In 2009, Exit Records boss and ex-Bad Company member dBridge fashioned the autonomic movement with the help of Kid Drama & Boddika, aka Instra:mental. They explored the realm of 170bpm music with more emphasis on space and melody, and less on unremitting drops and Amen rinse-outs that many associate with the drum ’n’ bass tempo. In January 2020, seventeen years on from Exit's creation, the label's debut party at London club E1 shows that its artists continue to push the limits of what a drum ’n’ bass party can look and sound like. A few hours before closing the night, Itoa sums it up: “I think that Exit does still get pigeonholed as being a d‘n’b label, but you just have to look through their catalogue a little bit and you can clearly see it’s not just that.” A quick browse through the previous year’s releases alone and you can hear Gantz’s eerie 140bpm exploration on ‘Garam/Rabid’, dBridge’s personal and genre-defying ‘Lineage’ LP, and the tribal footwork of DJ Fulltono’s ‘Before the Storm’ EP – yet, as tonight will show, these only scratch the surface of the label’s ever-more eclectic output.
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Opaque blue light fills E1’s cavernous Warehouse room as Dolenz stokes the crowd’s anticipation with a mix of 140 and half-time tunes. The set follows in the footsteps of his 2019 ‘Lingua Franca’ LP on Exit, a record that abandons genre tags for a focus on dystopian soundscapes and wonky beats, firmly embracing the disparate half-time sound that often divides d’n’b fans, and the crowd lap up the longest set of the night with a barrage of enthusiastic head-nodding and hushed appreciation. The 1,000-capacity venue strikes a curious balance for tonight’s musical exploration. Floor-to-ceiling pillars give the illusion of being in a London superclub; however, it’s more Wapping than whopping, with enough elements to remind punters of the stifling club basements the scene so often relishes. Daring, earplug-free warriors are found clinging to the surprisingly non-gimmicky ‘wall of sound’ on the right of the venue, while revellers exhausted from the eight-hour aural pummelling loiter at the brick wall on the left, taking in the dance from a distance.
After Dolenz finishes with Sully’s Amen-smasher ‘Vacancy’, key Exit player Fixate steps up for a genre-bending midnight set. While coasting through the neglected tempo of 150bpm he drops Objekt’s Hessle Audio classic ‘The Goose That Got Away’, before upping the intensity with his fresh take on jungle-revival sounds. Facing away from the decks in the heart of the crowd, a blonde, mid-20s looking raver – jacket tied from shoulder to waist, spiked hair now drooping over his sweat-drenched forehead – lets out a battle cry as Fixate drops a VIP of his 2015 Exit anthem ‘Throwback Therapy’.
It’s a mixed, but generally younger than expected crowd tonight. In the smoking area we meet eager-eyed Zach, donning a vintage Metalheadz jumper and excitedly professing his new-found love of Skee Mask, while inside we chat to double act Beth and Beth, self-proclaimed techno-heads grinning from ear to ear at dBridge’s stripped-back, experimental set. Exit has chiselled a new, younger crowd from various corners of the wider clubbing scene, while still piquing the interest of the older heads through heavy allusions to jungle and autonomic sounds.
dBridge exemplifies this balance in his head-turning and at times disorientating 1:AM set. He brings back the often lost art of storytelling through the use of tunes like 2019’s pulsating Lewis James collaboration ‘Acidize’, before progressively moving into a blend of classic and contemporary d’n’b and jungle. In fact, despite the experimentalism, there’s a healthy dose tonight of no-frills, heads-down d‘n’b, from the moment Skeptical stealthily opens his set with his stripped-back ‘Duck Soup’, through to Jubei ending with his gritty Metalheadz roller ‘Rufige 11’.
Mid-way through his set, Skeptical drops the self-released ‘Musket’, resulting in one of the rowdiest moments of the evening. The tune split the opinions of d’n’b heads upon release, with many fearing that the screechy high-end was indicating Skeptical’s move into jump up. But as disorienting strobe lights and warping sub scour the room, it becomes clear that this is one of his most remarkable rave weapons.
Moving into the early hours, the audience is met with Workforce, aka the exploratory solo alias of one half of SpectraSoul. Old and new heads alike expressed keen enthusiasm for the debut set when E1 first announced the event, after revelling in the futuristic sounds of his first three EPs – two on his Make Me imprint, the ‘Your Moves’ EP on Exit.
Workforce is well aware of the challenge of presenting a new project to a crowd after the roster of established talent before him. “That was definitely a difficulty when planning the set, trying to make sure that you play enough music that people already know, but also enough new stuff,” he says. Despite the 4:AM set time, engagement between the crowd and DJ barely dips, his set including everything from his own future Exit classic ‘Your Moves’, Alix Perez’s funk-ridden ‘Trinity’ and a healthy scattering of unmistakable future Workforce material.
Somewhere in the peak of the onslaught tonight, SP:MC – who has been doing an exemplary job of hosting the marathon session – declares the party “a foghorn free zone”. He’s referencing another ‘split’ in drum ’n’ bass politics: the disjunction between Exit and the populist ‘foghorn’ sound that has saturated the d’n’b soundtrack over the last few years. Indeed, every set tonight seems to make a statement of some kind – worlds apart from the endless big-name b2bs, oversold venues and hypercapitalism of some more conventional d’n’b events. As Itoa steps up for the final hour of the night, the fatigued yet still animated crowd stick with him as he skilfully navigates through a selection of potent 160bpm and jungle.
Whether slamming d‘n’b in its rawest form for hours on end or pushing audiences outside of their comfort zone through experimental, genre-hopping sets, Exit Records' enduring success proves there are still more worlds to explore, still more that drum ’n’ bass can say, and still a fresh audience who expect to hear that little bit more from the genre itself.
Scott Claridge is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter