Roni Size's Laid-Back, Multicultural Vibe Makes Jungle Accessible

Roni Size
Photo courtesy Roni Size
Roni Size
Since the early ’90s, Roni Size has been a critical force in developing jungle and drum-and-bass. Born Ryan Williams, Size was born to Jamaican immigrants in Bristol, England, and listened to dub and reggae from an early age. The inventive rhythms of both genres and dub's soundscaping influenced the era's electronic music. With an influx of immigrants, Bristol became a hub of vibrant music. Growing up, Size witnessed the development of jungle and drum-and-bass in his home town, but also by seeking out the most interesting sounds of the time and going to London to experience live music in person.

Bristol is perhaps best known for being home to trip-hop groups Massive Attack and Portishead. But for Size, as a fan and musician himself, the city has been home to evolving genres incubated in a multicultural community. Size joined a drum-and-bass collective, Reprazent, that released its first and most well-known album in ’97, Reprazent. The music was a mix of so many musical styles, it was both a product of its time and ahead of the curve.

The particular flavor of jungle that Size helped establish — one more focused on melody and paradoxically smooth-cycling breakbeats — has re-emerged as a branch of dub techno. Westword spoke with Size, before he crossed the Atlantic to perform a series of U.S. dates, to learn more about his background, how he produces music and how Bristol's multicultural community shaped his music.

Westword: You went to house parties put on by the Wild Bunch, which was an early incarnation of Massive Attack. How did you find out about that sort of thing?

Roni Size: Well, you'd just wander the streets of Bristol, and you'd see fly-posters on a wall. Word of mouth, basically. There were pirate radio stations that really brought us all together. I used to have a show on a pirate radio station. My older brothers told me stuff. It was pretty cool. Now we don't have pirate radio stations much, and it's gone digital and legal. So you don't have to take all these risks of putting an aerial on your roof and running a line down to your flat anymore.

The Sefton Park basement project was important to you and many of your peers.

That was a studio that everyone in and around Bristol could walk in off the street, pay no money, and learn how to mix and use a sampler or just learn how to communicate with other people in music. That was something I was involved in at a young age and it was something I took a lot of pride in being involved in. Back then, there weren't many such environments around, but now there are lots of schools and colleges that do that specifically, and that's great. Kids had nowhere to go, so sometimes the studio provided them a better path.

As part of your setup early on, you acquired a sampler. Why was that such an essential piece of gear for you then?

Before that I had a drum machine, which you couldn't manipulate as much. But with a sampler you could be quite creative. Sampling was then, and still is to me, a unique art. You can take something and manipulate it, and that was fantastic. I was fascinated more by the process and the technology than any musical genre. We would sample records and find a riff we liked and then find a tempo and loop it. At that time, a sampler was only a standalone machine that had a definite sound. Now you put audio into ProTools, Cubase or Logic or whatever you want to use. My machine now is one big sampler; that's how I look at it.

You were present and engaged in the rise of drum-and-bass and jungle.

I was lucky to be a part of the small evolution. In Bristol we had to go to London to find what we really loved. Then we brought it back to Bristol. Bristol always had that laid-back-approach kind of vibe. In London it was more of a lifestyle.

Why do you say it was laid-back?

Bristol could have been like a borough of London. In London you have Carnival, and in Bristol we have Circus Carnival. The latter is like the London Carnival, but the whole vibe is smoking weed and having fun in your own time, whereas the pace in London is much faster. The culture here is multicultural, and we rub shoulders with each other.

Roni Size plays with Shoebox and Syntax & Zane at a party hosted by Slim_r_1, Saturday, March 11, at 9 p.m., at the Black Box. For more information, call 303-831-6207. Tickets are $25.