When Lincoln Barrett started making drum’n’bass tracks in the late 90s, he says, “people were kind of mocking me for being into it. People were already saying drum’n’bass is dead. Going into the record shop in Cardiff, Catapult, you would kind of get the piss taken out of you by people who were, I guess, into trance.”
He laughs. In the intervening period, Barrett became High Contrast, one of the most respected drum’n’bass producers in the world: he’s about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his debut album, True Colours. Drum’n’bass, meanwhile, has steadfastly refused to die – in fact, it is enjoying an unexpected moment in the sun, freshening up 2022’s pop music. “It’s people who aren’t really part of the drum’n’bass scene just coming through and doing jungle in their own way, and it’s really in a separate lane from established artists and what drum’n’bass is now,” says Barrett. “It’s amazing that it’s been led mainly by young women artists as well.”
At its most extreme, the pop drum’n’bass wave has manifested itself in Australian producer Luude’s breakbeat reworking of Men at Work’s 80s hit Down Under, a Top 5 novelty hit that features Men at Work frontman Colin Hay and that, as the journalist, author and presenter of the Drum&BassArena awards, Dave Jenkins, delicately notes, “has caused all kinds of debates”. He laughs as he quotes drum’n’bass legend Shy FX: “If any self-respecting drum’n’bass DJs play this, they need to look at themselves hard in the mirror and slap themselves twice.” At last count, the track had racked up 102m streams on Spotify alone.
Less obviously adjacent to the fromagerie, there are the artists whose work finds its way on to Spotify’s Planet Rave playlist, apparently the fastest-growing playlist on the platform among 18- to 24-year-olds. Not everyone on it deals in drum’n’bass. There are latterday two-step garage producers, people dabbling in trance, old-fashioned hardcore and even the occasional appearance from venerable electronic artists including Aphex Twin. That notwithstanding, the sheer volume and variety of artists wedded to 175bpm breakbeats seems striking. There are indie bands dabbling in drum’n’bass, not least Porij, with the wispy My Bloody Valentine-esque single Figure Skating. There are hyperpop-adjacent artists welding super-fast breaks to four-to-the-floor kick drums. There’s PinkPantheress, the bedroom producer and chart star whose track Reason has done much to break the genre open to a gen Z fanbase. There are emo-seeming types with manga illustrations instead of artist photos, lots of Xs and Vs in their names and song titles that one assumes are tongue-in-cheek: xxtarlit has an online mix called Bad Goth Bitch Music To Cut/Worship Lucifer To.
There is Vierre Cloud, a 20-year-old Australian catapulted to online ubiquity when a Fortnite gamer used one of his tracks as the closing music on his YouTube videos And Nia Archives, a half-Jamaican, Yorkshire-born singer/producer/DJ who claims inspiration from Roni Size, Remarc and Lemon D, writes tracks that deal with mental health and body dysphoria, has been outspoken in her attempts to attract more women of colour into the drum’n’bass scene and shows every sign of becoming a breakout star.
And there is goddard., a fan of august drum’n’bass labels Hospital and Ram in his teens, who makes soulful vocal tracks that seem aimed squarely at the dancefloor, but which clock in at pop-single length; hardly anything he does exceeds three minutes. “When I was studying at uni, one of the things we spoke about was people’s attentiveness through the digital revolution, how it has shortened,” he explains from his studio in Kettering, Northamptonshire. “The necessity of grabbing people’s attention straight away, and maintaining that, is really important. When you’re making stuff to release on streaming services, you have to think: are people going to listen for five minutes? Probably not. It’s just how we’ve evolved.”
Almost all of it has a distinct pop edge: even the artists with the manga imagery and the dark song titles have a tendency to sample the cute strains of Opus III’s It’s a Fine Day or Ellie Goulding’s Starry Eyed. Indeed, there seems to be an entire sub-genre, pitched somewhere between drum’n’bass and bedroom pop, that sets breaks against soft, wide-eyed-sounding female vocals: Yaz’s Mr Valentine; Take Van’s Time Goes By; oOo’s Frou Frou-sampling Wedbecutetoget-her; piri and Tommy Villiers’ feathery Soft Spot, and Beachin’.
The latter duo are a couple; they went on a date in Manchester and subsequently started making music together in a bedroom studio. Their ambitions were modest – piri says she paid three TikTok creators to use Soft Spot in their videos and asked for support from the online community Manchester Student Group – but it went viral: it currently soundtracks 110,000 TikTok videos, featuring everything from footage of someone laying a laminate floor to advice on how to get rid of period cramps. Charli XCX announced it was her preferred gym soundtrack (“it goes so hard”) while PinkPantheress – whose use of drum’n’bass breaks was “massively influential” on their sound – DMed the duo to tell them she loved the track. “I think people just haven’t taken a very pop angle on drum’n’bass beats until recently,” says Piri. “It makes it more accessible if there’s a pop song over the top of it, these dreamy vocals, because a lot of people won’t just listen to instrumental music, they need a vocal and song. And obviously, drum’n’bass is sick.”
The question of what has prompted all this is an intriguing one. Clearly some form of nostalgia plays a role. Sometimes it appears to be the rosy second-hand variety involving an era you’re too young to remember: Planet Rave is thick with twentysomething producers using graphics derived from old PlayStation games or calling tracks things like planet1995; producers seem enthralled by the way drum’n’bass was made in an era before technology advanced (“Adam F’s Circles, that’s one of the best drum’n’bass tracks ever,” says Villiers, “and I don’t know how it was made, but it definitely wasn’t on a Mac, man”). Sometimes it’s more direct and personal. “I grew up around soundsystem culture, as half of my family are Jamaican, and I was always drawn to that sound, the drums and the distorted bass,” Nia Archives told an interviewer this year, adding – and any original junglists may want to look away now, lest they feel impossibly ancient – “my nana loves jungle”.
Jenkins points out that drum’n’bass enjoyed one of its few pop crossover moments in the middle of the average zoomer’s childhood. “DJ Fresh had the first-ever drum’n’bass No 1 with Hot Right Now 10 years ago. Then you had Sigma and Matrix & Futurebound, artists who could see the potential to experiment with songwriting and see if drum’n’bass could exist in the mainstream. It was controversial at the time, there was a kind of jumping the shark moment when Sigma collaborated with Take That … but when you’re young and you get that first flavour of something, you can dig deeper and refine your tastes. I think that it brought this tempo and those type of breakbeats to the mainstream pop vocabulary and this is what we’re enjoying now.”
Perhaps there are other, more prosaic reasons. goddard. thinks it might be bound up with global events over the past couple of years, that the in-your-face exhilaration of fast breakbeats provided both escapism during lockdown and a perfect soundtrack when pent-up kids were allowed out. “I think when lockdown happened, people like [DJ] Dom Whiting came along, making videos of himself on his bike, playing drum’n’bass, just on his own, then you’d see people coming out of their houses because they were low and this music made them feel happier. That really put drum’n’bass out there publicly, for every type of listener, because it was just good energy. [Post-lockdown] feels like a very exciting time for drum’n’bass because it feels like there’s a lot of energy in the air.”
Piri, meanwhile, suggests pop artists might have gravitated to the genre because of the way music is disseminated in 2022. No latterday artist I speak to has come up through the more traditional route of having their music played in a club – all of them have relied on social media for exposure. “You can get a lot of information from the song in a shorter period of time. It keeps you stimulated,” she says. “A verse in a house song is going to be longer than a verse in a drum’n’bass song. On TikTok, you have to make a very strong vibe in 15 seconds, and in drum’n’bass, you can get a whole chorus within 15 seconds, just because it’s faster.”
The means by which people now access music might also account for the current wave of producers’ preference for one specific area of drum’n’bass’s history: on Planet Rave you hear a lot of tracks audibly influenced by jungle, the raw, reggae-influenced, sample-friendly precursor that, as Barrett points out, “was seen as ancient history” by the late 90s. “For a long time, the drum’n’bass production standard has been insanely high,” says Jenkins. “I think we’re finding an inverse situation where a new generation has come through and they’re like: ‘I don’t care about the mixdowns, I’m listening to this through earbuds’ – especially in the last two years, when they don’t even have to think about club reactions at all. Those really rough, energetic, scratchy breaks have come back in a big way. If you put incredibly well-produced sub-bass on a track, it’ll be lost completely on people who are watching TikTok on their phones.”
What happens to all this stuff in the future is a moot point. It could be a fad, it could produce lasting stars, it could establish itself as a permanent fixture in the pop landscape. “Maybe there’s a degree of fickle hipsters,” chuckles Barrett. “I guess if it’s going to have legs, it’s down to whether this new generation are not just thinking about what it was 20 years ago, they’re using it as a tool today, to make something different.”
Not that its continued success or failure will affect the longevity of drum’n’bass itself, he says. “It’s out there on its own in terms of tempo, it gives an energy that no other genre can, so it just sounds great at festivals, in a rave, outdoors … There will always be a market for that, because you’re not getting it anywhere else. People will always want that energy boost.”