Actually referring to this new music as jungle would, admittedly, be a stretch. These artists make music too broad to be encompassed by a single umbrella term, despite their prominent use of the amen break. But the genre's influence dominates. Even artists exploring other uptempo avenues, like Fracture or Om Unit, are unmistakably informed by jungle's production style. It's easy to see the appeal—the genre has long been associated with a powerful sense of rebellion, lending the music what Woolford has called an "illicit" energy.
"From a consumer's point of view, people are feeling a little bored of straight 4/4 stuff," says Jack Adams, who produces as Mumdance and makes jungle-inspired tracks with Logos. "It makes sense that people are going to be looking towards a more broken, breakbeat-driven sound to freshen things up."
He's keen to stress the difference between retro pastiche and using the sounds of the past to new ends. "It's very important to me to use influences as a foundational idea," he says. "It's never made any sense to me when people make carbon copy throwback tracks, as you're never going to better the originals. What Logos and I are trying to do is use old technology to create something new."
It's important to note that the amen break's history goes back further than jungle. Taken from a drum solo in The Winstons' 1969 track "Amen, Brother," it first appeared in the American hip-hop community in the late '80s, where it became an essential part of DJ sets and, with the advent of samplers, hip-hop tracks themselves. In the early '90s, British hip-hop DJs found it (and its lesser-known cousin the "Think" break) to be just the tool their comparatively lackluster scene needed. After its introduction to the UK, the amen infiltrated the emerging breakbeat hardcore genre, which soon adopted the break as a core sound. But as hardcore moved towards commercialization and commoditization, its adherents made the music faster and darker, stripping it of its house and techno influences. It's this strain that would come to be known as jungle.
The core of this sound was the cut-up drums, which were manipulated with remarkable intricacy. This form of the amen break, in all its speed-rush glory, is what made an indelible stamp on UK dance music at the time. Dogged by bad press and racism, jungle eventually fractured before being completely consumed by the precisely arranged percussion of drum & bass later in the decade.
Enter Special Request. Paul Woolford is an unlikely candidate for helping kick-start the amen trend, at least on the surface. A UK house staple in the 2000s, he had a major hit with "Erotic Discourse" before re-launching his career under the tutelage of Carl Craig. He emerged with bass-music informed 4/4 tunes like "Stolen" and "Razor Burn," but in 2012 he reinvented himself yet again. Woolford dropped his first two 12-inches as Special Request with little fanfare, but they were club dynamite, lacing powerful basslines with jungle breaks, giving braver DJs a chance to throw a little variety into their sets.
2012, the year when bass music producers turned to house and techno en masse, might have seemed like an odd time to start a jungle project. But for Woolford, it was a matter of capturing the energy of the music he grew up on. "I discovered jungle through hearing Shut Up & Dance records on PCR, a pirate station that broadcast from Bradford in the north of England. Those records sampled plenty of hip-hop records that I loved... what engaged me was the energy, initially, the speed of those records was really exhilarating. But not only that—they sounded completely different to anything, despite being constructed from composite parts of many familiar records." Special Request was a deliberate attempt to capture what he calls the "illicit" passion that made original pirate radio music so intoxicating.
Woolford's project channels jungle more than it replicates it. While jungle heads have been quick to note the resemblance between Special Request's debut album, Soul Music, and the golden era of Metalheadz, the Special Request material is designed with modern clubs and DJs in mind. There are big differences between Special Request records and old jungle tunes—not least in the tempos.
About half a year after those first 12-inches hit, another classic-sounding, breaks-heavy track crept into the scene. Sounding like 130 BPM UK house gone feral, Tessela's "Hackney Parrot" furiously hammered out a drum break, which was anchored by a screeching diva sample. More hardcore than jungle, "Hackney Parrot" tapped into the same groundswell of violent fury as Special Request. By the time it dropped in April of this year, it was ubiquitous.
Ed Russell didn't grow up on jungle. "My interest in it really started after seeing a documentary about the heady days of early 90's rave culture," he explains. "It was portrayed in such an appealing manner, like there was this new music and everyone was into it and going out every weekend having the best time of their lives."
He started incorporating elements from jungle as an attempt to capture some of this spirit, perfecting his formula with "Hackney Parrot" and earning the most praise of his career because of it. He's since signed to R&S and dropped the uncompromising Nancy's Pantry, three tracks of tightly-coiled breaks that draw from jungle records in spectacularly savage fashion.
Mark Pritchard is another producer who has returned to sounds he once loved. "There was a period I was playing a lot of dubstep, like Deep Medi and DMZ," he says, "and it was starting to change and become more about the mid-range, where I thought it was a little too cheesy. But I thought, well, if people are going to play this hype stuff, I need to go up a level—so I started playing some old jungle. Quite a few dubstep people were doing it. From that, I started to make some new tunes like that, but the tricky thing is to bring it forward but keep what was good about it in the first place."
After experimenting with higher tempos in his Africa Hitech project with Steve Spacek, earlier this year Pritchard retired his army of aliases to release music under his given name. So far he's dropped three EPs full of fast, hard-hitting music, with an emphasis on breaks and rapid-fire percussion. It's a move typified by "1,2,3,4," a striking collaboration with ragga jungle veterans The Ragga Twins. "When I did that track, people were like 'Alright, you brought them back out!'" Pritchard says. "But I'm not really bringing them back out—they've been doing stuff longer than me, they MC on the radio and at raves."
New jungle proponents have been surfacing as well. Take Lee Bannon, one of Ninja Tune's latest signings. Bannon was known as a hip-hop producer until recently—he's famous for crafting beats for the Pro Era crew, headed up by NY rapper Joey Bada$$—but Alternate/Endings, his upcoming debut album, is jungle to the core.
