Son Raw’s call is coming from inside the house.
Drum & Bass or jungle, or hardcore, or any of the names its various permutations, variations and sub-genres have been tagged with, was never created by design. Instead, it emerged, record by record and mix by mix, from a collection of antecedents — the result of Black British Soundsystem parties, early Acid House raves, and UK Hip Hop acts pivoting towards dance. This collection of influences united a community that was just as varied, and the 90s, the genre’s most fruitful decade, saw countless styles and sub-communities vying for influence: Ragga Junglists castigated jazz influenced sounds as noodly, Intelligent Jungle’s very name was provocative, and countless debates ensued over speed, sampling, creativity and style. There was even an attempt at a jungle committee to ban a General Levy song when the artist claimed he “was running Jungle.”
Yet by the turn of the millennium, D&B began to sound exhausted. Weakened by infighting, ignored by a mainstream media that first demonized then compromised it, and facing competition from a robust UK Garage scene, late 00s D&B was characterized by a sound that was faster, darker and more mechanical, with Bad Company’s Inside the Machine (2000) standing as a defining statement of victory for robotic, post-apocalyptic Techstep.
Made up of dBridge, DJ Fresh, Vegas and Maldini, Bad Company formed in 1998 just as D&B’s mainstream popularity crested and its mechanistic side became omnipresent, but they were hardly newcomers. dBridge’s first release as Sewer Monsters was roughneck 93’ jungle and he soon joined Maldini to form Future Forces, before ultimately merging with Fresh and Vegas, two more scene veterans, to form BC. Having seen D&B’s evolution from the dark side of rave, to dancehall’s gatecrashing of breakbeat music, to labels like Metalheadz pushing the genre in an art-core direction, to the emergence of hip-hop and hard electronic music’s influence, Bad Company could have crumbled under the weight of the decade’s rapid musical shifts. Instead, Inside the Machine is relentlessly focused and on message, refusing overtures to both crossover crowds and sniffy critics: this debut album was and remains hardcore music for hardcore listeners, unconcerned with fashion.
One way to grasp just how much ground D&B covered before Inside the Machine is to look at a parallel art form it consistently drew inspiration from: Science Fiction Cinema. There’s a direct correlation between sci-fi blockbusters’ increasingly realistic computer generated special effects and D&B’s sonic trompe-oreille, from early cut-n-paste sampling to the genre’s progressively more complex assemblies of synths and samples. In this scenario, early Jungle’s breakbeat collage – courtesy of Ruffige Kru – is best contrasted with Terminator 2’s infamous liquid metal effect.
And yet by Y2K, both Terminator’s liquid metal and Jungle’s sampledelia felt old hat. Queue The Matrix’s bullet time effects, and Kryptic Minds’ “The Truth” sampling that same film.
This was the D&B and the future Bad Company’s work depicted. Audiences no longer questioned how The Matrix’s visual effects or a DJ’s sonic illusions could exist in their world… they instead wondered how much of what they were seeing took place in our world at all. Whereas previously a single T-1000 once morphed in ways defying nature, now the very space Keanu Reeves inhabited was subject to morphing and transformation. Likewise, the growling bassline and furious drums adorning Kryptic Minds’ track seemingly bore no relation to funk or pop or any music dependent on the “real” instruments of a physical space. Both artistic projects would soon hit limits: the future of Hollywood was less sci-fi philosophy and more proven intellectual properties, and D&B had already lost a chunk of its audience to warmer, sexier Garage.
And yet Bad Company’s debut, a classic of its genre, went all in on this extreme approach. It’s right there in the title: like Neo and Morpheus, the threat wasn’t simply robots seeking to destroy humanity’s physical form… Bad Company were already inside the machine, so why not see just how far they could push it?
And so Inside the Machine begins with frosty, modulating pads, before building piece by piece – a G-funk synth here, a cinematic string section there – into the uneasy epic that is “Colonies.” While it’s unwise to read too deeply into the track titles of an instrumental record, it’s hard for the opener not to evoke multiple meanings – both the potential alienation that might come with living in a future human outpost far removed from Earth AND the horror and brutality of the very human and earthbound Caribbean colonies whose culture contributed to an irreplaceable cornerstone of Jungle. Or was it irreplaceable?
“Colonies,” and Inside the Machine as a whole, features few if any explicit references to Reggae or Dancehall music, instead leaning on film scores and electronica. This wasn’t a new development, producers and DJs had debated the merits of roughneck “Ragga Jungle” vs. funk and soul influenced “maturity” since ~1995, but Inside the Machine rejected even those signifiers in favor of machine music. Even the drums, the only sounds we can safely ascertain as coming from an acoustic audio source, are sculpted and forced to conform to rhythmic patterns that would both exhaust a real drummer and exasperate most dancers craving a release. Colonies is Motorik’s revenge upon funk, less a boot stomping on a human face forever than breakbeats as pleasure denial.
