10 Tracks From Metalheadz’s Golden Era That Took D&B To New Places

Words: Son Raw
Photography: Martin Jones

Metalheadz is having a moment. Bolstered by forward-thinking releases by signings like Om Unit, Detboi and Fluidity, drum & bass’ signature imprint is once again at the centre of the scene it helped create, releasing new music that proudly stands next to its classics. Never content to be an “alternative” D&B label, singles like “Secrets” and “Deeper Vibe” tackle big-room drum & bass on its own terms but bypass easy formulas in favour of a rebuilt and reinforced take on their rudebwoi audio-graffiti and technoid sci-fi futurism. Just as importantly, this renewed sense of purpose is complemented by a robust re-issue campaign, ensuring the label’s iconic early releases are easily available for contemporary DJs and listeners. If you’ve ever been to a D&B rave, you’ve seen the skull logo t-shirts and know the kind of devotion Metalheadz inspires in its fanbase, and that’s not even accounting for its influences on later genres like dubstep. With this in mind, we’ve lined up 10 absolutely essential cuts from the label’s first golden age, roughly 1994-1998.

Note: During jungle’s ascent, unlike today, DJs and producers often weren’t one and the same, with specialised selectors playing just as important a role in a label’s identity as the people pushing the buttons. With this in mind, it’d be absolutely criminal not to highlight Metalheadz co-founders and DJ legends Storm & Kemistry’s vital influence on the label, and on the D&B scene as a whole. Get familiar here. (All apologies to Peshay, Wax Doctor, J Majik, Hidden Agenda and every other name we wanted to fit in.)

Metalheadz — “Terminator”

The Metalheadz aesthetic didn’t appear out of thin air fully formed, so we’re going to cheat and include the collective’s seminal “Terminator” single released on Synthetic Hardcore Phonography in 1992. A major turning point in the then-booming hardcore genre, “Terminator”’s emphasis on sci-fi concepts, torturously edited breaks and an undercurrent of darkness shifted UK rave music away from chintzy piano vamps and helium-addled vocals into a realm of socio-realistic paranoia on the dancefloor. Written by label co-head Goldie and master-engineer Rob Playford, “Terminator” was a smash hit, mission statement and permission slip to explore the darkest, fastest recesses of dance music, all in one.

Asylum — “Da Bass II Dark”

Released under the one-shot 00DARK imprint (the Metalheadz catalogue is full of weird twists like this), Asylum’s debut single epitomises Metalheadz’ speed-freak approach to breakbeat music. Barreling at a then-groundbreaking 177BPM with little more than drums, dub bass and a soundclash vocal sample to hold everything together, the track’s full-on embrace of ragga-jungle is an outlier considering the label’s reputation as a home for glistening synth-pads and heady concepts, but it’s a detour that makes sense in hindsight. Unlike contemporary labels like LTJ Bukem’s Good Lookin’, Metalheadz never looked down on jungle’s roughneck side—it simply chose to expand on it, pushing the sound into heady, Afro-futurist terrain.

Dillinja — “The Angels Fell”

When Storm, Kemistry and Goldie launched Metalheadz after listening to Fabio & Grooverider mash up breakbeats and hardcore techno at Rage, they had a vision, but it took junglist savant Dillinja to split the atom and fully realise their concept with “The Angels Fell”. Dark and moody without ever crossing the line into macho aggression, this masterpiece captures the same frosty futurism as Goldie’s Timeless opening “Inner City Life” but orients it towards the dancefloor rather than your headphones. In the worst of times, the more sophisticated side of jungle indulged in jazz fusion’s adult-contemporary smugness, but here Dillinja twists a jazz influence into the leanest, darkest groove possible, cementing his spot among the greats.

Photek — “The Rain”

In some circles—the right circles—Photek is spoken of in hushed, reverent tones, as if the man was some sort of Ferrari-driving breakbeat mad scientist whose missives contained hidden truths and the secrets of the universe. The reality is a tad more benign—Photek is and was an ordinary bloke with an extreme talent and dedication to developing drum & bass’ potential, but it’s fun to imagine. Plus he really did apparently cop a Ferrari off of record sales. “The Rain” is a prime example of why junglists pay top dollar for his classic wax to this day, full of expertly arranged drums and tension-inducing arrangements that transform classic drum breaks into sensory-overload inducing tapestries of sonic mayhem. The track is also emblematic of the more experimental music that got played at the classic Metalheadz club night at Blue Note, an environment that nurtured the label’s experimental tendencies.

