jungle and black humanism

Although Chris Christodoulou’s article ‘Darkcore: Dub’s Dark Legacy in Drum ‘n’ Bass Culture’ correctly identifies a pervasive presence of posthuman iconography in early drum and bass / jungle music, I believe his final conclusions are conspicuously lacking in a meaningful analysis of race in relation to the posthuman and, as a result, miss an important argument about the relation of labour to categories of the human. This essay aims first to highlight these omissions on Christodoulou’s part and then, via the work of Katherine Hayles, Sylvia Wynter and Alexander G. Weheliye, provide an alternative, Black Humanist reading of a selection of drum and bass / jungle tracks that makes race a central feature of my analysis.

Before I begin my critique of Christodoulou I will first define some key characteristics of drum and bass / jungle music, and define some of the terms that surround the genre. As Christodoulou succinctly describes, drum and bass / jungle is a genre ‘based on a combination of powerful bass sounds and breakbeats that are either synthesised or digitally sampled from existing musical recordings, before being accelerated and looped, whereby the tempos of drum ‘n’ bass bass-lines are typically half those of its break beats’. Typically a drum and bass / jungle track will run between 150 and 170BPM, with its basslines running at 75-85BPM. Furthermore, I will no longer be using the term ‘drum and bass / jungle’ to describe the genre, and will be referring to it only as ‘jungle’. Though some have argued that the term ‘jungle’ is too racially-loaded, I believe that ‘jungle’, rather than ‘drum and bass’, is the correct term for two closely interlinked reasons. First, ‘jungle’ is specific to a subgenre of what later became ‘drum and bass’; jungle far more accurately describes the particular style of drum and bass centred music that I have described thus far, whereas ‘drum and bass’ serves more usefully as an umbrella term for multiple styles of music that proliferate towards the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s. Second, the term ‘jungle’ provides useful temporal boundaries; the style of music which I will be discussing was pioneered in the early 1990s, peaking in popularity between 1993 and 1995, before succumbing to the stylistic explosion described above. As a result, all the tracks I analyse are from the first half of the 1990s, when ‘drum and bass’ was exclusively ‘jungle’.

Before criticising Christodoulou’s conclusions, I want to take a moment to survey what he gets right in his article. First, he highlights how jungle ‘points to a recontextualization of the racial category of blackness’ – I will go on to argue this. He also suggests that jungle, as one of several ‘“dark” discourses within the dub diaspora’ can be understood as a critical response to the ‘destructive conditions created by the political economy of the contemporary city’ where changing understandings of and relations between ‘class, race, and technology determine access to wealth and social prosperity’, wherein several of these groups become united in a ‘subaltern class position and urbanised alienation’. Using the socio-economic contexts of jungle in combination with the works of Sylvia Wynter, I will argue an almost identical position.

Where I differ from Christodoulou is in the conclusions he draws in his article. Rather than taking these economised and racialised beginnings to similar conclusions, his final point of argument relates to gender. He claims that ‘cybernetics and new technologies render the working class male impotent of his “natural” physical power and hence his once privileged social position’. Drawing on Yvonne Tasker, who claims that in the move from an industrialised society of production to a postindustrial society of consumption, technological development leads to the ‘denaturalising of the supposed naturalness of male identity’, leading Christodoulou to conclude that the prevalence of posthuman iconography in jungle is an ‘inscription of a crisis of masculinity in a late-capitalist context’.

I believe that this conclusion can be understood as a consequence of Christodoulou subscribing to the kind of posthumanist thinking that was established by Katherine Hayles in her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman, wherein her analysis, though brilliant, is somewhat blind to its own prejudices. Hayles argues that in the posthuman there are ‘no essential differences between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals’, and that ‘henceforth, humans were to be seen primarily as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines’. This I would not dispute. However, it becomes clear that gender is not only central, but overly-central to her argument. From the second page of her prologue Hayles begins to ask questions such as ‘Why does gender appear in this primal scene of humans meeting their evolutionary successors, intelligent machines? What do gendered bodies have to do with the erasure of embodiment and the subsequent merging of machine and human intelligence in the figure of the cyborg?’ Though these are vital questions, her intense focus on gender leads her, and subsequently Christodoulou, to omit race as a central feature of their analyses.

