A British sound, recast in Canada's image: the history of Toronto's jungle music scene

In the early '90s, Britain's jungle music scene expanded beyond the U.K. and found a home in Canada.

In the early '90s, Britain's jungle music scene expanded beyond the U.K. and found a home in Canada

DJ Lush and Marcus Visionary cofounded the label imprint Inner City Dance in 2015. They release and promote some of Toronto's finest hardcore dance music, especially jungle and drum 'n' bass. (DJ Lush/Facebook, Marcus Visionary/Instagram; graphic by CBC Music)

By S. David, writer and artist from the District of Columbia. His work has been featured in The Brooklyn Rail, Tiny Mix Tapes, Dweller Forever, and Ars Technica.

In Channel 4's seminal 1994 documentary All Junglists!, jungle music — the ragga-inflected "techno-hip hop" regularly charting tempos of 150 beats per minute or more — is famously described as "a London some'ting … and a London some'ting 'dis." Jungle, as it emerged from the cultural residue of Thatcher-era United Kingdom — and exemplified by artists like DJ Ron and DJ Hype — was a provincial sound. But to the club-going Briton, jungle meant the whole world. And by the early '90s, U.K. electronic dance music had evolved in such a punctuated way that "to rave," it seemed, was to do nothing less than perform revolution.

As intense a cultural moment as jungle was, it enjoyed a relatively brief lifespan. Some might suggest that the genre begins and ends with early '90s urban Britain — before shooting into the global mainstream mid-'90s, as what we now call drum 'n' bass music. Yet, jungle — the spirit and the sound — was merely sublimated deeper underground. Many have continued to practise the genre as it was originally preached. As jungle music crested in popularity, some artists felt free to take the genre in different directions while others physically migrated elsewhere, taking the sounds with them. 

One of the places junglists relocated to was Toronto — and what initially began as an import of a U.K. sound has since lived through a Canadian explosion in popularity, a golden age, a relative comedown and a maturation. 

Historically, jungle did start its [North American] tenure in Toronto.- DJ Lush

A generation later, Toronto jungle music is a compact but creative scene dedicated to the preservation of all things junglism. Toronto's jungle crews remain true to the genre's original counter-cultural values and fast-paced sound visions, honouring the music's lineage within Black diasporic histories that were defined by resistance. Looking down the barrel of a possible jungle renaissance, junglists young and old — especially in Toronto — are in a position to look back: on the history of the local jungle scene, its proudly underground nature and the sub-cultural energy that made the scene so resilient over the years. Junglists today remain connected by a shared love for diasporic figures of sound and, perhaps above all, memories of the scene's glory days. 

"I personally feel blessed to have been a part of the scene from before its inception in 1992," said Marc Sills, a producer as well as the founder of Delirium, Toronto's first all-jungle rave company. Sills, who goes by the stage name Marcus Visionary, and his label partner Brad, a.k.a. DJ Lush, run Inner City Dance, a label imprint established in 2015 that's currently releasing and promoting some of Toronto's finest hardcore dance music — especially jungle and drum 'n' bass. 

DJ Lush counts Marcus Visionary as among the first wave of jungle artists to emerge from Toronto — a "legit big-name international star." Both have been around since the beginning, and are eager to explain the history of jungle on this side of the Atlantic. "Historically, jungle did start its [North American] tenure in Toronto," Lush said, "and it's widely recognized that for a good decade or more we had the largest scene outside the U.K. for it." 

The No. 1 jungle music spot in North America

A 1995 Toronto Star article written by Peter Howell rejoiced in the exhilarating "dance-floor rage of the year": jungle. The article pointed out that Toronto was, at the time, "the No. 1 jungle music spot in North America." Meanwhile, Visionary and Lush say that things had begun a few years earlier. It was then, in 1990, that two London DJs — stage names Dr. No and Malik X — stepped off the plane in Toronto. Both of Black Caribbean heritage, the two would be among the first DJs to toast the hardcore dance amalgam that became jungle in Canadian clubs. 

At the time, much of the U.K. electronic dance and rave culture — with its samples of children's programs and "frenzied, thudding bass lines" —  was hopelessly stereotyped as  "infantile and stupid," to quote the British critical theorist Benjamin Noys. Its uncompromising Blackness and multiracial appeal was a stark contrast to the perceived political neutrality of other club scenes. Even the name, "jungle," a deliberate inversion of racist characterizations of Black music, was, itself, a provocative political statement.

In introducing jungle music to Canada, Dr. No and Malik X would touch off an exploration of the cultural gulf between urban North America and its U.K. counterpart. 

Toronto and London are connected by a diasporic web of histories that links them both to the anglophone Afro-Caribbean, a crucial node itself within the broader Black Atlantic. Aspects of Afro-Caribbean music culture — MCing, toasting, sound systems — became important characteristics of the overall jungle sound. 

"The MCs are a direct carryover from original Jamaican sound system culture that took hold in the U.K. and carried over into all other forms of U.K. music," Lush re-affirms. Likewise, toasting, a kind of emceeing which involves rhythmic chanting over beats helped provide sound systems — in other words, production crews — a furthered degree of individuality. "The phenomenon is 100 per cent mirrored in Toronto from day one," Lush says.

Thus, from the '90s on, Toronto would prove a fertile space for jungle music to transplant and grow. A British sound, recast in Canada's image.

