24
Oct 14

SHANKS AND BIGFOOT – “Sweet Like Chocolate”

Popular30 comments • 2,670 views

#825, 29th May 1999

shanks 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.

7

Comments

  1. 1
    iconoclast on 24 Oct 2014 #

    Oooh, first for once! Here’s a song I have no recollection of at the time. I could be cynical about how the rhythm track is too prominent and how the phasing sounds more like the song trying to remain interesting, or how the lyrics sound – well – perfunctory. Or I could instead recognise the delicate lightness of the arrangement and the pleasant atmospherics generally; there is potential here to have been Really Quite Good. In the spirit of fairness I’ll do both: a high SIX.

  2. 2
    thefatgit on 24 Oct 2014 #

    Ooh, I love this! I’m sure the bubblegum aspect may be a step too far for the UK Garage clubheads, but in pure pop terms, this is a secondary concern. What attracted me was the compressed, shrink-wrapped effect the beats and the bass had on Sharon Woolf’s vocal. It’s as if she’s found herself shrunk to the size of a Galaxy Minstrel and somehow become trapped in the packet. Escape is not a priority with all that candy to keep her going (yeah, I know…but this is how my mind works sometimes). It’s a blissful entrapment. If this works in a club, it works even better as headphone music. And the steady beat must be great for gym freaks on the treadmill or simply negotiating the crowds at the shopping mall. Pure spring-in-the-step stuff! (9)

  3. 3
    punctum on 24 Oct 2014 #

    The pivotal record in kickstarting the 2-Step branch of the UK Garage movement on a visible basis was a remix of an American track, “Never Gonna Let You Go” by Tina Moore, which made the top ten in August 1997, having been an unavoidable dancefloor presence for much of the preceding year. Taking its cue in equal parts from House (rhythm, ritual) and Jungle (speed, disorientation), 2-Step got its initial inspiration from DJs who would speed up both vocal and rhythm tracks from House records to satisfy the demands of the post-drum n’ bass audience who needed a faster, jerkier dancing pace. Typically the rhythm track becomes nimble, light, an aural tapdance, rimshots like knitting needles, fast and quiet but intensely delineated (the ghost of John Stevens lurks unexpectedly in the far background here), whereas the bassline tends to quake, shiver and overload unprepared speakers (thus the Jungle urgency). Other key crossover tracks include “RIPGroove” by Double 99, twice a Top 40 hit in two different mixes in 1997, and “Kung-Fu,” 187 Lockdown’s top ten hit from April 1998 and one of my ten favourite singles of the nineties, managing to be both dainty and threatening, as edgy as Camberwell at six-thirty on a dark Monday morning with pushers scarpering at the hint of a dawn yet as oddly comforting as a November Sunday teatime in 1974, with ATV’s The Golden Shot coming on at 4:40 (there are certain rhythmic resemblances between the Golden Shot theme tune of that period and “Kung-Fu,” especially in terms of bass displacement) – the most dangerously seductive instrumental hit since “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe.”

    There was also “Straight From The Heart” by Doolally, comprised of production duo Stephen Meade and Daniel Langsman and singer Sharon Woolf, with its poignant backward glance at the Specials in its dolorous cornet and trombone lines; a Top 20 hit towards the end of 1998 and top ten on reissue the following August in the wake of “Sweet Like Chocolate,” since Shanks & Bigfoot were Doolally following a legally necessary name change.

    After drowning and choking in the glutinous treacle of boyband blandness “Sweet Like Chocolate” from its intro onwards really does feel like a fresh start – and the intro is careful not to divulge too much too quickly; it offers melodramatically thrusting ‘cello lines against wistful high strings (all synthesised) as though preparing the ground for the entrance of Barry Ryan, followed by a swimming crescendo of harp chorales, bridging the path towards warmer brass tones suggesting a takeover by Thom Bell. From these pink clouds Woolf’s multiple voices slowly emerge before the record suddenly clamps down and the listener (and dancer) thrust into in-your-face 2-Step beats, bass pointillistically immense, drums like boxing feathers, Woolf very much at the forefront.

    Hers is a remarkable performance, describing the way how her Other makes her feel, the ecstasy and security which he inspires (“Knowing you’re there every day/Makes me high in my own special way”), albeit with the occasional raised eyebrow of doubt (“All I need is for you to come home”). However, her voice, whether alone for the verses or expanded into Thereza Bazar choirs for the choruses (the “boy” of that “sweet like chocolate, boy” is holy), provides precisely the sweetness which the song needs; there are times when we could almost be listening to Sarah Records’ idea of 2-Step (not to mention Sarah Cracknell), and more often the vocal similarity implies times when we realise that this was the record Madonna should have made immediately after Ray Of Light.

