This post has been a long time coming… Back in the summer of ’91, between my junior and senior years of high school (yeah, I’m a geezer), I was fortunate enough to go on a “student ambassador” tour of northern Europe. I was with a group of 15~20 students from Michigan, and we toured England, Denmark (I went to Legoland biitches!), Sweden, Finland, and lastly, Russia.
It wasn’t all planes, trains, and automobiles and hotels… I was actually able to experience a couple of homestays. The first one was in Bewdley, England (see the photos above). Bewdley is about 3 hours northwest of London (which I got to tour as well), and the guy that I stayed with was Dave de Santis. He’s a very popular high school teacher in Bewdley, and a lot of fun. Hell, he even took me to a pub a couple of times, where a lot of the high schoolers liked to hang out, drink, etc. There, he introduced me to a lot of his former students (and a couple of his current ones, too), and I remember them all treating Dave like he was one of them.
Dude was a riot, fo’ rilla! And check it… this was his business card:
OK, so what does all of this have to do with Hello Friends? Well, the entire student ambassador tour was a “forever life-changing experience” for me, and a couple of those very important moments happened during my homestay in Bewdley. One in particular involves music… you see, this was when I heard my first Drum & Bass song.
Of course, they didn’t call it Drum & Bass back then. There really wasn’t a name for it at that time. Hell, I even remember the kid who introduced me to Drum & Bass called it “bleep” music (probably because of the computer/keyboard bleeps that ran throughout some of the earlier songs).
One of the places that we visited during my homestay in England was Stratford-upon-Avon, famous for being the birthplace home of Shakespeare (which I got to walk through and tour when I was there). We all packed into a school bus with a bunch of other Bewdley high schoolers and made the 30 minute trip to Statford-upon-Avon.
Back then, I couldn’t live without my headphones and my portable cassette player, so of course I was pumpin’ KMD’s “Mr. Hood“. (I actually ended up buying the 3rd Bass “Derelicts Of Dialect” LP on double-vinyl at a record store in Stratford-upon-Avon, and I picked up the LONS “A Future Without A Past” cassette in a bus station in Stockholm, but I digress…)
One of the Bewdley kids wanted to know what I was listening to, so we started talking about music, stuff we were into, etc. After chatting for a little bit, he asked for my walkman, pulled a cassette out of his bag, cued it up, gave the headphones back to me, and pressed play. This was what I heard:
Prior to hearing this, all that I ever listened to were House songs like this and this, Acid House songs like this and this, and a shiitload of Hip House songs like this and all of the stuff from these dudes. Needless to say, when I heard The Prodigy’s “We Gonna Rock” in my headphones (and some other songs that I can’t remember), I was totally blown away. It hit me really hard! I had never heard anything like that before in my life!! The speed and tempo of the songs, the hype energy, the sped-up vocal samples, the sped-up looped breakbeats, the weird/strange sounds in the songs… everything! It all sounded soooo different from what I had been listening up to that point. The kid explained to me that the tape was a dub of a dub of a dub, and that he didn’t know any of the artist names, song titles, etc., but he also told me that this was what the kids in England were into (i.e., the party kids).
It took me more than 10 years, a lot of luck, and the internet(!) to finally figure out who made the one song that I could actually remember hearing on that bus. And the only reason why I was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together was because I immediately recognized the sped-up LL Cool J sample (“We gonna rock/we gonna rock this motherfuucker”) and I remembered it mostly because of that.
I about crapped my pants when I finally found out that The Prodigy made the song. Back in 1991, I didn’t know anything about The Prodigy, but I became a huge fan of theirs between 1992-1994. And prior to hunting down “We Gonna Rock”, I had absolutely no idea that they had releases prior to their first album “Experience” in 1992.
