i-D throwback: recreating the rave dream with happy hardcore
For it’s 1995, and this is happy hardcore – a bunch of kids across the UK who are trying to re-ignite the rave fantasy of love, peace and unity. Taken from The Sharp Issue, no.140, May 95.
Saturday Night at Club Labrynth in Dalston, London E8, and there's an eerie sense of time travel in the air. There's the music, for a start - old skool 'ardkore, all frenetically staccato synth-stabs and octave-skipping piano oscillator-riffs that flicker like the aural equivalent of a strobe, topped with soul-diva histrionics and even the occasional, sped-up 'Mickey Mouse' vocal (one tune sample-accelerates "life is a mystery" from Madonna's Like A Prayer).
Dancing, they make the kind of geometric hand-moves you haven't seen in London clubs for years, and during the rinky-dinky fairy-tale keyboard interludes they outstretch their hands to the heavens. A few kids even sport white gloves! And there's the MC exhorting the crowd in an east London accent with not a trace of junglist patois, asking "Can you feel the rush?", chanting "Oi oi! Oi oi!"
It's like we've gone back to 1992, like jungle never happened and the rave dream never died. Except there's these subtle differences that betray the fact that hardcore is three years older. The music's faster, for a start: a palsied 165-beats-per-minute (92' hardcore was about 140 bpm). And the atmosphere is different - luv'd up but not mental, friendly yet reserved. People smile, ask for a sip of your Evian, gently pat your shoulder as they push through the crowd. But the eye contact is ever so slightly guarded. It's like the scene is tentatively feeling its way back to the effervescent euphoria of hardcore's golden age.
For it's 1995, and this is happy hardcore - a bunch of kids across the UK who are trying to re-ignite the rave fantasy of love, peace and unity. Some are very young, teenagers who missed 1991/'92, who are only now going through the honeymoon period with Ecstasy and require the appropriate rush-activating soundtrack. Others are '92 veterans in their early twenties, who were alienated when 'ardkore turned first 'dark' and then jungalistic, who drifted odd into progressive house or garage for a while, but are now getting back into it.
Hardcore, the story so far
Once upon a time, hardcore was just hardcore, no prefix. And all hardcore was happy, in so far it was designed to enhance and intensify the Ecstasy experience. Almost all of the leading lights in today's experimental drum'n'bass scene were making luv'd up loony choons back in '92. Take Moving Shadow, now purveyors of ambient-tinged 'audio-couture'. Back then, their roster was firmly on the happy tip, from Blame's Music Takes You, with its percussive blasts of hypergasmic soul-diva vocal, to the near- symphonic elation of Hyper-On Experience tunes like Assention and Imajicka. As late as 1993, Moving Shadow put out some fiercely happy tracks, like Foul Play's Open Your Mind and Finest Illusion. Even Goldie, the pioneer of dark-core, started out making deliriously, disturbingly blissed-out tunes like Rufige Cru's Menace, complete with helium-shrill sped-up vocals.
So what happened? Well, partly in a violent swerve away from the commercialisation of hardcore (ie, the spate of kids' TV theme-based chart hits like Sesame's Treet and Trip to Trumpton that followed The Prodigy's Charley), and partly as a reaction against the cartoon zany-ness of squeaky voices, producers began to sever the musical ties that connected hardcore to rave culture. They focused on breakbeats and bass (ie, the hip hop and dub elements), and removed the uplifting choruses and piano riffs (ie, the housey/disco aspects). A trace of techno persisted, but only in the form of sinister atmospherics. Emergent by the end of '92 with tracks like Metalheads' Terminator and Satin Storm's Think I'm Going Out Of My Head, this new style was called 'dark side'. It was almost like the scene's inner circle had consciously decided to see who was really down with the programme, to deliberately alienate the 'lightweights'. "It was mostly DJs who were into dark," remembers Slipmatt. From his early days in SL2 (who scored a number two hit in '92 with On A Ragga Tip), through to his current status as top happy-core DJ/producer, Slipmatt has pursued an unswervingly euphoric course. "All I heard from people at the time," he recalls of the 'dark' era, "was moans."
