Happy hardcore’s pioneers put a Smiley on your face in this week’s recommended mix

Back in March, I wrote up an episode of the British DJ Mumdance’s two-hour weekly show on Rinse FM, the London pirate station gone above-ground. That one was an evening featuring the host spinning vintage mid-90s jungle/drum & bass alongside DJ Storm, and remains a fabulous intro to that musical style.

Last week, Mumdance played host to not one, but three other compatriots from back in the roiling London club and rave scene of the early-to-mid-90s. (Mumdance—born Jack Adams—got his professional start in the 2000s.) Whereas Storm and his fellow DJ Kemistry were residents at the Metalheadz weekly at London’s Blue Note (see this RBMA oral history), where stripped-down tie-the-drums-in-knots breakbeats ruled the roost, Mumdance’s August 22 guests, DJ Vibes, Slipmatt, and Billy Daniel Bunter, went the other direction. They’d picked up on UK breakbeat hardcore just like the Metalheadz crew. But rather than shedding its sped-up vocal samples, fairground-ride organ and piano parts, and rising-tide-of-giddy-emotion feel as the music grew darker and more serious, they embraced it whole.

This style was called “happy hardcore.” (Here’s another RBMA overview.) If you think dance music, ipso facto, is divisive, buckle up. The key word was “candy”—or, as the music’s giant-pantsed, lollipop-toting, furry-backpack-wearing, neon-kiddie-TV-explosion-looking throng liked to spell it, “kandi.” Happy hardcore was never the music’s primary style, thankfully—when it reached its 1996-97 commercial peak, running right alongside the rise of “electronica” in the U.S., it had earned the contempt older dance-heads directed at it. “Candy ravers embodied a certain sensibility to me,” writer and one-time jungle DJ Tricia Romano told me in 2013. “You didn’t want people to think that’s what techno was about.”

But that came later. The music on the Mumdance show is nearly all from happy hardcore’s very beginnings, when it was an offshoot of UK breakbeat hardcore rather than a thumping, lumpy, gurning style unto itself. In basic terms, that means it’s still full of breakbeats. By 1995, the breaks had been bleached out of the music—and I use “bleached” deliberately, since without them, happy hardcore’s connection to the hip-hop and funk that had sired those breaks vanished, leaving it one of the whitest subgenres in the dance-music cosmos. Vibes, Slipmatt, and Bunter, by contrast, are playing almost exclusively from 1993-94.

One record in particular deserves note here, and receives note on the show. DJ Vibes’ “Sing It Loud” b/w “Obsession (Music’s So Wonderful),” the first 12-inch on his Asylum label, released April 1993, essentially codified happy hardcore begins as its own spinoff genre. Vibes plays the B-side (the bigger hit, then and now) around the 31-minute mark of this Rinse FM show, to kick off his half-hour (each DJ takes a quarter of the time slot). Then he drops the A around minute 41—and after less than a minute does a hard backspin to bring the track to a stop, just so he can pay heartfelt tribute to Bunter, next to him in the studio, for being the first ever DJ to play the 12-inch. Forgive an old raver, not to mention an old rave historian, for loving it.

Each Thursday, Michaelangelo Matos will spotlight a different DJ set—often but not always new, sometimes tied to a local show but not necessarily—and discuss its place in the overall sphere of dance music and pop.