Features

The Lost History of Singapore’s Secretly Influential Drum and Bass Scene

The untold story of how a few DJs took the sound from sweaty storefront raves to the Lion City’s biggest clubs and back again.

by Nisa Kreems and Hidzir Junaini
03 August 2016, 9:00am

MC Roz, Twinhed & Nez at Home Club, Photo by Ungku Ibrahim

In Singapore, drum and bass was born from love, not business. In a country where the expansion of alternative music is often handicapped by a tiny population, a dominant commercial club culture, strict laws, and sky-high rents, drum and bass heads fought hard to promote the sound, regardless of its seemingly limited potential to turn profits. Against all those odds, DJs, promoters, and fans alike were united in their quest to listen to the tunes they loved—a mentality that infused gigs with warmth and community spirit, which set Singapore's scene apart from other global drum and bass capitals.

During its roots in the 90s, drum and bass was as obscure as a genre could get in Singapore, but a handful of pioneers managed to turn a frenetic oddity into a fully formed movement that has endured for over two decades now, silencing claims that the squeaky-clean island nation wasn't capable of producing gritty subcultures.

As is the case with much of Singapore's electronic music history, the roots of drum and bass can be traced to Zouk, one of the island's oldest and most influential nightclubs. In 1996, five years after first opening, the venue launched Phuture, a smaller room that targeted experimental sounds to offset the club's more traditional house and techno fare.

There, DJs like Zul Othman (AKA Zul) and Ramesh Krishnan (AKA Ramesh)—who were among the first to play jungle in the country—were free to indulge their most abstract impulses and spin the dark, twitchy beats of influential British DJs like Trace and Dom & Roland. But despite growing interest from DJs, the music was still hard to come by at that time. "Pre-internet, it was really about scouring whatever we could get our hands on at the time," says Zul.

Back then, the scene was tiny. Few venues were interested in drum and bass, he explains. "Most of the time, we played on weekdays, to non-existent crowds save for a few friends," Zul says. "But it was all for fun because nobody in their right mind was in it for the money!"

Guerilla parties at Insomnia circa 1998

Things started to change in 1997, when Zouk brought in one of the city's first major drum and bass events, flying in jungle supremo Kenny Ken and MC Stevie Hyper D from the U.K. "I remember it being a Thursday, but the place was rammed. It was the first time many of us were hearing fresh drum and bass live," recalls Zul.

But it was outside Zouk where momentum escalated. Staying true to the genre's grungy origins, junglists launched Area 22, a weekly underground party in a Little India colonial-era storefront. Unlicensed, with a makeshift bar and borrowed equipment, Area 22 marked a departure from the polished environment of nightclubs, providing fans with a taste of the U.K.'s grimy squat parties.

"There wasn't any other place which offered you a great night out with just local acts," reminisces music producer Safuan Johari (AKA Max Lane). "Instead of a signboard or neon lights, they had this super large T-shirt hanging outside with the name [Area 22] marked on it."

Area 22 was an early meeting point for bassheads, notes Ramesh, who often played there. "There was capacity for 200, but we were packing it in; queues and crowds often spilled outside into the street. Legally, we were supposed to stop at 3 AM but sometimes we went until 5 AM."

These freewheeling parties lasted from 1997 to 1998, but the lack of a proper permit and noise complaints forced its eventual closure.

Guerilla parties at Insomnia circa 1998

But the DIY flame was kept alive by the emergence of Guerilla and Kinemat—two DJ collectives that came to crystallize the scene's acceleration. Nearly every week, the groups threw legendary parties at Insomnia, a now-defunct back alley club in Bugis Village that fit around 350 people. It was an instant hit with Area 22's left-field crowd.

"People who didn't like Zouk went to Insomnia," says Guerilla co-founder Jonathan Nah (AKA Kiat).

"On some nights, it got so warm inside that the air conditioning would break down and the walls would drip from the humidity, people would start taking their tops off," He reminisces. "Sometimes, the sound system would overheat, and the music would cut off, but the crowd would stomp on the floor to keep the rhythm going. People just waited it out. And when the music came back on, they went nuts."

Promotion in those years was low-key, mostly consisting of phone calls, text messages, and flyers left at music retailer HMV.

"Nobody in their right mind was in it for the money!"—Zul Othman

MCs Vijay Singh of Kinemat and Kane Benjamin Cunico of Guerilla were crucial in building a larger audience, notes Ramesh. Their lyrical stylings "helped educate people about drum and bass, especially first-time punters unfamiliar with the music," he added.

At the turn of the millennium, drum and bass escalated from informal club gatherings to large, outdoor venues. In 2000, Kinemat head honchos Donovan Wong and Kelvin Tan threw one of the country's first drum and bass festivals, En Route, at the historic Mount Faber park. At the time, securing government funds or corporate sponsorships for music festivals was nowhere as easy as it is now, so Wong and Tan relied on private investors and the grassroots approach they'd developed over their experience with Kinemat gigs.

The millennium also saw the rise of a thriving online culture for drum and bass, centered around Exit Musik, a local website that acted as an online discussion board and chat forum. "Some of my best friends on this earth I met on that site," says Zul. Started by DJs Andy Leong (AKA Vortex), and Kenneth Francis, the site helped expand the scene by connecting bassheads and giving collectives a platform for promotion. Subvert Sessions—a podcast series launched by Zul's DJ/bookings collective Subvert HQ—also became an essential portal for heads, and now boasts over 3,000 international subscribers.

Up to this point, drum and bass had amassed a sizeable fan base but still remained outside the realm of mainstream electronica. Thanks to a new venue, that soon began to change.