Bannon credits his interest in the music to growing up in Sacramento, a city with a healthy appetite for drum & bass. Even if the stuff he samples has more in common with hip-hop, particularly the recent deluge of atmospheric cloud-rap, it's unmistakably jungle in its execution. "I have a bigger hip-hop background," he says, "and coming from that, I can appreciate the complex chops. Jungle has a lot of the best elements I loved about hip-hop that hip-hop lost a long time ago."
Bannon's mention of chops brings to mind hip-hop DJs frantically scratching records and balancing the beat on turntables, a feat of dexterity mirrored in jungle's breathlessly chopped-and-diced drums. Alternate/Endings epitomizes this appeal: breaks tumble, flip and change speed at a moment's notice—you never really know where a track might end up. On cuts like "NW/WB" the drums are flung and stretched through a minefield of shouted vocals and manic synths. Bannon describes his music as "hardcore," and as "something that moves and has pure energy, soul and character."
Dublin's Ricky Force, born Rick Tucker, is another producer twisting jungle to fit his own blueprint. His recent productions, especially those on his own Pressin' Hard label, are a perfect 2013 update to the sound: massive, immersive and emotive, they sound hi-fi compared to the classic stuff. The breaks coast along on big gushing synths, recalling the ethereal explorations of LTJ Bukem's ambient jungle without the jazzy noodling.
"I kept hearing older and older tracks and thinking, 'Wow, this is incredible,'" he says, "Why on earth did the music go downhill so much? To this day I'm still hearing older stuff that I've never heard before that's so much more interesting than the more modern linear/hyper-engineered approach."
Like Bannon, Tucker is drawn to the technical aspect of the genre. "It's the raw fundamentals that grab me," he says, "the breaks, samples, speed and execution of the style. You just can't beat it. I try to hold onto them… I firmly believe you can constantly re-use these vital elements to create something that has not been done before."
These producers are only half of the bigger picture. Renewed interest in breakneck beats can be traced back to 2010, when footwork exploded onto the international dance scene through a spate of releases on Planet Mu (the Bangs & Works series especially) and a sudden interest the Chicago scene. The genre's sample-heavy sound was spiritually related to UK bass music, but delivered at a pace so frenetic it could make dubstep and garage sound glacial by comparison. The sometimes abrasive aesthetic made the music inaccessible to some, but many producers appropriated the genre's full-throttle thrust for their own ends.
Machinedrum and Jim Coles, who had just launched his Om Unit alias to explore bass music after years of producing hip-hop as 2tall, both used footwork as platform for bringing bass music up to high speeds. "Footwork music triggered it," Coles says, "which in turn plugged me back into my jungle roots. I'm shameless to say the timing is good, too, as there seems to be more interest in rave culture at this point. It's never really left me since the early '90s, but it does feel like a welcome return."
A series of edits Coles did as Philip K Dick in 2011 solidified the connection. Taking old jungle tracks and chopping them up footwork-style, Coles connected the dots so perfectly you wonder why it didn't happen sooner. He managed to present footwork in a familiar UK context, and helped make jungle seem relevant again.
Coles' productions as Om Unit have crept up to drum & bass tempo, landing him on genre institutions like Metalheadz and Exit—a once-rare crossover that in 2013 just seems natural. A key aspect of his productions is what Laurent Fintoni has described as "slow/fast"—putting fast rhythms on top of slower samples and changing tempos mid-track. Coles, Pritchard and many others are trying their hand at this, and there's no doubting its role in the music's allure: it introduces a sense of dynamics into the drum & bass structure, which has often been criticized for being stodgy and rigid.
A few months after the Philip D Kick experiment, drum & bass producer Charlie Fieber, AKA Fracture, landed a crossover hit with the storming "Get Busy," starring his horror-obsessed alter ego Dawn Day Night. Fattening up footwork with some heavy drum & bass percussion, "Get Busy" was an infectious banger that managed to turn heads from all sectors of bass music. It felt rooted in the UK but indebted to the distinctly American footwork sound, setting off a new phase in Fracture's career defined by careening drums, tempo shifts and oddball sounds.
"What I liked about footwork was the emphasis on groove and hooks as opposed to production and engineering," says Fieber. "It had the rawness I love and it also didn't take itself too seriously. Those things alone were a massive inspiration. If I look back to what I was into when growing up it was The Beastie Boys, hardcore jungle and bands like Nirvana. To me they all have a common thread in that they're super raw and the focus is on the writing. I wanted to bring those influences back."
The UK-US exchange goes both ways: the music of footwork kingpins Rashad & Spinn has come to incorporate amen breaks and jungle influences, after the duo were introduced to it while touring in the UK. Tracks like Rashad's "I'm Too Hi" work the amen into a footwork template, reverse-engineering the experiment Om Unit pulled off two years earlier.
Jungle and hardcore have also found new exposure elsewhere, popping up in the music of US crews like Fade To Mind and Body High, where breaks are a natural part of the fabric in a new multi-genre context.
"You have to remember that a Think break and sampled chords do not automatically equal jungle," Adams points out. "There's been a noticeable return to that stuff, which in itself was a product of US producers taking UK hardcore tracks and appropriating them for their own means, so when you look at it like that it's almost a perfect storm of cross-pollination and musical synergy, setting the scene for this sound which is starting to emerge."
Even if the ideas are less revolutionary this time around, jungle's anything-goes spirit lives on. These artists are taking the genre and putting their own spin on it. Their work is far from a trip down memory lane, though it retains the original music's most important attributes—fast, freewheeling and physical, it's some of the most irresistible dance music in recent memory.