DnB 365 reminisce about the first live performance by Roni Size / Reprazent at Tribal Gathering '97 and exclusively reveal some previously unseen footage from the festival.
I can rarely say that I was "there". Those legendary nights in the history of drum & bass such as Rage, Speed and the Blue Note were like mirages to me, so close and enticing and yet impossible to reach. Despite living near London I didn't turn 18 until 1999 and looked young for my age so had no hope of getting into clubs. I had to make do with buying the records and tape packs and reading about the scene in magazines such as Knowledge and Atmosphere.
But there was one time when I can say that I witnessed a bit of drum & bass history. Tribal Gathering '97 was a huge dance music festival that took place on the Luton Hoo estate in Bedfordshire on Saturday May 24th, exactly twenty years ago today. Just a look at the flyer shows the variety and caliber of acts who played across 10 arenas (all named after different parts of the world): Kraftwerk, Daft Punk and Orbital were among the live acts and DJs included Richie Hawtin, Sasha, John Peel, Andrew Weatherall, Masters at Work...
Despite being just 15 at the time I managed to attend thanks to my Dad, a TV cameraman who was fortuitously covering the event for the local news. I accompanied him as his assistant, carrying some equipment in before being let loose. Despite the wealth of talent from across the dance music spectrum there was only one place I was heading to: the Equator, the arena which hosted some of the finest in the drum & bass world with DJs including Grooverider, Fabio, Doc Scott, Mickey Finn and Hype. I was in awe at just even being there and it took some time for me to relax and not be so self conscious but eventually I was dancing along with everyone else, head down, lost in the beats and the bass.
What made this night so pivotal in drum & bass history though was the debut performance of Roni Size / Reprazent. Their album New Forms would be released the following month, adding real instruments and proper songs to their classic Bristolian sound. While this could have gone very wrong in other people's hands the album was a success, emphasising the jazz elements that ran through much of the collective's other work. It walked the fine line between underground credibility and appealing to the mainstream and went on to win the prestigious Mercury Music Prize later that year, propelling Roni Size into the position of scene figurehead. Tribal Gathering was where they launched themselves as an actual band, attempting to do something very few had done before: translating drum & bass from the record to the live arena. As Roni Size himself put it: “rising to the challenge of filling some of the gigantic stages that we were already playing on as DJs”.
This they achieved with aplomb. The Full Cycle crew of Roni Size, Krust, Die and Suv were relatively anonymous bobbing heads behind banks of equipment, letting vocalists Dynamite MC and Onallee take centre stage along with Si John on bass and Clive Deamer on drums. The whole thing was a technical and logistical feat, but most importantly they had the quality material to go with it. Dancefloor favourites like the double bass-driven Brown Paper Bag were accompanied by more song-orientated tracks such as Share The Fall which showcased Onallee's rich, distinctive voice. Dynamite MC's laid back rhymes rode smoothly over everything but what impressed me most was the stunning drumming of Clive Deamer; it was simply mindblowing seeing him play complex rhythms at DnB tempo.
Reprazent didn't open the mainstream's eyes to the scene, the likes of Photek, Source Direct, Adam F and Dillinja were already signed to major label deals. But New Forms showed that drum & bass could have songs and be successful commercially and critically. It paved the way for the likes of Kosheen, Un-Cut and Roni Size & Die's own Breakbeat Era, making a lasting impact on the scene. Witnessing their live debut is a memory I will always treasure.
Below you can see never before released footage from the Equator Arena at Tribal Gathering '97, including some of 'Morse Code', Reprazent's set opener. The video is professionally shot but has been transferred from the original tapes to vhs and then digitized so the quality is a bit ropey, but well worth watching. To see an extended version featuring highlights from across the festival, click here.