In retrospect, dark-core's anti-populist head-fuck self-indulgence can be seen as a vital prequel to the astonishing ambient-tinged directions that drum'n'bass pursued through late-93 into 1994. But at the time, it turned people off, big time. It was no fun. Exuding bad-trippy dread and twitchy, jittery paranoia, dark-side seemed to reflect a sort of collective come-down after the E-fuelled high of '92. Alienated, the punters deserted in droves to the milder climes of house and garage.
But not all of them. A tiny fraction of hardcore fans, who wanted celebratory music but weren't prepared to forsake funky breakbeats for house's programmed rhythms, stuck to their guns. Through '93 into '94, this sub-scene - derided within the drum'n'bass community, even as jungle itself was scorned and marginalised by the outside world - continued to release upful tunes. There was Impact, the label started by DJ Seduction, creator of the '92 classic Sub Dub (with its enchanting sample of folk-rock maiden Maddy Prior) and idol of happy hardcore fanatic Moby. There was Kniteforce, the label founded by Chris Howell using the ill-gotten gains of Smart E's Sesame's Treet. And by early '94, there was Remix Records, the Camden-based shop and label started by DJ/producer Jimmy J, with funding from Howell (who also records under the names Luna-C and Cru-L-T).
Seduction, Howell and Jimmy J are just three of prime movers in a happy hardcore scene that operates in parallel with its estranged cousin, jungle, but has its own network of labels, its own hierarchy of DJ/Producers, its own circuit of clubs. Labels like Hectic, Slammin', SMD, Asylum and Slipmatt's own Universal; DJs and DJ/artists like Vibes, Dougal, Brisk, Sy & Unknown, Force & Evolution, Poosie, Red Alert & Mike Slammer, Norty Norty, DJ Ham, Ramos & Supreme; venues like The Rhythm Station in Aldershot, Die Hard in Leicester, Club Kinetic in Stoke-On-Trent, Pandemonium in Wolverhampton, and, solitary bastions of the happy vibe in the heart of junglist London, Club Labrynth and Double Dipped.
Late last year, the tide started to turn for happy hardcore, as breakbeat fans started to recoil from jungle's moody vibe. A massive boost came when happy anthem Let Me Be Your Fantasy by Baby D unexpectedly shot to Number One - a full two and half years after its original release. The song's creator, Dyce, had stuck with the euphoric style right through the dark era; churning out happy classics like Baby D's Casanova and Destiny, The House Crew's Euphoria (Nino's Dream) and Super Hero. But "Fantasy" is especially beloved, Dyce believes, because "it was inspired by the hardcore scene itself"; the lyrics sound like a love song, but it's really a tribute to the culture of luv'd upness. Fantasy struck a chord with a growing current of rave nostalgia, expressed in 'Back To 1991' reunion events and in 'old skool' sessions on pirate stations. For younger kids just getting into the scene, it was nostalgia for something they never actually experienced - but such wistful wishfulness can be a potent force.
Right now, happy hardcore is big pretty much anywhere the white rave audience predominates: i.e. not London and Birmingham,where the heavy concentration of hip hop, soul and reggae fans means jungle has more appeal. Even in Scotland, whose rave audience has hitherto been hostile to
breakbeat-based hardcore, happy is taking off. "Impact and Kniteforce sell well here," says Mark Smith, who was voted top DJ in Scotland two years running. "But I couldn't play a pure breakbeat set just yet."
There's a widespread feeling that jungle has peaked, and that as ragga-jungle gets ghettocentric and art-core drum'n'bass gets increasingly esoteric, the punters are turning to happy hardcore. "At Dreamscape last year, the main floor was 60 per cent jungle, 30 per cent happy," says top happy selector DJ Vibes, referring to the raves at the Sanctuary, Milton Keynes, which - at 6000 strong - are now the UK's biggest events. "This year, it's 60 per cent happy, 30 per cent jungle." According to Josh Lawford, who co-runs Double Dipped, "it's come full circle. Last year you could book the top happy DJ's up to two weeks before the event. Now they're all booked up six months in advance." Jimmy J says that when he opened Remix Records a year ago, "we were selling jungle with a bit of happy. Now it's happy with a bit of jungle. People just got pissed off with the jungle scene. There's too much attitude. People on the happy scene tend to be on a much better buzz." And Kniteforce's Chris Howell claims that happy is even outselling jungle: "your average happy hardcore tune will shift three or four thousand, your average jungle track about one to two thousand."
