Yes, I’m still on something of a retro tip. After seeing a depressing “top selling dance songs of the noughties” list, I began thinking back to the stuff I loved in the nineties. I was, to be fair, heavily into big beat and drum and bass in my uni days, so this list might well be heavily skewed. But needless to say, there was far too much to squeeze into just ten songs, so this has spiralled into rather more than that. But, it all deserved mentioning, and as always, there are playlists to listen to them on.
Anyway, the way I’m going to do this is to split tracks into their respective genres, or at least as close as I can get to them. So, lets make the beats very big indeed to start with. One compilation that encapsulates my love of mid-90s dance was this monster of a compilation: Brit Hop and Amyl House. A well-mixed set of stuff that could loosely be termed “big beat”, it was rather more diverse than it sounds, and included a few stone-cold classics too (Renegade Soundwave in particular). There’s even one or two tracks from it mentioned here, too
This one isn’t, though. For me, the best “anthem” from a scene that only flickered for a few years was this bass-heavy monster, from an album that skittered all over the place, from ska to techno to dub to rampaging beat attacks like this. I vividly remember being at the Heavenly Jukebox sometime in 1997 when Barry Ashworth was DJing, and he dropped this – and the dancefloor went absolutely mental.
The first big beat song I heard, I reckon. From sometime back in 1995, about the time where I perhaps realised that dance (aside from industrial) music might be an area worth investigating. The thing is, of course, The Chems approached dance music from a rock point of view – just check those monstrous drum rhythms on this – so it was perhaps easy to make the jump to this. This track has a lot to answer for, really…
It didn’t take long to sidestep to other artists of a similar ilk. Another act that were far more than just dancefloor beats – much of this album was downtempo, dub-inflicted psychedelia, aside from the singles – and something that they proved conclusively with The Contino Sessions. However before that, there was this – Woodstock samples, beats the size of the warehouses the clubs fitted in, and as it happens, a deeply tripped out video that I’ve somehow never seen before.
Sugar Is Sweeter
You know what? I couldn’t name another song by CJ Bolland – but then there were many dance artists, much as there are nowadays, that I’ll note or remember one song by them and then forget again. But such was the quality, and ubiquity, of this track that it’s difficult to forget. A rumbling, mid-paced rhythm that is utterly dominated – unusually, in this realm – by a female vocal performance by Jade4U that is probably the one thing that most people will remember from this track.
Unusual in this genre, at least, for being from the US rather than the UK – even if most of the UK artists sampled loads of old-school US rap and hip-hop (The Chems included). Indeed, The Crystal Method were frequently referenced as a “US Chemical Brothers”, and you can certainly see where they were coming from. But these guys perhaps had a more serious, less-party-heavy sound, even if they could unleash astonishing dancefloor dynamite like this when they felt like it.
Renegade Soundwave (Leftfield Remix)
Although appropriated into the big beat scene from their mid-90s output – which is what I’m referring to here – they initially were contemporaries to the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, although I think it’s fair to say that RSW made the transition to dance music more fully and more successfully than any other band of the time. And while the original of this track is good, by stripping away the vocals and turning it into a languid, end-of-the-night mood-piece, Leftfield produced one of my favourite remixes ever.
Helter Skelter 97
And so to two tracks where it’s a little more difficult to categorize: this, with it’s re-tooled breaks and samples dovetails in nicely into the late-90s scene, even if the track itself pre-dates, and probably predicts, the whole scene that it became part of. It still sounded phenomenal live in 2011, too.
Bug Powder Dust
I’m not actually sure this was nominally “big beat” – after all, it is from 1994 – but even when it was released it sounded like it was somewhat out of step with everyone else. Then again, Bomb the Bass were better known for dubby, mellow moments, when they suddenly unleashed this track that featured a rolling (sampled) bass line that kept going like a freight train, and a guest vocal from Justin Warfield that channeled William Burroughs. Yes, this song was odd, but catchy as fuck. But always, always go for the original – the Chemical Brothers remix is not a patch on this.
Inpection: Check One
So what’s next? Perhaps an area closer to techno, or at least music that initially came from techno as an origin. A lot of techno-based stuff I find unbelievably boring, but when the formula is twisted into new shapes, things get interesting. And one of the finest proponents of this were Leftfield, who branched into dub, and provided a monstrous soundsystem to match their ambitions, which were gloriously realised here with beats that (literally, at least once) shook buildings to their foundations.
Break and Enter
The Prodigy took a different route again, transcending their slightly naff “rave” routes and going instead for a club-friendly (and rock-friendly) sound that eventually took the world by storm. And along the way, there was some impressive creativity in Liam Howlett’s song construction, like the use of shattering glass sounds as part of the rhythm here. (On the Youtube playlist, by the way, it is a cracking live version of it from Glasto featuring guitars from Jim Davies)
Of this other big names in this area, Underworld also toiled for a good few years before hitting the big time, but this time thanks to the chance inclusion of their most immediate single on one of the most iconic British films of the 90s (Trainspotting, in case you’ve forgotten). But Underworld were about so much more than just one hit single – their futuristic, vocal-led techno excursions were always thrilling, and notably always worked as a coherent whole on an album. But it was one of the singles from their second album – this nine-minute, swooping and skittering thrillride – that I still love more than almost anything else of theirs (besides Cowgirl and the urban modernism of Mmm Skyscraper…I love you).
Second Bad Vilbel
Not just worth your time for the striking Chris Cunningham video, Autechre have a reputation for being a difficult electronic act, one that isn’t exactly immediate in its listening rewards, and indeed one that is difficult to dance to. And you know what? This would probably would be exactly right, but frankly I wouldn’t want everything to be easy. And this track is more immediate than most of theirs – a storming, stop-start rhythm dominates most of the track, but it isn’t all blasting-forwards over the nine minutes. It slows to an ambient crawl at least once, before cranking back into life like an unstoppable machine.
Back before Richard D. James became one of the most unlikely dance stars ever, his early work was not as odd as some might have you believe. Yes, the rhythms were pretty fucking odd at times, and the song titles appeared to be deliberately difficult to read or pronounce, but at points his music was actually quite elegant. And, in the case of stuff like this track, actually surprisingly straightforward. Basically a lengthy, mellowed-out techno track that just happened to have the sample of a didgeridoo dominating proceedings. Somehow, it worked brilliantly. Quite how he went from this to Come to Daddy in just a few years is something I’ve never quite understood…
Fluke were yet another band that never quite got their due. Purveyors of intriguing, deep techno, once again they constantly tinkered with their sound and never allowed themselves to get bogged down with one sound. But they did have one sonic signature that immediately made their singles recognisable, at least for a few years in the nineties – a booming, bass-heavy vocal that worked to awesome effect on thundering tracks like this (that as I recall was used on the game Wipeout 2097 – remember that?).
Rather better known – and a huge draw live nowadays, of course, when they tour – are these two French guys, who’ve made an amazing career starting out rewriting the rules of house music, and not far off singlehandedly resurrecting the fortunes of the cheesier side of disco, too. All while remaining as anonymous as possible, in robot helmets. Back to their earlier days for this, though – the blistering opener to their debut album that often gets forgotten alongside the two monster singles from it (Da Funk and Around The World, of course). It’s a little unfair, really – this was just as dancefloor-bound, just as funky, and just as brilliant.
Higher State Of Consciousness
The song hasn’t dated, but god the video has. This was inescapable for a couple of years – an unassuming beat kicks things off, before building (and building and building and building) to a euphoric acid climax – one of those devastating dancefloor highs that will probably never, ever be topped.
This might be one many of you may not expect me to like. But back in the day, I was into my hard house/trance for a while, and this monster of a track pretty much sums up all that could be great about it. In particular the absolutely euphoric build-up, that words cannot describe just how incredible it sounds as a crowd goes mental to it, and you are in the heart of that crowd.
