Back with the beat
Roni Size was sitting at the National Hotel, shaking his head in wonder and dismay at the things kids do these days with technology and music.
“I think people are more creative, not just by making music but by ways of selling it and putting it out and promoting it and being able to share it,” said the Bristol, England-based DJ / producer, who helped forge and popularize the club genre drum and bass in the 1990s. “There’s so much more now. You can sit down and have your whole library on your phone. You can order pizza now with your music. You can fly to the moon with your music. What can you not do with it?”
Not so long ago, it was Size, a handsome man of Jamaican descent with more than a little of a statesmanly Bob Marley vibe, who was the musical whiz kid. In 1997, in the midst of a renaissance period for British pop, he and his band Reprazent won the coveted Mercury Music Prize -- a sort of English Pulitzer for the year’s best album -- with “New Forms,” a fusion of live and electronic music, jazz and hip-hop, rock and jungle that seemed to be an aural blueprint for the future.
But after 2002, he largely disappeared. Reprazent disbanded, and its leader released only one album, 2005’s “Return to V.”
“I lost a little bit of faith in music in general, not just in drum and bass,” Size said last month in Miami, where he’d come to perform with Reprazent at the Ultra Music Festival, their first U.S. gig in more than seven years and a show that served as a warm-up to their Sunday set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. “It’s become like fast food music. Music is all presets. Nowadays you can buy equipment and switch it on and press start and there you go. I don’t want to be a part of that generation.”
As an artist who pioneered electronic dance music, Size admits that it’s ironic to hear him dismissing technology. But then you have to understand one thing about Size: He’s the kind of musician who never takes the easy road.
Size began making tracks in his home studio at age 16, after getting kicked out of school. He and his partner Krust mixed old reggae and jazz records with jungle beats, taking breakbeat culture to new levels of artistry. Size formed Reprazent to play those cuts live, a move that some said was impossible. The dynamic team of rapper Dynamite MC and gospel-influenced singer Onallee provided a humanist front to the sometimes dizzying onslaught of beats, bass and sound effects.
A special anniversary edition of “New Forms” was released in England last year, and Size decided to re-form the band. The reedited version of the album, which features several new songs, is being released in the U.S. this month.
Drum and bass is some of the world’s fastest, most complicated rhythmic music, with an average of 165 to 185 beats per minute. Reprazent plays it live, no backing tracks or drum loops, just a drummer, Yuval Gabay, and bassist, Si John, pounding out the rapid-fire beats.
At the Ultra gig, Dynamite bragged that Gabay, the former drummer for Soul Coughing and a sought-after session musician, “could drum 100 mph.” Gabay admits that he can play pretty fast, but to him, that’s not the point. “I don’t want people to think it’s a lot of technique. I want people to dance.”
Gabay said he fell in love with drum and bass early on. “One of the things that really attracted me to the music, other than the sheer inventiveness of the drums and the huge bass, was it was very unifying. I don’t care whether you’re white or black or Chinese; we breathe the same air. It defies race. We need that.”
If Size was deemed ahead of his time 10 years ago, his music seems particularly current these days, when, from the electronic subgenre called dub step to MIA’s ragga raps, his influence seems to be growing. Reprazent is working on a full-length collection of new material, and the group played six new songs at Ultra, including “Don’t Hold Back,” the single from the “New Forms” reissue.
But Size says he’s relieved that drum and bass never exploded -- for a number of reasons, he’s more comfortable in the underground. “As soon as anything gets put into any kind of commercial vehicle, it’s in danger of disappearing into nowhere. We’re glad we’re still here and it didn’t end up in this world where it didn’t really belong. It’s got a lovely home.”