Key figures in the Toronto jungle scene

As Dr. No and Malik X were introducing everything "proto-jungle" to Toronto, local listeners like Visionary and Lush were being exposed to this new sound. This style of so-called "hardcore dance" combined sampled break-beats with cascading rhythms. This elevated the music above mere pastiche — in some cases into pure unadulterated groove. Around this time, between 1991 and 1995, "jungle remixes" were becoming a common feature on U.K. B-sides. The producer M-Beat famously re-recorded Anita Baker's "Sweet Love" with singer Nazlyn, which, coupled with his single "Incredible," became the first jungle hit in the U.K. Top 10. 

Meanwhile, Visionary and Lush both encountered hardcore dance music through crate-digging and avid record collecting. "I personally discovered jungle by way of hip hop," Lush said. "I used to go down to Play de Record and Starsound every Saturday and spend what little money I had on 12-inch vinyl, Source magazines and import cassettes. It was there that I would see all of the colourful early rave flyers from companies like Exodus and Chemistry at the front cash and I would take them with me to read on the subway ride home."

Visionary worked at Play de Record — a popular record shop that was then located on Yonge Street in Toronto — from the early-to-late 90s, right out of high school, under the wing of head buyer Rick Mullen, a.k.a. Medicine Muffin, who had connections to Dr. No. "Working in the record shops not only supplied me with the latest music, but introduced me to all of the key figures in the club, warehouse, radio and music industry," Visionary said. 

James Vandervoort, DJing as James St. Bass, also worked at Play de Record in the early '90s. St. Bass was another one of the first-generation artists to emerge from the silhouette of Dr. No and Malik X's influence.

"I was in it from the beginning really," he said. His radio show Hard Drive on CIUT 89.5FM helped jungle gain mass appeal in Toronto, along with radio show The Prophecy. "Into the beginning of 1990, the genres of techno, rave, acid house, ragga and break-beats were all being played on college radio and at underground warehouse style events here," he reminisced.

If Dr. No and Malik X exported hardcore to Toronto's dance-floors, radio shows like Hard DriveThe Prophecy and others helped bring the sounds out of the parties and onto the airwaves. "New import records and promos arrived in the city weekly," St. Bass said. As a result, "genres, tempos and styles mutated and morphed — very quickly." 

It was around this time that hardcore music and rave-centric parties were growing in terms of sheer head counts and "boots-on-the-dance-floor" — globally and in Toronto. "By the mid-'90s, [jungle] was, I would say, the biggest draw for events, outside traditional rock concerts," St. Bass said.

A turning point in jungle music

In July 1995, British electronic musician Goldie had released Timeless, a landmark album in the historiography of hardcore electronic and an absolute apotheosis of jungle. In the words of Simon Reynolds, with Timeless, Goldie "turned the delinquent aggression of hardcore into 'artcore.'" Timeless, along with 4Hero's Parallel Universe and A Guy Called Gerald's Black Secret Technology, shook off some of jungle's tendency to imitate and repeat.

It was a turning point in the genre. At that moment, hardcore dance was breaking into mainstream culture in a way it never really had before — artists like Björk and Kylie Minogue were introducing newly contextualized "rave" elements into their music. In Toronto, the rave craze was pronounced: "Design, sound systems, clothing companies — everything 'rave' took hold here in a big way," St. Bass pointed out.

Critics, particularly in the U.K., now began delineating between the earliest jungle sound and new tracks that attempted to emulate the dense, symphonic and more global arrangements of Goldie — to which they applied the more generic term: drum 'n' bass.

Jungle's original sound, its "tangle of roots and futurism," to quote Reynolds, was waning in popularity in the mother country of the U.K. Because Toronto's jungle scene was largely out of the mainstream to begin with, the local scene was mostly unaffected and able to flourish. A 1999 National Post profile highlighted the Toronto scene and its appeal among teenagers, particularly the interactive, call-and-response elements of Black dance hall culture that characterized early jungle MCing. 

Dylan Rakowsky, a.k.a. DJ Clear, got into jungle around this critical millennium moment, and was inspired by the genre's through line to Jamaican culture. "I saw this segment on MuchMusic's New Music about raves," he said. "It showed this kid just free-styling to some reggae while toasting and it opened up my mind of what was possible. I've always been obsessed with Jamaican culture, and this multicultural blend has since really driven my sound." 

DJ Clear, who went on to co-found Sweet Sensi Records in 2005 with his cousin and fellow junglist David Jabba, is an example of Toronto jungle's DIY nature. "I'd spent the majority of my time as a lone wolf promoting [under the banner of] Sweet Sensi Crew," he said, of his time in the early 2000s, before transitioning to producing and distributing.

In spite of the intense sub-cultural enthusiasm from entrepreneurs like DJ Clear, Toronto's jungle scene was peaking by the early 2000s. "There were big events every other weekend, if not every weekend," said St. Bass. 

We need to get as excited about our artists and embrace them as part of the unique cultural identity of our city with the same pride that London holds their great DJs or their grime/drill MCs — or the same way New York makes superstars of their rappers.- DJ Lush

A generation after its initial explosion in the U.K., today's renewed critical attention has increased the likelihood of a jungle resurgence. The genre's influence is hard to ignore, inspiring the emergence of genres as diverse as dubstep, grime, and future garage. As for Toronto, Lush said, "We need to get as excited about our artists and embrace them as part of the unique cultural identity of our city with the same pride that London holds their great DJs or their grime/drill MCs — or the same way New York makes superstars of their rappers." 

Jungle continues to hold its own throughout Toronto, finding new converts with each passing year. Junglists remain committed to the sense of history, as well as the communicative, almost discursive nature of the music's elements. This is to say nothing of the deep-seated bonds of culture and kinship the genre has spawned. 

"Everyone who really deeply loves this music has devoted their lives to it in one way or another," Lush said. "Despite how large or small, or how successful or unsuccessful, an artist can be in it over the ups and downs of its history."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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