Rumble in the jungle

Mar 18, 1998 at 12:00 am
There's a bright moment on drum-n-bass outfit Roni Size/Reprazent's two-track magnum opus, "Railing" and "Brown Paper Bag," that deftly transcends most of jungle's musical parameters. At the end of the hip-hopped album opener "Railing," the hyped, sped-up beats stop all at once and segue into a warm, acoustic-timbred breakdown of bass and guitar twangs. What an uncanny transition. It just sounds so human.

What follows that disarming break on Reprazent's double-CD debut, New Forms, solidly defines sublimity, but such genius is business as usual for the six-piece, Bristol-based group. The zestfully named Roni Size (his first name rhymes with Donnie), a 20-something, dread-headed Englishman, is the sly producer and guiding entity of Reprazent. It turns out that he and his mates strongly look forward to bringing their music to the Motor City.

"I can't wait to get to Detroit, man," Size enthuses, "it's the land of original music." A show of invention is what Reprazent brings, as Size explains the group's purpose. "I think what Puffy's doing is remixing. What we're doing is re-creating. It would have been easy for me to take the top tunes of the '80s and sample them, and make tunes out of them. But I didn't want to do that. I want to say, 'OK, James Brown.' Yeah, this guy's drummin', play some riffs. Funky bass, yeah man. Let's put our own bass riffs in, rather than sample the whole length of James Brown."

It's quite an affinity for the Godfather of Soul that Roni Size reveals this day, and a surprising one, given that the single element most mentioned regarding New Forms is its jazz aspects. What lifts "Brown Paper Bag" out of that lilting break following the intro, after MC Dynamite's dizzying words, "Turn it upside down," is bass. And not just any bass, but that most magnificent of instruments, the double bass. Musician Si John's precise finger-thumps of the instrument's strings, neurotically mixed clean of excess resonance, drive the suite home by building into an elegant cascade of virtuoso lines over driving techno beats, complete with changes.

Impossibly self-assured, this is lindy-hopping music for Mossimo-fitted B-people. It is, as music writer Simon Reynolds pointed out in a recent issue of Spin magazine, "a timely reminder that elegance can be a form of rebellion for the black working class." At the same time, it places Roni Size/Reprazent, at the album's beginning, in a fabulous nexus-bridging jungle, hip hop, funk and jazz. A fitting kickoff for a double disc carrying such a brazen title as New Forms.

Bristol, England, is where Roni Size used to sneak out of his parents' residence to listen to music at local house parties. And this small town is where Roni, expelled from school at 16, met his friend DJ Krust while, ironically, applying for a teaching position. Reprazent's DJs Krust, Suv, Die and, at one time, Size himself, all came up throwing gigs and putting out vinyl through their own independent record labels. "There's only so much you can do on your own independent," Roni explains. "And it got to a stage where we got approached by a major, due to our hard work."

And out of a mixture of personal interests and musical ambitions, Roni, DJ Die, Suv, Krust, MC Dynamite and their chanteuse, Onallee, eventually joined forces and visions to form Reprazent.

A collective is born -- one that merges some of the best rhythmic, coded aspects of Bristol's own music scene. Also, like many pivotal electronic groups from Cybotron to Dee-Lite, one that can configure "message music." Aside from "Brown Paper Bag," another single from New Forms that awes is "Share the Fall."

About the cut, Size says, "Basically, if we are like-minded people, yeah? -- and we both have an idea of what we're thinkin' about -- if you like the music and believe in the music, then you will take that to your heart. And at the end of the day, if you're true to that, then you're prepared to fall. And if you're with me, if people are gonna fight against us, then we all share the fall."

So Reprazent dare to rework the utopian longings of previous techno-based acts into a more practical, workable message, by way of a down-to-earth English mind-set. It's unclear exactly what Reprazent aren't capable of. With production duties for Size steadily increasing and the UK's prestigious Mercury Music Prize under their belts, the sextet seems to have it made.

Will Reprazent be re-creating live for the fervent listeners at St. Andrews' Hall next week? "You're damn right. Expect a lot of energy, eight people on stage, doin' their thing. We got a drummer and a bass player. Double bass'll be in the house." Right on, Roni.

In his 1967 essay, "The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music)," Amiri Baraka envisions a unified black music containing "Jazz and blues, religious and secular ... New Thing and rhythm and blues," thus defining his view of populist musical modernism in the future. Implausibly, Baraka's cast may have taken form more than 30 years later and across an ocean. Toting an upright bassist along for the ride, Roni Size/Reprazent brings a rumble in the jungle. Forrest Green III writes about music and film for the Metro Times. He dedicates this piece to Dr. Nabeel Zuberi, "the academic propmaster." E-mail [email protected]