Alexander G. Weheliye spots this flaw in Hayles’ work and attempts to rectify it with his race-centric version of posthumanism: Black Humanism. Weheliye’s article ‘“Feenin”: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music’ states that ‘Hayles’ own formulations are on the way to becoming hegemonic’, and calls out the ‘literal and virtual whiteness of cybertheory’. Weheliye points out that ‘while gender and sexuality have been crucial to theories of both cyberspace and the posthuman, the absence of race is usually perfunctorily remarked and of little consequence to these analyses’, claiming that ‘Hayles is no exception in this regard’, and this ‘erasure of race severely limits how we conceive of the complex interplay between “humans” and informational technologies’. Although Wehelyie credits Hayles with acknowledging ‘Macpherson’s take on Hobbes and Locke’ and the resulting belief that ‘this “human” is very much a product of the market and in no way anterior to its forces’, Hayles still ‘needs the hegemonic Western conception of humanity as a heuristic category against which to position her theory of posthumanism, in the process recapitulating the ways in which the Western liberal theory of the “human”’. Wehelyie claims that Hayles’ ‘singular focus on this particular historical composite unnecessarily weighs down her project’, as it leads to create a version of the posthuman that is ‘little more than the white liberal subject in techno-informational disguise’, reinscribing ‘white masculinity as the (human) point of origin from which to progress to a posthuman state’.

In contrast, Weheliye asserts that ‘New World black subjects cannot inhabit this version of selfhood in quite the same manner as the “white boys” of Hayles’s canon’ because of the effects of ‘slavery, colonialism, racism, and segregation, since these forces render the very idea that one could be “free from the will of others” null and void’; ‘The literal dehumanization of black people through chattel slavery […] afforded black subjects no easy passage to the sign of the human’. In contrast, he suggests that ‘black humanist discourses emphasize the historicity and mutability of the “human” itself, gesturing toward different, catachrestic, conceptualizations of this category’ by ‘incorporating other informational media, such as sound technologies’ into his analysis because these ‘counteract the marginalization of race rather than rehashing the whiteness, masculinity, and disembodiment’ of Hayles-style posthumanism. Weheliye finally asserts that even though ‘numerous cultural discourses have done their best to authenticate and naturalize the soul of black popular music’, the music itself contains practices that ‘frequently defy these authenticating mechanisms by embracing new technologies, hybridities, and self-consciousness’. I argue that this kind of methodological approach can be applied just as fruitfully to jungle, and specifically to the posthuman iconography in and stylings of jungle, as it can to R&B.

One important qualification needs to be made before my Weheliye-style analysis can be carried out. Jungle, even less so than R&B, is not ‘black’ in its so-called “biological” sense. As Mark Fisher points out, jungle was ‘remarkable for being a sound make in equal parts by black and white producers’. Therefore, how can I argue that jungle is fit for a Black Humanist analysis? A clue lies in Fisher’s later comment that ‘in many ways [jungle] developed out of the disintegration of the rave dream’. This disintegration of the optimistic, ecstasy-fuelled, smiley-face-saturated rave scene mutated into its darker, faster counterpart at the precise moment that the UK was experiencing its deepest economic recession since the Second World War. The resulting unemployment meant that the British working class were suffering, and jungle became a force that could unite ‘Afro-Caribbean, ethnic Irish, and working-class white youth’ who were coming to share ‘similar experiences of social exclusion, unemployment, and poor educational opportunities in rapidly de-industrialising regions of cities’; a process that Imruh Bakari argues begun with Reggae, Dub, and Ska, but culminates in Jungle. Dick Hebdige also points to this sense of solidarity between black/white peoples on the basis of a shared working class experience, and leads Benjamin Noyes to conclude that jungle is a music that ‘floats in a space made common by an experience of class’, specifically that of an ‘under-class’ that ‘cuts across both space and colour’.

It is for this reason that I turn to Sylvia Wynter; Wynter provides an economised understanding of race that explains why a Black Humanist reading of a racially-mixed genre is appropriate and useful. Wynter’s essay ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument’, describes the overrepresentation of the white, bourgeois ‘Man’ as the universal human, and how ‘black subjects served as limit cases by which “man” could define himself as the universal “human”’. Central to the latter half of Wynter’s argument is the notion that as the 19th and 20th century develops, the relation of Man and non-Man to the capitalist and late-capitalist mode of production become crucial to definitions of the human, that central to her struggle will be the ‘usually excluded and invisibilized situation of the category identified by Zygmunt Bauman as the “New Poor”’, a category that forms ‘part of the ever-expanding global, transracial category of the homeless/the jobless, the semi-jobless, the criminalized drug-offending prison population’. What makes this key to my argument is that it means on ‘one level Man2 is now defined as a jobholding Breadwinner’.

