Despite the efforts of Goldie and numerous others over the years, drum & bass has in the most part been on the fringes of popular dance music. Resolutely safeguarding its own culture with low-key and underground shows and events, its DJs, MCs, and hardcore following have never wanted the joy of the amen break to fully reach the masses.
Undeniably, however, drum & bass has matured and evolved over the years, and is showing no signs of dying out (see: Trance), despite the demise of the Hospitality night at London's Heaven recently. It has always had, and known, its place. But perhaps the most crucial step towards the mainstream in years is currently emerging from an unlikely source. Australia's Pendulum cocked the ears of indie and more mainstream music fans in 2007 with the album Hold Your Colour (released down under in 2005), particularly with the momentous single 'Slam', and now a group of fellow Southern Hemisphere folk are following in that group's footsteps.
Shapeshifter are from New Zealand; not a place you'd associate with grimy, inner city beats. But the band's lush, green origin is apparent in the recordings. Smog-drenched suburban attitude is out, and in its place is a fresh, cosmopolitan approach to drum & bass, borrowing from dub, world, hip-hop, and more esoteric electronic music. Fans of hardcore may cringe at the squeaky-clean production, and at first glance it does seem like a shameless stab at a mainstream niche. What Shapeshifter achieve on double album Soulstice, however, is a set of accessible and expertly sculptured tunes fit for the dancefloor and, dare it be mentioned, the radio.
Single 'One' glides with piano and new age atmospherics; the hippy-ish lyric "don't let the world get you down" more or less summing up the politics of the album. 'Electric Dream' borrows the synth loop from The Source ft. Candi Staton's 'You've Got the Love' and impressively re-invents it as a smiling drum & bass jam. 'Bring Change' starts with old philly soul before delivering what is the disc's most emotional, gospel-tinged epic.
In spite of its recent troubles, Hospital Records' back catalogue is still the place to go for cutting edge breaks. And dirty drum & bass with its myriad of MCs will always exist in the underground. But take note of Shapeshifter. The band have already gone platinum in their home country and have established a solid live reputation - the band sold every ticket of every show during a stint at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. Whether this is the time for drum & bass to step up to the pop plate, as rave, UK garage, and trance have all done before, only time will tell.