As we’ve previously noted, hardcore is hype right now. Gabber, hardstyle and various strains from the UK have all started to become a part of the soundtrack at tastemaker spaces all over the world (case in point, CTM’s gabber party at Berghain). One aspect of this universe that has yet to be mined is happy hardcore, a kind of loathed slapstick dance music that fuses aggressive tempos with over-the-top euphoria.
One person who has been tangentially exploring this trend is San Francisco-based DJ and producer Chrissy (previously Chrissy Murderbot) whose recent LP Resilience, out in November on Chiwax, evokes the positivity, friendship and perseverance central to rave culture. Something of an unofficial scholar on all things dance music—seriously, check out his “my year of mixtapes” project—we asked him to give us a crash course in happy hardcore.
“There’s been a resurgence of interest in early ‘90s rave records lately, and I for one couldn’t be happier. This is the sound that got me into dance music, and it’s always held a special place in my heart. My new album, Resilience, is heavily inspired by those old records, so it feels like a good time to speak up about a very influential but deeply maligned sub-genre from the rave era: happy hardcore.
This red-headed stepchild of drum & bass was widely mocked for its relentlessly positive aesthetic, zero-cred suburban teenager audience and nothing’s-too-cheesy approach to songwriting, but make no mistake: there are some stone-cold bangers hidden in there. I’m tracing the early evolution of the genre, using some of my favorite tracks to tell the story of its golden years.”
DJ Seduction, “Hardcore Heaven” (Ffrreedom 1992)
“This track was one of the many “hardcore” rave tracks to find UK chart success during the rave explosion of the early ‘90s. I first encountered it on one of those rave CD compilations that were ubiquitous in shopping malls in 1992, right at the moment when I and loads of other kids were first finding out about dance music. It’s a little too early (and too slow) to be considered happy hardcore, but its mix of amen breaks, four-on-the-floor drums, happy melodies, and rapid-fire change-ups laid the foundation for what would come.”
Top Buzz, “Living In Darkness” (Basement Records 1993)
“The UK rave scene in 1992-1993 was bigger than it had ever been. It was comprised of a diverse mix of kids that transcended race, class and the urban-suburban divide, all converging around massive parties and ever-increasing tempos. The north London “jungle techno” outfit Top Buzz epitomized this scene, and their track “Living In Darkness” shows the quickening pace and dancehall-meets-garage-house aesthetic of the era. Still not quite happy hardcore, but we’re almost there…”
Slipmatt, “Hear Me” (Awesome Records 1994)
“One of the biggest producers in happy hardcore’s early years, Slipmatt started as one half of SL2, the rave group that scored a #2 UK pop hit in 1992 with the dancehall-sampling “On A Ragga Tip”. 1994’s “Hear Me” is as much jungle as it is happy hardcore: hands-in-the-air piano breakdowns lifted from an Italo-house classic are welded to a mashed-up amen break and heavy sub bass. It’s a snapshot of the scene immediately before it fractured into a cluster of subgenres, shunting happy hardcore and jungle onto their own separate paths.”
DJ Force & The Evolution, “Perfect Dreams (Vibes & Wishdokta Remix)” (Kniteforce 1994)
“In 1994, the UK cracked down on outdoor mega-raves with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which banned any outdoor gathering of more than 20 people playing “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. This, along with other factors, shattered the diverse coalition of the hardcore rave scene: the older, more fashionable urban contingent largely took to the nightclubs and developed the sound we know as jungle—with its distinctly non-repetitive chopped-up beats—while the teens from the suburbs took their parties to the arenas and other large venues of the surrounding areas. Their sound pushed the tempo and cranked up the bass in the same way jungle did, but kept the piano breakdowns, chipmunk vocals, and four-on-the-floor kick drums of hardcore rave. This is when happy hardcore truly came into being.
Fun fact: Wishdokta is UK Garage legend Grant Nelson (a.k.a. Bump N Flex, founder of the seminal UK Garage labels Nice ‘N’ Ripe and Swing City).”
Justin Time (feat. Marls), “Help Me” (Just Another Label 1995)
“1995 was perhaps the best year for happy hardcore. The formula had been refined, and the producers were seasoned enough to make tracks that no longer sounded entirely amateurish. But the tracks still felt unpredictable and noncommercial. Notice that “Help Me” has an original vocal instead of a sample, but Justin Time still speeds it up to get the chipmunk-ish sampled vocal effect.”
Vibes & Wishdokta, “Destiny” (Impact 1995)
“Here’s another track from the power duo of Vibes & Wishdokta on DJ Seduction’s label, Impact Records. I don’t have much to say about it, so instead I’ll tell a story about DJ Vibes: In 2010 I played at a festival called Bang Face Weekender, where DJ Vibes was also scheduled to play at the festival’s swimming pool area.
I was hanging out in the pool waiting to catch his set when I saw him slip on the wet tile and whack his head open on the corner of the pool. It was bad. There was blood. Some medics carried him away, and it seemed clear that he wouldn’t be able to play that day. But about 30 minutes later he strolled back into the pool with a comically large bandage around his head, looking like Wile E. Coyote after an anvil falls on him, and proceeded to play a fantastic DJ set while probably concussed. THAT is dedication!”
Substate, “Take Me Up” (Rogue Trooper 1995)
“Another stomper with the trademark mix of jungle breaks, heavy bass, four-on-the-floor kicks and big piano breakdowns. It’s basically just uplifting piano house for speed freaks, which is kind of the ideal music for raving, really.”
Happy Tunes Vol. 8, “Positive Energy” (Happy Tunes 1996)
“By 1996, happy hardcore was starting to de-emphasize its jungle elements, as more influence from Dutch gabber and Scottish bouncy techno were creeping in. You can hear this transformation in the distorted kick drum, quieter breakbeats and prominent synth stabs on the upbeat of ‘Positive Energy’, although the big piano breakdown is still the star of the show. Bonus points are added for having the most on-the-nose “positive” vocal in a genre of embarrassingly on-the-nose vocals.”
Illogik & DNA, “Kick Your Legs In The Air” (Essential Platinum 1997)
“I love this track, but you can hear the beginning of the end of happy hardcore’s golden era in it. The evolution away from jungle sounds continued in 1997, propelled by a new generation of ravers who came to happy hardcore from trance and Europop. The stabs are even more central on this one, foreshadowing things like donk and hardstyle.”
DJ Brisk & DJ Trixxy, Eye Opener (Slammin’ Vinyl 1997)
“By the end of 1997, happy hardcore had divorced itself from jungle pretty much completely. Structurally, ‘Eye Opener’ has more in common with The Vengaboys or La Bouche than it does with Roni Size or Goldie. The breakbeats and bassline are completely absent, and the stabs are now the most prominent element. Today’s happy hardcore releases usually sound like Dance Dance Revolution: Hardstyle edition, and while sometimes that’s undeniably fun, the genre lacks the surprises and underground sensibility of the early days. Ah well, nothing lasts forever, right?”
Chrissy is a genre-bending DJ and producer with releases on Classic, Freerange, Razor N Tape, and Planet Mu, spanning Chicago house, disco, rave, jungle, footwork and more. He ran the influential “My Year of Mixtapes” blog and currently runs two record labels: The Nite Owl Diner and Cool Ranch.
His new album, Resilience, calls on the classic rave sounds of his Midwestern youth to explore themes of love, positivity, perseverance, acceptance and the fight against cynicism. It will be released this November on Chiwax.