The first clue is in the little splashes of colour dotted here and there amid the darkened industrial streets on this brisk Bank Holiday in Birmingham. Hundreds of giddy ravers and gaggles of girls in hoodies and caps are chattering their way past warehouse doors and concrete sprawls, the iron fire escapes crosshatching the skyline. It’s archetypal rave territory, a quintessential rave scene. But the splashes of colour aren’t glowsticks, or horns, or facepaint. They’re giant logos thundering ‘SASASAS’.
The second clue is the ticket touts, sniffing around the thunderous queue of another sold-out event as though it were a gig by indie-pop’s latest darlings while the railings and staircases of the mighty Rainbow Venues complex quiver from the bass-quakes within. Something feels different. The excited babbling and craned necks, straining towards the packed entrance and its security melee, confirm it. This has all the hallmarks of an actual, proper ‘thing’.
Welcome to the SASASAS hype-vortex, a place in which all previously applied logic is reversed: where drum ’n’ bass raves are fun, light-hearted and inclusive, where girls almost outnumber boys, and where much-maligned ‘jump-up’ d’n’b, in all its wobbly-basslined, synth-screeching, snapback-wearing glory, is suddenly the hottest ticket in town. “For our Bristol takeover at Motion we had to deal with up to a hundred fake ticket scams,” says DJ Phantasy, old-skool rave legend and the veteran anchor man behind the six-strong DJ-MC supergroup currently ripping up all the rules on drum ‘n’ bass credibility. “It took serious amounts of time putting out announcements, contacting agencies, dealing with upset fans. People were selling £10 tickets for £90 online, and we had some threatening to jump the fences.”
They say every dog has its day. But how on earth how did a sound often pigeonholed as ‘the least likeable form of drum ’n’ bass’ turn the tables to become a runaway hype train, with festival promoters from Creamfields to Belgium’s 15,000-strong indoor mega bash Rampage clamouring for a piece of the action?
The riotous scenes inside the sold-out 2000+ venue go some way towards explaining. Jump-up poster girl Mollie Collins, one of Mixmag’s breakthrough DJs of 2016, has finished lashing down countless pin-sharp, pogo-bassline anthems from a new wave of talented producers like Turno, Guv and Dominator – and the crowd are ready for the main event. The anticipation is palpable: the crest of a broader wave that has seen national media coverage, BBC Radio 1Xtra takeovers, Universal swooping in to licence tracks, Sigma opening sets with jump-up smashers, and even DJ Hazard taking Andy C’s Best DJ crown at this year’s National Drum ’n’ Bass Awards.
“It’s a movement!” jokes the immensely likeable Phantasy. And perched thrillingly at the apex of the design – and now walking on stage like rock stars – is the six-strong SASASAS collective: a d’n’b supergroup phenomenon that began as a one-off laugh. Four MCs: day-dot d’n’b OGs Skibadee and Shabba, hyperactive former grime MC and original N.A.S.T.Y Crew member Stormin and Guinness world-record-holding spitter Harry Shotta (formerly respected UK hip hop MC Lethal). And two DJs: Fantazia godfather Phantasy and young production ace Macky Gee: surely the sharpest producer of dancefloor bangers since anthem arch-duke Hazard. Together, this blend of award-winning young guns with grizzled legends, of white-hot jump-up anthems and rapidfire mic wizardry, of onstage camaraderie and feverish fan adulation, have become the most bookable drum ’n’ bass festival act in the game, touring Australia and Canada and selling merchandise by the truckload.
The blueprint seems simple, but under the microscope it’s comprised of myriad parts. First, a hyperactive four-deck mixathon of hands-in-the-air singalong anthems spliced ceaselessly and ingeniously with pin-sharp jump-up rippers laced with more than a dash of EDM’s dayglo melodies and the feel-good energy of happy hardcore. Next, add four towering MC presences – part grime crew aesthetic, part pantomime jokesters – who ad-lib and horse about between blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lyrical wizardry. Then add sold-out hordes of merchandise-draped fanatics, girls in SASASAS tees, boys in branded snap-backs, chanting call-and-response lyrics, singing Macky Gee’s signature basslines aloud – and now, before Mixmag’s eyes, hoisting a stagediving MC Skibadee overhead with joyous abandon. No wonder d’n’b’s all-time MVP MC is having the time of his life.
“There was definitely an era of too much noise – and too many wobbles!” Skiba admits, referring to the late-00s doldrums where high-energy d’n’b lost its way and garnered its reputation for disposable beats and shouty MCs. “But now my daughter is going to jump-up events aimed at 13 and 14-year-olds, and we’re busy clocking up 250,000 views for one live show.”