    The two key moments on the record are the shimmer of electronica which momentarily materialises beneath the “warm” of “You are warm like the rays of the sun” and Woolf’s own bashful falter on the “calm” of “I am calm in the face of your love, and it’s no surprise that these two factors form the basis of Ruff Driverz’ remix of the song, where they use them as the anchors for turning it into a hands-in-the-air techno/House anthem. But, as happens so often, it’s the inexpressible which provides the hook – Woolf’s “Ba. Da. Da. Da da da, da da da” refrain, which will be reflected, consciously or unconsciously, in another dance number one later in the year. The sweetness of the new; a beautiful and still inexplicably overlooked pop single, and the first evidence on Popular of the colours in which UKG and 2-Step will light up the corridors of the next millennium.

  4. 4
    mapman132 on 24 Oct 2014 #

    Never a hit in the US. I think I watched the video once several years ago. Watched it again twice the other night. Seems to be one of those “happy” songs that gets better on repeated listens: Was going to give it 6/10 after first listen, but bumped up to 7/10 after second. This is not uncommon for me: There’s a 2014 bunny that I was originally lukewarm about that’s gradually grown to become my favorite hit of the year.

  5. 5
    Chap_with_Wings on 24 Oct 2014 #

    Just finished trawling your archive. Can’t believe you’ve been at this for 11 years! Not long now till you’re writing about songs that didn’t exist when you covered Al Martino…

  6. 6
    mrdiscopop on 24 Oct 2014 #

    Radio 1 really pinned its hopes on garage being the next big musical movement after Britpop – even giving Saturday mornings over to a specialist garage/2-step programme, which seems as a bold move now as it did at the time.

    The genre never quite took hold, though. Maybe because it only produced one real star, in the form of future bunny Craig David, but more likely because this sort of melodic crossover track was in short supply. It’s soulful and light on its feet, owing as much to US deep house cuts as it did to the claustrophobic and straitjacketed UK garage sound. I guess that’s why the current “second wave” of garage, led by Disclosure, which also leans towards the US model, has proved more successful as a crossover genre.

    It also explains why, with the exception of Craig David-affiliated tracks, there’s only one more 2-step chart topper to come, and that’s a novelty record.

    Still, this is lovely. 7/10.

  7. 7
    flahr on 24 Oct 2014 #

    I always conflate this with the ‘one more 2-step chart topper to come’ so I’m pleased to discover that they are the same genre! Score one for me, I think.

    Dairy Milk, I think: sweet, functional, tasty… a bit… melty…? [7]

  8. 8
    Mark G on 25 Oct 2014 #

    I think the line “all I need is for you to come home” means home from work

  9. 9
    wichitalineman on 25 Oct 2014 #

    This caught me completely unawares at the time. My flatmate Andy played his CD single to death. It was lovely. ‘Speed garage’ seemed to come fully formed, so hats off to Punctum for the pre-history. (This is really the kind of archive stuff I wish Soul Jazz or Ace were doing instead of Trojan Dub Vol. 432 or rehashing the King catalogue for the zillionth time).

    It now reminds me of Janet Kay’s Silly Games in its lightness and London-ness, with a vocal sound close to my heart. Musical hopscotch is a great call, Tom.

    It also felt, at the time, like “A NEW KIND OF MUSIC” to me, which was becoming rare in the late 90s and has only become increasingly rarer.

  10. 10
    Garry on 25 Oct 2014 #

    We had this in Oz, and I think it has been the sound of a million different adverts over the last 15 years.

    It’s the vocals I remember. I didn’t know there was anything called UK Garage, nor 2-step. I’m sure I heard it – X-Press 2’s Lazy comes to mind – but ask me to name some of the big hitters of Garage and 2-Step and I can’t. I had taken another of electronica’s post-jungle branches into glitch and microbeat which by definition dealt with smaller and smaller samples it simply ceased to exist at all. Matthew Herbert aside it was a dead end I don’t enjoy revisiting.

  11. 11
    swanstep on 25 Oct 2014 #

    New to me and it’s OK I suppose. I don’t like the strained, ultra-stiff and -clipped vocal melody in the verses; it sounds like it was a written keyboard part that they’ve decided to use as the vocal melody, something that in my experience almost never works and it surely doesn’t here. The chorus and Ba Da Da Da vox work well, however, and those together with the intriguing backing track ultimately make SLC a small, jingle-ish, ear-wormy pleasure (not enough to make it an obvious #1 though, and indeed SLC didn’t get close to #1 anywhere else according to wiki):
    6

  12. 12
    lonepilgrim on 25 Oct 2014 #

    like Wichita, I was reminded of Lovers Rock tunes like ‘Silly Games’ – also sugary sweet with a slightly wobbly vocal – and I love the way that this looks back to predecessors like that as well as forward to artists like Burial, some of whose work reminds of a haunted echo of this song
    I’m a lot more enthusiastic for songs like this which are not ‘classic’ tunes of the sort that the BBC are going to adopt for self-aggrandising promotions, but which are quirky, concise and individually flavoured

  13. 13
    thefatgit on 25 Oct 2014 #

    Actually the “I am calm in the face of your love” line has always puzzled me, when, for instance “I am charmed by the taste of your love” would seem a better and sexier fit. And like Punctum says, the “calm” is a surprise, which reminds me of Faye Tozer’s “palm” from “Heartbeat” a few posts back. Not that any of this has any bearing on the score I gave.