Therefore, I argue that one can understand jungle as ripe for a black humanist analysis, because, despite its mixed colour profile, jungle is born out of a set of economic circumstances, and consequently produced by a group of people who become excluded from the overrepresented Man2 because they are no longer able or allowed to work, to become ‘breadwinners’. As a result, they become non-human. Thus, the presence of posthuman iconography and stylings in jungle is not a gendered result of a crisis of masculinity brought about by deindustrialisation, but rather a racialised response from those cast out of the category of Man, where they come to embrace and emphasise their non-human, virtual status.

A close analysis of Rufige Kru’s / Metal Heads’ (two of Goldie’s many aliases) 1992 track ‘Terminator’ serves as the perfect starting point for a reassessment of jungle through a Black Humanist lens. Mary Ann Doane argues that the recurrence of posthuman imagery in popular texts – as ‘Terminator’ exhibits, in its title, sleeve, and musical textures – are due to ‘the AI-endowed robot, the cyborg and the android, act[ing] as signifiers for the fear that humanity is in danger of becoming entirely absorbed into a future in which technology has become the paradigm by which progress is measured.’ Christodoulou summaries that this obsession with the cyborg is born of a ‘sense of paranoia about the postindustrial displacement of human labour by cybernetics and information technologies, and the political and corporate power structures that seem to legitimate their destructive social effects’. Though, as I have described above, I do not dispute that this kind of displacement is at the heart of jungle’s posthuman iconography, I argue that, rather than applying this understanding to a gendered conclusion, it can be used to understand racial dynamics by citing Weheliye’s arguments regarding virtuality: ‘no recorded performances, not even live recordings, are “real”—or even representations thereof’, rather ‘they are virtual productions created through interactions of musicians and listeners with recording and reproduction technologies’, and that ‘by embracing new technologies such as remixing, scratching, and sampling, black popular music producers […] persistently emphasize the virtuality of any form of recorded music’ and consequently ‘make their own virtuality central to the musical texts’.

The breakbeat is a core component of jungle tracks; ‘Terminator’ is no exception. I argue that the breakbeat is one way in which jungle producers ‘provide several avenues to configuring human beings so that they can be seamlessly articulated with (intelligent) machines’. The breakbeat arrives in jungle via hip-hop, with the most famous ‘break’, the so-called Amen-loop, becoming ubiquitous with the genre. What changes in the breakbeat from hip-hop to jungle is its speed; technological developments in digital music production in the late 1980s birthed a function known as ‘timestretching’, wherein samples could be dramatically sped up or down without their pitch being altered. Fisher notes that timestretching ‘transformed sampled breakbeats into rhythms that no human could play’, not only by dint of their new-found speed, but also because of the fact that DAWs (digital audio workstations) allowed breaks to be ‘fine-tuned and micro-engineered, with individual drum hits manipulated on the sampler’. Therefore, the breakbeat is representative of a human drum sound being subjected to machinic processing, a human performance technologically sampled and transmuted to ‘produce sounds that [have] no pre-existing correlates’. The breakbeat, by taking a human performance and transforming it into something overtly non-human, emphasises the virtuality of the sound and therefore the virtuality of the blackness behind it. Other aspects of ‘Terminator’ serve these same ends. Over the rolling breakbeats can be heard snippets of[the movie] Terminator’s Sarah Connor saying ‘you’re talking about things I haven’t done yet’, as if commenting on the virtuality of timestretching itself. Similarly, Rufige Kru / Metal Heads’ logo that features on the album artwork is that of a roboticised, cyborg skull wearing headphones. Fisher describes how ‘the Terminator can never remove its human mask’, but jungle ‘not only ripped off the mask, it actively identified with the inorganic circuitry underneath’ – junglists do not fear being replaced by the cyborg, by the robot, in postindustrial society, rather they identify with the virtuality of the cyborg and the virtuality of the sound due to their own virtuality as a racialised construct.

Dillinja’s 1995 track ‘The Angels Fell’ provides a bridge between my previous point and my next. It draws on posthuman cultural texts in its composition, most notably by sampling the Bladerunner soundtrack, and was one of the first releases on the aforementioned Metalheadz label, but it also points to the close relation of jungle to its Black Music predecessors. ‘Dillinja’ is a modernised, urbanised form of the name ‘Dillinger’, the stage name of Lester Bullock, one of reggae’s earliest and most prominent deejay toasters, a role that later became more commonly known, via hip-hop, as an MC. Jungle has other close ties to reggae and Caribbean music, with the term ‘drum and bass’ originating in the Jamaican dub scene, where it was used to describe the ‘instrumental, rhythm section of reggae that developed from studio recordings of reggae songs in the early 1970s, to be used for dubbing new melody and vocal lines’, as noted by Michael Veal.

