30
Jul 02

UK Garage In 2001 – Down Down BIZZNIZZ

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by Tim Finney

Part 1: The Scene

I’m obsessed, I know; I bang on about it endlessly, analysing minute shifts and gradations, imagining radical mutations that only exist in my head, devoting reams of print space to nothing much in particular. And yet, despite all this, UK Garage is an awfully difficult area of music for me to write about. Difficult because I’m aware of how personally involved I am in the music’s success – an involvement that cleverer and healthier listeners tend to shy away from. Sometimes I feel like my patronage – downloading tracks, buying compilations, visiting clubs by myself if necessary, and then turning those experiences into something I can write about that might interest others – is all that keeps the style on its feet, keeps it generating delights for me in some sort of elaborate karmic feedback loop. To be obsessed with an artist is one thing, but to have such an attachment to something so abstract as a ìsceneî or ìmovementî is quite another, and even then UK Garage seems an odd choice, requiring a particularly skewed worldview. Clearly I’m not the right person for an impartial assessment.

For to immerse oneself fully within garage is not just to enjoy the odd track, but to wholeheartedly buy into – and believe in the success of – a musical narrative that stretches over a decade, encompassing whole genres (‘ardkore, jungle, etc.) within a broader sound that can perhaps best be called ìthe sound of the piratesî. It’s to become so intimately associated with that story’s sonic twists and turns that the style’s constant musical characteristics actually become objective values in themselves, bestowing worth upon a track simply by being present. In fact UK Garage, much more than the sounds that preceded it, is music about that story, distilling every worthwhile element into a heady mixture that is undeniably ìpirateî music. In this way, garage is sonically more true to itself than jungle; the producers have a better instinctive understanding of the passage of the broader narrative they’re swept up within, and maybe because of that seem to know better where it should go next.

But where did garage go in 2001? The unbelievable rise of So Solid Crew excepted, from the outside it’s hard to tell that it went anywhere at all. It’s in fact arguable that by the end of 2000, garage had no sonic stories left to tell, having completed its street-to-academy progression by achieving both pop crossover (Arful Dodger, Craig David) and serious muso acclaim (MJ Cole, Wookie), not to mention its own breakaway sub-genre in the form of ìbreakbeat garageî. At any rate, it may have seemed as though garage had left itself little space to develop, and that the rise of the MC was a result of this: the areas of progression within the scene would now be vocal, lyrical and cultural, but not musical.

Garage’s chart-action less pronounced last year too, with less fabulously sparkling pop gems lighting up the higher reaches than during the Golden Age of The Artful Dodger. In truth there were probably more garage pop hits last year than prior, but their sheer diversity – from Misteeq’s enthusiastic helium-pop to Oxide & Neutrino’s angst-rave to DJ Pied Piper’s happy-go-lucky MC-vehicle to The Streets’ oddball geezers – undermined any impression of a full-frontal assault. But as any music critic will tell you, diversity and disparateness doesn’t equal interesting stories.

Instead, 2001 may go down as the year of breakbeat garage, and that would be a bit of a shame because last year this development, which had once seemed potentially invigorating, revealed itself to be a massive red herring. There were a multitude of tracks that followed the same deadening one-bar trudge of looped breakbeat + squelchy bassline, spiked with wacky noises or edgy dialogue sampled from martial arts films; a formula that quickly became played-out to the point of strong irritation. More crucially though, even at its best breakbeat garage comes across as both inessential and little more than a subtractive style: not only are creativity and invention thin on the ground, but the very stylistic foundation it rests upon – the use of a ‘funky’ and ‘natural’ looped break rather than 2-step’s trademark sub-Timbaland beats – excises the dangerousness of garage’s rhythmic excess, replacing it with a reassuring but unexciting familiarity.

At the same time, the sparkling pop-fluff vocal tracks began to lose their attraction, due to the drop in genuinely exciting productions (although as always there were exceptions like Selena’s trembling ìGive It Upî, and of course anything by Mis-Teeq) and the rise in the endless succession of useless remixes. With this radical tapering off at its extreme edges (pop vs. breakbeat), garage’s healthy diversity was beginning to resemble an Achilles’ heel. It’s easy to imagine many garage producers literally recoiling in horror from the twin dooms of over-sugared pop tracks and deeply uninteresting breakbeat dirges; consequently, instead of pulling the style into two distinct groups, these extremes actually cancelled out each other’s magnetic forces. The challenge facing producers was (and remains) discovering how to work past these two pitfalls, as opposed to simply remaining caught between them.