  14. 14
    JoeWiz on 25 Oct 2014 #

    Obviously it bears the technical hallmarks, but this isn’t a record which I hugely associate with garage. It does sound rather refreshing against the previous boyband centric number ones we’ve just had, it’s best part for me is that long intro, the excitement is high as we wait for the vocal to kick in, and whilst pleasant, I don’t feel like it quite lives up to the intro.
    Miles better than Lonyo, though isn’t it?
    7

  15. 15
    swanstep on 26 Oct 2014 #

    Shanks and Bigfoot’s wiki page mentions that in the light of SLC, both Britney and Beyoncé/Destiny’s Child asked them for songs/to write for them. Does anyone know if anything came of that? (That Wiki mentions no glittering trails of singles and other collabs suggests not, but maybe there are some album tracks?)

  16. 16
    James Masterton on 26 Oct 2014 #

    It is worth noting that Sweet Like Chocolate, perhaps like no other single before it, flew to the top of the charts as a result of a huge amount of pent up popular demand. It had been circulating for about six months in a limited pressing of only 1000 copies or so. Put simply copies of it were like gold dust and woe betide the garage DJ who didn’t have a copy in some form to play. One famous story at the time had an otherwise demure pair of teenage girls having to be ejected from one club after pulling a knife on the hapless man behind the decks who admitted to not having Sweet Like Chocolate in his box to play.

    Oh, and on a technical note, a student of music will tell you that much of the appeal of 2-step garage was the way the music bumped and skipped in a manner that was uncommon to most other dance records by dint of being syncopated. There is a beat missing from the start of each song which means the emphasis of both words and music is on the upbeat rather than the downbeat (instead of counting ONE-two-ONE-two a garage track will go one-TWO-one-TWO-one).

    On Sweet Like Chocolate the track is driven by a clicking drumbeat, but throughout the emphasis is in the wrong place. Like a clock going TOCK-tick-TOCK-tick. You can hear the effect in the opening lines. fin-DING a-WAY in my-HEART. It is counter to your body’s own natural rhythms and thus commands you to pay attention in order to even dance to it.

  17. 17
    Erithian on 26 Oct 2014 #

    Nice bit of musicology James! At this time I must have been paying less attention to the charts than ever, since I only heard this a couple of times and never saw that endearing chocolate-y video. But for a confirmed non-clubgoer like me, the 2-step garage appeal was secondary to the fact that it was a lovely, beautifully put together pop tune with a very attractive vocal. A dictionary definition of “crossover”, and sweet like chocolate indeed.

    Punctum, I love the analogy of a November Sunday teatime in 1974! – although those times weren’t perhaps oddly comforting for me, as around that time I’d sense that there might not be enough time to finish Latin homework before The Fenn Street Gang or whatever. But yes, I get the same feeling of synaesthesia when a song evokes a time and mood, unconnected to the date the record came out. (Love fatgit’s Galaxy Minstrel image too.)

    Anyway, I’ll give two-step garage a free pass here, there are examples I’ll look less kindly on to come. BTW some have commented on the extended intro – I’ve found YouTube clips with and without it, I presume the radio version was the one without? Very effective and cinematic, almost James Bondish.

  18. 18
    Cumbrian on 26 Oct 2014 #

    I thought this worked better in the club or on speakers than on my headphones, where some of the effects on the drum track make it sound like it’s coming from underwater, which I found a bit oppressive when immersed in it on the way to work. Highly enjoyable though, great vocal.

  19. 19
    AMZ1981 on 26 Oct 2014 #

    From a personal point of view the most interesting thing about this song fifteen years on is that it held off Ooh La La by the Wiseguys for a second week at the top. That Wiseguys record turned out to be the first top two hit that I couldn’t remember at all although Youtube jogged my memory.

  20. 20
    Kinitawowi on 26 Oct 2014 #

    I don’t get it.

    Nah, seriously, garage (in all its forms) passed me by completely. Didn’t understand it then, don’t now. Rerunning it off my Now! 43 just gives me a headache.

    A resounding “I’m sure it’s good if you like This Sort Of Thing, but it’s not My Sort Of Thing”. Down with it and all that. 4.