If Inside the Machine’s frosty futurism echoes prog or art rock’s excesses, that’s partially down to its creators’ own listening. Years later, when asked about the lack of reggae influence in BC’s output, dBridge responded: I never had my mum or dads record collection to go through – it was always other peoples, a case of finding things they’d not necessarily heard and thinking ‘this sounds cool’. (…)Growing up, living in the West Midlands, my music was very much influenced by 80s pop. Underground music didn’t really seep through. I loved Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Simple Minds.
Unsurprising then, that Inside the Machine’s tracks are filled to the brim with synthesized sounds and extended breakdowns where miasmic bass lines recoil into the ether before roaring back with a far more dystopian take on acid house’s future shock. On “Silicon Dawn,” a song whose title explicitly alludes to machines gaining consciousness, the herky-jerk rhythm invites few comparisons to the traditions of Black music, even as its programmed angularity and sub-zero ambiance predict subsequent developments in grime and its sheer weight and darkness propose a vision that would soon be picked up by Dubstep. Elsewhere, Forgotten dares to sample flutes – that most proggy of instrument – rather than anything recalling reggae’s rootsy horns n’ guitars. Only the swung drum pattern of “Trick of the Light” evokes anything remotely Jamaican, and even then, we’re talking about Dancehall as approximated by machine learning – an uncanny evil twin that misses the mark by creating something new entirely.
Then we have the album’s dentist drill bass lines, perhaps Inside the Machine’s most controversial sonic signifier. D&B had always emphasized bass, paying homage to both reggae’s halftime grooves and Hip Hop’s booming 808s, but by the late 90s, what was once the genre’s key element was transforming into an obsessive fetish, as producers competed to create harder, faster, more twisted strands of electronic low end. In a cosmic irony, this often meant spending more time on the mid-range than on the sub-frequencies, as basslines took up an increasing amount of the sonic spectrum, the limited real estate that musicians build their tracks upon. No U Turn affiliated acts like Ed Rush, Optical, Trace and Nico had already pushed D&B in this direction, but Inside the Machine was a new high (or low) in this regard.
The album perfected a style where the drums were faster and more rigid and the pads colder and used more sparingly, leaving plenty of room for titanic morphing synth leads on tracks like Brain Scan, Oxygen on Sentient. What’s more, the album almost never lets up, going, harder, faster and colder until it peaks with “Nitrous,” a stunning crescendo of a track whose bass resembles an unholy cross between a WW2 dive bomber, doomcore guitar and a very angry drone. “Only the Flood,” the album’s eerie, halftime closer, takes it foot off the gas pedal to ease you out of the demanding, 72 minute ride that is Inside the Machine.
It’s this scorched earth refusal to slow down, calm down or look back, that came to define Inside the Machine’s conflicted legacy. For a certain breed of die hard Junglist, the album remains a high water mark in a genre that hitched its fortunes to their hardcore tastes – the opinions of fly by night music journalists, the wider music scene, or even former fans who disagreed be damned. For naysayers however, the stiff Motorik beats, mid-range-heavy bass, and sexless, sci-fi nihilism were a sonic virus with catastrophic repercussions, one that would take over the entirety of D&B and reduce it to a never ending series of build-ups and drops, where creative risks were minimized in favour of technical achievements in sound design and a never ending search for a harder tune. Go to a mainstream D&B rave today, and you’re still likely to hear variations on the Bad Company formula, even if the group itself eventually broke apart due to creative differences. It’s no small irony then, that dBridge’s later work both as a producer/DJ and through his Exit Records label, would become a major proponent of music that stood in absolute contrast to Inside the Machine’s legacy.
Personally, I’m left conflicted. On one hand, Inside the Machine is a towering achievement in D&B, a relentless collection of machine music that grabs you by the collar and refuses to let go. Furthermore, the album’s sci-fi predictions of a world where man is almost fully subsumed by an electronic matrix has proven eerily prescient, a statement made by artists in a society on the precipice of an all encompassing digital revolution, warning of the chilling dystopian world to come, complete with harsh digital tones, speed freak intensity, and nihilistic darkness. On the other hand, like the apocryphal story of Charlemagne weeping at the sight of Viking long ships on the horizon, knowing what was to come, Inside the Machine undoubtedly played its part in leading bass music down the road that would end in Clownstep, Brostep and EDM’s soulless excess. It’s perhaps pointless to pin the decline of a genre to a single album or act, particularly when both are beloved, but Bad Company, in all their messy glory, certainly manifested a musical future we’re still grappling with to this day.
Like it or not, we are all very much still Inside the Machine.