Rotterdam, any weekend circa 1994. Near the docks, a club called Imperium is packed with hundreds of Dutch youth, almost all of them of Afro-Caribbean or Surinamese descent. The DJ is playing dancehall music, and although any reggae fan would recognise the guitar melody from Taxi Gang’s ‘Santa Barbara’ riddim – AKA ‘Murder She Wrote’ – running through the mix, the tempo is way up compared to that of the sound of Jamaica. This is a bubbling party, where 33 rpm grooves go up to 45 rpm and the pitch slider on the turntables get maximum usage.
That same weekend in Rotterdam, 3 kilometers away, a sports hall called Energiehal is also packed with thousands of – mostly white – Dutch youth partying to fast music. This scene is called gabber and the dancing couldn’t be further removed from the movement at Imperium. Where the wide-eyed gabbers perform a stiff dance called hakken, the most accomplished bubbling dancers slide across the floor (or better yet the stage, with Amsterdam vs Rotterdam competitions a popular draw) with the loosest of limbs, a most fluid take on body-popping. Boys and girls grind against each other in a display of simulated sex while the BPM hits up to 140, with occasional moments of respite when a reggae or R&B tune in its natural tempo is allowed to calm proceedings.
In contrast to the gabber scene, which has been documented extensively as the first truly native Dutch youth subculture, the contemporaneous bubbling style has at times almost vanished from the collective memory, despite mass popularity across the Netherlands in the mid-1990s and going on to become a formidable influence on the development of the popular ‘Dutch house’ style of the 2000s and, by extension, EDM. The main reason for this is probably the fact that bubbling sound was created in the moment by club DJs, the most important being Moortje, who returned to Holland in the late ’80s after a few years of DJ’ing in Curaçao, a former Dutch colony in the Carribean. There are no classic early bubbling productions, because they were in-the-moment results of the DJ’s creativity: Moortje pitching up dancehall hits like Shabba Ranks’ ‘Trailer Load of Girls’, MCs Pester and Pret hyping up the crowd even more. DJ mixes sold on cassette tapes were very popular and dubbed many times over in the ’90s, but few of them have survived online into 2020.
It’s not until the end of the decade, after the scene has more or less died down, that young house producers like Chuckie, who cut his teeth under bubbling DJ Memmie, start to produce dance tracks that are heavily influenced by bubbling. Bubbling Beats, a CD mixtape series from a teenage DJ who will go on to be voted the number one DJ in the world a decade later, Hardwell, takes the sound truly mainstream in the 2000s by including samples and melodies from pop and trance music. That decade, Dutch DJs like Chuckie, Afrojack and The Partysquad, who have grown up with bubbling, develop a style called Dutch house with a galloping rhythm that can readily be traced back to the sound of popular bubbling DJs like Moortje, Memmie, Funk, Chippie, Coversquad, Massive and others. Diplo takes a fancy to it, and in just a few years this amalgam of house, bubbling, trance and a pinch of gabber transforms into EDM.
By the mid-2010s bubbling music is gaining the critical recognition it lacked in its heyday. DJ Moortje and MC Pester are reunited for the first time in years at Rotterdam’s Buma Beats festival in 2013, and in 2016 the successful Dutch hip-hop record label Top Notch produces a 45-minute documentary on bubbling, DJ Moortje and MC Pester called Bandje 64, which is eventually broadcast on national TV. An attempt at a comeback for Moortje and Pester stalls after a single, ‘Plakken’, fails to chart. But bubbling refuses to go away. In 2017 DJ Missdevana from Eindhoven releases an EP on the cutting edge electronic label Nervous Horizon from London, that introduces the Dutch bubbling beat to the international bass music diaspora.
The dancers that made up the scene in the ’90s are now adults, many with children of their own. One of them is Randy Telg, co-founder of Bubbling TV. If you look for any kind of bubbling activity happening today, you’ll soon find yourself watching Bubbling TV’s dance clips on various social media. As a young teen, Randy would practice his moves every single day, and show them off on the weekends at the bubbling parties in his local Rotterdam community centre. And while bubbling didn’t last forever, Randy would incorporate the moves into his breakdance routines, which would eventually take him around the world as a dancer. Nowadays he teaches kids all over the Netherlands, although some of them, to his surprise, know the bubbling dance moves as klaksen, unaware of their origins. The kind of bubbling battle dancing that Randy promotes is of course nothing like the sexual grinding and schuren that could be seen (and experienced) on the dancefloors of clubs like Rotterdam’s Imperium, The Hague’s Voltage, Marcanti Plaza in Amsterdam, Carte Blanche in Weert and so many others. The elasticity on display at Bubbling TV is as impressive as ever however, and should the world ever tire of reggaetón’s slow grind, a new generation appears to stand ready to drastically up the tempo.
Bonus piece, A CULT PHENOMENON CALLED BUBBLING: