Thursday, July 20, 2000
Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring to your attention the case of Jonny L. This guy was originally famous for the fabulous hardcore rave anthem "Hurt You So", which combined sparkly computer bleeps, distorted baby grunts and synthetic high-pitched vocals. Totally unoriginal and typical of the hardcore scene of course, but perhaps because of that it has become something of an anthem, an enduring symbol of those halcyon days. Then he disappeared for a while.

In '96, he suddenly resurfaced with the "2 Of Us" ep, making smooth, atmospheric drum & bass in the LTJ Bukem mould. Again, there was nothing distinctive or new about what he was doing, but tracks like "Underwater Communication", with its brisk, clean drum programming and fragile minor-key melody, demonstrate softcore jungle at its most delicately brittle.

Of course this style was on the out, and by '97 Jonny was showcasing a new, dark sound with "Piper", which was perhaps the biggest jungle track that year. Again "new " is the wrong word - the "neurofunk" sound that "Piper" used as a template had been around for about year, with tracks like Source Direct's "The Cult" and Optical's "To Shape The Future" - but with its punishingly simple 2-step break, paranoid atmospherics and baleful bass, "Piper" was the ultimate neurofunk tune, both perfecting the sound and making every subsequent track in that style seem like an afterthought. But that didn't stop Jonny from releasing the Magnetic album in '98, which is probably the best single-artist document of jungle's return to the darkside.

One would think that having finally attained a pleasing amount of both commercial and critical success in one sound, Jonny might stay there for a while. But no! Despite continuing to release hard drum & bass through his Pirahna label, in '99 Jonny unveiled a new project in a totally different style. Perhaps galvanised by "Oh Boy", Ramsey & Fen's enormous garage cover of "Hurt You So", Jonny released his own version of his original hit in the increasingly popular garage style, using the moniker of the True Steppers. At the time I thought it was a cheap cash in, albeit an exceedingly pleasant one.

However Jonny obviously caught the garage bug 'cause early this year the True Steppers released "Buggin'", which, despite the curious, hard beats and bruised bassline, is UK garage at its most pop and R&B-affiliated (as well as being the thematic twin of Destiny's Child's Bugaboo). It promptly flew up the charts, resulting in Jonny being drafted in to work on Posh Spice's album. The results can be heard on her first single "Out Of Your Mind", which despite being a somewhat naff song, has absolutely slamming beats and a lovely multilayered production, with what even sounds like a chopped up amen break in there. In a funny way it reminds me of the original "Hurt You So" with its ebullient energy and pop savviness.

Despite his uncanny ability to adapt to any style, Jonny L has never once been an "innovator", and he's never come up with a new sound or direction within the style that he's working in. However, he has the most consistant body of work of any producer in the broadly defined hardcore scene, producing excellent tracks in no less than four separate styles. In the face of this, should it matter that he's generally not "original", especially in dance music where so much progression is born out of duplication?

Jonny L is more of a producer than an "artist", the quality of his tunes being the result of, well, their quality, rather than due to any particular distinctiveness or originality. But originality is overrated - Ed Rush may get props for being the first techstep producer, but that just hides the fact that he hasn't done a really good tune since '97's "Technology". Similarly, I'd rather listen to Jonny's '96 imposter LTJ Bukem tracks than any of the pointless "downtempo" Bukem himself has been releasing since about that time.

One trump card Jonny L possesses that's shared by almost none of his contemporaries is shelf life - his productions always sound spot on no matter which style he's working in. Compared to the other typical modi operandi of maturing drum & bass producers (flip back and forth between two extremes with diminishing returns, which we shall call the Doc Scott model, or keep making the same tune again and again and again, which we shall call the Dillinja model) the money-grubbing cynicism of Jonny's approach seems like something that should be lauded.


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