In less than five years, jungle has evolved from cheesy sped‑up James Brown samples to some of the most innovative music around. We sent Christopher Holder to talk to Danny Koffey, one of those in the front line.
Danny Koffey's studio is a real party zone. Well, actually, what I mean by that is his studio shares a building with a depot for kiddies' party paraphernalia. Boxes of paper hats, Mr Men serviettes, party poppers; everything you could possibly need to complement the fairy cakes and the cocktail sausages. The actual atmosphere is far more workmanlike, and this is representative of Danny's attitude to his craft.
"I come to the studio every day, and apart from my DJ work this is what I do. I work hard at my music; it's my passion. If you haven't got the passion, there's not much else that can keep you going, because there's not too much money in it — not at this end of the music industry, anyway."
Anyone with half a ear for the underground dance scene will know that jungle is producing some of the most innovative and challenging new dance music around, and anyone with half an ear for the jungle and drum & bass scene will know of Danny Koffey and his Endemic Void project.
Danny's first major break came with the release of his debut long‑player, Equations, on the Language label, which sold more than 4000 copies worldwide; more recently he's made a splash with a further Endemic Void release, Lamentations, demanding attention from everyone in the know. The Endemic Void cuts are remarkable for a sound that Danny describes as "hanging in the balance". The balance lies between the funkiness of jazz snares, the dancefloor sensibilities of jacked‑up rolling rhythms, the foot‑tapping cool of plucky basses, and the Ray‑Ban‑donning jazz influences of vibes and Rhodes keys. If you still have no idea what I'm talking about, imagine the general groove of the Ford Puma ad (the one with a reanimated Steve McQueen in the driver's seat), combine it with some electronica and beats by Gene Krupa on speed, and you'll have a better idea.
A jungle artist has to have watertight breakbeats. They've just got to. So I have more than a passing interest in the origin of Danny's.
"To be honest, I don't really mind where the beats come from. It might be a concern if you're looping your breaks, but I'm not. With any given breakbeat, I'll chop it up into every edit possible, and construct my own breaks from those edits. But I won't buy sample CDs, because I can't stand listening through the samples. Most of the time you have to listen to so many crap ones, and when a good one finally comes along... well, it does your head in.
I think you primarily have to write a track for yourself, and yourself only.
"For other sounds I do sample from records. I sample a lot of jazz, but I wouldn't use anything noticeable. If I'm going to take a loop or a section of any kind, I'll mould into my own sound, filtering it to death — there would be no way you would realise what it was. Most of the time I'll sample chords, or just one note and play my own riffs.
"Overall I think what has changed, since people were doing breakbeat four years ago, is that the focus is far more on getting quality samples. When breakbeat was starting out people could afford to be less discriminating — it was more about snare and hi‑hat edits, and going over the top with long snare rolls, that sort of thing. They used to go mad because it was new and not many people had done those sort of edits before — I know, I used to do it myself. Now it's much more about intricate programming and quality sounds. I take a long time to program my breaks and it's what I gain most satisfaction from."
The last two Endemic Void releases have taken shape from first principles to final mixdown entirely within Danny's studio. That's because he's packing a rack full of desirable outboard: gates, compressors, effects, A/D convertors, tape saturation simulators, everything that's required to get your tune into a releasable state... Nope: think again. The refreshing part about what Danny does is that it's achieved entirely with the bare essentials.
"I started off with the [Akai] S2800 sampler. I also had a rubbish Casio PSR home keyboard, which had a MIDI socket, so I messed around with that. Then I bought the Atari and Cubase. I got my deal with Language on the strength of a demo really just using those. After I got the deal I bought the [Yamaha] ProMix 01 and the [Akai] S1000PB. I only bought the S1000PB because I was desperate for more outputs [the S2800 has four], but I soon realised it was a terrible purchase. Neither of them has SCSI, so I end up having to save samples from the S2800 onto a floppy and load them into the S1000. It's very time‑consuming. I could get a SCSI upgrade, but that would mean fitting both with a SCSI port at about £100 each. But I don't want to do that: I'd much rather get rid of these two and find myself a new sampler. Trouble is that the S2800 is not even worth a grand now, and the 1000PB is probably only worth about £300. If I'm going to buy a new sampler I think I'll go for the top of the range, something like the Emu EIV, or the Akai S3200XL. I wouldn't go any less than that, even if that means buying it on the knock and paying monthly.
Jungle music is coming from the bedrooms of DJs — that's where the roots are.
"The ProMix 01 is wicked. I love it: it's my best piece of equipment. When you start getting into the MIDI side and the other stuff on it, it's incredible — for the money it's a blinding bit of equipment. The ProMix's onboard reverb isn't so great, though. I think it's an SPX900 reverb in there, something like that, and I don't get on with that so well. But I have to use the effects, they're the only ones I've got. Otherwise it's just such a versatile mixer and it sounds crystal clear.
"Last month I bought the [Roland] JV2080 which I'm really impressed with. In the past I've messed around quite a bit with my mate's JV1080, and I really liked the sounds, and the 2080 improves on those. The drum kits are all in stereo and sound wicked, and there's eight expansion cards available, with up to 4000 sounds. It's great: the sounds are all quality.
"The trouble is, my shopping list is extensive. Every time I pick up a magazine I want something new. It's not a cheap business. If what I was doing was a hobby, it would almost be impossible to buy equipment — it's too expensive. Even when it's a job, I've got to live, and this is not a big money‑making venture. I'm slowly getting what I want, but with my studio I've always wanted to upgrade, rather than buy a whole heap of new gear. For me that'll mean a better sampler and the Yamaha 03D."
