10 years on, The Bug’s London Zoo is still a ferocious snapshot of an angry nation
Original release date: 7 July 2008
Label: Ninja Tune
Most Londoners looking at the cover of The Bug’s London Zoo would immediately be able to date the album. Beneath the enormous wasp-like entity scratched into the yellowing sky are the silhouettes of the City of London’s towers: the Gherkin and Tower 42, but none of its brash younger siblings, like the Shard, ‘Cheesegrater’ or ‘Walkie Talkie.’ London’s skyline may have changed, the effects of the ludicrous pressures of capitalism may have intensified, but unlike its cover, London Zoo is as fresh and ferocious as it was a decade ago.
Just two months after the release of London Zoo, the Lehmann Brothers bank filed for the biggest bankruptcy in US history, and the sky-high UK offices in the docklands were suddenly vacated. As the UK economy subsequently stagnated, painful austerity measures were introduced. In the summer of 2011, the police shooting of Mark Duggan in North London led to four nights of rioting that spread across England. Resistance to austerity and the ruling class was fierce, but failed to effect much change until the Brexit referendum and the 2017 election in the UK that – along with police violence and the election of Trump in the US – reordered the political landscape, broke ideological consensus, and ushered in a new era of struggle.
Since all this took place after London Zoo was released, how is it that from the very first drop, the record still feels so urgent and contemporary? Its opening track Angry sees veteran reggae vocalist Tippa Irie growl out the words “So many things that make me angry and so many things that make mad/ I gotta say” to a propulsive beat, followed by a rapid-fire sermon on government response to disaster, climate change, terrorism, military imperialism and more. Given the mood, the lyrical content and the thick, dissonant bass, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to grime, but it’s more complex than that.
True, London Zoo does absorb the grime of its day, and some of its best moments come from Flowdan, founding member of Wiley’s seminal crew Roll Deep. But London Zoo also reaches backwards in time – Ricky Ranking, who features on three of the album’s tracks, produced work that goes back to the early nineties, while Tippa Irie started in the eighties. Rather than traditionalising the album, however, their contributions underline both the musical and the political continuities between multiple generations of London music of Afro-Caribbean origin. The rage and dread that is a political reality today had always been latent in decades of racial and economic oppression, and it smoulders on London Zoo, awaiting the revolution.
Another key local ingredient of the album is dubstep. In 2008, dubstep and grime were closer together in sound than they are today – dubstep had not yet become the garish new heavy metal its detractors called brostep, and grime had not yet expanded its sound under influence from other genres. And rarely have grime and dubstep ever been as close as on London Zoo, where tracks like Skeng sit squarely and seamlessly between the two sounds. Or where The Spaceape, who had released one of Hyperdub’s earliest albums, Memories of the Future, gives one of his best performances in Fuckaz, listing every kind of oppressor with darkly cathartic insight. London Zoo is perhaps best understood as a third point on a triangle formed with grime and dubstep, opening up a new dimension that echoes with the history of underground sounds. Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin was in the ideal position to do this, having given dancehall a twist of experimentalism on his previous release Pressure and dabbled in post-punk and noise of many kinds for years.
Not only did London Zoo reach into many layers of the past, or the many parallel universes contained in London’s musical underground of 2008, it extended into the future, too. One hopes for a time in which the album’s anger is no longer so raw and recognisable. But even if that ever comes to pass – don’t hold your breath – London Zoo’s significance as a document bearing the imprint of its times will keep it vital for years to come.