Part 2: The Tunes

Garage producers managed to outmanoeuvre the twin threats of pop and breakbeat by plugging into the capability of garage to make weird, teasing out the sense of wild disorientation that’s always existed at the heart of the music. It’s a tendency that started at the beginning of 2-step’s life with Dem 2’s android divas and Steve Gurley’s darkside paranoia, continued throughout garage’s crossover period with the bass excavations of Wookie and Zed Bias, and found itself in a radical new incarnation at the end of 2000 with James Lavonz’s utterly awesome “Mash Up Da Venue”. A jittery melange of whip-crack beats, stuttering vocal beatbox rhythms, eerie R&B vocals, indecipherable ragga chat and about four different basslines, “Mash Up Da Venue” comes on like Missy’s “Get Ur Freak On” stranded for a month in Jamaica with only daily doses of speed to keep it alive. It remains the most brilliant, forward-thinking dance track of 2000, and it cast a long shadow over the following year.

This tradition of weirdness flirts with darkness, but it’s mostly a different ‘dark’ to the edgy paranoia of jungle or hip hop; think instead of the over-sexualised euphoria of Chicago house, a world in which natural emotions and desires become so intense that they take on an air of the robotic, presumably because an ordinary human can’t stand that much stimulation. It’s that intensity that was picked up on in a big way last year; if garage is undeniably ‘sexy’ music, in 2001 garage’s idea of sex was a rough, urgent affair, full of dangerous abandon, bruising enthusiasm and a lot of sharp fingernails. Steve Goodman at Hyperdub calls this amorphous internal genre ìnu-dark swingî, which pretty much encapsulates the competing, half-contradictory urges at work, the tension between lust and bad vibes. Listen to D’n’D’s “Pick It Up” (Remix), where a diva shrieks ìPick me up!î imperiously over a sly saxaphone riff, before the track switches over to a booming xylophone bassline somehow simultaneously pushed up way into the treble so that it scrapes out the insides of your ear with a rude insensitivity that’s almost delicious.

Intense is also a good way to describe ìNocturnalî, produced by Oris Jay under his Darqwan alias. As with many of the most experimental 2-step producers in ’01, Jay’s sexuality is present but sublimated somewhere at a microscopic level within the groove – a snarling latin strut, with rustling counter-rhythms and mad bongos laced in between the stark, martial 2-step beats, over which Darqwan releases floods of lugubrious bass and throbbing electro synths. ìNocturnalî is unequivocally dark, deep and un-songful, but its lascivious bump & grind keeps its feminine, keeps it sexy. As one of 2-step’s darkest producers, Jay’s mission seems to be to constantly push at garage’s crucial balance between fear and lust in favour of the former, but most of the time he avoids actually toppling it as drum & bass did. Occasionally Jay’s tendencies towards the abstract do become too strong – some of his tracks resemble more closely the paranoid fracturescapes of Photek than anything else in garage. Thankfully, like his equally talented darkside mentor El-B, Jay will just as frequently swing in the opposite direction, introducing full vocals and pop-flavoured melodies just to retain that wonderful tension. He might horribly distend the tightrope, but he nonetheless successfully walks it.

It’s amazing how simply effective 2-step’s syncopation is in this regard, to the point where it’s hard to imagine a 2-step track that might actually sound wholly un-feminine. The most telling example of this rule is Zed Bias’s remix of DJ Zinc’s pounding breakbeat garage hit “138 Trek”, where Bias’s use of syncopation and warm textures thrillingly reinjects the femininity that Zinc worked so hard to remove. Predominantly working as a drum & bass producer, Zinc together with his breakbeat garage compatriots fetishises ideas of ìhardnessî, which is why he prefers rock-solid breakbeats to 2-step’s girlish syncopation. Bias’s beats – admittedly some of the sturdiest in 2-step – reveal the crucial misunderstanding underpinning this preference. Instead of weakening and undermining the masculine propulsion of Zinc’s coruscating bass-heavy groove, Bias actually takes it to increased heights by rendering it more uncertain and unstable. His tracks may be dark but they’re not claustrophobic; if anything they envision a world of pitch black freefall.

If contemporary jungle is all about psychic and physical ossification, locking into the straightahead groove and so becoming the perfect (and perfectly enclosed) machine, 2-step’s aura of danger and futureshock stems from its uncomfortable openness. These rhythms are almost dangerously unfinished and on the verge of disintegration, often tumbling from one bar to the next in such a chaotic fashion that I imagine them as decaying isotopes, constantly mutating into ever more freakish and dangerous grooves. To dance to them is to render yourself susceptible to rhythmic deception, to lose your footing as you stumble over the gaping chasms and sudden, spiking beats that wait for the unwary, or the flickers of seething bass that ooze from between the gaps like venomous bodily fluids.

