Seeds sown in London’s clubland bloom in the charts sooner or later – but sometimes there’s a particularly fine flowering, an alignment of pop and underground when the most beguiling and unexpected of the capital’s sounds are also precisely what the country wants to buy. 2-Step – the off-kilter sound of UK garage at the end of the 1990s – was one such moment.
Defining 2-Step in musical terms seems relatively easy (especially now I’ve Wikipedia to help): a kick-drum on the first and third beats, and the gaps filled by an intricate, unsteady bustle of snares, hi-hats and sub-bass. What sat on top leaned classy – banks of strings, delicate keyboards (fake harpsichord a particular favourite) and unshowy singing and MCing. And you can also look at it in evolutionary terms – part of what Simon Reynolds called the “hardcore continuum”, a way of looking at London’s bubbling post-rave microscenes as something continuous, perpetually asking questions of itself and changing in response to the answers, a gestalt current of creativity flowing from rough to smooth, dark to blissful, and back again.
What I’m interested in, though, is how 2-Step felt as a pop event – that current bursting its banks and swamping the mainstream. The UK Garage scene was well established by Summer ’99 – “Sweet Like Chocolate” itself had been a club hit several months before, in a longer version, before its reincarnation as a summer pop jam. It was far from the first 2-Step hit, but it helped cement the sound as a fixture in the charts for the next couple of years.
Some despised garage, painting it as vapid and monotonous, dressy music for shallow people. But many – me included – were seduced. Its rhythmic framework proved to be wonderfully flexible – on the 2-Step chassis you could rest delightful bubblegum pop (Sweet Female Attitude’s “Flowers”), abstract cut-up dance music (Dem 2’s “Destiny”), multi-part evocations of street life (Wookie’s “Battle”), MC-driven bangers (Sticky ft Ms Dynamite’s “Boo”), and eventually – as we’ll see – novelty rap, coffee table soul, hip-hop posse cuts and more. UK garage’s constant presence in the charts injected energy and invention into sometimes drab times – but below that its effect on the creative and commercial potential of black British music was colossal, a story that plays out across 00s pop.
Where does this song fit in to that story? In 1998, Shanks And Bigfoot had been Doolally, whose “Straight From The Heart” set a template for pop-garage, bouncing and skanking on a hard-to-resist horn line. “Sweet Like Chocolate” pushes that bubblegum pop element in 2-step as far as it can go – maybe too far, its sing-song melodies on a borderline between saccharine and adorable. The song is at its best before the singing, with clicking, swishing and slicing top-end percussion meeting a low swell of orchestration and a tempting keyboard melody. That drops out before the more spindly verses, though, which Sharon Woolf sings as a game of hopscotch, skipping nimbly between bass and beats before landing on the chorus.
It’s rather lovely – those sweetly heartfelt “you bring me so much joy”s especially – but also rather twee, and I wish some of the fullness of the intro and outro had been sustained across the entire track, thickening it a little. There were richer, more surprising garage huts around. Few as immediate and fun, though – as a Summer hit, “Sweet Like Chocolate” was a mildly sickly, very sticky pleasure.