Happy hardcore was one of the first distinctly UK music styles to come out of the UK rave scene, and it helped to elevate much of rave culture’s most identifying features, from the costumes to the CG-heavy flyers. Despite its central role in birthing the culture, however, it doesn’t receive much respect. At the time the style had as many critics as it did fans, and in retrospect it’s been treated as an awkward phase in dance music’s teen years, the gangly, overenthusiastic cousin of the more sophisticated, intriguingly dark jungle scene.
It’s easy to understand why. As the inheritor of the giddiest, most ludicrously surreal aspects of rave, the fans and artists – even the music – adamantly refused to take itself seriously. And serious dance music fans didn’t either. But the ridiculousness that gave happy hardcore its identity is still potent today.
Out in the hinterlands, they doubled down on everything ecstatic that rave had to offer.
Both happy hardcore and jungle were the results of rave culture’s first great schism. The break was a byproduct of raving’s own success. After the Summer of Love, the number of ravers exploded exponentially, and the “all under one roof” philosophy collapsed under its sheer size. In London and Bristol, the culture became more aesthetically refined, bringing in a deep reggae influence and trading in rave’s dayglo utopianism for nocturnal weed paranoia. Out in the hinterlands, they doubled down on everything ecstatic that rave had to offer. In Sheffield, Doncaster, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Scotland and Wales, audiences wanted everything bigger, brighter, and more cheerful.
The split happened after producers and DJ’s began combining house and techno’s steady thump with more organic breakbeats lifted off old funk records. Each scene took the discovery in radically different directions. Both pushed the tempos from the snappy, disco-ish range around 125 BPM that the first wave of British rave music hovered around up past 150 and 160 BPM, but while jungle revolved around ever deeper and more elastic basslines derived from dub reggae, happy hardcore defined itself with relentlessly perky digital piano parts that built on the trend for cartoonishly cheery melodies that followed the massive breakout success of the Prodigy’s 1991 single “Charly.”
The happy hardcore formula first clicked on the first solo track by Essex DJ/producer Slipmatt. SMD#1, the first in what would turn out to be a series of tracks that laid the foundation for happy hardcore, was inspired by the enthusiastic reaction he’d been getting by dropping Edge 1’s track “Compounded” into his DJ sets. “I knew if I played that tune the place would go nuts every time,” he says. “SMD#1” built on “Compounded”’s combination of speedy breakbeats and manic synthesizer parts, but nudged the tempo up and pared down its meandering melody line into something that almost resembled a pop song’s verse-chorus-verse structure.
With the music’s manic tempos and an overall aesthetic steeped in childhood nostalgia – cartoon characters on flyers, cartoon melodies in the tunes – happy hardcore quickly developed a similar kind of energy to a Saturday morning TV-and-cereal binge, only shot through with some of the illicit thrills left over from rave’s outlaw early days. In other words, it was perfectly engineered for rebellious teenagers, and happy hardcore quickly became the UK equivalent of what pop punk was in the States at the time. “It’s really fast and saccharine and accessible,” says Chicago DJ/producer Chrissy Murderbot, who’s released several happy hardcore mixes, “but it will also piss off your parents. It’s custom made for 14- or 15-year-olds who don’t really have super developed music tastes yet, but they already know they’re weird and they already know that their music tastes are very different from their parents.”
Like pop punk, happy hardcore took pride in its lack of sophistication and single-minded pursuit of uncomplicated pleasure. “The jungle scene moved away from that whole careless, not caring what you looked like and dancing until the morning, to a slightly cooler vibe where people were dressing up a bit more and being a bit cooler,” Slipmatt says. “Whereas the happy hardcore thing stayed with lairy clothes and going out and getting totally off your nut. People would make a point of actually dancing to jungle. With happy hardcore it was just jumping up and down.”
The same qualities that made happy hardcore a youth culture phenomenon also made it anathema to critics.