To backtrack a little: I used the term ìmicroscopicî before in discussing the structure of garage’s grooves. It’s a word I’ve been thinking about a lot in relation to garage and its method of incorporating outside influences. It’s tempting to assume that this shrinking away from the worst excesses of garage’s crossover I discussed earlier might coincide with a tendency towards a purist purge and resurrection of a ìrealî or ìcoreî 2-step sound. The problem with this theory is that, so far at least, most producers have behaved in quite the opposite manner. Caught between breakbeats and pop, producers were left with no choice but to go everywhere else, with hip hop, dancehall, salsa, drum & bass, Belgian rave and even dub-techno worked into garage’s flexible structure in ever more intricate patterns.

What really distinguished garage in 2001 was the level to which producers strived to incorporate these alien sounds and sonic blueprints – nearly all of which were extent in the surface level flavouring of tracks through 2000 – at increasingly microscopic levels, twisting and distorting the basic 2-step beats into impossibly entangled hybrids. The evolution of Mystery Men’s ìShake Itî provides a good example: with its salsa riffs and bouncy bassline, the original ìShake Itî is basically Latin-tinged garage-pop, the sort of thing that J Lo might make if: a) she briefly went garage, and b) it was a good day for her. Lovely stuff, but it’s on the remix that the track really comes to life, locating the Latin influences within the rhythm by substituting the original’s straightforward beats for a near-spastic succession of snare hits that somehow creates a groove by striking at every other moment. It’s a stunning display of rhythmic sleight of hand; it’s also an undeniably Latin rhythm, but trying to disentangle the threads of Latin and 2-step from each other would prove an impossible task.

There was also, of course, that riddim: a headfucking, body-baffling Latin-dancehall syncopated beat that sounded like 2-step at double speed, bobbing up and down with a ferociously intense kick-kick-snare-kick-kick-snare pattern. I don’t know if it has a name, but it appeared in any number of tracks last year, the best place to hear it being the no-nonsense pummel of “Bouncing Flow” by K2 Family, where it benefits from being coupled with a similarly screwy MC-pattern. Starting its life in only the roughest, most dancehall-aligned underground tracks, the rhythm soon spread into the pop end of the scene with tracks like Chris Mac’s by turns slinky and hyperactive remix of Masterstepz & Celetia’s ìSorry (You Lied To Me)î, and reached its apotheosis in TJ Cases’s thrillingly bombastic ìOne By Oneî. A solid contender for garage tune of the year, ìOne By Oneî resembles a Whitney-style R&B-epic fractured into tiny shards that pit and swivel around cavernous bass rumbles, shockingly combining diva-drama with sonic largesse. No better proof could be offered that garage’s pop and underground inclinations still exist within a dialectic, trading ideas off each other with an open-mindedness that is the scene’s most valuable trait.

If there was one producer who continually managed to unify these inclinations into a particularly satisfying whole, it was Ed Case, whose endless stream of tracks and remixes revealed a garage take on dancehall that was both irresistible and yet totally individual and distinct. On his ’01 updates of Monsta Boy’s ìSorryî his own ìYou’re Mineî and especially Gorillaz’s ìClint Eastwoodî, he sounds as ruthlessly efficient as Max Martin, channeling languidly lilting reggae and urgent rave into briskly sweet ‘n’ sour dance-pop (strangely, Case’s tracks always inspires me to use culinary imagery, their sharply opposed but strangely complementary flavours always putting me in mind of caramel drizzled over peanuts). A pop producer even at his ruffest, Case is a world away from the thoughtful experimentalism of Oris Jay or El-B, but offers as much cause for delight, proving there’s no set formula for this sort of musical frontier-living. The line ìthis music can go anywhereî is a well-worn cliche in dance music, trotted out when no one quite knows what to do next. In garage though (as with current hip hop), it rings true because not only are producers actually going everywhere, but they’re also discovering new routes there and back all the time.

It’s important to stress that UK Garage is not a flawless genre. There are plenty of duff tracks, failed experiments, cynical retreads and inferior items. It could easily all go down the toilet tomorrow. The biggest, most pleasant surprise for me throughout 2001 was that this didn’t happen, and so far there is nothing preventing a similarly vital 2002 (so maybe my karmic feedback loop exists after all….). The temptation is to shrug it off solely due to familiarity –we’ve been listening to it for a couple of years now, haven’t we? Surely it’s can’t be the source of the Next Big Thing! At its frequent peaks though, garage remains the most exciting dance music around, outperforming your expectations, challenging your complacency and, most of all, daring you to dance.