Weheliye’s ‘vocoder’ effect describes the use of sonic technology to amplify ‘the human provenances of the voice, highlighting its virtual embodiment, because it conjures a previous, and allegedly more innocent, period in popular music, bolstering the “soulfulness” of the human voice’. Consequently, ‘the “human” and “machinic” become mere electric effects that conjoin the human voice and (intelligent) machines’. Though jungle has very little lyrical material, I argue that a similar effect can be seen in the way jungle takes from reggae music, textures, composition, and components, to highlight a nostalgia for a more technologically innocent time, before showing this more “human” time giving way to the machinic. Babylon Timewarp’s seminal 1992 release ‘Durban Poison’ features slow, skanking guitars at its start alongside a heavy dub bassline – both central components to the deep reggae/dub sound of the 1970s – which are then, to use Fisher’s phrase, ‘abducted into double time’ by breakbeats. Just before the breaks come rattling in, a sample of a Rastafarian saying ‘twenty-four-seven, seen?’ bridges the moment in which reggae is subsumed by the jungle sound; in Weheliye’s words, the track uses new digital technologies to ‘create a dialogue […] in which the “human” succeeds the “machinic”’, and in doing so unearths the “humanity” of machinic affections’.

Splash’s track ‘Babylon’, released in 1995, contains a similar atmosphere of dread that it draws from a reggae-style bassline, and centres around a sample from the 1978 Jamaican film Rockers. The voice whispers over the breaks that ‘I and I know that all the yout’ shall witness the day that Babylon shall fall’. Both the verbal content of the sample, and the machinically-subsumed reggae bass lines that succeed it, offer a site of resistance to racialised genres of the human and the overrepresentation of Man. ‘Babylon’ in Rastafari culture refers to those people and institutions working against the righteous rule of Jah and Rastafarians, and is therefore commonly directed against sources of oppression towards Rastafari peoples, such as the police. When this is read in combination with Hebdige’s suggestion that bass provides ‘the basic background throb of reggae’s heartbeat’, and Iain Chambers’ assertion that ‘bass history is a hurting black story’, one can agree with Christodoulou that ‘this heartbeat has evolved into an oppositional signifier’. Not only does jungle’s continuous textural and textual reference to its stylistic point of origin highlight its black humanism by showing humanity becoming interlinked with the machine, it also points to the continued oppression of racialised groups by Man2.

The ‘cell phone effect’ is another Black Humanist trope that Wehelyie highlights, wherein the performers’ recorded voices are marked as ‘technologically embodied’; instead of ‘downplaying the technological mediation of the recording, the cell phone effect does away with any notion of the selfsame presence of the voice’ , via what Simon Reynolds describes as a ‘strong sense of “anti-naturalism”’. In a footnote, Weheliye goes on to describe how Reynolds’ article ‘Feminine Pressure: 2-Step Garage’ claims that UK Garage ‘pushes the uttered sensibilities of U.S. R&B to its provisional conclusion by dissecting sampled and/or sung vocal parts, radically recombining them in relation to the rhythm as opposed to the melody’. I argue that jungle’s own version of the cell phone effect can be found in the way that vocal samples are edited, chopped up, and come to blur with the technology embodying them. DJ Hype’s 1994 release ‘Roll the Beats’ features samples from MC GQ, who would become one of jungle’s most accomplished MCs. As well as repeatedly featuring the now iconic phrase ‘absolutely T for tremendous’, the track also takes GQ’s phrase ‘roll the beats’, in which GQ notoriously rolls his R’s, and extends his rolls even further by timestretching the voice; GQ’s voice becomes technologically embodied through the effect, and the sampled voice then becomes even more closely interlinked with the machine through the use of digital effects. Similarly, Marvellous Cain’s 1994 track ‘Hitman’ is based around ‘bellicose breaks and an ultra-belligerent Cutty Ranks sample’. ‘Limb by limb wiafa cut them down’ cries “the hitman”. As well as this sample describing the literal cutting-up of the body, its meaning is mirrored by the harsh, abrasive stitching of samples to audibly cut-up Ranks’ voice. These tracks serve as evidence of the way in which the cell phone effect resists principles of the “real,” choosing instead to stage voice-distortion devices as both technological and “expressive extensions of the performing body”’, and ‘fails to define technological mediation and “realism” as warring opponents’, instead construing ‘these factors as thoroughly interfaced’.