“One of the major factors for happy hardcore’s success was that was the time when ecstasy was absolutely rife,” says DJ Sy, who was involved with happy hardcore from the start. “Not knowing myself, I would have thought it’s probably a drug best suited to that type of music – really fast, energetic, and uplifting.” Happy hardcore slowly faded from the scene, and started to seem like an embarrassing phase from rave’s immoderate youth.
The same qualities that made happy hardcore a youth culture phenomenon also made it anathema to critics. Dance music’s tastemakers preferred jungle, which was not only happening in the country’s cultural capitals, but quickly proved compatible with other intellectually challenging genres like jazz and experimental music. By the time jungle rebranded itself as drum & bass, it had found fans even among sophisticates outside of dance music culture. Happy hardcore, on the other hand, was dismissed by genre bibles like Mixmag as the music of drugged-up teens out in the sticks.
Even some of the scene’s participants have mixed opinions about it. “With any scene there’s gonna be downsides,” says Sy, “and one of the downsides was that some of the music was particularly cheesy. In some instances ridiculously so. That’s maybe why it got stigmatized by the critics. And also maybe because it was so successful, because it really did take off. Perhaps it became so popular that people wanted to smear it.”
For a sound that was widely dismissed as a fad, happy hardcore stuck around for an impressively long time, considering how quickly things were moving in dance music during the ‘90s. The style arguably didn’t reach its peak until the late ‘90s, when the duo Force & Styles released a string of singles, including “Heart of Gold” and “Field of Dreams” that took happy hardcore’s pop side to a new level by serving ABBA-worthy hooks over blindingly fast breakbeats that broke onto the UK pop charts.
In the end, happy hardcore split apart much the same way as the first wave of UK rave had before it. Some of its fans and artists got hooked on Dutch gabber music, which had the same speed-worshipping BPMs but a darker, more punishing approach. Others kept following the path that brought happy hardcore its biggest mainstream successes, which led to the trance sound that filled arenas and dominated European pop culture throughout the ’00s.
Inevitably, the wheel of history has brought happy hardcore back around. A new generation of dance music artists and fans that were infants when happy hardcore first hit the scene have been incorporating its influence, from its pitched-up pop vocals to its “Cat In the Hat” visual identity, both out of appreciation for its energy and as an easy way to thumb their noses at the more staid side of the dance music establishment. The kawaii rave scene and artists like Maxo and Anamanaguchi have updated its cartoonish mania by steering it toward J-pop and anime, while London’s PC Music collective has adopted its predilection for sugar-high glitchiness and pitched-up female vocals. Ironically, they’ve found some of their biggest fans among music critics.
“It’s funny, now,” says Slipmatt, “speaking to all these quite cool producers actually look back at it and give it a lot of respect.” Recently, happy hardcore DJ/producer Billy “Daniel” Bunter posted a vintage set that was tweeted about by everyone from drum & bass icon Goldie to dubstep superstar Rusko.
The ultimate message of happy hardcore is fun.
The legacy of happy hardcore also can be found in EDM, which occupies a similarly divisive place in contemporary dance music. The popular, populist, and critically reviled sound nonetheless represents dance music in the mainstream. And, like happy hardcore, EDM artists judge their work strictly by its ability to get large crowds moving, using a number of techniques drawn from happy hardcore’s playbook to do the job, from digitally altered pop vocals to aggressively noisy synths to huge drops that come at regularly scheduled intervals.
“The ultimate message of happy hardcore is fun,” Bunter says. “Some musics are made to get a political message across. Some musics are great at putting a whole futuristic ‘we’re moving music forward’ message across. Some musics are the deepest thing on the planet. The bottom line is, happy hardcore is none of these things. Happy hardcore is fun.”
“There’s a big, big chunk of people that see having too much fun as being a little bit uncool,” Slipmatt says. “I don’t know why.”
Enjoy a YouTube playlist of Happy Hardcore classics below.
Gifs and graphics: Natalia Stuyk