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The Dukes of Drum 'n' Bass

American DJs spread the word, Lollapalooza style

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Breaking like a startled pulse, scurrying rhythms skittering to and fro with a bubbling snare snap like a hyperactive child with a serious sugar buzz, drum "n' bass has long been the bête noir of the dance music scene. Its jazzy machine gun beat throbs in an intricate two-step built from jumped-up hip-hop or a tighter, more rhythmically complex techno bounce, which differentiates it from the pumping blare of house or the somnambulant flow of trance.

It's been known as everything from breakbeat to jungle to dark side during its nearly 15-year evolution, but until recently drum "n' bass was chiefly characterized as a UK sound. That this has changed can arguably be attributed to the work of American DJs AK1200, Dieselboy and Dara, the catalyzing elements comprising Planet of the Drums, the rambling d'n'b revue that has opened many ears and minds in its five years of existence.

Essentially the top d'n'b DJs in the country, those three, with late-comer MC J Messinian, have made it their mission to move this cerebral sound out of the closet and into the mainstream of the American electronic scene. (The sound has had a far warmer reception across the pond.) Their success can be seen in the packed shows that trail them like the detritus of a summer-long party.

"If kids constantly see d'n'b DJs in a shitty little room on the side, it's kind of how they're going to perceive our music, but when they see d'n'b DJs playing on the big stage, with the big sound system in the big room at a show, that lends a bit of respect to the music we're playing," says the Philly-based Dieselboy. "That's what we're fighting against -- this second stage mentality that's been attached to our music."

While the rumbling, tumbling d'n'b sound still doesn't enjoy the popularity of the club staple, trance, it's garnered a particularly dedicated following.

"There's strength in numbers in that aspect. The difference between a jungle night and a trance night is you could have two trance clubs and one of them is going to be empty no matter who's DJing there because they're going to go where everyone else is going," explains Orlando's DJ AK1200. "Whereas the d'n'b crowd is going to go where the DJ they like is. The d'n'b fan is more loyal to the music than in any other genre."

AK1200 has been playing this kind of music for longer than anyone in America, by his reckoning. Coming from a hip-hop and punk rock background, AK1200 started going to clubs when in "88 when he turned 18, and became enthralled with the early precursors of the sound. He felt so strongly about it he became something of a crusader -- opening his own record shop in Orlando, writing about it for American and UK dance magazines, and playing it for anyone that would have him (which was pretty much no one in the beginning). Over the years, he's listened to its frequent stylistic mutations, often appearing as a reaction to what came before.

"The music changes when it reaches peaks and valleys with its popularity," he says. "When the first dark stuff started coming out, that was because everybody became too rave-y, too cheesy. Too Sesame Street. And people were clowning on jungle music, saying, "it's just a gimmick.' So people got moody about it and started making this really dark aggressive stuff. Then after a while of that, after all the hard stuff came in, all of this lighter stuff came in and people like Total Science, LTJ Bukem and others started making really luscious jazz-based stuff."

The Internet has only further muddied the waters. Whereas before the UK led the pack, with producers elsewhere following several months behind the "new hot sound," nowadays instant communication, passing of tracks and the presence of DJ sets on the web the night they're played has eradicated any lead-time, complicating the passage of styles.

"Now, it's like everybody's in the same ballgame, and it's just a big buffet of styles. It's hard to see what's coming next. Everybody is looking for an angle. They've tried to go back to the old school, go back to the ragga, go back to a more hip-hop-ish style. There's a million different things being tried and tested and nothing's really pushed the envelope except for sturdy, stable producers who just don't pay attention to that and go about their own business. People who have been making tunes now similar to how they always have, like Photek, Dillinger, Roni Size, and Bukem," explains AK1200.

Because all the members of the Planet of the Drums collective are close friends, they generally share tracks and help each other stay on top of the sound. Generally.

"Dave (AK1200) always has these secret tracks that no one knows he has until he plays them. So we have a phrase that's called "secret squirrel,' like he's squirreling away the nuts, or "he's got nuts in his cheeks,'" Dieselboy confides with a laugh.

Such shenanigans are a big part of the show, which features the DJs tag teaming through the night in 3-song sets. Sometimes for a lark they'll steal each other's thunder and play the other DJs' signature tracks, or put on things they know drive each other crazy.

"There's all kinds of subtle shit that goes. Another classic thing to do is on my third record, I'll play the hard-to-mix-out-of one. One it's nearly impossible to catch the beat on, one that just doesn't go with anything. We kind of smirk at each other, and step back like, "you're up,'" Dieselboy says with a sinister snicker. "The crowd has no idea that we're playing these mind games with each other."

"But when it comes down to the sound and what we try to offer, we do try to work off each other and play off each other's vibe," AK1200 adds. "To roll it into one progressive set of emotions. We don't like to confuse people and make it obvious. We take it to the point where you really have to be watching us to know who's playing."

There you have it. Just some good old boys, wouldn't change if they could, beating all you ever saw, keeping all the music raw, since the day they were spawned. It's the American way.

Planet of the Drums gets under way at Mythos beginning at 10pm. Tickets are $15, $20 on the night of the show. Featured DJs include Dieselboy, AK1200, Dara and MC J Messinian. Local and regional talent Focus, Sapien, Joshua Platinum, eRic E, Irony and New Tactics are also on the bill.

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