History of UK hardcore rave music

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Hardcore rave music developed in the UK during the massive, illegal rave scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The house scene exploded in Britain in 1987, and although some clubs started to play house, many house DJs chose to play to thousands of people at large, often illegal, open air events, which became known as raves. As the house music in clubs gradually became more vocal and sophisticated, the music in raves started to diverge, catering for the different audience. By 1990, this different was becoming noticable, with the harder side of house being played at raves; however it wasn't until 1991 that the true hardcore sound began to emerge.


One of the earliest attempts in Britain to develop a unique style of the house and techno music coming over from the United States was bleep, a short-lived sub-genre which became popular around 1990 especially in the north of England. This minimal style combined house rhythms with deep sub-bass and minimal, bleepy techno riffs; perhaps the most well known example of the genre being LFO's self-titled track "LFO" which reached the UK Top 20 in July 1990. Around the same time, breakbeats began to feature in some house productions, being sped up to the usual house music tempo of 120 - 130bpm. Lost's "The Gonzo", released in 1990, combines breakbeats with bleep riffs and also features hectic stuttered shouting vocal samples, pioneering some of the elements used in hardcore during its early peak in 1991-2.

Belgian Rave

While bleep was taking off in England, Belgian producers began to experiment with synth "stabs" - short, one-hit samples of orchestra hits or synth chords, which were repitched and played across the keyboard as a tune. Stabs had been popular in the 1980s since the advent of sampling, but usually were included to mimic an orchestral swell at the start or end of a break, rather than being the focus of a track. A very early exception to this is "Beat Box" by The Art of Noise (1983), one of the first artists to experiment with the Fairlight sampler, which features some orchestral and vocal stabs which wouldn't sound out of place in the house and techno of 1990. House music artists pioneered the use of string and piano stab samples to provide melodies in the 1980s, for example Rhythim Is Rhythim's "Strings of Life" (1987) and Inner City's "Good Life" (1988), and in 1990-91 Belgian producers took this one step further by using harder, more aggressive stab sounds which were often used to form the entire basis of a track. Quadrophonia's self-titled "Quadrophonia", released in 1990, was one of the first tracks to feature this style, along with Frank De Wulf's "Cubes" (produced under the pseudonym Modular Expansion) and "Magic Orchestra", and Spectrum's "Brazil". For a while during 1990 and 1991 electric guitar-style stabs proved popular, featuring in tracks such as Turntable Terror's "Break". While orchestral and synth stabs continued to form the backdrop to rave and hardcore tracks throughout the 1990s, guitar stabs had largely disappeared from productions by the end of 1992.

By 1991, stab-driven Belgian rave tracks had been picked up by UK club and rave DJs and started to gain popularity, with several making the UK Top 40 singles chart despite receiving very little radio airplay. "Quadrophonia" and T99's "Anasthasia" reached the UK Top 20 in the Spring of 1991, the original rave instrumentals being supplemented with the addition of rap vocals, and 2 Unlimited - who later became a popular commercial Euro-pop act fronted by Dutch vocalists, but originated as a Belgian production duo - took the instrumental version of "Get Ready For This" to UK number 2 in September 1991. As some of the more accessible tracks received commercial success, Belgian labels continue to develop the sound, with the R&S label releasing tracks such as Second Phase's "Mentasm" - the first track to feature the 'hoover' sound taken from the Roland Alpha Juno 2 synthesizer - and Outlander's "Vamp", both of which, have been heavily sampled since for other hardcore productions, along with "Anasthasia" and "Brazil". Adding to the popularity of the "Mentasm" hoover sound was Dutch techno outfit Human Resource's "Dominator", which featured an even more warped version of the same sound.