Part 3: Discography

SONIC ROOTS CIRCA 2000

  • Wookie – Down On Me
  • Zed Bias – Neighbourhood
  • So Solid Crew – Oh No (Sentimental Things)
  • James Lavonz – Mash Up Da Venue

MONSTER TUNES: ’01 DIVISION

  • Sticky ft. Ms. Dynamite – Boo!
  • TJ Cases – One By One
  • London Dodgers – Down Down Bizzniz
  • Cleptomaniacs – All I Do (Bump & Flex Dancehall Dub)
  • Zed Bias – Ring The Alarm
  • Darqwan – Nocturnal
  • Horsepower Productions – Fists Of Fury
  • So Solid Crew – They Don’t Know (Vocal Remix ft. Ms Dynamite)
  • Mis-teeq – All I Want (Sunship Remix)
  • United Grooves Collective – Mic Tribute (United Grooves Collective Remix)
  • El-B ft. Rolla – Serious (Zed Bias Remix)
  • Bran Van 3000 – Astounded (MJ Cole Remix)
  • DND – Pick It Up (DND Remix)
  • Monsta Boy – Sorry (Ed Case 2001 Refix)
  • Sia – Little Man (Exemen Works)
  • Oxide & Neutrino – Up Middle Finger
  • Daniel Bedingfield – Gotta Get Thru This (DND Remix)
  • The Streets – Has It Come To This?
  • Pay As U Go – Champagne Dance (Da Sticky Lick)
  • Selena vs. X-Men – Give It Up (X-Men Vocal)

And The Rest…

  • So Solid Crew – 21 Seconds; They Don’t Know; Haters
  • Bump & Flex – Promises, Promises (Dancehall Dub)
  • Aaliyah – More Than A Woman (Bump & Flex Club Mix)
  • Sticky – Boo! (Medieval Hooligans’ Longshanks Remix)
  • Fyrus – Operatic
  • Jon Cutler – It’s Yours (Ras Kwame Remix)
  • Darqwan – Confused; Come On; As We Enta; Hash Pipe
  • Oris Jay – Trippin’ (Remix)
  • Ladies First – Messin’ (Oris Jay Remix)
  • Warren Stacy – My Girl (Oris Jay Remix)
  • El-B – Cover Me; Buck & Bury
  • DJ Zinc – 138 Trek (Zed Bias Remix)
  • Two Banks Of Four – A Hook & A Line (Zed Bias Remix)
  • Maddslinky – Sentience; Desert Fog
  • Phuturistix – Frequencies; Blind Faith
  • Wookie – Back Up, Back Up, Back Up (Instrumental Mix); Storm (as Exemen)
  • Remi – Talk About It (Steve Gurley Remix)
  • Horsepower Productions – Gorgon Sound; When You Hold Me; To The Beat Y’oll; Log On (ft. Elephant Man)
  • Femme Fatale – Eternally
  • United Grooves Collective ft. God’s Gift – Mic Tribute (Jameson Remix)
  • James Lavonz – Let Me Show You
  • Mystery Men ft. Nia – Shake It; Shake It (Remix)
  • TNT ft. Terri Walker – Easy Lovin’ You; Easy Lovin’ (TNT Remix)
  • Abi – Bring Me Joy (Furious Vocal Edit)
  • Masterstepz & Celetia – Sorry (You Lied To Me) (Chris Mac Dub)
  • K2 Family – Bouncin’ Flow
  • Sonrisa ft. MC Onyx Stone – Grooving Me (Splash It Like Champagne Mix)
  • Mark Ryder – Joy; Move Your Body
  • Heartless Crew – The Hustle
  • Pay As U Go Kartel – Know We; Champagne Dance
  • Reservoir Dogs – Planet Mars
  • DJ Pied Piper & The Master Of Ceremonies – Do You Really Like It? (Sovereign Dub)
  • Sovereign – Carmen; Raver Ravin’
  • Artful Dodger – What You Gonna Do (Wideboys Remix); Twentyfourseven (Dubaholics Remix)
  • Mis-Teeq – They’ll Never Know, One Night Stand (Sunship Remix)
  • The Underdog Project – Summer Jam
  • Gorillaz – Clint Eastwood (Ed Case & Sweetie Irie Refix)
  • Suburban Lick – You’re Mine (Ed Case 2001 Remix)
  • X-Ite – Let Me Luv You (Ed Case Remix)
  • Valerie M & Ed Case – When I’m With You (Dub)
  • Ed Case & Sweetie Irie – Who; Who (Wideboys Remix)
  • Ed Case ft. Harvey – When I Roll
  • Richie Dan & K-Warren – Temptation
  • The Wideboys – Sambuca; I’m Yours (You’re Mine) ft. Shola Ama & Robbie Craig
  • Once Waz Nice – Messin’ Around (Wideboys Remix)
  • Dreem Teem vs Artful Dodger – It Ain’t Enough (Wideboys Remix)
  • Sia – Drink To Get Drunk (Francis James’ Make Mine a Becks Mix)
  • Zoom & DBX – Coming Again

COMING SOON! Vocal Licks – The Rise of the Garage MC

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