Peel back the production layers used to make hip-hop and drum & bass and you'll find a common strand of DNA: samples. When jungle emerged in early 1990s England, the music borrowed from dub and hip-hop, notably taking breaks from the latter—samples of funk staples like “Amen Brother,” “Scorpio,” “Apache”—and speeding them up via Akai samplers. By the end of the decade jungle had morphed into drum & bass, reflecting a wider ranging sound palette. Today, the practice of sampling continues to inform the work of new musical styles even though the move to digital production means it rarely defines any single genre.
Ivy Lab, a trio of drum & bass producers from London, use this shared heritage as the foundation for their debut album, 20/20 Vol.1. The album is being released on November 6 via their own 20/20 label, spawned out of an eponymous night in London where they’ve been showcasing a broad spectrum of sounds that synthesize old and new for the past two years.
“A lot of our music pays homage to samples,” Gove Kidao, known as Sabre, tells me over Skype from his north London home. “When you go down that path you end up recalling ideas and themes that are common in hip-hop.” 20/20 Vol.1, then, is Ivy Lab's drum & bass influenced take on the instrumental hip-hop sound, today most commonly associated with Los Angeles’s Brainfeeder and Low End Theory crews.
The three members of Ivy Lab met through music and common interests in the 2000s as each of their individual career in drum & bass took shape. They first joined forces in 2012 for a single on the Critical Recordings label under their respective recording names: Sabre, Stray, and Halogenix. “It was a bit of a mouthful,” jokes Laurence "Halogenix" Reading, speaking from New Zealand, where he's currently on a DJ tour under the Ivy Lab banner. Kasra, owner of Critical, suggested they take the idea further. The ivy that surrounded their shared studio at the time, or “lab” in producer parlance, provided the inspiration for a more succinct alias.
From the start Ivy Lab had a desire to release non-drum & bass material, as they all shared a love of hip-hop. However, they felt the need to be incremental in their approach. Over the past two years they’ve slowly unfurled productions that operates at 85 bpm, half of the standard drum & bass tempo and in lock with a lot of instrumental hip-hop beats. “At first it was 10% of the output,” Kidao explains, “then a quarter, and then half. We wanted to do it diplomatically so as not to upset our established profiles.”
Another thing drum & bass and hip-hop share is a long history of purism within their core audience, small groups of fans reluctant to accept change. It's one of the reasons why Ivy Lab opted to introduce their new material over time, and why they're keen to underline it doesn't equate a move away from drum & bass. “Purists are a minority voice,” Reading points out. Jonathan Fogel, who releases as Stray, chimes into our Skype conversation from east London: “It turned out we were overcautious [with the roll out]. There was a real audience within our drum & bass fans that was happy to come over with us.”
“A lot of our music pays homage to samples. When you go down that path you end up recalling ideas and themes that are common in hip-hop.”—Sabre, Ivy Lab
Despite Ivy Lab’s hesitance, the ideas explored on 20/20 Vol.1 are not new to the drum & bass world. Back in the early 2000s artists including Hive in Los Angeles and Pendulum in Australia were tapping into the tension inherent in moving from full to half tempo to provide release in a genre known for its aggressive tendencies. By the early 2010s, the fringes of drum & bass started to revisit the dynamic between slow and fast by drawing inspiration from movements and ideas old and new: jungle, footwork, beats, and hip-hop. Ivy Lab point to the likes of Alix Perez, Om Unit, Fracture, Eprom, and Machinedrum—a diverse range of artists operating within and around the genre—as showing a way forward. “Jungle, juke, half time experiments, hip-hop grooves, and more got chucked into the mix and did well,” explains Fogel. “We looked at these guys and saw there was an appetite for this.”
The music on 20/20 Vol.1 is anchored at a slow, half-time tempo. Samples of movies, rap vocals, and obscure records provide grit and atmosphere (“Gettysburg”) while abrasive synthesizer leads often drive the melodies (“Cherokee”, “No Answer”). Ivy Lab borrow from the swing that Madlib or the late Jay Dee helped popularize yet keep a dancefloor sensibility that years of producing dance music instills. This is hip-hop beats engineered like drum & bass, a fusion that raises the frequencies of the music to more thrilling levels while maintaining a slower pace. “We think about how to apply the impact a [standard] drum & bass production can have on people to [slower] songs,” Reading explains. “Shamrock” and “Love Is Here” sit at this intersection, synthesizing the oomph of dance with the mellow headnod of beats.
Ivy Lab’s approach reflects their desire to stay true to themselves and not just imitate established templates. “It's about realizing our niche,” Kidao concludes. “There's no need for us to do a straight up beats thing. What we try and bring—a sonic mentality—is inherent to our work. We love it, but it's about not being pastiche.”