Initiation into the rave scene of the nineties was similar to pyramid selling. We’d be hanging around the local watering hole, prepping for the off, when some nerd we hadn’t seen since school would apprehensively saunter in, blissfully unware of what was about to hit them.
They’d be looking for something, they wouldn’t know what, but we did. Something ardent; association, something to cling onto through the stresses of delinquency, an escapism from teenage tension. “Hey, how’s it going mate, coming to the party?”
Before they knew what was what they’d be standing clueless in a field, apprehensively witnessing absolute mayhem unfold; their conceived ideas of what a party should be abruptly annihilated by a thousand over-kindly nutcases, squeezed together and suctioned to a bass-bin, pulling inexplicable faces, sharing bottled water and poppers.
The following weekend we’d spot them in the crowd and we’d sprint for a hug; “mate, is that you?” In the space of a week they’d transformed into a “Cheesy Quaver.” Attired in a diamond-cut square trilby, puffa, round pink shades and unsteadily supporting an enhanced jawbone, they’d be nattering to anyone and everyone, in what appeared to be a trade deal.
In turn they’d initiated a whole gang of others, and so the perpetual cycle continued, until the entire country of ravers gathered on one small common in Herefordshire in 1992, and something in my mind told me then, the authorities wasn’t going to stand idly by and watch.
Perhaps our outgoing ethos and promotional qualities was sadly our downfall. But what was once a bit of fun turned into a political and social struggle, a rebellion of dance. The free party scene lay wounded but a phoenix would arise from it’s ashes; the passage would headlong into the mainstream, the music would grace the stages of Glastonbury, find its way into adverts and children’s TV shows, and the fashions and lingo would filter to customary by the end of the decade. This reflected in the development of a variety of musical genres, as the crowds were now too large to party in one marque. It also created diverse recordings, expanding the perimeters of the genre; the albums of which we now continue to count down from the previous part of the article, from 19 – 10.
19 – Nightmares on Wax – Smokers Delight (Warp 1995)
One of those genres was trip-hop, never liked the name truth be told, neither did this album’s creator George Evelyn. For Nightmares on Wax was more sophisticated than “stoner” music, and the current US hip hop too. This was the UK adding a benchmark to hip hop, it was ambience, it was melted chocolate oozing through your speaker, and it made the perfect sound for your after-party chill-out session, easing the trickle back to reality, like vodka.
18 – Orbital- 2 (the Brown Album) – (FFRR 1993)
Mentioned this before, the first half of the nineties, we didn’t buy albums, but rave tapes (live recordings from raves.) They were cheaper and of a shareware culture. It’d be considered risky in 1993 to release an album of dark, underground techno, but that is where Orbital secretly reigned over the others, and pioneered the dance concept album. We envied their torch-specs, as they operated machinery to refine experimental sounds, for which they should be considered the Kraftwerk of the nineties, and this second album typifies their dedication to the scene. There’s no stand-alone tracks, nothing except a few samples of Star Trek and Withnail and I to amuse, as it drifts through harmoniously and you renter Earth’s atmosphere thinking what just happened there then?
17 – Portishead – Dummy – (Go-Beat 1994)
“She dumped him?”
“Yeah, he’s locked himself in his room.”
“That’s quite serious.”
“He’s listening to Portishead.”
“Call the police!”
Portishead, until 1994 was a little port-town on the Seven, therein after it was a trip hop trio reverberating the next step for the downtempo fashion of the Bristol scene, with the gloomiest electro blues album you’ve ever heard. It was chill out music, chilled to tender bone, spectacularly musique noir. Winner of the Mercury Music prize 1995, it was pioneering in as much as people now understood how flexible contemporary electronic music could be, for although it’s defined as dance music, you could only sway to this in a sombre mood of melancholic dejection; Morrisey had nowhere to go. Still, it was hauntingly sublime.
I recall feeling very sorry for myself, physically worn out, emotionally drained and wet through to the skin, the second year of the mudfest which was the late nineties Glastonbury. I huffed, alone in my tent; this wasn’t a festival, it was survival. I’d attempted to get on with it but by Sunday night it’d beaten me.
The rain reduced to fine dribble, the sort which soaks you without you realising. It’d created a gloomy low level mist, I couldn’t think of any kind of weather more suitable when a friend unzipped my tent and insisted I get off my lethargic arse and go watch Portishead with him.
The VIP area was so sodden with mud, the band’s bus couldn’t get through. After hours of waiting in the drizzle the atmosphere was one of misery; with purple to blue lighting effects and the disillusionment of fading chemical stimuli, I rocked gently to-and-fro with the crowd, like a thousand tigers in captivity. Until a man got on stage, declared Portishead had arrived but explained they couldn’t get through via the back stage. He invigorated a mass movement, a parting of the crowd like Moses at the water’s edge. And the band made it to the stage; “She’d better sing her fucking arse off!” I demanded to the acquaintance who’d unwillingly dragged me along and broken my moment of solitude. And boy, she did, she gave it her all, and the atmosphere, the mood could’ve have been more apt.
