Riding the Rhythm

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

Apr 26, 2000 at 4:00 am
You've heard the sound of drum & 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 & 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 & bass in America: You can either hear it at raves and club nights (on various evenings, Kearbey's, the Red Sea and the Upstairs Lounge all feature drum & bass), 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 & bass.

And though many jungle (a descriptive virtually synonymous with "drum & 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 & 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 mothership 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 UK, and the concurrent love affair the city had been having with American soul, rhythm & 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 & 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."

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.

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.