michael Jackson. I loved Off the Wall."
Given the danceability of Jackson's pre-Thriller solo material, it was only natural that Size would be drawn to DJ culture. "I learned to pick it up really quickly," he says. "In school, I was trying to do sums and write literature and learn French, and I just couldn't pick it up that quickly. But when I put my hand on a turntable and started to perform, it was instant. I didn't have to read a textbook on how to mix, you know what I'm saying? I just learned to mix right away, and then I was, like, 'What's next? A drum machine? OK, turn that on. What's after that?'"
Initially Size had no delusions of grandeur: "I used to make music just for me, just for the shelf. I'd leave it there, and I was quite happy to do that. But then my music started to get out a little bit -- I got recognized. Before that, I was at college studying, and the music was coming second in my life, really. But it kicked in when I was in college, because I had problems trying to get the grades. So I dropped out of college and focused on music. It was really my last resort."
In 1993, Size, with friends Suv, Krust and Die, who are members of Reprazent to this day, formed Full Cycle, an independent imprint, and began making music together. Two years would pass before Size and Reprazent signed with a larger company, Talkin' Loud, and another two before the delivery of New Forms, a collection of spare, brittle, enthralling dance tracks. Size covered a lot of territory on the set, moving effortlessly from the full-court press of "Railing" to the gentle spaciness of the title track, and he was repaid for his ambition with the Mercury Music Prize, widely viewed as the most prestigious award the English music industry bestows. The plaudit was accompanied by 25,000 in cash, which Size promptly donated to the Basement, a youth center where he'd first gotten the chance to DJ. He calls this act "the one thing I'd like to be remembered for."
New Forms was a huge hit in Europe, but it made only modest incursions into the U.S. market. So when reviewers discovered that In the Mode featured expanded roles for Reprazent's emcee, Dynamite, and principal vocalist, Onallee, as well as guest appearances by the likes of Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan fame, Rahzel from the Roots and erstwhile Rage Against the Machine haranguer Zack de la Rocha, most of them concluded that Size was making an overt bid for stateside success. But Size bristles at this suggestion, noting (accurately) that none of the superstar cameos appears in a piece ready-made for airplay. "Ghetto Celebrity," with Method Man, is a relentless rhythm-fest that goes on for nearly seven minutes; "In Tune With the Sound" pits Rahzel's very human beat-boxing chops against Size's electronic variations; and "Centre of the Storm" allows de la Rocha to take lyrical swings at New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with regard to the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who died in 1999 after four NYC cops pumped a total of 41 bullets into him. (Since when are lines such as "So to the mayor/May I say I/Endorse the wholesale murder of your force/Of course" guaranteed tickets to the hit parade?) Furthermore, even the recording's single, "Who Told You?" eschews easy hooks in favor of a tone that's dark and jittery. The tune, and the album as a whole, don't sell out; they raise the stakes.