Shotta, diminutive and humble off-stage, magnetic at the centre of the well-drilled mayhem on it, reveals the chance origins of the project. “In 2013 at the last ever night at Area we put it together just for the vibe: no plan, no rehearsal. Suddenly calls started coming in from One Nation, Westfest and promoters wanting to book it. We had a quick meeting and it was born. Ultimately we’re six successful individual artists doing something totally organic, totally fun.”
Phantasy crystallises the group’s appeal: “We’re two different generations, so as an act, we cover a lot of bases. On the production side, my experience validates Macky, and Macky validates me with the new kids. It’s the same on the mic side: Skiba and Shabba have been namechecked as an influence by every top grime MC going – even getting shouts on Stormzy’s album – and then you’ve got Harry who’s inspiring a whole new generation on his own.”
If 2017 is going to be drum ’n’ bass’s summer of jump-up, the prep work from its MCs gets an A-plus. Harry Shotta’s infamous Bakerloo Line takeover in April saw commuters of all ages skanking hard to the sounds of Phantasy and Macky Gee with Shotta spitting fire over the top. The Guardian called it “high-volume music”; British Transport Police called it a “fully-fledged rave”; the BBC rolled it out across national radio stations. The prank, in tandem with seasoned mischief-makers Trollstation, bagged half a million views, and was an unqualified success.
Hot on its heels was SASASAS’s ‘Drum ’n’ Bus’ open top bus stunt, a promo wheeze for London’s Tranzmission festival in June, which got picked up by The Sun and saw the crew take on London’s landmarks at top speed and top volume. “We’re doing a plane next,” laughs Phantasy. We don’t know if he’s joking.
Make no mistake: this is as much about a rebooted conception of d’n’b MCs as it is about jump-up. But the two elements are not just complimentary, in the traditional DJ-plus-MC drum ’n’ bass formula, but rather organically fused, with a raft of new crews, nights and labels built around high-energy tracks whose drops and riffs have been specifically designed for high-impact lyrical contributions. Young guns Azza and Grima and their ‘TNA’ brand with DJ Dominator, will take to the stage later tonight in another tightly-drilled stage-show format – and it’s every bit as magnetic as their veteran headliners.
Even the heavily marketed SASASAS name (no big operation here, all merchandise is parcelled up and shipped out from home by Phantasy’s partner Sharon) is a homage to the original ‘SAS’ nickname given to Skiba and Shabba at the peak of their fame in the late 90s and early 00s. Twenty years on, the new incarnation has surpassed the legend.
And it don’t stop. Without warning, the sounds of Deadmau5’ ‘Strobe’ (Dimension remix), doubled up with a Macky Gee banger, sends the crowd into a frenzy. There’s barely time for a reload before Andy C’s ‘Heartbeat Loud’ is coupled with a squelchy Metrik laser-bomb. And then the money-shot: a sneaky new version of Macky Gee and Phantasy’s crowd favourite ‘Transition’, which suddenly switches into a new bassline-tempo groove, to utter pandemonium. This is what SASASAS do: a rapid-fire jamboree of impact drops, eclectic tempo-switch-ups and relentless, on-point vocal artillery from the four big dogs up top. It’s fun, unpretentious – and still going after two breathless hours.
The following morning, clusters of kids in SASASAS hoodies will be seen at Birmingham New Street Station, waiting for the long trip home. The realisation dawns: this isn’t a club night. This is a gig. “It does feel a bit like being in a band, yeah!” admits Phantasy. “Someone actually posted a picture of Boyzone online a few months back just to tease us! Often we’re the only d’n’b at a festival – at Creamfields we played in between bassline and house. But we feel like we’re representing drum ’n’ bass for the whole scene. Andy C even said to me, ‘What you’re doing is so good for drum ’n’ bass – it’s making people who didn’t know about it fall in love with it.’ I was like, ‘Woah – Andy C is watching what we do!’”
An SASASAS album is being prepared for later in the year. How far could this go? Right now, anything seems possible.
“Jump-up? I don’t like calling it that. It’s a derogatory term used to label people who can’t make proper music.” The plot thickens – and in the shape of DJ Hazard himself.
If SASASAS are currently driving the wagon across new frontiers, there’s a couple of fearsome county sherriffs who’ve owned the whole territory for more than a decade. Scene grand-master DJ Hype and his retooled Playaz label, driven by its marquee anthem factory Hazard, are the brains behind the perhaps the most universally known modern jump-up tracks: Hazard and DMind’s ubiquitous 2007 singalong anthem ‘Mr Happy’, and 2014’s even bigger Hazard signature bomb, ‘Bricks Don’t Roll’.