Portishead, face it, would never have been the next big thing, as despite their excellence, it just didn’t suit the merry mood of pop, it didn’t fit on the chart formula, it would never wash with teeny-boppers. Their second album equally a melancholic classic, but too similar in style to bring it to reverb the notion.
16 – Dreadzone – Second Light (Virgin 1995)
You have to wonder what Carl Orff would’ve thought of Little Britain, but not at the time. At the time you just waited for the break; “Go!” For those who figured the UK rave scene was an extension of Chicago’s acid house, when groups like Dreadzone commercialised the breakbeat in a fashion acquired from reggae, it was clear the originality was homegrown.
The US never gave it a reggae spin, for it wouldn’t have been a popular move. But it’s fair to say, via the Windrush generation reggae always had a wider influence on the UK. A stage further from Two-Tone now, ravers embraced reggae and Dreadzone fused it in such a way, sprayed it with movie and reggae classic samples, made themed songs, and offered a creative style with narrative and meaning.
For Dreadzone, still active today, Second Light was their commercial peak, its fusion of techno with dub reggae, and its sprinkling of influences made it unique and timeless.
15 – Zion train – Homegrown Fantasy (China – 1995)
Some may argue against putting this so high in my chart, especially above Dreadzone; I’ll explain why. Where Dreazone fused reggae with techno, it wasn’t wholly reggae, purely borrowing. Zion Train though remained much more faithful to the dub scene, occasionally meandering into crusty techno; it was mostly dub, and taking the popular Jah Shaka UK style to new audiences.
While Zion Train may not have been as successful as Dreadzone, for me they’re the better outfit. We shared a page in a FIN once, (Google “Free Information Network;” a photocopied pre-internet) and I wrote to them after buying the first single from this album “Get Ready.” They showered me with vinyl and this CD to review in my own comic/zine I was intending to create, without regard to its distribution and print quantities; in short, they kindly supported creative projects in the underground, they actively helped and campaigned, they never attained to chart a single.
They were the secret angle of dub, the innovative stance in an oppressive world and, not for their personal links to me, but for the pure uplifting excellence this album thunders with, I love the Zion Train sound system. It’s earthy and righteous, with a horn section.
If acts like the Prodigy could take slices of reggae for samples, why couldn’t it work in reverse? That’s where Dreadzone stood, somewhere in the middle of, but Zion Train inverted the process; reggae with occasional nods to rave, for me was more experimental than the others the ravers harked on about, for me it was progression to a wider spectrum for dance music, if not for its commercial success.
14 – Coldcut – Journeys by DJ (Music Unites 1995)
We discussed, though not at length, the greater attraction of “rave tapes,” above the album in those heady nineties. Fully mixed, often with MC’s toasting the crowd, they emulated the experience of being at a rave so much more, a small mercy for the raver who hadn’t made it to a rave at that particular moment; rather sitting depressed on a bus going to college or work. Also fair to note, the tape could be a recording of an event you attended, making it more personal than listening to the solo output of an album, should by some miracle you recalled it!
The downside to the rave tape was quality. Upon given a tape one had to ponder how many times this had been copied prior to yours; the sound quality deteriorated with every exchange. I’d buy several rave tapes under the conviction it’d be a fair recording, then loan them in return for others. I collected enough of them to listen to from then to now, but nowadays, with crisp recording quality being norm, you wouldn’t even go there.
Loitering in Homeboyz Records in Swindon in 1992 I noticed it on a shelf; a CD of DJ Sasha. No, the reply to my question, it wasn’t a studio album, it was a….a…rave CD! I snapped it up; now in possession of something for prosperity whence the rave tapes would one day be dumped in a skip (in 2000 and something, I tipped 99.9% of them in a skip, there was a few I couldn’t part with sentimentally.)
All this two years before “official” rave tapes were produced and CDs followed shortly. But at that time, CD was supposed to be the irreplaceable, unbreakable format and usually reserved for something worthy for opulence and archiving; yeah right!
Once the memento of mix CD’s took hold there was no stopping it, but this here is supposed to be a list of albums, I’ve stayed clear of DJ mixes. The first in a series of Journey By DJ though, has a place here, if not later mix CDs like The Chemical Brothers Live at the Social in 96, The Freestylers FSUK Vol2 in 98 and, most defiantly, Liam Howlet’s 1999 Dirtchamber Sessions.
Coldcut, aka Matt Black and Jonathan More, pioneered sampling in the 1980s as well as being the first in the UK to produce hip hop. In the pop charts since the dawn of the scene, and introducing the world to Yazz and Lisa Stansfield, they were renowned for experimentation, for pushing the boundaries. Yet this mix took their ethos to the next stage.
In reflection of Grandmaster Flash’s “Adventures of the Wheels of Steel,” and the original ethos of hip hop, Coldcut made a full-length mix which fused just about every electronic genre in existence at the time, added humor, movie samples, sixties beat, even the Dr Who theme. Basically, if Matt and Jonathan had a recording of it, considering adding it to this was earnest.