Well, after my student ambassador tour was over and I got back to Michigan, I was on a mission to find anything that sounded similar to what I remembered that kid playing for me. But back home, it was damn near impossible for me to find anything that even came close… I ended up blowing a lot of money on mediocre “rave” compilation CDs for a good year or so before finally stumbling upon some goodies. The first one that I bought that turned out to be really good was from Danny Breaks, who recorded under the name Sonz Of A Loop Da Loop Era at that time:
Another group that had a huge impact, not only on me but on the UK charts as well, was Altern-8. They had a very unique and style-defining “look” (with the radiation-suit type of pullovers and the bright yellow face masks with the big black “A” in the middle). And because they always wore the suits and masks, you didn’t know what they looked like–and that created a sort of mystery about them (i.e., the “faceless/nameless artist”). These dudes didn’t look like all of the other freak-show ravers and performers of the time. They had a hardcore and “real” look to them, and I felt that they had the perfect image for this type of music.
Here’s a documentary from 1991 that talks about the rave scene. Mind you, all of this was happening in England… the Acid House “summer of love” in 1988-1989 led right into the rave scenes of 1990-1994. The main guy in the documentary is Liam from the Prodigy. He made the “We Gonna Rock” song above, plus a ton of other jams that I loved back then. Altern-8 is also in this clip, along with a salty ass Kevin Saunderson:
These next three songs are often cited as being “the first” Drum & Bass songs ever made… Meat Beat Manifesto’s “Radio Babylon”, Lost’s “The Gonzo”, and Lennie De Ice’s “We Are i.e.”, all from 1990. What’s interesting to note is that all of the early Drum & Bass songs were around 120BPM-130BPM, which is around the same tempo as a lot of House, Grime, and Dubstep music of today. And nowadays, Drum & Bass is typically around 172BPM-176BPM!! That’s a really huge jump in tempo if you think about it. But you have to understand that back then, the early Drum & Bass stuff “felt” a lot faster than everything else because of the sped-up breakbeats, the sped-up vocal samples and scratches, the frantic keyboard sounds, etc.
The last leg of my student ambassador tour was of the former Soviet Union. I got to tour St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and Moscow, and I got to see a lot of the Russian countryside while taking the trains from city to city. Now, back then, when I thought of Russia, I thought of Red Dawn and Rocky IV and the Red Scare and being thrown in a Russian gulag for simply making eye contact with a soldier or police officer. But it was nothing like that. It wasn’t Stalinist Russia anymore. Signs of capitalism and the private sector were everywhere. We even stood in a long ass line to eat at the McDonald’s in Moscow (which had just opened up a year earlier)!
Speaking of long ass lines… The line to visit Lenin’s Tomb (shown above) was even longer than the one to McDonald’s. I know, hard to believe, right? Anyway, the only time that I ever felt uneasy and nervous in Russia was when we walked through Lenin’s Tomb.
We were given a lot of rules and instructions prior to standing in the long queue. “Stay in line, do not step out of line or make any sudden moves”. “Keep your hands out of your pockets and in clear view of the soldiers/guards at all times”. “Do not talk, keep quite at all times”. “Do not take any pictures or video”. “Do not wear a hat or anything that covers your head”. “Keep moving, do not stop walking or crouch down to tie your shoes”. And what added to the pressure was that it was very dark and cold in the corridors/halls of the tomb, and the only place where there was any real light was in the small room where Lenin’s body laid behind super thick glass (probably bulletproof). And there were soldiers/guards everywhere, at every turn, with big ass rifles. Shiit was mad serious!!
But check this out… Remember how this was during the summer of 1991, and Moscow was the last stop of our tour? Well, we fly out of Moscow to head back to the USA, and when I get back home to Michigan, the next weekend… I mean the VERY NEXT weekend… I mean like 5 days later… THIS happens:
One of the most important world events in my lifetime occurs, and I damn near get caught up in the middle of it! I’m watching the news on TV and I’m like, “Holy shiit, I was THERE just a week ago! I was right at St. Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square.” If our schedule was just one week later, I would’ve been in Moscow while all of this was going on, and who knows what would’ve happened to me!?!!?! I mean, the media made it seem like the coup was bloodless, with images like this:
…but years later on I find out that there was also a lot of this going on in the streets:
This is how the war photographer (who took the photos above) remembers that time: “Molotov cocktails tossed into tanks. Bullets sprayed into the unarmed crowd. This man was shot a few feet away from me, while I cowered on the ground with my head in a puddle. I sometimes still see him in my dreams.”