Alex Reece — “Pulp Fiction”

Pulp Fiction’s influence can’t be overstated. If classic jungle often still sounds as alien and foreign today as it did upon release, “Pulp Fiction” was so influential and genre-shifting that its 2-step drum pattern and miasmic sub-bass feels instantly familiar. Leaning on his deep appreciation for Chicago house and Detroit techno, and the engineering chops he’d applied on a wide array of jungle classics, Alex Reece pared drum & bass down to the bone, substituting intricate choppage for absolute minimalism. It’s a dividing line—and a controversial one—but it’s also emblematic of just how fearless Metalheadz was in releasing this stuff. What other label would dare to release a tune that’s the exact opposite of its usual aesthetic?

Lemon D — “This Is Los Angeles”

Just as they twisted ragga-jungle to their own devices, Metalheadz weren’t above dipping their toes in D&B’s trend of flipping contemporary gangsta rap into dancefloor gold. Lemon D’s “This Is Los Angeles” kicks off with a massive sample of Scarface’s “Gs”, using that track’s wheezy synths and funk bass to underpin dusty audio of a news anchor commenting on LA gang life. What follows isn’t just some of the rudest drums known to man, but also keenly placed vocals from Run DMC and Roy Ayers, connecting black music past and present over the course of seven minutes. Equal parts dancefloor stomper and musical treatise, “This Is Los Angeles” was a reminder that D&B didn’t have to choose between sophistication and raw power when it could have both.

Doc Scott — “Drumz 95” (Nasty Habits Remix)

What came first: humankind or the drum? Scientific evidence is mixed but other primates have been caught dropping rhythms, and so “Drumz 95” may very well be the most forward-thinking expression of an art form that predates our very existence. Twisting, looping, chopping, filtering and distorting at least four different drum breaks with little more than eerie synth drones and a booming Chuck D vocal sample on top, “Drumz 95” is a middle finger to pop convention that demands hooks and melodies to keep the listener interested. Here, rhythm is the alpha and the omega; the groove is primordial and all innovation happens within its confines. More avant garde than the snootiest of high art compositions and hitting harder than just about every street level banger, Doc Scott’s “Drumz 95” is quite simply, an extraordinary milestone in musical history.

Source Direct — “Stonekiller”

Just how beloved is Source Direct? Well, consider that Nonplus has been reissuing their ‘90s output with contemporary remixes, a house producer named himself after their classic A Made Up Sound track, and even their interviews get sampled by names like Joy O. For a St. Albans duo who seldom DJed and whose records inhabit the most extreme edges of the dum & bass spectrum, that’s punching above your weight. “Stonekiller” is an excellent example of the Metalheadz sound at its darkest, all droning bass and meticulously edited rhythms, but it’s the intangible elements that separate it from the pack. “Stonekiller”’s beat doesn’t just make you groove or make the hairs on your neck stand up on edge, it tells a story about the times and people who made it, played it, and danced to it.

Adam F — “Metropolis”

As drum & bass rapidly evolved from an era where jazz samples were king to one where snarling digitised bass ruled the dance, Metalheadz stayed ahead of the pack, releasing some of the absolute best in brutalism. Adam F’s “Metropolis” isn’t quite the tech-step that Ed Rush & Optical were ushering in, but it straddles the border by painting its funk samples pitch black, all while maintaining the complexity that defined the label’s best output. To this day, you can drop it in a set and watch the oxygen rush out of a room, and it’s impossible to imagine contemporary producers like Pinch and Mumdance’s sound existing without those nervous, digital pads.

Codename John — “The Warning”

Groovedrider is primarily known as a DJ with his club sets and radio shows playing a defining role in the evolution of UK dance music, but this production as Codename John, Metalheadz’s 30th release and last of 1997, serves as a convenient divider marking the end of the label’s first phase. Techy, mechanical and full of the robotic synths that would define drum & bass’ future, we’re now a thousand miles away from the jazzy warmth that dominated the Metalheadz sound just two years earlier. This was D&B reaffirming its commitment to the hardest side of hardcore, even as much of its fanbase began shifting towards the sexier, more inviting sounds of UK garage. In their place, a new generation of junglists rushed in and would begin to push DJs and producers in faster, rougher directions. It’s an era where Metalheadz would stumble, but also soar thanks choice releases by acts like Amit, D-Bridge, and Commix—but it’s undoubtedly a whole different era.

Posted on May 04, 2018