So what exactly is happy hardcore? If truth be known, it's not simply a retread of '92 'ardkore, but an evolution from, and intensification of, precisely those elements that jungle and drum'n'bass left behind as 'cheesy rave'. Elements like the piano riff, sometimes cannibalised from classic house tunes, sometimes knocked out by the dozen by hard-up professional pianists for a hundred quid a session. And like the synth stab pattern, a.k.a. 'mentasm stabs' (after the Joey Beltram classic Mentasm) - the sort of stuttering synth-riff you'd hear on a '92 classic like Urban Shakedown's Some Justice, but even more epileptic.
Dance music theorist Will Straw argues that high-end sounds (strings, pianos, female voices) are coded as 'feminine', while low-end frequencies (drums and bass) are coded as masculine. So the dark-side trend--which, as Dyce says, stripped hardcore down to "drum'n'bass with a few weird sounds to colour it"—can be seen as an attempt to make hardcore harder, more masculine, by purging the 'girly', effeminate elements (high-pitched vocals, etc). If you could still get into what was left after this drastic surgery (i.e. drum'n'bass, the ultra-minimalist sound of compulsion-for-compulsion's sake), it meant you were a connoisseur. Happy hardcore, by restoring the treble frequencies, re-establishes hardcore's links to rave music, and to rave's origins in gay disco.
Another crucial element in happy hardcore is the four-to-the-floor kick-drum. Again, this stomping 4/4 beat reconnects hardcore to house, disco and Hi-NRG, whereas jungle's hyper-syncopated breakbeats align it with hip hop, ragga and dub. For happy-core fans, there came a point at which jungle just got too funky to dance to. "Three years ago in Ravescene magazine, I stated that the breakbeat was the death knell of rave," says Josh Lawford. "I said that until the 4/4 kick-drum was reinstated, the music would lack the energy needed for the predominantly white rave audience to get into it. And I've been proved right: the kick-drum has come back, and now you've got tracks that combine breakbeats and kick-drum."
According to Ola of Stage One, compilers of Jumpin' & Pumpin's definitive Happy Hardcore anthologies, a 4/4 beat creates a totally different atmosphere. "When the 4/4 disappeared, people stopped shaking hands, hugging each other, sharing drinks. And the dancing changed too - people start to pose, it was more of look-at-me thing than a letting-go. With 4/4, kids can bounce around more easily. That pounding kick-drum, it goes with the feeling of rushin' - the whole vibe is of a mass of people jumping to the same beat. It creates unity."Still, the majority of happy tunes retain a breakbeat element - polyrhythmic fills and state-of-art drum'n'bass effects coil around the crowd-pleasing core of the four-to-the-floor. And this reflects the fact that happy hardcore fans are pretty open-minded - DJs drop the more uplifting jungle tunes into their sets, fans listen to both kinds of music. "Drum'n'bass is a very valid form of music," says Josh Lawford, "but personally, I think it works better on the radio." "There's definitely a place for trippy music, like Mo' Wax or Moving Shadow," says Chris Howell. "But when I go out, I want a party atmosphere and a stomping beat. There aren't enough dynamics in jungle. I want a build-up, a drop, peaks. That's what Kniteforce tracks are all about."
"The deeper stuff in drum'n'bass, it's head music," says DJ Brisk, who does Eternity magazine's happy hardcore column (recently expanded to a full page after a readers poll revealed that happy was the people's choice). "As a DJ, I can't play it at the peak of a night. It's not anthemic. If I got to a club, I want to have a good time."
Through not being cool
Last year, a lot of people suddenly realised that a jungle club was probably the last place you'd be likely to have a 'good time'. You might hear some amazing music (though increasingly you'd hear formulaic ragga ruffness on repeat-play), but all the things that originally got you into hardcore - the sense of release, the explosive euphoria - had gone. Smiley-faced 'ardkore had
somehow evolved into don't-touch-me jungle - a music of tension-but-no-release, a scene where eye contact is a no-no, and where smiles are rarer than hen's teeth.
Rave culture involved the white working class appropriation, via E, of gay disco's emotional demonstrativeness and gestural abandon. Jungle is based around a blacker, hip hop model of masculinity; one that's self-contained, tight-lipped and bodily-armoured. From '92s mania to '95s moodiness, from sweaty nutters with their shirts off to elegant stylists who don't perspire even when encased in their bomber jackets; the emotional temperature of the hardcore scene has dropped.