Subvert HQ flyer from 2004

Mad Monk's—primarily a gay and lesbian club that catered to minority music communities— kickstarted a wave of international bookings that eventually forced prominent clubs to start paying attention to the genre. It was there that Subvert HQ championed more dance-friendly tunes akin to Australia's Pendulum, whom they brought in for a gig in 2003.

In 2005, the venue re-branded itself as Home Club. Under co-owners Kelvin Tan and Roy Ng, Home became the go-to spot for bassheads, just as Area 22 was nearly a decade earlier. "Drum and bass was a part of Home Club's DNA, as we felt that the spirit of the music fit like a glove to our objective, which was no bullshit, no pretense," says Tan. "With Home Club, we had a better-equipped space to run nights properly and start growing the community."

The club wisely tapped veterans like Kiat and Vortex to spearhead a new night called +65—named after Singapore's international telephone code. Thanks to the pair's wide following, it became the island's flagship drum and bass event, ushering in the most fertile era of bass in Singapore's history to date.

Retaining Mad Monk's inclusive spirit, Home provided a literal home for those who didn't connect with Singapore's expensive club realm. "Nights were packed, and it wasn't just junglists," explains Farah Azizan, a longtime drum and bass fan who DJs under the name RAH. "There were people from the indie rock and hip-hop scene too, all attracted to the genre's raw energy."

In addition to nights led by local champions such as Justin Noreikis (AKA Twinhed), Lavin Raj (AKA Submerge), and MC Roz Wong, bookings for international DJs also soared during the Home Club era, and luminaries dBridge, Calibre, and LTJ Bukem were flown in on a regular basis.

Goldie, Roy Ng and Kelvin Tan at Home Club, Photo by Ungku Ibrahim

At Home Club, a chance encounter with Goldie led to Kiat becoming the first Singaporean to get signed to the Englishman's respected Metalheadz label—a major sign of recognition for the island's bass culture.

"I was opening for Goldie," Kiat reminisces. "Fellow Guerrilla co-founder Ashidiq Ghazali [aka Madtooth Ghazali] and I gave him our CD at the club. It was a cliché move, but he was cool about it. The next day, he got in touch with us! I was in shock. It didn't really register as reality. A while later, DJ Storm [one of Metalheadz's chief selectors] had our track in her top 10 list. It was all so surreal." Kiat's debut release, "Feeder," also ended up on Goldie's entry to the Ministry of Sound Masterpiece series, training another small spotlight on Singapore on the international stage.

Kiat's overseas success only emboldened the talent back home. Thanks to trailblazers like him, DJs like Vortex, Zul, Aresha Krishnan-Harling [aka ARESHA], James Tan [aka Clart] and Chee Wee Ong [aka Diphasic] would go on to be courted by international labels and invited as featured attractions for events in the UK.

As the early 2010s rolled around, +65 grew into one of the biggest drum and bass parties in Southeast Asia under the new generalship of long-time stalwart Anaiz Majid (AKA Nez) and Ming Yuen (AKA Ming), drawing crowds from neighboring Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Mainstream clubs took notice.

While Zouk's smaller room Phuture was still hosting the breakbeat nights it started in the 90s, this period saw well-known DJs like High Contrast and Netsky rinse out the club's main floor. "Drum and bass fans never had the option of experiencing the music on a 2000-strong dancefloor so we wanted to introduce it," explains Zouk's former assistant DJ booking manager QH Yeo.

But Zouk and the mainstream crowd's embrace of drum and bass turned out to be fickle. By 2014, the club's roster changed directions, catering to more popular tastes such as the rising demand for EDM.

Home Club, on the other hand, was determined stuck to its guns. But its emphasis on promoting niche genres proved difficult to monetize. The venue struggled financially for many years, but it stayed dedicated to the underground instead of cashing in on the EDM gravy train. But even outside the club's balance sheet, signs of trouble began to show. +65's attendance started to wane around as the original heads—many of whom were now middle-aged—started dropping out of nightlife.

"We just grew older and stopped heading out. Some people got married, had babies... some just shifted their attention to other fields and pursuits," said Kiat. He himself moved on from drum and bass to co-found an experimental audio-visual collective called Syndicate.

Home Club's unfortunate closure in May 2014 was the ultimate blow to the struggling scene. With no centralized location for parties, momentum came to a halt, leaving many bassheads feeling displaced, explains +65 resident Nez.

Still, the diehards continued hunting for new spaces to help the genre reclaim some of its former glory. On the second floor of a no-frills Japanese bar in the indie neighborhood of Haji Lane, Nez launched a monthly party called Drop Shots at the end of 2014 but size constraints restricted large turnouts.

Determined to keep the bass alive, Nez (who now goes by the moniker Senja) and his wife RAH formed a music and events promotion brand called Revision, under which they launched Sub City, a night championing everything from footwork to dutty drum and bass. Fittingly, it's held at Lion's Den—a bar where original heads like Ramesh threw their parties in the early 2000s. Sub City restored drum and bass to its former home in the heart of the city, while showcasing a fresh crop of young DJs and producers, such as Syaheedah Iskandar (AKA Jaydah).

Still, Singapore's current drum and bass landscape is far from making a renaissance. While other genres have blossomed, reflected by a growing number of new indie music festivals like Neon Lights and SingJazz, drum and bass remains dormant compared to Home Club's heydays. There's an undeniable lack of regular nights, as well as a lower volume of local productions and international DJs coming to these shores.

Unlike other genres, every generation typically only has a few people who really get into drum and bass, explains Nez. That makes it additionally harder to develop and grow a subculture organically, but thanks to the ongoing efforts of enthusiasts whose heart rates seem permanently fixed at 160 to 180 BPM, the genre's resilient spirit will always continue to resonate.

Dynamite MC at Home Club, Photo by Ungku Ibrahim

In remembrance of MC Roz (1980-2016), who left our Lion City for the next jungle.

Tagged:
Singapore
drum and bass