Updated: Feb 10, 2019
The word "jungle" means many things to me but the most relevant to this blog is that I see it as an open-source crowd-based exercise in brand development and marketing. As such a sprawling concept, it has a lot of layers. Like any good brand it has a well constructed narrative.
From a young age the word "jungle" itself was profoundly significant. I grew up on a diet of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book and Just So Stories with their pantheon of anthropomorphized jungle animals from India. In elementary school, I read Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine's book Last Chance to See in which they visit endangered species across the world, many of which inhabit the jungles in Indonesia, Africa, South America and Asia. I learned in school, particularly when I was homeschooled, about jungle deforestation and the accompanying mass extinction of animal and plant species. The jungle always seemed like something wondrous, complex, alive, fantastically beautiful, mysterious, and precious...and rapidly dying.
“Wildlife conservation is always a race against time. As zoologists and botanists explore new areas, scrabbling to record the mere existence of species before they become extinct, it’s like someone hurrying through a burning library desperately trying to jot down some of the titles of books that will now never be read.” ― Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See
Then there was the role the word "jungle" has played out in the history of societies and their conflicts. Being born in 1979, the wound of the Vietnam war was very fresh on the psyche of the generation that raised kids our age and a very similar pattern of smaller conflicts was playing out around the world in other jungles. Jungles were deadly, oppressive, hot, filled with young men fighting over ideologies they didn't understand in the corpses of decaying colonial empires. Proxy wars between the West and the Soviet bloc and China. Filthy, messy, futile, bloody struggles.
The Winstons - Amen Brother, 1969 (Normal, Fast and Slow)
I began listening to hip-hop in earnest in elementary school in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Amen Break, to cut a long story short because an in-depth history of breakbeat music genres isn't my intention here, is a drum loop sampled from The Winston's 1969 song "Amen Brother." This is one of the most commonly used samples in hip-hop and electronic music history. When slowed down, this and other commonly sampled drum breaks from 1960s and 1970s funk and motown music are the basis of almost all 1980s and 1990s hip-hop drum tracks. When sped up considerably, chopped and rearranged, they form the basis of the frenetic genre that emerged in the early 1990s in the UK, jungle music.
In the UK in the 1990s, "underground" music was more accessible, thanks in some part to pirate radio being a much more feasible medium. No particular part of the UK is very far from the coast and many pirate radio stations broadcast from ships off the coast in international waters. Even those who didn't attend the "underground" music events at which jungle was played they could listen to the soundtrack of them. Jungle music did have a niche following in the United States in the 1990s there was no mainstream attention paid the genre. Up until quite recently, you had to go to some lengths to listen to jungle at all in the United States. Much of it was only available in the UK on vinyl and has been out of the easy access of casual listeners. This has changed in recent years thanks to platforms like YouTube.
Kemet Crew - The Seed, 1995
Jungle was quickly surpassed in popularity by it's younger sibling Drum and Bass, both in the US and the UK, but has remained a beloved favorite in the broader breakbeat community and is usually easily differentiated from Drum and Bass by heavy Jamaican reggae and dancehall influences ... and typically by the use of sampled breakbeats like the Amen Break as opposed to sequenced synthetic drums. Jungle is often described as the "punk rock" of electronic music, both for its grimey origins, DIY aesthetic, and highly-charged political connotations. Jungle sampled heavily from reggae lyrics and toasting dancehall MCs, and as music of a brutally oppressed society these lyrics are filled with the expression of the violently oppressed. There are a number of stories in the jungle community about where the name originated. Stories differ as to who dubbed the new style "jungle." It is variously said to refer to a neighborhood in Kingston, the urban jungle in which it arose, make reference to the tribal sound of the music (sometimes including samples of birds and other jungle noises), or have originated as an veiled racial slur that the community proudly adopted.
Hip-hop and jungle music have always had a level of political pointedness that is largely not present in the broader spectrum of breakbeat music. Drum and bass captured many of the same acoustic elements, but often any vestigial reference to its Jamaican roots was stripped down to samples of air-horns and single phrases of dancehall toasting. It's unlikely to be a coincidence, the media establishment in the United States has always been a tad nervous about protest songs from black performers. The truism in the American jungle scene is, "there's no money in jungle." Moreover, they don't really want there to be. My perception has always been that jungle DJs and fans (or "junglists") would like wider audiences to listen to their music but they don't want to compromise the meaning and purpose behind the music. It's not easily accessible music, perhaps deliberately so. You have to love it to understand it, and you have to understand it to hear its message.
"Your current frequencies of understanding outweigh that which as been given for you to understand.
The current standard is the equivalent of an adolescent restricted to the diet of an infant.
The rapidly changing body would acquire dysfunctional and deformative symptoms and could not properly mature on a diet of apple sauce and crushed pears."
- Saul Williams, Coded Language
As an exercise in branding and marketing, jungle music is a genre of music made by people for almost nothing, for people with almost nothing, and promoted by people using almost nothing. In the jungle, asymmetrical warfare by guerrilla insurgencies perpetually stymied large national armies with many thousands of times their resources. Guerilla marketing is not a new concept, although very few people appreciate the scale on which it can be effectively be conducted. The guerilla marketer seeks to have the maximum effect for the least cost, he cannot afford ads on broadcast television or massive printing presses. Jungle music has always been promoted this way, photocopied handbills, mixtapes, online bulletin boards and chat rooms, social media and websites. From the very beginning, many junglists around the world worked in advertising and marketing, and for many of them keeping the scene alive and exposing new listeners to it with often evangelical zeal has served as kind of a testbed for new ideas. If you can get someone to listen to, and maybe even enjoy, something most people hate using techniques nobody has ever used ... you're probably on to something.
The jungle scene has been, for me at least, a sandbox in which to test new ideas about how humans can communicate. Jungle is brand owned by nobody, it is an organization with no executive structure. It is an informal non-hierarchical network that operates as an organism to advance its objective ... to get more people to listen to jungle. Remove the word "jungle" and you have a model for a non-hierarchical purpose-built network to advance any stated organizational mission. This bleeds very rapidly from advertising to organizational management theory. I would say that the fact that "jungle" is experimental brand is irrelevant, were not the word itself so highly charged and powerful. Jungles in the 20th and 21st centuries have been filled with creatures, plants, and people that being driven to extinction for less than ethical or moral reasons ... under any value system. Many of these beings do not have a voice at all. I would argue that junglism is their voice.
"NOW this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack."
- Rudyard Kipling, 1865–1936
I like to imagine that back in the 1970s, somewhere in some oppressively sweaty jungle, swarming with mosquitos, two men from rival warring factions sat across a campfire to have a talk instead of killing each other, as would have been customary at the time. For whatever reason they happened to have a record player, and one of them decided to play a little music to lighten the mood. He happened to play The Winston's Amen Brother but by random chance, he had the turntable set to 78 RPM speed instead of 45. They both laughed, but found the sound of the drums playing too fast oddly appealing. I like to think that they worked it out, that they came up with a plan so that someday there would be peace, and they decided the sound of those sped-up drums would be the signal.
Nasty Habits - Here Come The Drumz (Original), 1992