Tiger Style: How Ganja Records Foregrounded Jungle’s Hip-Hop DNA

Words: Son Raw

For the first five years of jungle’s evolution, its musical ideas, audience and expectations shifted just as fast as the lightning-quick breakbeats that were its calling card. Born of the darkest strains of hardcore rave music that had stormed the UK pop charts only a few years earlier, jungle was so mutant and so alien that critics and musical institutions had no idea how to respond. One second the music press were announcing the death of rave’s chipmunk juvenilia in favour of sophisticated Detroit soul, and the next that same hyper-speed nonsense had evolved into the most exciting development in British music since punk. Today, drum & bass (as it has been rebranded) is England’s most reliable homegrown electronic music, a big tent festival favourite with subgenres galore, but in its early evolution, it was a collision of street sounds—“urban” music before that tag became a dirty word.

DJ Hype, DJ Zinc and Pascal, then collectively known as The Ganja Kru, were responsible for some of the genre’s most roughneck moments, connecting the dots between the roads and American hip-hop’s own hardcore era. Already a veteran producer by the time he founded Ganja Records as an outlet for his productions, Hype’s work for the label forms a key part of jungle’s foundational links to what was going on in ‘90s New York City. One listen to classics like “Tiger Style” and “You Must Think First”, with their Wu-Tang sampling vocal hooks, and the synchronicity between the hoodie and Timbs’ set and jungle’s urban paranoia becomes obvious. DJ Zinc meanwhile, then took this idea even further with massive hits like “Super Sharp Shooter” and his eternal remix of The Fugees’ “Ready Or Not”. Even in the midst of jungle’s most exciting era—where Doc Scott could produce spacious, sophisticated bangers, LTJ Bukem could play post-jazz fusion, and Ed Rush & Optical could pioneer the dark, electronic sound that defines D&B today—The Ganja Kru stood out as a definitive factor in jungle’s rise to prominence by creating common ground between b-boys and ravers.

With jungle coming together as the merger of hardcore rave to rap and ragga, Hype was the perfect man to shepherd this mutation. A masterful scratch DJ and sound system veteran with roots in East London’s Heatwave alongside Shut Up & Dance, he’d already been experimenting with combining jungle’s elements years before the movement kicked off. This meant that when Jungle truly became a London ‘ting—a music and subculture fuelled by pirate radio and shaped by DJs like Grooverider who accelerated the beats and moved them away from emotive cheesiness—DJ Hype’s dancehall-sampling exploits were a cut above, and a step to the left. Early B-side “Fade Away” stands as a testament to his creativity: instead of nicking its hook from any old yard tape, as was common at the time, Hype sampled Adrian Sherwood’s post-punk New Age Steppers for an altogether weirder result.

Hype then re-imagined the connection between rap beats and dance music for the leaner, meaner 1990s. While hardcore producers flipped the collage aesthetic of US rap producers like Prince Paul and The Bombsquad, taking their kitchen sink approach to layering samples, The Ganja Kru were the mirror to the next phase in rap’s evolution. Grabbing from contemporary acts like Wu-Tang but also Cypress Hill, Biggie and Fat Joe, they created a hyper-percussive gangsta rave—dance music for kids who didn’t care a lick for techno utopianism and who wanted to dance to sounds that represented their lifestyle and concerns. Listening to tracks like “On That Dust”, it’s startling how UN-electronic everything sounds—there’s dancehall exclamations and dub bass, repurposed funk flutes and hooks from the Beastie Boys, R&B melisma and dusty drum breaks chopped into absurdly inventive combinations, but barely a synth or drum machine in earshot. By doubling down on dub music’s space & bass mixdowns and New York’s dusted paranoia, the classic Ganja Records catalogue beat hip-hop at its own game—expressing the grimness of inner city life without resorting to exaggerated drug dealer fantasies.

While DJ Hype’s productions as Ganja Kru and Dopestyle are the cornerstones of early jump up, “Super Sharp Shooter” is Ganja Records’ stone-cold classic: the track everyone from your auntie to your little cousin has mashed out to in one form or another. A time-traveling sound clash of ‘70s James Brown synths, Method Man vocals, half time drums and a ferocious drop, it’s the apex of jungle as bruk-out euphoria—no ecstasy needed. Subsequent producers would drop tracks that were smarter, harder or faster, but it’s hard to think of a jungle record that’s more fun, more exuberant or more honest than Zinc’s chart hit.

By the late ‘90s however, jungle’s rapidly evolving sound and rave’s fickle audience meant The Ganja Kru’s days were numbered. After dropping a commercial smash on RCA with the Still Smokin’ compilation, the Kru realised the label’s weed leaf label and druggy subtext was bad for business, and rebranded as True Playaz, whose Fabriclive night lives on to this day. Simultaneously, legal issues and bootlegging surrounding DJ Zinc’s remix of The Fugees’ “Ready Or Not” made the label’s hip-hop sampling sound an increasingly difficult proposition, and one not worth fighting for given the scene’s shift towards a more aggressive and electronic form of techstep. This also pushed jungle’s black audience, staunch Ganja Kru supporters, towards an increasingly popular UK garage scene that would also welcome DJ Zinc with open arms. Zinc’s 138 trek even ended up playing the same trick on garage that early Ganja Kru tracks played on hardcore—stripping the sound down and opening a path for its evolution into moodier music.

You won’t find The Ganja Kru’s music reissued on any streaming services—sample laws have made sure of that—but the label continues to have an outsized impact on music. You can hear the label’s love of lo-fi sampling in tracks by contemporary junglists like Etch, and producers working in styles as far flung as bassline and dubstep still love to flip rap vocals before the drop. Perhaps most crucially however, Ganja Records’ attitude and merging of dance music to hip-hop set the stage for grime. Left out by jungle’s shift to D&B, teenage emcees like Wiley and Flow Dan would apply The Ganja Kru’s blueprint of flipping contemporary dancehall and hip-hop to UK garage and developing it into a grime scene capable of producing MOBO-winning superstars. These genres are a world away from dusty breakbeats and rap samples, but Ganja Records remains the root from which they grew—a crucial link between the UK’s rave past and roughneck future.

Posted on April 10, 2018