This takes me back a long way. Rather more hippy-ish trance, Eat Static of course came from Ozric Tentacles originally, not that I really knew a lot about the group at the time. For some reason I simply liked what Eat Static were doing, be it lengthy, spaced-out trance excursions like this, or their slower, moodier tracks – that were equally spaced-out.
Super Sharp Shooter
Perhaps it was the time I spent working on Oxford Street during my early Uni days, but I was exposed to a fair amount of drum’n’bass by various people from a reasonably early time in the 90s. Although I never delved too deeply into it, there are a few moments that I still love – and indeed a fair amount of music since that I’ve loved has had a fair bit of drum’n’bass elements to it. But one of the first tracks that really opened my eyes to what this then-unusual-sounding genre could do was this. It starts off unassumingly, with a clever phasing of the vocals, before the hip-hopesque beat lulls you into a false sense of security…and then the real rhythm jumps you from the side, and the track simply explodes into life. They just don’t make tracks like this anymore.
And nor like this, either. This is more jungle as it used to be, rather than its more mellowed out cousin drum’n’bass that it evolved into – and it’s no less astonishing for it. The infamous – and endlessly used – sample from Goodfellas features, a hyperactive drum rhythm finally arrives, along with ragga toasting and some hefty basslines. In clubs, this kind of thing absolutely kicked (and still kicks) ass.
Inner City Life
One of the early “mainstream” superstars of drum’n’bass, Goldie swiftly transcended the moniker and became something of a likeable TV star – and musically long since disappeared into other realms. But go back to those early singles, and his music is absolutely untouchable. And more than anything it is this glorious slice of soulful drum’n’bass, an ode to his home city of London that somehow manages to be mellow and danceable at the same time.
Brown Paper Bag
Another of those early stars was Roni Size – and whose album New Forms unexpectedly won the Mercury Music Prize all those years ago. I think the thing about this album was that it really was so different – in particular the use of live instruments to create elements of the drum’n’bass rhythms that worked so well. And nowhere did it work better than on the fondly remembered single from the album, with the double-bass providing the woozy bassline. Yeah, it’s probably also at fault for bringing drum’n’bass to the coffee table set, but with tracks this good I’ll forgive him that.
Little Fluffy Clouds
Like Roni Size and the coffee-table culture for trendy music in the 90s, so-called “Chill Out” music gained a similar reputation, with by the end of the decade an endless proliferation of compilations offering much of the worst of the genre on sale. There were diamonds in the rough, though, and this classic single was certainly one of them. A song that has probably soundtracked countless comedowns, sunrises and ends of parties, it’s undulating, stately rhythm is actually heavier than you might think, and then there is the legendary Ricky Lee Jones sample (that apparently was taken rather out of context for it’s use here!).
Haunted Dancehall (In The Nursery Remix)
Rather less summery and light-of-touch were the Sabres of Paradise – and the darkness inherent here was a little surprising, perhaps, following as it did Andrew Weatherall’s work at the turn of the 90s in uplifting, joyous dance music. But perhaps this was just the comedown. And a dark one it was, too – unsettling, bleak ambient soundscapes that took some time to get into, and you had to be in the right mood to enjoy it, too. I’ve picked the darkest moment of all for here, though – where In The Nursery took the Sabres’ finest moment, in my opinion, and turned it into a slow-motion death march.
Before they went pitch-dark with their eulogy for London, Dead Cities, they released the impossibly pretty – and remarkably organic sounding – Lifeforms, an album that built upon their early peaks like Papua New Guinea and rather than heading for the dancefloor again, built a chillout album that was a celebration of life. The whole sonic palette simply bubbles and crackles with life – samples of animals, forests and indeed human vocals, resulting in a surprisingly warm and positive album. And it’s the title track where all this really shines through best.