Ahead of Bloc’s massive 2011 launch party this weekend @ In Motion Bristol, Ransom Note publishes their first feature for Bloc on a music history of Bristol. Tickets for this weekend’s event here.Bristol: A Potted Musical History by the Ransom Note Bristol stands alone (pop. only 400,000). It continues regardless of capital fashion. It’s got it’s own tunes, scenes, gangs and parties, and it doesn’t care whether you come or not. Folk have been living in the area for 60,000 years but the city really came alive with the wealth of the Empire – the modern city was born from the slaves and sailors that passed through her port. From the dawn of the 18th Century the wonders, horrors and riches of the world came to the West of England. The large black population has been with the city for 300 years now, way longer than the ‘Windrush Generation’ of more willing migrants that came to change the face of English culture in 1948. As a result, developments in dance music that most clearly came from West Indians – specifically the DJ culture, and a taste for heavy bass – grew organically in Bristol as much as they did in London. In this article we’re gonna detail the history of Bristol’s underground sound, the venues that it’s been played in, the heads that have made it and the current names pushing it all forward…When punk exploded through Britain in the late 70s the Bristolian reaction was typically unique. Local punk Tim Williams got inspired by copies of Sniffin Glue he’d picked up on trips to London and produced his own hacked out punkzine ‘Loaded’. He’s archived all issues online here – along with a load of other rare zines all bursting with vitriol and enthusiasm. As bands in the capital largely staggered into a three-chord thrash-out dead-end, down in the West country something more funky was forming. Groups like The Pop Group and Glaxo Babies were welding the ragged aesthetic of punk to disco bass, african poly-rhythms and dub percussion.
From the Pop Group check out ‘She’s Beyond Good and Evil’;
(sample lyric – to be delivered in a misery monotone – “This is your life// This is your life// Crying in the subway// Lying to your wife”)
This fusion of funk and dis-chord pretty much characterises everything that follows. While the punks mutated into new forms, the soundsystems pumped out deep bass, as seen on seminal reggae outfit
The scene was set for the emergence of the crew that brought the disparate elements together – The Wild Bunch. From ’83 to ’86, the three core members Robert Del Naja, Daddy G and Mushroom began throwing parties where they’d cut and blend the hip hop, sweet lover’s rock, booming dub bass-lines and quirky indie pop they had all grown up with into a new, distinctively British sound. Alongside the main trio, the Wild Bunch was also pretty much a trip hop finishing school with Tricky, Shara Nelson and Nelle Hooper all passing through the ranks. They only released one single, from which this scratchy piece of Brit Hop is taken;
When the Wild Bunch folded in ‘86 the members went on to form the all conquering Massive Attack. At the same time Rob Smith, Ray Mighty and Peter D. Rose were putting together the production crew Smith & Mighty. Between these two highly influential collectives the sound that became known, for better or worse, as ‘Trip-Hop’ was born.
A mix of slo-mo hip hop beats, skunk-fuelled paranoid melodies and smoked out soul, trip hop started life as an edgy polymorphous creature with room enough to encompass Shara Nelson’s wide screen vocals and the sinister, psycho-sexual Tricky. As a sound it may have bloated into coffee table cack, but at one point it felt like a genuine authentically British response to hip hop.
The biggest tracks from a stoners scene that went global were remarkable in that they almost exclusively came from Bristol. From the early foundation tunes;
A vast amount of music was slinking out of a relatively small city in a relatively small island and going on to be played in cafes, bars, beaches and bedrooms the world around.
Then things sped up.
Jungle was perfect for Bristol; a sound that was a fusion of ragga bass and punk attitude was always going to work such a racially diverse city. The cloying, raging pessimism of urban dystopia ever present in the fractured beats struck a chord with kids across shitty recession hit England, but in Bristol they had just the musical DNA to respond. London may have led the way, but Bristol was right there alongside, helped and hindered by a pre-internet isolation. As the pioneering DJ Krust puts it –
Of course not everyone stayed in Bristol. Goldie, the media’s favourite face of jungle, went to the smoke and put together Metalheadz, releasing this scene-defining beauty along the way;
Unfortunately from these heights Goldie’s sophomore LP was a stinking faux classical concept album followed by a decision to ‘star’ as a crap hoodlum in Eastenders. Hey ho.
But those who stayed in Bristol concocted a distinct form of drum n bass known prosaically enough as The Bristol Sound. The big players from this – Krust, Die, Suv and Mercury Prize winning Roni Size, formed a series of labels to release their breakbeat science, namely Dope Dragon, Full Cycle and (with London based Bryan Gee and Jumping Jack Frost) the mighty V Recordings.