This opened the gate for Norman Cook and the plethora of others who’d create timeless songs through freestyle mixing, and for which, it surely deserves to be viewed as an album rather than a “rave tape.”
13 – LFO – Frequencies (Warp 1991)
Aptly named after the rhythmic pulse or sweep produced by low-frequency oscillation, an electronic signal typically below 20Hz, the LFO harks back to pre-breakbeat days, when there was house music aimed at charts and then there was “bleep” music, as we deemed it, the thriving Detroit acid house scene bonded with German Techno.
With 808 State’s Excel, Frequencies were perhaps the only albums heralding this kind of sound in 1991, and it was as revolutionary as Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock in 1982, and just as underground. It did change the shape of music, it did offer something you only heard while wearing a bandanna at a disused warehouse somewhere on the orbital.
12 – Chemical Brothers – Exit Planet Dust (Junior Boys Own 1995)
I’ve no idea what bought us there; slumped on the edge of the dancefloor of Turnmills in Islington, we were country crusty ravers truly out of our depth, as London’s “beautiful people” shimmered around us carrying ice buckets of champagne. The sort of place where a giant of man could hang out (literally) in just a leather crotch patch and biker’s boots, and the girls looked like something from a catwalk. I tried to overt prying the eye-candy, as my girlfriend was the sort who’d lump one of them. She though was too concerned with the two DJs at the desk. I’d heard of them from Mixmag, they were the Dust Brothers I informed her.
“Why do they call them brothers, when one is a girl?” she inquired.
“No, they’re both guys, one has long hair!” I explained, but she refused to accept this.
In order to solve the argument I took her hand and encouraged over to the DJ box, where we clambered up and peered over to take a closer inspection. Still she was unconvinced and, while the Dust Brothers were trying to concentrate on their mix, she’d point at Tom Rowlands shouting “It’s a girl!”
“No!” I snapped back, also pointing at him, “he’s a guy, look at him, he’s clearly a guy you stupid cow!”
You could tell they were getting annoyed, and after a minute of this I’d have expected one to punch me. I dragged her away, as she’d launch back, and geographically I was lost in Islington should we get terminated from Turnmills. But miraculously, we didn’t; professional to the core, the needle didn’t jump from the record.
I tended to ignore her for the remaining evening, and enjoy the music as it was something altogether different, the emerging big beat scene having not quite made it to the countryside. Shortly after the Dust Brothers changed their name to the Chemical Brothers for reasons unknown, and made it big; definitely as guys and not girls.
11 – Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms (1997 Talkin’ Loud)
Giles Peterson is still a jazzy dude, even when he departed from Acid Jazz Records, his new label Talkin’ Loud, as heard on the James Brown/Bobby Byrd tune, would always have been devoted to jazz. Here then is Drum n Bass finding its path to acceptability in the mainstream, winning the Mercury Music Award and all, but we the ravers knew long before New Forms.
I heard rumour Roni spent the winnings on funding a youth community project in Bristol called Fused, which would be give urban kids opportunities like music technology and graffiti art. Reflecting back online, I cannot find any truth in this, but I’m sure it was as I say.
Must have been around this time I attended a “Squatters Party” in Brixton where there was several rooms of music, each one hardcore but progressively getting faster, until I poked my head into the room defined as “gabba techno,” and shied away; “you can’t dance to that shit!” I guess this is where Drum n Bass really took over for me. New Forms presented just that, tolerable and matured.
10 – William Orbit – Strange Cargo 3 (1993 Virgin)
Through the mid-nineties I’d always imagined the look on William Orbit’s face when he received a call requesting he produced Madonna’s next album. I assumed he was only accredited as a solo producer, through the awesomeness of Strange Cargo, number 3 being his magnum opus. Powers of an internet we didn’t have at the time, I only now realise the wealth of work this man produced prior to Ray of Light.
From the synth group Torch Song in the earliest of the 80s, to Betty Boo and Portishead’s Beth Orton, William Orbit was the chilled out electronica god. Blur, the All-Saints, Robbie Williams, Pink, Britney Spears all queued up to work with him after Ray of Light bought knew acceptability to Madge’s waning reputation. For Orbit had something unique, whatever artist he worked with, each tune has a definitive style, a signature imprint.
You might consider Pete Tong’s Heritage Orchestra brings dance music to classical ears these days, but back in the nineties William Orbit surely pioneered techniques in music tech which heralded electronica AS classical music, and straddled a boundary between them which no one prior even was aware existed. If you fancy any of those chart hits from the aforementioned popstars with Orbit’s stamp on them, you simply have to dive into the utter mega-ecstasy bliss of Strange Cargo 3, and regard this ground-breaker was constructed way back in 1993; truly timeless.
That ends us off for now, join me for the third and final section of this historic exploration of dance music, as I count down from nine to one; hands in the air!