The Elements of Drum n Bass: First Stab


Pavel and I have maintained an ongoing discussion regarding what makes a night of Drum n Bass complete. We have identified what we regard as several key components that involve not only the music, but also the environment. In an effort to keep the list short, we attempt to touch on only the most essential, high-level points. Credit here goes to the bouncer at Elements on the night of the Halloween show of 2003, who brought the first two items on the list to our attention in a particularly vivid way. Some call such observations trite, but I call them inspired.

The list: Let's take these items one by one, and discuss their merits.

Drums: The foundation of any dnb track is the drum line. You can add all the crazy, stomach-churning bass to a track that you want, and if you don't have a tight, catchy drum line, your track will lack the danceability you need on the dancefloor, and the edge you need to keep a listener tuned in. What makes for a good drum track? That's tricky, but we can lay down some basics here. You need (1) good mixing -- the drums can't be too loud or too quiet to carry the bass line, and the balance of treble and bass must be appropriate for the rest of the track, (2) a catchy riff or two -- your track can't sound like every other track ever produced, or familiarity will make it undanceable; try some syncopation or some triplets, keep it flowing, lay down a wicked unique sounding snare, (3) energy, that elusive, hard-to-define quality that separates the goods from the greats.

Bass: Next to drums, this is the other critical, make-it-or-break-it element. There are quite a number of ways to get a bass line right, and infinitely more ways to get it wrong. But put it this way: if your bass line, when played on an impressive audio system at e.g. Elements, doesn't make people look and stare, or cringe at the sheer madness, or jump up and dance from its brute funkiness... then the bass might not be cutting it. The funk or darkness of a track is largely (but not entirely) derived from the elements of the bass line -- see below.

Funk, or Darkness: It is a hypothesis worth considering that a track may either be funky, *or* dark, but not both. This largely accurate generalization falls down in a very special group of cases where a track manages to be both funky *and* dark, and hence garners the enviable title of "wicked," which in this context indicates elements of both funk and darkness. If a dnb track entirely lacks both funk and darkness, it is hardly worth calling dnb at all. Many of my least favorite tracks fail as dnb tracks in precisely this way. Funkiness is an ingredient from the Light Side of the Force, infusing a track with danceability and a general positive mood, while darkness is an ingredient fromt the Dark Side, and makes a track danceable by provoking an aggressive mood. Both elements of the track mood involve differing typical rhythmical elements, and can be recognized instantly. An example of a wicked track might be Klute's "Finger in the Hole."

Beer: Ah beer, how I love thee. It can have so many positive effects on the evening, from making you forget that you're tired, to helping you learn to live outside your shell, to just plain tasting good. As an accompaniment to dnb, it's a nice drink on account of it filling all of the aforementioned roles, while also being a drink that one gulps for several minutes, extending the enjoyment over a couple of tracks while the toes warm up in the Winter, or the head cools off in the Summer.

People: The crowd is a vital part of the experience of dnb. Let's play the etymology game: dnb comes from Jungle, Jungle is where we discover indigenous tribes, and tribes are generally groups of people who come together over a common practical or spiritual meeting point. When you want to experience the complete phenomenon of dnb, you have to go out and be among people who are there, as you are, for that reason. Whether you're someone who just likes to stay on the sidelines and people-watch, or are instead someone who would rather be up front and get all the attention, or neither, or some mix of those two, you must in any case *be there*. It's really not unlike the reasons people congregate for church (at its best), to talk about spiritual matters -- you go to be among people with a common purpose, and without that, you're missing the social component of dnb.

In conclusion, I love Drum n Bass, and I think that Great dnb sets itself apart from other dnb by having the Elements above.

~eddie