There’s so many hits from these labels it’s hard to narrow it down to a small selection, so these next few tracks are very much a personal chronology of tunes heard tearing out rave after rave through the nineties.
and easily the biggest drum n bass track of the late 90s, on dubplate for what seemed like forever, the all conquering Warhead
As the millenium came to a close the city, like most of the country, lost its musical way somewhat. Drum n bass got harder and darker, with a few producers like Clipz breaking through to keep things fresh. Basically things fell into a bit of a stasis until the mutation of 2-step into dubstep put fire into the belly of the Bristolians.
As Drowned in Sound has it –
A core of new producers came through in the mid 00′s, centred around BLOC favourites Pinch, Appleblim and Peverlist. They created an experimental wing of dubstep with yawning caverns, echo chamber dancehall samples and scatter shot drum beats. Less the brutal jump up wub-wub of Rusko and co, this was again part of the West country head music soundscape.
These early producers set the stage for Bristol’s second wave, and the new breed has diversified. Joker (playing for BLOC @ the Eastern Electrics New Year’s Eve launch party) disavowed dubstep in early interviews and productions, and is in general more influenced by deep southern crunk and click clack grime. Dubstep uberlord Kode9 spoke about Joker’s use of woozy fullsome synths, remarking that they make his tracks sound like “Wiley stuck in an elevator with…Cameo. You hear his whiney pitch-bent synths on a dance floor, it’s like some kind of group electrocution taking place.” This sound has been lumped in with the tracks coming from fellow locals Guido and Gemmy and oddly labelled as ‘purple’, a genre tag which none of them seem comfortable with, even if they have used it in their own productions –
Running alongside these producers is the rising star Baobinga – whose recent tracks have combined rowdy ragga and hip hop elements with near breaks style drum patterns. Ragga-techno if you like, straying back into the more break-led bass heavy culture of yesteryear.
Al Tourettes is pushing a darker brooding underground techno influenced sound which for convenience we’ll call post dubstep. In this he’s joined by Julio Bashmore who’s intricate percussion and warm melodies owe as much to deep house as they do to dubstep.
For an excellent in-depth musical timeline of the city from a true champion of new, underground music check this great article from Mary-Ann Hobbs’ section on Radio 1 site from 2008.
This is merely a potted and personal history of the music of the city. It is not meant to be an exhaustive gospel of all things musical in Bristol. If you’re interested in what you’ve read, delve deeper and read more – leave comments here to extend all of our knowledge!
It’s a unique city with an incredible history. Long may it continue.
First published on the Bloc Weekend site last month.
- …and the frankly terrifying ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ (recently covered and remixed by Adam Sky and Crookers).
- Glaxo Babies are best heard on everyone’s favourite party starter ‘This Is Your Life’
- Black Roots ‘81 jam ‘Bristol Rock’
- The Friends & Countrymen EP,
- ‘Wishing On A Star’ (in part produced by DJ Krust, more on whom later…)
- to huge melody sharing hits from Portishead–
- and Tricky;
- commmercial radio favourites from Massive Attack
- and underground gems from Earthling
- “We were pretty cut off in Bristol which was a good thing and a bad thing. It meant that we could make music without getting distracted by what everyone else was doing, but it also meant that we were out of the loop. So we had to go to London a lot to touch base with the rest of the scene.”
- Inner City Life
- From Krust, first up the moody ‘94 ‘Jazz Note’, a combination of intelligence, skittering snares and globs of bass
- This was followed by the Carlito’s Way sampling Angles (which I can’t embed, you’ll just have to follow the link… )
- from Roni Size, under his Mask moniker, with Krust, the jump up roller Oh My Gosh
- The bass growler ‘It’s Jazzy’
- and, from the Mercury Award winning New Forms, the vocal work out Brown Paper Bag
- DJ Die pushed a throbbing LFO mutating bass sound, best heard on tracks ‘Clear Skyz’
- and his remix of Size’s ‘Watching Windows’
- “When Pinch began to bring dubstep to Bristol, through his Context nights, and later Subloaded and Dubloaded, it immediately began to attract a following.”
- Pinch’s ‘Qawwali’ on Planet Mu has the sinister spliff haze that characterised the first wave of producers.
- …as does Appleblim’s ‘Mystikal Warrior’
- Joker – Purple City
- Gemmy – Purple Moon