DJ Rap makes jungle pop
by Alex Pappademas
Drum 'n' bass, sure, it's cool. But ask DJ Rap what the new, new, new
shit is and she'll answer unequivocally -- it's all about guys with guitars.
You heard it here first. Okay, so maybe Rap -- 30, born Charissa Saverio --
won't be ditching jungle for grunge any time soon. But when we talk, the day
after her June 6 appearance at the Tweeter Center, the animated British
DJ/producer/singer/songwriter is buzzing about tattoo'd rock dudes Offspring
and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom she checked out on the main stage after her
dance-tent set. Rap is also down with Orgy, the Southern Cal band who've
retooled synth-pop for Generation Korn with their cover of New Order's "Blue
Monday." Backstage at the Tweeter show, she bonded with lead singer Jay Gordon
over an appropriately junglist fashion fetish: state-of-the-art digital
timepieces. "He was like, 'Yo, we got the same watch!' And I was like, `Yeah,
do you know how to use it?' "
Maybe it's hard to picture a beat queen of Rap's stature breaking bread with
death-rockers or pushing up her lighter during "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)."
She's a respected, connected drum 'n' bass veteran, the founder and
overseer of the independent Proper Talent label. She broke the genre's glass
ceiling to spin -- in the front rooms, thank you -- at London's coolest jungle
nights, then made tracks tough enough to hang with luminaries like Goldie,
Grooverider, and Fabio based on skills alone. Her 1995 debut album,
Intelligence (Proper Talent), was one of drum 'n' bass's first
In jungle, as in other techno subgenres, producers tend to prefer the shadows
to the spotlight, leaving the singing to hired-gun vocalists or (increasingly)
leaving it out entirely. But on early singles like "Ambiance: The Adored" and
"Spiritual Aura," Rap acted as her own disco diva, speaking up, in a sultry
Tori Amos murmur, amid her scene's calculated anonymity.
Her new major-label debut, Learning Curve (Higher Ground/Sony), is yet
another departure. Short on sternum-melting sub-bass and chopped-up "Amen,
Brother" drum breaks, long on hooks and post-club soul searching, it's an
unashamed bid for mainstream recognition. It's also the kind of repositioning
that could cost a junglist her hard-won street cred. The club-culture bible
Urb recently tagged her "drum 'n' bass's answer to Shania
Twain"; other publications have been less kind. Yet Rap doesn't seem too
worried. It helps that she's got a straight-up drum 'n' bass record,
featuring collaborations with Mickey Finn and Aphrodite, due out on Proper
Talent later this year. More important, she's genuinely excited about the
prospect of pop stardom.
"I've always reinvented myself," she says, sipping honey-laced coffee on a
patio behind her hotel, underneath a criminally gorgeous mid-afternoon sun on a
day off in Boston. "Now, for me, this is the time to do something different, as
well as drum 'n' bass. I'm really happiest when I'm writing songs. I
love doing drum 'n' bass, but I'm more original when I'm doing my own
stuff, when I don't have any rules, when I don't have a BPM I have to stick to
and I can do whatever the fuck I want."
In recording Learning Curve, Rap saved the lyrics for last -- until
after she and her co-producers had completed more than 200 instrumentals; and
she worked on them longer than she'd worked on anything else. Rap suffered from
serious depression for about four years, and most of the songs, anthems of
feminine fierceness and survival, deal with that period. Although the lyrics
can be trite -- "Hey maybe in life/We need to try/To live it for today," from
"Live It for Today," is a typical platitude -- the album is full of appealingly
bad-ass self-assertion. On the Garbage-y "Bad Girl," Rap lays out a statement
of purpose: "Gotta be a bad girl in this world/And you've got to make waves."
"You Get Around" puts a creeping boyfriend in check: "Can't live life a
suspicious bride/Better eject me."
The most "traditional" song on the record actually has its roots in a seminal
Detroit techno track. "Ordinary Day" reworks Rhythim Is Rhythim's seminal
plastic-piano symphony "Strings of Life" for acoustic guitar, with Rap purring
her own Jewel-eyed lyrics ("I think we know we have to change/To lead
extraordinary lives") in a voice somewhere between Des'ree and Brigitte Bardot.
Rap describes the remake as a "valentine" to the late-'80s rave music that
transformed her. It's also one of the year's cooler pop moments, a cover that
repositions old-school techno as a modern American folk idiom, a shout-out to
the underground that wouldn't sound out of place on AAA radio.
And therein lies the irony. Rap could be the first drum 'n' bass
artist to score stateside pop hits, but her killer crossover depends on an
album that contains very little actual drum 'n' bass. Given the
commercial invisibility of acclaimed jungle albums like Boymerang's Balance
of the Force (Astralwerks), Grooverider's Mysteries of Funk (Sony),
and 4 Hero's Two Pages (PGD/PolyGram), maybe that's no surprise. Roni
Size's New Forms yielded a minor alternative-radio hit, "Brown Paper
Bag," but couldn't translate its buzz into sales. Even in its warmer, jazzier
manifestations, jungle can be forbiddingly modernist, an oppressively
cybernetic response to an oppressively mechanized society.
The genre's last potential superstar was Goldie, a graffiti artist turned
mixing-desk auteur who displayed the pimpin' presence of a gangsta rapper. His
1995 debut, Timeless (London), resonated like a message from a future
not yet mapped, encapsulating jungle's mix of slamming physicality and
inner-city blues. Then, amid unprecedented hype, he choked with 1997's
Saturnz Return (London), a double album that drowned in
self-aggrandizing conceptual bloat, contrived celebrity cameos (David Bowie,
KRS-One, Noel Gallagher), tortured Oedipal whining, and boring-ass beats.
Ultimately, it took life-of-the-party goofball Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook and
the kitschy, hormonal throwdowns of big beat to make rock fans take the
dance-music plunge. Drum 'n' bass, on the other hand, was subsumed
into modern pop -- Timbaland applies its unique syncopation to buttery R&B,
Cornelius giggles over it like a fresh set of Sega cheat codes, and the Beastie
Boys use it to electro-shock their space-doo-doo rhymes back to life. It's all
over prime-time TV, of course, but only as a decontextualized soundtrack for
Nissan ads and shampoo commercials. And though outfits like Source Direct and
Breakbeat Era are still advancing the form, they've gone "back to the lab,"
carrying out their innovations within the insular, dubplate-centered jungle
Rap's kept a foot in that world, but she clearly sees commercial potential in
drum 'n' bass that her peers have been unable, or unwilling, to
exploit. And if anyone can get this music on MTV, it's Rap, a judo-sculpted
Irish/Italian/Malaysian beauty who rocks her Diesel gear with the poise of a
runway model and makes Goldie look like a sunburned Rottweiler.
Then there's the one biographical tidbit no profiler can resist mentioning:
Rap's brief stint as a topless (and underage) Page 3 Girl in a London tabloid,
the Sun. "My only regret," she says, "is that I look soooo much
better now. That's the only thing. I was 14. I was a kid. I had big, bushy
eyebrows and I was kinda chubby. I have regrets that people don't see past it.
But that's their problem, not mine. I see past it."
Rap derived her DJ handle from the mix of sounds that dominated her early
sets, a mix of European house and American hardcore hip-hop ("I used to rap, as
well," she adds, "when I was very drunk"). But it was also a conveniently
non-gender-specific appellation; when Rap began fishing for DJ gigs in 1989,
she "wanted people to get the tape and just judge it on the
tape . . . That lasted like four months, and then everyone knew
who I was, the game was over. I never looked back."
And though she's certainly more photogenic than her peers -- DJ magazines
shoot her in the kind of high-gloss close-ups they typically reserve for shiny
new sampling workstations -- Rap says London's drum 'n' bass
providers still treat her like "one of the boys."
"I think the reason is because they know that I'm not like, [whining] `Oh,
it's really hard being female!' What, when you get cramps once a month? And
it's hard to roll a mix? Okay, maybe then . . . "
"Oh, it is, I have to say. The other day, man . . . I had to DJ
and I was in pain. I was in pain. But you forget about it the moment you're on
Most of the time, Rap would prefer not to make gender an issue.
"I don't want to get attention for being a girl. I want to get attention
because people like my music. When I first started DJing, I dressed like a boy
all the time. Now, fuck it, if I want to wear something sexy, I wear it,
because I know I've done my time, I've proven myself, so now if I go up there
with a skimpy little top on and I'm DJing, I look like, whatever, but I'm doing
what I'm doing well. No one has the balls to fucking be sexist to my face,
anyway. I'd just crucify them lyrically, y'know -- `Go back to your cave. Step
away from the female.' "
Besides, Rap says, she'd rather be a bad girl in a man's world than face the
"Can you imagine if it was all female DJs? I mean, [yowls like a cat]
rrrroowwr! That would be hard. I'd be sitting here saying it's fucking hard to
get where I've got to, because women are so bitchy, and they're so fucking
unforgiving and two-faced . . . You know where you are with a
guy. You never know where you are with a woman. You can never trust a woman