What the sleeve notes never tell you
It’s been 16 months since the original post , which was meant to be a one-off feature; however I always felt that it’s been somehow incomplete. The constructive feedback I received, occasionally bordering on debate over a matter de facto subjective, convinced me to revisit the topic; paraphrasing Nick Hornby “a sneer at the bad choices, an understated but supportive raise of the eyebrow for the good ones”. So, instead of updating the list, I decided to compile a new one containing record artwork I had intentionally omitted for a variety of reasons, as well as couple of recent entries.
The second part of the blog’s mini-series covers the period 1997-99. What may have started timidly for artistic purposes or exclusive dj promotional use, by 1997 it became almost de rigueur for record labels to commission drum & bass versions for selected singles and various remix compilations. The niche underground genre infiltrated the mainstream and many d&b producers signed with major labels to curate collections or record personal albums. On reflection, it turned out to be a double-edged sword.
On one hand, d&b found its well-deserved place on the electronic music map. Artists were finally rewarded and vindicated for their efforts and their work was introduced from a limited connoisseur circle to a wider audience, providing them with a vital and creative space for experimentation. Commercial success and critic appreciation motivated accomplished, as well as up-and-coming producers to master their craft, pushing the musical boundaries beyond genre confines. On the other hand, the roller coaster of media exposure, politics, cloudy distribution and licensing agreements, self-indulgence and the drama that inevitably occurs when money and temporary fame enter the equation, terminated careers and friendships untimely and ingloriously. Effectively, drum & bass re-entered a phase of introversion, darkness and belligerence marking the end of the romance. An injection of fresh air was desperately needed and a new breed of producers and record labels emerged to fill in the gap created by those who helped the scene flourish, but sadly realized that they no longer fitted in the d&b reality of the new millennium.
This is the first part of a mini-series focusing on cross-genre drum & bass remixes; from subtle re-interpretations to complete re-constructions. The burgeoning d&b popularity in the mid-90s attracted media attention and interest from independent, as well as major record labels, which commissioned d&b remixes for their artists across the music spectrum; from post-punk and progressive rock, to indie-pop and acid jazz. The syncopated, sample-based drum & bass template accommodated for experimentation and fostered an adventurous environment to introduce innovative production techniques and sonic landscapes.
In hindsight, efficient promotional, publishing, licensing and distribution models exposed UK drum & bass to the large emerging markets of Japan and USA and the genre has been effectively embraced by a wider audience. Many artists seized the opportunity to explore new musical paths. However, what started with bona fide artistic and creative intentions came with a price. In certain cases, it was no more than a sly scheme to cash in on the niche genre emerging from the underground. As a counter-measure, a few years later, the d&b scene retreated back to introversion, inaccessibility and darkness with many struggling to find their place in the new bleak reality (more on part 2).
“… drawing a fine line between the sublime and the ordinary, the initial presentation criteria have been the aesthetic quality of the imagery, the nature of its production, the relationship to the music on the record and obviously my personal attachment …”
Drum & Bass Record Sleeves
Something completely different for the last post of 2016; instead of the music per se, the next installment of the blog’s ‘Count To Ten’ series is dedicated to artwork design, an essential aspect of the physical product. The size and tactile experience of the record sleeve is one of the reasons why vinyl records remain the most enjoyable way to listen to music. The recent vinyl resurgence has rekindled the art of the record layout. Whether it’s hand-made or mass-produced, meticulously arranged or spontaneously created, the cover artwork adds a literal dimension to the music that a digital thumbnail simply cannot replicate.
“… At Basement Records we also wanted the artists to sample as little as possible, to create pioneering and original material, hence the label title ‘Precious Material’. Some of the releases are produced in the studio and some are recorded live performances…”- Phil Wells reflects on the label’s ethos and purpose
After a long hiatus, the blog’s “Whatever happened to …?” series return with the 9th installment. This time into the limelight is Precious Material; one of the most exhilarating and pioneering drum & bass labels of the mid-90s. Though short-lived, Precious Material has been one of the finest outlets of experimental drum and bass, integrating elements from various musical genres into the drum & bass template, defying stereotypes, constraints and agendas.
Established by Phil Wells in 1994 as a Basement Records’ subsidiary, during a time when drum & bass was still in its infancy, the main driver had been to foster a creative environment for established, as well as up-and-coming artists, free from dance-floor reactions and limitations. Following the huge success of the parent label Basement Records during the early rave years and the jungle/drum & bass evolution, Phil’s aspiration and incentive had always been to spearhead a new musical direction and introduce drum & bass to wider audiences.
“I don’t feel I was trying to be anyone else, I was drawing from my influences when I was younger, a bit of reggae, hip-hop … It was coming straight from the heart and I think that’s important” – Digital on his first production steps calling for individuality – Red Bull Music Academy, Rome, 2004
The next international guest of the blog’s “Jump the Q” series is Digital; one of the most prolific, influential, consistent and widely respected drum & bass artists. Two decades after his inaugural solo release, with an enviable and extensive back catalogue under his belt, as well as a plethora of classics for the genre’s most prestigious record labels, Digital celebrates the 20 years milestone of his recording career with the re-launch of his own imprint Function Records.
“… from a musical point of view, I always intended to release stuff that would hopefully stand the test of time, hence the label name. Having said that, I never would have thought that people would still be listening to some of it 20+ years later! It’s proper mad, but really cool, it’s made it all worthwhile!” – Graham Mew (aka The Invisible Man) on Timeless Recordings