Playaz are currently at the peak of their powers, boldly switching their 15-year-old monthly residency from Fabric to Electric Brixton and selling it out without breaking sweat, and still scratching their heads at Universal’s decision to swoop in on the back of the phenomenal success of ‘Bricks Don’t Roll’ and re-release a special major-label vocal version last year. The duo are set for the biggest summer in Hype’s 28 years at the top, with a series of back-to-back shows from Glastonbury to Hideout, along with curating their own Playaz stage at South West Four.
Ironic, then, that the amiable Hazard is keen to dissociate himself from the jump-up sound – or rather, the stereotype of it. “The problem is that the music doesn’t last. Too many producers making copycat tunes have made it sound shit!”
Hype concurs. “Let’s be honest, there’s all kinds of shit tunes, in all styles: liquid, jump-up, neurofunk. The problem is that a shit liquid tune is still listenable, but a shit jump-up one isn’t! It’s all a matter of perception, though. Real underground kids don’t follow trends. They chase a vibe. What I call the modern-day, purest form of jump-up – fair play, those guys are smashing it. It’s a party vibe, pure energy. It’s vibes music.
“But jump-up is just one part of the scene. What we do has always been dancefloor, varied and organic – because that’s what drum ’n’ bass is. This music is a raw, punk thing – the beauty is that it’s 25 years old, so there will always be periods when gaps open up and a new angle refreshes the scene. Andy C used to be called ‘Andy ‘jump-up’ C’ back in his Telepathy days – and that’s before these kids were even born!”
History repeats itself: for the purists, jump-up has always smelled iffy. Twenty years ago the original jump-up sound and its bouncy, sugary twist on jungle – forever synonymous with Aphrodite and Micky Finn’s anthem factory Urban Takeover – was considered simplistic and juvenile next to classic jungle or ‘intelligent’ d’n’b. Take a bouncy 808 bassline, chuck in a hip hop sample and you’ve got it: an unpretentious dancefloor weapon in the shape of classics like ‘Bad Ass’ or Hype’s ‘Tru Playaz Anthem’ – or the countless remixes requested by majors for house and hip hop anthems of the era.
Fast forward to today and ‘jump-up’ might be a different animal: screechier, bashier, with less warmth and groove – but the sense of playfulness remains. As does its role in d’n’b sub-genre multiverse: dancefloor feel-good skank-fuel that manages not to take itself too seriously.
All the same, Hype is keen to distance himself from any labels. “What’s better is the integration of sounds right now. I can play to 20,000 at Boomtown Festival and I didn’t have to water down the set at all. It’s a festival crowd, but they were right on everything Hazard and I were doing – and that wasn’t the case a couple of years ago. At the end of the day you can’t deny a vibe and you can’t deny the kids – who else are we making music for?”
Phantasy, however, meets the challenge head-on. “Look, there’s a perception that this sound is chavvy, scummy – whatever. It’s a sad stereotype. Music has no boundaries. People forget why they got into this industry. We mingle with the fans, enagage constantly with them on social media; we make the ravers feel part of it. For me, it’s all drum ’n’ bass. We play hands-in-the-air vocals, rollers, dirty tech – if it’s good party music, it’s getting played. People work all week. We want them to come and see our shows and still be thinking of it Monday morning.”
For Macky Gee, there’s no issue. “‘Jump-up’ suits me – it lives up to its name!” And Mollie Collins is in no doubt. “At the National Drum ’n’ Bass Awards, even Sigma opened with a full-on jump-up tune! Jump-up is pure energy. But you can mix it in a way that gets the best out of it – you don’t need to smash five jump-up tunes in a row. I love to hear the crowd sing, so I love to blend in more vocal tunes in amongst the smashers.”
Shotta, ever articulate and ebullient, goes further. “There’s a preconception about what we do as MCs, too, but that’s almost a strength. When people see it live, in its purest form, they realise the different skill-sets involved.” He talks of a “trickle-down effect” from kids watching grime crews. “We feel like we’re bridging a gap and kicking down the doors for lyrical drum ’n’ bass MCs to come through. Typically, when it comes to festival drum ’n’ bass acts, MCs have been there just to host and boost up the artists. Lyrical d’n’b MCs haven’t quite reached the level of exposure we’re now getting. There’s also a stereotype in drum ’n’ bass that it’s impossible to break through as an MC. Now you look at youngsters like Azza, Grima, Dreps and his Team Drumz outfit, who all have huge followings, brands, club nights – this is real, and it’s happening.”
Label it, pigeonhole it, dismiss it, sneer, tut and grimace – but know this. Jump-up drum ’n’ bass, in its deliciously addictive MC-fuelled format, anchored by a raft of airtight new productions, is having its day in the sun. And its golden summer is just beginning.
This feature appears in the July 2017 issue of Mixmag