I Can’t Accept That: University Challenge, Jungle And How Glibness Creates Bad History

A viral question about jungle on University Challenge gave everyone the chance to be an expert and get a few laughs – but it also revealed some pernicious underlying assumptions, says Joe Muggs.

“We need jungle…. We need jungle…. W-e-e-e-e-e n-n-e-e-e-e-d-d j-j-u-u-u-u-n-n-g-g-l-l-e…” On music social media and beyond it’s become a relentless refrain this last week, ever since the team from the University of Aberdeen was admonished by Amol Rajan for answering “drum & bass” to a music history question on University Challenge. Her answer and his correction was instantly seized on by a legion of wags, sampled, and plonked over beats of various quality. I’ve got a horrible nagging feeling one or other big name is going to play something out and it’s going to be a refrain as ubiquitous in raves this year as “Baddadan” was in 2023.

I say horrible, because although obviously the sampling of the clip is an irresistible bit of fun in and of itself, and we in the know can all have a good old laugh at the unworldly nerds who don’t know their rough and rugged dance music, the incident itself was just that little bit “off”. Both it and the discourse that’s followed have helped to ossify some insidious cultural assumptions. First up, and most fundamentally: the question was a mess. Given its wording, Rajan or whoever made the ruling was – and I can’t emphasise this enough – just wrong not to allow “drum & bass”.

The problem was the examples given in the question. Boundaries between styles are messy and porous at the best of times, but even so the question as phrased was almost specific enough to justify insisting on “jungle”. The references to rave, reggae soundsystem culture and “early 90s” would’ve worked. Jungle (or, early on, “jungle tekno”), after all, came together with those influences as a nascent scene in 1992 via the likes of Ibiza Records – and in fact A Guy Called Gerald, cited in the question, made the still brilliant ‘King Of The Jungle’ in 1992. “Drum & bass” as a phrase was in circulation but had far less specific meaning at the time, so there’s a solid argument to be made that jungle was earlier.

But Gerald was not a good example to give. Even though he made jungle as such, outside of hyper-specialist music discourse, if anyone’s heard of his name it’d be in connection with ‘Voodoo Ray’, i.e. an acid house classic – and even his jungle tunes were deeply idiosyncratic and not really played on the scene outside his immediate circle in Manchester. It’s kind of like citing James Blake as a defining dubstep artist: his early tunes are, structurally, dubstep. He was even played and loved by dubstep heads. But if you asked someone to “name the genre exemplified by James Blake” you’d throw them right off.

And Goldie was an even worse choice when it came to muddying the waters. Though you might just about argue he was on the jungle scene (his affiliate DJ Storm, for example, is very much of the “we were all junglists” persuasion), there’s probably no one person in Britain more associated with the phrase “drum & bass” for the average punter. Literally, say “name a drum & bass artist” and the top answer on Pointless, Family Fortunes or whatever would be “Goldie”. And that doesn’t just go for normies: his brand Metalheadz, label and club, were more than any other synonymous with the peeling off of drum & bass as a separate entity. And with regard to the specifics of the question, Goldie never had overt reggae soundsystem influences and is on the record disavowing that as any part of his music. He was about hardcore rave, yes – but combined with b-boy breaks and Detroit techno. He very simply wasn’t an example of what the first half of the question described.

So no, it wasn’t OK to disallow “drum & bass” as an answer. While the initial part of the question indicated jungle for sure, the loosening of the terms by giving those examples left enough wiggle room that it wasn’t certain. Drum & bass had rave and reggae influences, existed in the early 90s, and was pioneered in particular by Goldie. If the names given had instead been those of people who had specifically made their names in jungle and are known as such now – Shy FX would be the obvious one, and you could add any of Bizzy B, Remarc, Potential Badboy and plenty of others – it would, just, have held water. Even more so if they’d have added a more technical description, like talking about complex breakbeat edits on the off-beat. But they didn’t and it didn’t.

But what does this matter? Aberdeen’s other answers in the round showed they genuinely weren’t genned up on 20th century music and subculture, so maybe they didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt – but they won the quiz comfortably in the end, so it didn’t even affect the result. It’s just nitpicking isn’t it? Well, fuck yes, it is. These are in a sense micro-minutiae. But having nits isn’t great. And what happened afterwards, as the clip went viral, has brought home that there’s a whole mess of pernicious assumptions that are getting written into our cultural history. These are assumptions that affect the way we think about class, race, the nature of subculture itself, and who gets to tell the stories, even how we hear music and what music gets made next.

The thing is, at least as far as I could see – and I think I have a reasonable overview of music fan social and trad media, and I’ve seen a lot of responses to this – most people were in agreement with Rajan refusing the answer. I saw a couple of online polls that said as much. Rajan himself piled in to tell everyone about his own junglist credentials (although we should note he’s got previous with slightly peculiar ideas of what constitutes authenticity in bass music). And the thing with this is that it, and the comments that surrounded posts about it, came with an inverted-snobbish “Ahaaa! See how ignorant these rosy cheeked children of the bourgeoisie are of street culture,” with an added undercurrent of “They don’t know that jungle is the real deal, not like effete, ersatz drum & bass!”

I understand the latter urge, I really do – because I’ve embodied it myself. Back in 1994 and 1995, I looked askance at fellow white middle class students who listened only to floaty LTJ Bukem and Alex Reece tunes, clutching my L Double 12”s and Dr S Gachet mixtapes as totems of “realness”. But thankfully, as I listened and learned more, I got over myself, and learned to appreciate the complexities and contradictions in the ebb and flow of influence. And above all I learned that ascribing more authenticity to Black / multicultural / working class music when it’s ostentatiously macho and aggressive is a dickhead’s game.

A key part of that understanding was noting how the sensuous and fluid rare groove / soul influence on jungle which were there from the beginning quickly got written out of the equation by commentators in favour of talking about the ragga and “tear out” elements – something which continues right through to today: if one wanted to make the University Challenge question much clearer in its reference to jungle specifically, saying “rave, reggae soundsystem and rare groove influences” would have done that.

Martin James’s book State of Bass: The Origins Of Jungle / Drum & Bass – originally published in 1997 and revised and reissued in 2020 – was one of the first and best books on the topic, and does a creditable job of mapping out the currents of jungle, d&b, jump-up, tear-out, techstep, “soulful”, “jazzy”, “intelligent” and so forth even as they were still surging around one another. James is now a university lecturer and says in the 20 years he’s been teaching, “Every year, pretty much without fail, someone will come up with an essay presenting jungle and drum & bass in opposition to one another.”

And this opposition almost always posits drum & bass as a gentrification of jungle. “Usually,” says James, “they see the gentrification argument through race and authenticity. There’s a tendency to reduce the jungle / d&b argument to simple binaries that suggest one is real with urban roots, and the other is inauthentic and suburban. Which then gets played out in ethnicity. All of which is very blunt and far too simplistic.” Blunt, simplistic and wrong. While the high-gloss, high-tech production values of drum & bass certainly did find their way more into mainstream culture from the mid-90s on, and jungle disappeared into the background, this was part of a much more complicated set of historical movements than simply one replacing the other with a less authentic version.

But as James’ students demonstrate, the all-to-easy-to-regurgitate false binary has been etched into canonical discourse. As the 21st century rolled in, journalistic tendency that you might call the Continuity Melody Maker Faction, which created an echo chamber for itself in overwhelmingly white male pseudo-academic online spaces like Dissensus and ILX, perpetuated proprietary categories that cemented the authenticity myths. Meanwhile new generations of ravers latched on to the toughest end of ragga jungle, stripped of any softness and soulfulness, as the real deal, filtered via (n.b. often brilliant) revivalists like Soundmurderer, reissues of Remarc and Bizzy B, and even in the mainstream via people like Chase & Status – tearing up raves along the way, but helping establish the idea of jungle as something monolithic and separate from drum & bass.

All of this is something I’ve constantly tried to unpick – and particularly through the 2010s as the project that became Bass, Mids, Tops: An Oral History of Soundsystem Culture came together, I developed methodology that focused on individual lives and life stories as a way of illustrating the fluidities and ambiguities of scene and genre evolution. This has now grown into a huge evergrowing Substack

applying the process to subculture more broadly. There have been plenty of other people doing likewise: Anthoney Hart aka Basic Rhythm / East Man has made fascinating observations via music, interviews and writing about drum & bass’ function as a working class culture, its relations to grime and so on. And as a new generation who weren’t even born at the birth of jungle come through, a lot of old binaries get deconstructed. We are in the world of Sherelle, Nia Archives, Etch, Sully and Tim Reaper now, in whose work historical documentation is detailed and acute, and soulfulness, hardcore, Amen break fury and other elements flow together in new ways that rewire and reboot that history.

A common response to someone like me getting pernickety about an issue like the University Challenge is “it’s not that deep”. But here’s the thing: yes it is. It really is. This is our history, it’s our culture – whatever your class, race and tastes, subcultures as deeply ingrained as jungle and drum & bass form part of the fabric of Britain, part of how we relate to one another and see ourselves, part of how the world sees us. And when an oversimplification of what jungle is and how it relates to its musical context is amplified to such a degree by a network TV show, a viral moment, and worse still by the responses to it, that weaves an error into that fabric. So next time you see “we need jungle”: yes, we do need it, but we need it in its entirety, we need it with all its messy stories, and not just as a smug punchline.

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