Bristol: Rise Up
by Benjamin Slinger
For a large part of the 1990s Bristol became central to the musical universe, as the sounds of the West Country’s capital reverberated around the planet. Drum&bass and trip hop, Massive Attack, Roni Size, Tricky and Portishead. Yes sir, this was the place, the epicentre, it was all happening. Where were you?
Fast forward to 2008 and perhaps wider public opinion is that Bristol’s musical heyday has long since passed. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘wave speech’; for a time in the last decade of the 20th Century the musical population of Bristol was riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. Now years later you can climb a steep hill in the city and look West and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Not if Mary Anne Hobbs has anything to do with it. Dismissing this train of thought, Hobbs is at the forefront of a new wave of thinking, reshaping popular opinion about the Bristol scene.
This revisionist school argues that the city is remerging as the capital of a new sound. That Bristol is in a continual state of evolution not devolution. The city is moving again. In fact it never really stopped. Only this time it sways to the sound of new drum machine beats. They call it dubstep.
Bristol: A History
The origins of the ‘Bristol Sound’, as philosophy, lie with the angst ridden Bristol punk and post-punk acts of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Bands such as The Pop Group, formed in 1978, had a strong DIY ethos and sense of musical independence that still resonates around the city today.
The Pop Group, whose sound spanned punk, funk, jazz and dub were produced by reggae veteran Dennis Bovell, a union which set the tone for Bristol as a city that welcomed musicians of all genres to interact, share, learn and work with one another.
Moving into the mid ‘80s, Bristol sound systems like The Wild Bunch developed the concept of pan-genre amalgamation further, creating their own musical agenda, blasting out snippets of punk, soul, hip hop and reggae as well as ambient electronic soundscapes creating a slow, rhythmic atmosphere.
This would eventually develop into trip hop and see Bristol artists such as Tricky, Portishead and Massive Attack (formed by three members of The Wild Bunch, Robert Del Naja aka 3D, Grant Marshall aka Daddy G and Andrew Vowles aka Mushroom in 1987) achieve massive worldwide recognition in the mid to late 1990s, the success of which continues through to the present day.
Leaving the ‘80s and entering the early ‘90s, Bristol now played host to the emerging genres of jungle and drum&bass evolving from the ashes of early rave culture. At the forefront of this pioneering new form of dance music was Bristol’s own Full Cycle Records led by Roni Size, DJ Suv, DJ Krust and DJ Die. This quartet also formed half of the 1997 Mercury Music Prize winning crew Reprazent, lifting the coveted trophy for album ‘New Forms’.
But why Bristol? What made the city so special? Of vast importance is the large West Indian population which bestowed reggae and dub upon the wider Bristol population, sharing a love of bass and sound system culture, represented so wonderfully at the annual celebration that is St Paul’s Carnival.
Similar to Manchester or Berlin, Bristol also has a large student population who constantly consume, digest and interpret the music of the city in an open minded, positive way. Further, the city is small enough geographically to seem almost intimate, with various types of music sharing audiences, venues and record shops creating dialog, interaction and collaboration.
It is not just the music that has benefitted from the independent, DIY ethos that seems to grip Bristol. This is after all the city that spawned Banksy, the graffiti artist turned darling of the contemporary art world. Indeed 3D of Massive Attack is himself an established graffiti artist and, like Barcelona, a walk around Bristol reveals a city that is almost a living canvas on which public displays of expression, be it in art or music, are not only the norm but actively encouraged.
Bristol: Perceived Decline
Yet as the 1990s drew to a close, at least in the eyes of the wider world, Bristol seemed to reach a creative peak and was unable to match its previous musical output. Popularity had come at a price. From the late ‘90s onwards the success and subsequent commercialisation of drum&bass and trip hop created a vacuum in Bristol.
While still popular, the genres became in some eyes diluted, disillusioning certain emerging artists who felt they couldn’t question or reinvent the genres at this key stage of rapid expansion. Without this, to an extent, trip hop and drum&bass began to cannibalise their own influences from within.
Still, both genres continue to have vibrant followings around the world and both continue to surprise with the complexity and innovation of new releases. Regardless this is not the time for what would be a huge and possibly volatile discussion.
What is important is that Bristol was innovating again. Younger producers and DJs, both in Bristol and around the world began to move away from the classic interpretations of both drum&bass and trip hop and search for new, more relevant sounds.
Entering the ‘00s, many heads turned towards London and the deep dark, bass driven sounds emerging from the ruins of UK garage. This new sound, known simply as dubstep, had real resonance with the Bristol ethos of fusing together an amalgamation of influences and adding a large dose of heavy bass.
It is in this context that we reach December 2008 and Hobbs’ Bristol: Rise Up, a special exploration into the city’s dubstep scene currently so vibrant, diverse and hitting a real creative peak. At this present moment in time, Bristol is as significant artistically as London and this could be the most thrilling chapter in an epic sonic journey spanning nearly 25 years of dance music across the city.
Thus on the 2nd December 2008 we embark on a seamless 2 hour voyage into the heart of Bristol dubstep. Hobbs has hand picked 12 artists most representative of the new sounds of a city looking to reclaim its global throne. The chosen are as follows:
Appleblim; co-founder of the notorious Skull Disco label with Shackleton and has just launched his own Apple Pips imprint.
Forsaken; unique in his use of live instrumentation, he plays on this session with Ben Blackmore. Co-founded the Soul Motive label.
Gatekeeper; releases on Skull Disco, Punch Drunk and Soul Jazz and plays on this session with MC Grilza.
Gemmy; hot, new 2008 newcomer turning heads after an excellent release on the Punch Drunk label.
Headhunter; thrilling producer/DJ currently signed to the prestigious Tempa label.
Jakes; founder of notorious Bristol dubstep kru H.E.N.C.H, producer and MC, he’s also the voice of the jingles on the show.
Joker; 19 year old star selected by Kode9 for Generation Bass earlier this year. Heads up his own label Kapsize.
Komonazmuk; wildman rolling with the H.E.N.C.H kru. He heads up Mode Recordings.
Peverelist; manager of legendary Bristol record shop, Rooted Records, and also at the helm of the Punch Drunk label.
Pinch; unofficial King of the Bristol dubstep scene. Phenomenal producer, international DJ, founder of the Tectonic and Earwax labels and host of the Subloaded and Dubloaded dances.
RSD; aka Rob Smith. Veteran dub producer and one half of Smith and Mighty.
Wedge; young hungry fully paid up H.E.N.C.H kru member.
Join us as we see if this generation of Bristol producers are ready once more to really push their sound onto the world stage. If the city and its artists even come close to matching what they achieved in the 1990s we could be standing on the threshold of a revolution, a second coming. It is time. Bristol: Rise Up.