"The first track that I actually mixed down myself was a track called '9mm'. I gave it to a DJ, Darren Jay, to play, and he played it as the first tune of his set at the Ministry of Sound. As I said, it was the first thing I'd ever mixed down on my own, and on that system it was blinding. I was there saying, 'Yeah, this is my track', and then the bass dropped. The frequencies in this 808 kick drum were frightening. I'd just got my ProMix the day before, and I was giving the kick +15db at 100Hz, thinking I was making it 'really loud'. The sound was nice on my hi‑fi speakers, but it was something else at the Ministry. For the rest of the night you could see the house engineers looking stressed, changing the decks over, doing all sorts, because they couldn't get rid of this low‑frequency hum from the bass bins on the left side. The hum wasn't there for the two previous sets, but when Darren Jay played my tune it must have blown it up. It was so loud that when the bass came in you could feel it rattling your ribs — shit, it was loud!
If what I was doing was a hobby, it would almost be impossible to buy equipment — it's too expensive.
"But that was a really good lesson for me. Like any job, you've got to do it for a little while to become proficient. I'm a lot more subtle with my mixdowns now. I like a nice calm mix, I don't like angry‑sounding elements poking out. I like it all to be nice and clean — no big delays bouncing around, and no huge reverbs filling the space."
That's the mixdown, but how does he start his tracks from scratch?
"A lot of the time I'll be inspired by a breakbeat sample. It'll be something that blows me away so that I just can't wait till I get into the studio with it and whack it in the sampler. I usually spend about four hours chopping it up. Once it's chopped into as many edits as possible I'll reconstruct that break using those edits. I'll set the original break looping, get it synchronised with a kick on the first beat from Cubase and reassemble it by matching the beats on top of the original break. Once it's together I can delete the original breakbeat and begin messing with my sequenced copy, changing it into my own. That way gives you a lot more freedom and you can play your break at the original pitch instead of pitching it right up, and it sounding all Mickey Mouse and horrible.
"After that I start pulling in sounds and layering it up over eight or 16 bars — start getting a groove running. Then I'll arrange it and add more parts. Usually I don't stop on a track; I just keep adding bits, and arranging till I feel that it's there."
So if someone liked some of the sounds of jungle and wanted to get themselves the right gear and the right approach, how should they go about it? As you'd expect, there is no formula...
"I believe music is very personal. If you've got an idea for a jungle track, don't feel that there's any formula you have to stick to, because there isn't. I don't believe in any of these boundaries, like 'It has to have hard beats or this DJ won't play it' — those sorts of considerations don't go through my head when I'm writing a track. I think you primarily have to write a track for yourself, and yourself only. If a DJ is going to play it, it'll be far more satisfying if they pick it up because they like it for what is, rather than like it because the beats are really heavy or because of the bass being really good. That's what I think, anyway.
"Obviously, there are certain bits of equipment that are pretty necessary. A sampler is going to help," he laughs; "a sampler and a good sequencer are going to help you a lot. What you buy apart from those is based on what you're trying to achieve. But a sampler is essential. I was writing jungle on my S2800 and Cubase, no problem. I had some ideas and I knew what I wanted.
"I think the kids need to know that you can do it from your bedroom. You'll be told that to get a mix ready for pressing you'll need compressors, an expensive reverb, and a professional desk, but you don't. I hope if people get anything out of reading about my studio, it'll be that it is possible, with the type of gear that most home studios have got."
The latest Endemic Void release, Lamentations, is on Language/Crammed Discs. Meanwhile, if you're lucky enough to find his first release, Equations, knocking about, snap it up.
Danny also records under the name Tertius, so keep an eye out for anything under that moniker.
If you want to get in touch with the man Endemic, he can be reached at PO Box 3616, London NW6 SD0.
- Akai S2800 sampler
- Akai S1000PB sampler
- Roland JV2080 synth
- Atari 1040 running Cubase
- Fatar SL161 controller keyboard
- Novation Bass Station synth
- Alesis Monitor One monitors
- Sony 55ES DAT
- Yamaha ProMix 01 mixer
"Tony Thorpe from Language records has quite often talked me into taking a track to another studio, like Odessa studios, where they've got an SSL console. That's the background that he comes from, working with the KLF, and he's used to working with expensive desks, deluxe compressors and the rest. He's talked me into it in the past and it's not worked. I don't do it any more.
"I've got to a point where I'm happy with the sound that I've got, and anywhere where I don't know the sound of the room or the speakers, it's difficult to get the sound I'm after. Also, overproduction in jungle is very easy to spot. I wouldn't have said that my music sounds crusty, but I wouldn't have said that it was overproduced either. Jungle music that comes out of the big studios just sounds too clinical for me. Jungle music is coming from a different place altogether: it's coming from the bedrooms of DJs — that's where the roots are."
Danny's horizons would appear to be broad. He's riding on the crest of the wave of, arguably, the most progressive dance genre of the moment, and he's making it equally accessible to the sweaty clubber, the polo‑necked lounge lizard, and the musician who would kill to improvise over his grooves.
"Actually, I was supposed to be doing something during August a bit like that, but it fell through. Some guy booked me for the Ibiza jazz festival — that would have been blinding. It would have been the only electronic set at the festival, and I had a few ideas about what I was going to do: I was going to take a Mac PowerBook, Cubase, and a sampler, set it all up, and do five or six tracks. But I also work with a singer, Danger, who was going to come and sing, and I was going to have an open stage, with about four microphones and invite musicians at the festival to come up and jam along to the set. I was thinking, 'Yeah, that sound great, loads of sax players and the like getting up and jamming along'. It will happen eventually, but the Ibiza gig would have been extra special because of all the talented musicians out there who could have jammed with me."