"Jungle is too cool," says Chris Howell. "I'm pleased to be uncool and happy. It's like with the white gloves. You ever seen a white glove person start a fight? If you hate people who wear white gloves, then basically you're saying having a good time is crap. Jungle people always say you've not been to the right club, but I've never been to one that's cheerful."
There's a strong undercurrent of racial tension lurking beneath the
emergence of happy hardcore. In large part, it's a backlash by white ravers against the influx of Black British youth into the hardcore scene in '93 and '94. Even Ola, who's black himself, feels it's perfectly understandable that white ravers have regrouped around 'happy'. "The little white kids were getting harassed by dodgy raggas," he says. "There was a lot of friction. See, people remember the days when it was all hardcore, everyone was united and it was more multi-racial. Kids should be able to go out and enjoy themselves, and not feel threatened or intimidated."
Grant of Slammin' Vinyl (and DJ Red Alert and Mike Slammer) argues that "hardcore used to be a multiracial scene. But now jungle is mostly seen as black. A lot of people who used to be into swing and ragga got into jungle last year, and they claim 'it's our music'. So the white kids are saying, 'well you can keep it then, we'll make our own music".
As well as the racial factor, another crucial difference between jungle and happy hardcore is pharmacological. Happy-core is geared towards the rush, the arrested orgasm sensation of Ecstasy - that's why it sounds like a perpetual crescendo. Drum'n'bass is designed for smokers - that's why it's full of long, sustained synth-tones and floaty textures, why every element in the music bar the breakbeats is at half-speed or slower. Where drum'n'bass encourages you to chill out, happy hardcore says 'get busy, break a sweat'.
"70 per cent of a happy hardcore crowd are on Ecstasy," says Vibes. "Without E, the atmosphere wouldn't be so strong. On the garage scene, it's cocaine; on the jungle scene it's ganja and a bit of coke. So there's a more snotty atmosphere. I don't call jungle 'rave music', cos you can't rave to it. If you're a happy raver, you're not into posing and looking at girls, you're just into going wild."
The final factor that makes happy hardcore proudly and defiantly 'uncool' is that it doesn't share jungle's obsession with staying underground. There's a sense in which the 1991/92 commercial heyday of hardcore - when bands like Urban Shakedown, The Prodigy, SL2, Altern-8, regularly made the Top Ten - is actually fondly remembered as a golden age. "We want the happy hardcore scene to get into the charts," says Grant Slammin'. An unabashed populist, Vibes says "I'd much rather 20000 people bought my record than 2000." The success of Baby D has shown happy producers that the sky's the limit. Already ffrr have picked up Jimmy J & Cru-L-T's anthem Six Days and plan to get the duo to re-record it with a view to scoring another Fantasy-style smash.
Cheese with everything?
Every Friday at Bagley's Film Studios, Double Dipped is London's Mecca for the happy massive. Like Club Labrynth, the atmosphere is refreshingly friendly (although nowhere near as fervent and out-of-control as the olden golden days). But after a while, the music starts to sound decidedly one-dimensional - all relentlessly affirmative piano chords, skittering 165bpm breaks, and synth-patterns that all appear to be anagrams of some primordial, rush-inducing riff. Where drum'n'bass is busy hybridising itself with as many different forms of music as possible, and as a result is proving itself to be '90s fusion (in both the best and worst senses of the word), happy hardcore is purist. But can such rave fundamentalism lead anywhere? In music as in genetics, doesn't inbreeding lead to sterility?
Even a happy-core stalwart like Chris Howell admits that "the music was better in 1992. People were more open-minded." Back in '92, DJs would play The Prodigy next to Joey Beltram next to Ragga Twins next to 2 Bad Mice; individual hardcore tracks were a mad hyper-eclectic mash-up of styles. Anti-purism (hardcore is sampladelic, collage-based music) was the scene's strength and glory, especially when compared to the textural uniformity of trance techno. Today, though, as Chris admits, "if I go to a happy rave, I'm bored cos I've heard all the tunes before. And it's the same with jungle. It'd be good if we could mix it up, but the happy people won't have it, nor the jungle boys."
Others in the scene are less defensive. Brisk frankly admits that when it comes to happy tunes, "originality doesn't sell". "If you get too 'deep', you go up your own arse," says Ola, referring to drum'n'bass. "Simplicity is bliss. Music sounds better in a club if it's not too complicated, the speakers can breathe. People say happy is old fashioned, but why change something that's good?"
Not everyone agrees- in fact there's the beginnings of a split within the happy scene between all-out populists like Vibes, and a strain of 'experimental' happy artists like DJ Ham, Ramos & Supreme, and Sy & Unknown. Vibes is concerned that some happy producers "are getting a bit too intelligent and futuristic, they're showing off a bit on their computers. The tunes are good but
I couldn't play 'em in a rave. To be honest, I play it safe. I'm into getting the crowd moving, without too much disturbance."
Vibes more or less admits that happy hardcore, at least as he conceives it, is an aesthetic cul de sac. "I don't think the music will ever be as good again. You can only be so original before you go into different worlds, so that it's not even hardcore anymore."
Those who chose a different path away from 1992 - i.e. the drum'n'bass crews - think differently. Back in '92, DJ Aphrodite was half of Urban Shakedown. Today he releases art-core weirdness under the names Aladdin, ruff ragga-jungle bizness under the names Amazon II and A-Zone, and, as Aphrodite, the occasional hyper'n'happy tune like the awesome You Take Me Up. Despite this, he believes that "happy hardcore is people trying to hold onto the past. To me, rave was never originally about 'happiness'. Acid was hard, deep music. Drum'n'bass is deep too. Happy hardcore - well, I'm against cheese! Cheese is a dead end! There's only a certain number of piano riffs you can use, which is why people are sampling old ones from their house collection."
Other '92 veterans agree that breakbeat music has moved on, and that happy hardcore is about living in the past. Like Acen, the man behind exhilarating hardcore anthems like Trip To the Moon (with its wonderfully stirring John Barry strings from You Only Live Twice and classic E-rush lyric "I can't believe these feelings!"), like Close Your Eyes (which sped up a Jim Morrison mystic incantation into a hilarious Munchkin squeal). Despite the fact that both tracks outsold The Prodigy's Everybody In The Place, Acen dropped out of the scene in '93. Now, working on his comeback album, and still aged only 22, he feels that he's grown beyond 'happy'. "I listen to music for music now, not 'cos I've got a couple of pills in me. '92 was all a haze for me, I'd knock out a tune for my next PA and think about what would sound ruff on the dancefloor. These days I'm listening more deeply," he says, citing Mo' Wax as a current fave.
In a way, it's something of a tragedy that hardcore had to split up
into factions, with all the ruffness and risk-taking going into jungle, and all the fun and friendliness re-emerging in happy-core. As it is, each breakaway scene is somehow incomplete: drum'n'bass supplies the aesthetic thrills, but it can't provide the emotional release that happy hardcore does, and vice versa, it's a shame that a single scene can't comprehend the 'serious'
multi-dimensionality of a Droppin' Science and the 'playful' mischief of a DJ Ham (whose latest tune, Masterpeace, hilariously rips off the synth-riff from Van Halen's Jump). For one of the truly delightful things about 1992 hardcore, compared to the preciousness of 'intelligent' techno, was its sense of humour.
Ironically, the future of happy hardcore itself may involve fragmentation and factionalism. One strand of happy may merge with what Ola from Stage One calls 'bouncy techno' (which has the same synth-stabs but no breakbeats), and sever its residual ties with jungle by foregrounding the 4/4. It might even link up with 'happy gabba', which is slowing in tempo to 180bpm. The other strand would be 'tuff happy', for people who like breakbeats but don't want to deal with jungle's attitude problem. Another split might occur between (don't laugh) 'intelligent happy hardcore', and the more poppy strain (which is getting more 'musical' and less sample-oriented, using real vocalists, etc).
And most people in the scene agree that a name change might be in the offing, if all the top labels can agree. No-one seems to like the word 'happy'. Josh Lawford suggests 'stompy hardcore', while DJ Seduction prefers the more technical 'four-beat'. "Happy hardcore", Seduction grimaces. "Well, it just sounds a bit girly. Cheesy...."
Text Simon Reynolds
Photography Liz Johnson-Artur