Turf Wars: Overcoming the Elitism of Early UK Drum & Bass
Turf Wars: Overcoming the Elitism of Early UK Drum & Bass

I was really scared of everyone. I didn’t know if they liked me or didn’t like me or what was going on. I saw a lot of bad stuff and people being mean to each other. It’s playground games. The ones that are still around, they’re not the ones that were doing that. In the end, being a bully backfires on you. —Optical

You can’t sit with us!” It’s the infamous line from the movie Mean Girls that’s made its way onto t-shirts, mugs and memes around the world. It also encapsulates the feeling UK drum & bass producers in the ‘90s were generating toward anyone not British trying to dip a toe into their territory. This is not the case today, and hasn’t been for a long time. Internationally recognized artists like New Zealand’s the Upbeats, Austria’s Mefjus, Germany’s Phace, and North America’s Rene LaVice, have built upon the foundation artists like Concord Dawn, Ill.Skillz, Panacea, and Hive had blazed in the burgeoning days of the scene. If anything, the UK drum & bass contingent are looking on like indulgent grandparents as their creation carries on, springing fresh producers internationally.

For many years, however, not only were UK drum & bass royalty and its subjects not interested in anything not produced by one of their own, but no one else around the world was, either. There was a tangible sense of elitism that was unspoken but very much felt, particularly by those pushed away by it. At the same time, the shunned ones wanted very much not only to be accepted by those doing the pushing, but to also do some pushing of their own. This separatist behavior was almost as much part of the scene as the music itself.

“They invented it,” American producer Gridlok says matter of factly of the UK’s attitude at the time. “They were so far ahead of everyone else. Only in the last couple of years have people caught up to what they were doing a decade ago. It’s their own and they were protective of it.”

UFO!, figurehead of San Francisco’s now defunct drum & bass Phunckateck collective, was diligent in attempting to make connections with the UK around the turn of the century, but understands the trepidation on the other side. “When drum & bass was big, it was really big. Anyone who is young like they were back then is thinking, ‘We can’t let anyone get into it because we know the light’s going to be turned off on us and then what?’ I can see their reasoning, but at the same time, I was going to bring attention to what we were doing. I liked the clubs they were putting on. I liked what their labels were putting out. I liked their style. I liked everything. This was a whole new group of b-boy, a whole new sector of thug hood.”

“It was just forming, so, in a way, there was no reason to be so attached to it,” says the UK’s Optical, who has been the standard bearer for drum & bass production for two decades. “No one knew what was going on, but people were thinking, ‘We’ve got something going here and we don’t want anyone else to come along and take it away.’ People get very paranoid about their lifestyle being maintained and not being pushed out. There was a lot of fear in people’s eyes that it would be taken away by the next shit-hot producer. It’s a very simple human instinct to protect yourself. In the early days, I was trying to be one of them. I know it can be a lonely experience trying to get into a scene when everyone’s already controlling it a certain way.”

TeeBee, often mistaken for being from the UK, is, in fact, Norwegian, and while he is now firmly among the top echelon of global drum & bass artists, when he first came over—armed with DATs and looking to share them with everyone—he was strongly rebuffed: “I was specifically told, ‘This is a British thing, find your own thing.’ I was heartbroken, but that didn’t stop me. I took a language course to make my English a lot better, got a haircut, tried again, and the same people that rejected me took my music.”

He stayed in disguise, so to speak, during his first record deal, where he was advised to keep quiet about his origins, but was “outed” at the Knowledge Awards in 2001 when he was nominated for Best International Producer. It was then that he decided to make a fuss about not being allowed to compete with his peers. “I was up against Dieselboy and DJ Marky,” says TeeBee. “I was like, ‘Are you saying we’re not good enough to be allowed to complete with the British artists like Ed Rush and Optical and Bad Company? We’re not even allowed in the same category?’ That was the only time they had that award. They removed it after that. But once the news was out that I was Norwegian, it opened up the doors for other producers from Europe, and now it’s a truly global thing.”

Brazil’s DJ Marky was an aberration, being the adopted son of V Recordings and a mascot of sorts for Bryan Gee’s and Jumping Jack Frost’s weekly Movement drum & bass night in London. A VHS video of the Brazilian drum & bass DJ made its way to the UK and after the Movement and V Recordings crew saw it they knew they had to witness Marky’s formidable skills and crowd control for themselves. They brought him over to play a Movement party at Mass in Brixton, an early slot, but then Grooverider was delayed and they had Marky step in and he had 1,000 people going crazy. This was in the late ‘90s when Brazil had its own strong drum & bass scene and Marky didn’t need UK accolades or acceptance, even though he got it—and got it before anyone else from the outside.

“A lot of people were pissed off,” admits Marky, who at the time did notice that he was the only foreigner working in drum & bass in the UK. “They didn’t want me to play. They didn’t give me tunes to cut. The door was shut in my face at Music House where we used to cut plates. A lot of people didn’t accept me. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to take anybody’s place. I just wanted to do my thing, play my records, and give my family a better life. That’s the most important thing.”

Ahead of all that, Marky went to the UK with his cohort Patife to visit the homeland of drum & bass, experience the clubs, see his idols like Hype perform in person, visit some record shops, and maybe get on some mailing lists. UFO! made a similar pilgrimage with his partner, Sage, “to pay respect to the elders,” as he called it. “I learned that from graffiti. We went there on our knees, to say we’re holding the torch for this idea you guys came up with, to introduce ourselves, and say thank you, and we have music to play you.”

This deference did result in some of the heavy hitters of the UK scene handing DATs over for Phunckateck use, but nothing made by Phunckateck was getting played by any UK DJs. What UFO! heard was straight talk from Bad Company’s dBridge: You’re in your own world. You don’t even believe in the devil. And from DJ Fresh was: You need to come up to the standards of where we are. You need to do something we’re going to play and the rest of the world goes, “That’s proper drum ‘n’ bass,” then we can do something with you.

“If you made a good song, people wanted it, it didn’t matter where it came from,” says Optical. “I was really scared of everyone. I didn’t know if they liked me or didn’t like me or what was going on. I saw a lot of bad stuff and people being mean to each other. It’s playground games. The ones that are still around, they’re not the ones that were doing that. In the end, being a bully backfires on you. People don’t want to see you around anymore. These days the very best drum & bass producers, none of them are from the UK, it’s all in Europe. At a Central European gig, we easily get 2,000 people.”

The Europeans are very generous and not the least bit territorial with their possession, as it were, of drum & bass. “Europe went through a similar situation as the Americans not being respected. They weren’t accepted in the UK scene so they made their own scene, and the UK came to them,” says Gridlok who currently makes his home in Amsterdam. A true soldier of the genre, Gridlok went through years of toiling and not getting recognition before he reached this stage of acceptance, which anyone else would have given up on ages before.

“The people that were moody are nowhere to be found,” he says. “There isn’t any segregation. You don’t see Black Sun Empire or Noisia or June Miller or Nymfo going, ‘Dutch drum & bass!’ They are part of the international community that loves this international music that doesn’t identify with a nation, that transcends borders and language. Drum & bass is an underground thing and it’s a privilege to be where it is being played.”