Belgian producers didn't only add stab sounds, though - while most tracks still featured kick-drum based house rhythms, the Belgian producers behind "Anasthasia", Patrick De Meyer and Oliver Abbeloos, used breakbeats to drive their tracks, notably "Senses" (released under the pseudonym Destroyer) and "Stratosphere" (released under the pseudonym Trigger). Breakbeats had previously been used in some house productions and, by combining them with synth stabs, a template for hardcore was born. UK hardcore DJs picked up on this style and started incorporating it into their own productions, while retaining the bass-heavy feel of bleep, to give UK hardcore its own unique sound. By the Autumn of 1991, early UK hardcore productions were starting appear, such as Soundclash's "The Burial" (sampling "Anasthasia"), Razor Boy and Mirror Man's "Beyond Control" (sampling "Mentasm" and a variety of other tracks), Nebula II's "Atheama", SL2's "The Noise" (breakbeats with a bleep-style riff) and "DJs Take Control".

The Old Skool Sound

The rise of hardcore in 1991 was due to several factors. Firstly, sampling technology was becoming cheap enough for DJs to make their own music. Secondly, hip-hop music and mixing had made a major impact on UK popular culture. Thirdly, people were taking large amounts of the drug ecstasy at outdoor rave events, which were at their most popular. This meant that DJs playing to huge raves could make their own records to cater for the ecstasy induced audience, who demanded strange, euphoric sounds and a faster tempo. Unlike many traditional house and techno DJs, many UK hardcore DJs had a background in hip-hop, which meant that the mixing style at many UK raves featured fast crossfading, cutting one record into another, and vinyl manipulation such as scratching and spinbacks, rather than the smooth blending of one record into another. MCing also proved popular, especially at large outdoor raves. These hip-hop traditions found their way into the music during 1991 and 1992, as more vocal samples and vinyl effects featured in productions. Rap records were often sampled, although the limited recording time available on early samplers meant that usually only one or two lines were used. As the music sped up, so did the vocals, and this created an unusual helium style vocal effect, evident on tracks such as "Vengeance" by DMS and "Close Your Eyes" by Acen.

Despite being one of the most popular styles of dance music, early hardcore was actually one of the most short lived; by the middle of 1993 hardly anyone was producing it any more. By 1992, sampling technology had become cheap enough for chancers to use it as a quick way to make money from a popular new dance style, and rave records started to saturate the market. Early tracks to hit the charts were usually genuinely innovative, such as those by the Prodigy (yes, the same Prodigy who later went on to make "Firestarter"!), but by 1992 the commercial material was starting to sound a tired and cheap, with those wishing to make money from the music just sampling, rather than enhancing or experimenting with, the hardcore sound. Ironically, one of the records accused by many of damaging the scene, "Sesame's Treat" by Smart E's, was actually produced by a true rave artist, Luna C, and released on a true underground label, Suburban Base (later a jungle pioneer). By 1995, as little as 4 years after its birth, this style of music was being known as "old skool", a label it has retained for nearly 20 years!

The Scene Splits

In 1992, some DJs (such as Grooverider) started to rebel against the commercial rave scene by playing a much darker form of music. By the beginning of 1993, the majority of credible hardcore DJs were no longer playing tracks with seuphoric stabs and sampled piano riffs. Instead, stripped down bass-heavy breakbeat music ("dark" hardcore) was played, and the tempo had started to significantly increase. Indeed, in the space of a year and a half between early 1992 and the middle of 1993, the pace of rave music had increased from around 135bpm to around 155bpm. Until 1992, music above 140bpm was pretty much unheard of in dance circles, so this in itself was an interesting move.

The history of the happy hardcore scene starts in 1993 when the dark hardcore had almost competely replaced the old skool hardcore rave music. Many ravers didn't like this darker style, which led to some producers bringing back the simplest happier elements at the faster 160bpm tempo, over the breakbeats and sub-bass. At this time some of the DJ's, such as Slipmatt and Ellis Dee, were playing a mixture of dark and happy music, avoiding the cheesiest tracks and playing the first happy tunes alongside the dark breakbeat music. Tunes such as "SMD #1" by SMD and "Crowd Control" from Ramos & Supreme took the cheesiest elements away from the music, leaving the breakbeats and the happy elements, and introducing once again the kick drum which was often left out of dark hardcore music. This built the way for the happy scene to develop during 1994.