The final characteristic of Black Humanist R&B that Weheliye points to is ‘the R&B desiring machine’. Citing a concept invented by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, Weheliye claims that Zapp’s ‘Computer Love’ ‘suggests desire for the machine itself by deferring a conclusive or coherent identification of [desire’s] target’. By ‘creating a three-way conversation, albeit an unequal one, between the male, female, and machinic utterances on the vocal track of the song’, the track shows that it is ‘the subject that is missing in desire, or that desire lacks a fixed subject’. DJ Gunshot’s 1994 release ‘Wheel It Up’ exemplifies this effect. By creating a three-way conversation between a TopCat sample, a Mary J Blige sample, and the producer/machine that chops them up, sticks them back together, and lays them alongside the breaks and bass, the track ‘dodges the naturalism associated with the human voice in so many other popular music genres’ and consequently ‘imagines interpersonal relations and informational technologies as mutually constitutive rather than antithetical foils’. This is epitomised at the end of the first third of the track when, after ninety seconds of thin breaks and a bass line which momentarily appears only to disappear again, Mary J Blige, following TopCat, cries out to ‘Love me now or I’ll Go Crazy’ and, as if giving in to her demand, the bass drops, an amen-break comes crashing in, and the third element of this ‘conversation’ is finally heard; it appears as if Blige’s desire was not directed at a lover, or at TopCat, or even at Gunshot, but at the sonic technology itself. Thus, this machinic-desire, what Weheliye terms ‘feenin’ in R&B music, ‘dissolvesthe parameters of the coherent subject in such radical ways that human—all too human— desire can be represented only in the guise of the machinic, and the human is thus inextricably intertwined with various informational technologies’.

Weheliye states in the final lines of his article that a Black Humanist approach to culture could allow critics to ‘begin to ameliorate the provinciality of “humanity” in its various Western guises’, rather than ‘simply rehashing the same old stories ad infinitum’; this essay has argued that jungle, and its obsession with posthumanism, can – when the erasures of traditional posthumanist theory are observed and avoided – constitute a genre of music that provides a gateway to a more complex understanding of the many genres of the human.

Primary

Dillinja, The Angels Fell, (Metalheadz, 1995)

DJ Gunshot, ‘Wheel It Up’, Jungle Hits Vol. 2, (Street Tuff Records, 1994)

DJ Hype, Roll the Beats, (Suburban Base, 1994)

Marvellous Cain, ‘Hitman’, Hitman / Believe It, (IQ Records), 1994

Metal Heads, Terminator, (Synthetic Records, 1992)

Splash, ‘Babylon’, Babylon / Heaven, (Dee Jay Recordings, 1995)

Secondary

Bakari, Imruh, ‘Exploding Silence: African-Caribbean and African-American Culture towards 2000’, Living Through Pop, ed. Andrew Blake, (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 98–111

Chambers, Iain, Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985)

Christodoulou, Chris, ‘Darkcore: Dub’s Dark Legacy in Drum ‘n’ Bass Culture’, last accessed 7 January 2020, <dj.dancecult.net>

Doane, Mary Ann, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, (London: Routledge, 1991)

Fisher, Mark, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, (London: Zero Books, 2014)

  • ‘The 20 Greatest Jungle Records Ever Made’, last accessed 7 January 2020, <factmag.com>

Gilroy, Paul, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, (London: Routledge, 1987)

Hayles, Katherine N., How We Became Posthuman, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Hebdige, Dick, Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music, (London: Comedia, 1987)

  • Subculture: The Meaning of Style, (London: Methuen, 1987)

Noys, Benjamin, ‘Into the “Jungle”’, Popular Music, 14.3, (1995), 321-332

Reynolds, Simon, ‘Feminine Pressure: 2-Step Garage [The Director’s Cut, Plus Footnotes’, last accessed 11 December 2019, <members.aol.com>

Tasker, Yvonne, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema, (London: Routledge, 2004)

Veal, Michael, Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007)

Weheliye, Alexander G., ‘“Feenin”: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music, Social Text, 20.2, (Summer 2002), 21-47

Wynter, Sylvia, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument’, The New Centennial Review, 3.3, (Fall 2003), 257-337

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