"The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body" - St Paul
RONI Size is on a skateboard at the Skate N' Fun in Munich (that's n' as in drum n' bass. Even in Germany) where Reprazent are playing tonight. It's a strange place - part leisure centre and part industrial estate - and Roni doesn't look entirely comfortable. But it's not the surroundings, nor the fact that he's due on stage in less than two hours. No. While DJ Die does some wicked tricks, spins and jumps on the nearby half pipe, Roni is negotiating the dangerously flat floor like a toddler taking his first steps. Eventually he stumbles off and looks around the skate park, watching the experts. "Die's like a professional, man," he laughs. "But I'm learning. I'll be there soon. It just takes time. I always like a challenge. That's one thing about Reprazent. We all like a challenge, you know what I mean?" You like a challenge? All right Roni. Try this on for Size. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make an album of underground drum n' bass that is both raw enough to mash up any dancefloor and so coherent and visionary that it will force its way into the consciousness of the wider public (perhaps even winning a gong along the way). But more than that, you have to do it without resorting to any showboating, ego-tripping star tactics. And when the album is completed, you have to recreate live the whole high-tech, cutting-edge shenanigans and make it sound even better than the recording. So what do you reckon? Unfortunately, we're too late. Reprazent have been there, they're doing that and the T-shirts are due back from the printers any day. Impressed? You should be. But while Reprazent are reshaping British music, Roni Size still can't skate for toffee.
A LOT has been written about Roni Size since he collected the Mercury Music Surprise a month or so ago. And a lot of it has been bullshit. But Roni reads as much as he can. "One time they described me as a musical genius. I'm definitely not a musical genius. Some people say that I'm, like, God or something and some people call me a fool. But these are just words, man. Just words. Music doesn't have to use words to be powerful communication. Music is like Manchester United. None of that team speak the same language but they all know what they're trying to do, they all know where they're heading and so do the crowds watching them. That's what our music is about." The music is about communication. It's a simple assertion but that doesn't mean that everyone's prepared to listen to it. Instead the media dusts off its labels and claims, yet again, that drum n' bass is moving further into the mainstream with, this time, Roni Size at the helm of the good ship Reprazent. Talk about missing the point.
Neither winning a prize, nor having a Top Ten album make the music mainstream. If they did then the other
side of this logic concludes that Kylie (who hasn't sold a record in the 1990s and last won a prize at
primary school) is in fact the credible, underground diva that she always dreamed of being. 'Underground
dance music' describes the music itself and the culture it comes from, not the profile of its consumers.
Besides, as Roni says, "Goldie did this ages ago. He won seven awards. He was on the Brits for fuck's sake.
We're just following it through."
What's more, the focus on Roni himself is equally flawed. 'New Forms' was not a solo project any more than
the eight-strong Reprazent are a band. A collective comes close but still misses the head of the nail. Truth
is, what we're talking about here is a movement. Maybe Reprazent are at the heart of that movement and maybe
Roni Size is at the heart of Reprazent but we're all invited. And like all great movements, this one is best
experienced first hand rather than in the pages of a broadsheet newspaper.
Well that's the theory anyway. But trust the straight-talking DJ Krust to put it in a nutshell.
"Try not to analyse it too much. Try not to look too much further than what there is. It's a live energy thing.
That's what it's about. The music."
All right then. The music.
BABYLON is jammed to the rafters. It's a free gig - part of the annual Oktoberfest - so you might expect the crowd to be less than knowledgeable. But, a couple of tunes in, the whole place is already jumping, screaming their recognition to each intro. Roni, DJ Suv, Krust and Die are hunched clockwise in an outward-facing square behind their mysterious consoles. They are pictures of concentration, heads nodding and occasionally exchanging smiles and glances. To left and right are drummer Clive Deamer (from Portishead) and bassist Si John (from The Federation). This is live drum n' bass, laying down live rhythms over programmed beats. Or is it the other way round? You can hardly figure. Up front, Roni's long-time MC, Dynamite is a rubber-limbed, elastic-tongued prophet, exhorting the crowds to get into, over and under this sound. But the crowd doesn't need asking twice. This is a sound you'd be happy to drown in.
The impossibly funky first bars of 'Brown Paper Bag' kick in as singer, Onallee takes to the stage. The hefty beats are bouncing around Reprazent like a hot potato that could be dropped at any minute. They seem to reach a plateau as Onallee steps up to the mic until she pulls a single note out of nowhere and the bassline kicks in even fatter than before and you're convinced that Reprazent are funking your brains out. The venue seems to melt until there's nothing left but the drum 'n' bass 'n' the kitchen sink. It's a sound that's so evolved but so primal, so raw and yet so refined that Roni's description of the weeks before Tribal Gathering is as unbelievable as it is charming. "It was about three weeks before and we all sat down and tried to work out what the fuck we were going to do and we had about 50 different ideas. But then it was a case of, 'You can't because the budget says you can't.' So we were, like, 'Oh dear.' So I just took my whole studio and stuck it on stage - over 20 grand's worth of equipment, the biggest gamble of my life. Even on the day of Tribal Gathering we weren't ready. But you know what we had? We had big fucking balls." And it works. Surely if club culture has taught us anything, it's not to expect live dance music this good. So what's the trick?
Si John: "The way Roni runs it, the beats are so integral. The live drums and bass give it that final level of density while the bottom ends still have that clubbier feel that makes it so compulsive." Dynamite: "It's about a vibe. My job is to try and translate that vibe to the people; let them know what we're doing, where we're coming from and where we're heading." Roni: "When we released 'New Forms', we knew it was young. I could be making that album now and I still wouldn't be happy. So on stage we're still writing it. Trying new things out."
First and foremost, this is a live recreation of what made 'New Forms' a unique album in the first place: the seemingly effortless synthesis of live and programmed rhythms, used to create a vibe that, as Roni puts it, is "more James (Brown) than jazz". What's more, on stage, Reprazent somehow manage to break down the typical 'rock' barrier between the musicians and the crowd. There are no pretensions here and no divisions. The music is democratic and inclusive. And the music is still being written. So you feel like a privileged guest at a live jamming session in which, even as a member of the audience, you are having your input. Later, reflecting on the gig, Roni asks if I heard the mistakes. Err. What mistakes? "They were there," he laughs. "We make mistakes and have to get ourselves out of trouble and that's when things start to happen. When you play live you have to have these escape routes. Soon we're going to have to break down on purpose just to see how we get out of it. It's brilliant!"
But all this analysis, though touching the truth, still doesn't get to the spirit of Reprazent. Because that spirit is intangible. At the end of the gig, the whole crew are soon chilling at the bar and on the dancefloor. Although he's just come offstage, Suv has nudged aside the DJ and taken control of the decks. Roni and Clive are nodding nearby. Dynamite, now plain Dominic, is running around with a Coke and a bottle of brandy, mixing drinks for all and sundry. Onallee is sipping a glass of dodgy Spanish red and watching the dancefloor. Perhaps her assessment is best: "Most of the spirit you get on stage is founded in shit like this: bonding and having a laugh and getting pissed. In theory we're all dispensable but in practice? Like, anyone could play the bass but it would feel like amputation."
RONI SIZE continues...