By 1994 the scene had almost completely split, with the dark hardcore music developing into jungle, and later drum & bass. Dark DJs began incorporating more ragga influences into their tracks, and jungle (along with 160+bpm breakbeats) first hit the UK Top 40 in summer 1994. While the media were excited about this innovative new music, they were uninterested in happy hardcore. 1994 also saw the passing of the Criminal Justice Act, which effectively put an end to large, illegal outdoor raves. By this time, hardcore had started to appear in clubs and the raves that were put on were huge, well organised affairs that usually featured the same selection of top DJs. This was great for the ravers, but not so good for the up and coming DJs who found it hard to get on the playlist.

The Techno Influence

Although many UK producers adopted the breakbeats, European producers continued to focus on kick-drum driven music, notably in Holland and Germany (and also to some extent in Scotland) and, while the music also sped up in these regions, the kick drum was not only retained but also made more distored and prominent, leading to the development of gabba. In late 1994 and early 1995, some UK happy hardcore DJs began playing gabba tracks in their sets. Ramos & Supreme produced the tune "Life Force Generator" in early 1995, which dropped the breakbeats and featured a stompy techno beat alongside the UK happy hardcore stabs and pianos, adding a different, fresh feel to the music. This paved the way for UK happy hardcore to became more techno influenced, with less breakbeats and more rave stabs. As Slipmatt said in an interview with DJ magazine in November 1995, "You don't get a hardcore tune without a kick drum in now, if you do, nobody plays it". In the summer of 1995 Hixxy & Sharkey came into prominence with their stormer "Toytown" - the epitome of this new style, which featured an even harder kick drum.

1996 was a peak year for UK happy hardcore, with the techno stuff really taking off and the first 100% hardcore events taking place, courtesy of DJ Seduction's Hardcore Heaven promotions. Despite the huge difference in the music, prior to 1996 raves had usually combined hardcore and drum & bass DJs; a throwback to the days when the music was all one style. By 1996, full vocals had also been introduced into tracks instead of samples, for example in "Here I Am" by Demo, Ham and Justin Time.

The Millennium Backlash

By the middle of 1997, the music had become slightly more mainstream with softer kick drums and a more melodic feel. Instead of writing their own lyrics, however, many hardcore producers decided to produce cover versions of old pop songs, which didn't help the music's credibility. Other hard dance styles were beginning to emerge, ecstasy was no longer the fashionable drug of choice for Britain's youth, and drum & bass was becoming popular and innovative with artists such as Roni Size experimenting with live instrumentals and taking the sound to a new audience.

As dance music became even more popular towards the turn of the millennium, producers moved to synthesizers rather than samplers, and house beats rather than breakbeats. Hardcore was no longer new, it was no longer innovative and it lost popularity. The darkest days for the music were between 1999 and 2001, when the scene lost some of its greatest producers and DJs. Some converted to hard house, which at the time often sampled old skool records. Some DJs, such as Hixxy and Dougal, stuck with hardcore and their patience was eventually rewarded.

Trancecore and UK Hardcore

In late 1996 and through 1997, some producers, including Billy "Daniel" Bunter and Sharkey, experimented by mixing trance and house sounds with hardcore beats at the hardcore tempo (which, by this time, was around 170bpm). This sound became known as trancecore. Although created when hardcore was at its peak, like other styles of hardcore, trancecore took a dive in popularity towards the millennium. Those who stuck with hardcore, however, pursued this sound and in 2002, hardcore started to emerge back into the limelight, with seasoned producers such as Hixxy, Ham, Breeze, Styles and Dougal still producing the big tracks along with some new names. By this time, the trance elements had become a major feature of the sound, and had replaced the rave stabs and cheesy vocals. Trancecore had combined with the original happy hardcore to create a new style driven by supersaw trance synths playing uplifting melodies at 170bpm. This sound wasn't purely sped-up trance, it was something different; the melodies had a more stompy vibe suited to the faster tempo.

During the 2000s, this sound developed and became known as UK hardcore or Freestyle. Some producers brough back breakbeats and added acid riffs, or introduced elements from new electronic music genres becoming popular at the time, such as electro house and dubstep.

In continental Europe, producers have developed their own style of hardcore, known as Makina. This is characterised by a less obvious kick drum than the UK sound.

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