  21. 21
    Tommy Mack on 26 Oct 2014 #

    My personal memory of this is of busking on Wilmslow’s Grove St and seeing two younger boys try to charm a girl from their year by singing this to her. Thing was, they were really good, close harmonies and everything, must have been in the school choir. I quite liked this without ever really being into it. I never figured it as a 2-step thing though clearly it was. I always quite liked the twitchy beats on 2-step stuff, the classier elements less so: I was one of the people you allude to in the review, put off garage’s aspirational glossiness. It was always the most boring people at school who were into it: designer clothes, hair gel/spray, thought living in Wilmslow was great etc. though actually, there’s much to enjoy in the music, away from the naff nouveau riche imagery that surrounded the scene. I don’t think I got it at the time as it wasn’t hard and fast enough for me but there’s an infectiousness to a lot of the beats, hooks and basslines once you get over the pop tribalism of teenage years.

  22. 22
    Billy Hicks on 27 Oct 2014 #

    A warm summer’s day, and a coach full of rowdy primary school kids from North London – and the quiet one at the back, who now posts regularly on a Freakytrigger music blog – are briefly united as one, when someone starts singing this song and the entire coach joins in as we zoom down Kilburn High Road. Every single word. And to my delight for once I know what the hell they’re singing and can ACTUALLY JOIN IN as it’s spent the last few weeks blaring out of every car stereo, every pirate radio station, and is a permanent fixture on cable music television when they’re not (still) playing Baby One More Time. Never the happiest of primary school children, for that one wonderful coach journey I briefly, gloriously felt part of the gang as we da-dadada-dadada’d down the road.

    A ho-hum 5 for the song – never really got into 2-step despite its London ubiquity – but a secret, unofficial 10 for the nostalgia.

  23. 23
    weej on 27 Oct 2014 #

    I didn’t pay this a great deal of attention at the time, but listening ahead to the 1999’s number ones a couple of months back it finally clicked, and I’ve been returning to it ever since. Unlike Swanstep at #11 I *love* the vocal style – in my memory it was a processed autotune effect, but it’s something much better – an organic recreation of the feel of technology, something I was very much into at the time with Add (N) to X and which continues to appeal now. I love the combination of the drama (those strings!) and the clockwork robotic-but-warm vocals. The only downside is the beat – it sounds like the waveform was clipped too much, and it makes the whole song sound like a 64 kbps MP3, and that’s distracting enough to knock it down to an 8.

  24. 24
    James BC on 27 Oct 2014 #

    So breezy. Breeziest number 1 of the year, maybe the decade.

  25. 25
    glue_factory on 29 Oct 2014 #

    In addition to what James Masterton said, this is one of those records, like Incredible by M-Beat featuring General Levy, where records shops took to putting signs up in their window saying “Not out this week”, in order to avoid the rafts of kids coming in Monday lunchtime looking to buy it.

    Not that General Levy could match this record’s success.

  26. 26
    Auntie Beryl on 30 Oct 2014 #

    Not exactly signs in the window, but yes, there was a huge build up of demand for this one.

  27. 27
    Matt DC on 31 Oct 2014 #

    In number one terms at least, an entire strand of UK pop begins here – UK garage really was year zero in terms of creating a new context for black British pop that could flourish in the charts. It’s waxed and waned over the years, and I’m not claiming Shanks & Bigfoot as particular originators here, but the British rappers who dominated the charts a few years ago, and the dubstep breakdowns that infiltrated major league American pop, all have their roots here. It’s not a seismic event in British pop, but I think it is a watershed one – there’s another #1 coming up where that might be better explored, but I couldn’t let it go without comment here.

  28. 28
    Mark M on 1 Nov 2014 #

    I was struggling to remember whether I had actually liked this song, or not. Just seeing the title triggered the beat/hook in my head, in a good way. But I had a sense of ambivalence about it. Turned out that I really hated the video, and – as I’ve mentioned before – since the late-ish ’90s I’ve consumed chart pop mostly through video channels (and later YouTube).

    But the 2 step thing I was basically keen on. I’ve rarely enjoyed the four-to-the-floor thump of house, so anything that seemed to have a bit more variety rhythmically caught my ear. I liked the skittering thing that 2 step had. My favourite song of the era – as it was for a bunch of other people, and Tom mentioned it in his write-up – was Sweet Female Attitude’s Flowers.

  29. 29
    Tommy Mack on 25 Nov 2014 #

    Better than I remembered it and I always quite liked it. It’s far more clipped and clubby than I remembered at the time. 7

  30. 30
    ciaran on 5 Dec 2014 #

    For something veering on Baby Jump territory this doesnt seem like the start of something big but Garage really takes off from this point.Like the next craze following Big Beat.

    Its certainly better than what it followed popular wise but I dont share the fondness of it like some of the above do. Maybe its one of those had-to-be-there records.You could trace the likes of Original Pirate Material to this. Could get irritating after a few listens I’d guess but for being a bit more bouncy than most of 1999 a 5 or a 6 wouldnt be unfair.

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