UK Garage

June, 2000: UK Garage is the sound of summer.

To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.

Remembered by writer Kevin Braddock

There were lots of different underground dance scenes in the Nineties, like trip-hop, big beat and what came to be known as UK Garage. Mike Skinner from The Streets was part of it in a rather abstract way – he just seemed to be at the level of street youth culture. I was living in East London at the time so I kind of noticed all this. I’d hear it on cars going past and think: What is this music?’ Then you’d flip through the pirate radio dials and think: This is an interesting station, what’s this stuff?’ It hadn’t broken through; it certainly hadn’t got to the Craig David level of having a number one with Rewind. UK Garage was very street, raw, it had a certain speed and aggression to it. It wasn’t smooth. It resonated with the feeling of walking around East London feeling slightly off your head and thinking: I wanna go and drink champagne in some weird bar tonight!’ It was party music, and it was the sound of that time. After the feature came out, I remember bumping into [then Radio 1 DJ] Spoony in Soho. He was driving a very flash car. He pulled over, jumped out and we had a nice little chat. He was, by that point, pretty famous. This must’ve been six months or a year later. The Face was able to get to things ever-so-slightly before everyone else did, and this was a really good example of that.”

Kevin Braddock was Features Editor on The Face 2000 – 2002. He is the founder of Torchlight System: Storytelling for Recovery and author of Everything Begins with Asking for Help (Kyle Books). 

torch​light​sys​tem​.com, insta: @torchlight_system

It’s shaking up the clubs, blasting from the pirates, eating the Top 40 alive. And it could only have happened here. The Face takes you on a tour of the places and faces building the century’s first pop phenomenon. Rewind? Forward, fast!

The 3 Kings Wookie, Spoony and MC Neat go head to head in our garage conference. Thrice as nice…

Thing is, people here have grown up looking up to big American stars, but why should we? We’re the players now.” – MC Neat

I’d say, for the past seven or eight weeks, Twice As Nice has ended with me playing a Wookie tune, Wookie in the crowd and MC Neat next to me just boosting it, boosting the music, the DJs, the people, the vibe, everything.”

I always keep my best tunes till last, and three out of the last four could be Wookie tunes. That’s how good he is.” – DJ Spoony

He’s biased.” – Wookie

If 27-year-old Jason Wookie’ Chue is the future of black British music, the building in which he’s spent seven years marshalling renegade snares and throbbing basslines is the monument to its past. Off an inauspicious Camden back street, the walls of Soul II Soul’s studio are hung with the treasure of the UK’s last fully requited tangle with R&B. Once buzzed through the front doors, you find no less than three platinum and 18 gold discs on the walls – proof that even a place as drizzly as the UK can get jiggy on a national scale when it really wants to.

Wookie has spent most of his twenties working here with Brit R&B chancellor Jazzie B, looking for ways to parachute black music into mainstream consciousness. Between them, they’ve agreed that the agitated power-shuffle of UK garage offers the best chance. The exclusive deputation of A&R men who have heard dubplates of Wookie’s thundering new Battle tune share the same conviction. In an A&R bubble economy currently afloat on blisteringly hot white labels, Wookie’s new tune couldn’t be more on the money if it was Gordon Brown’s pocket calculator.

Wookie is flying to New York to work with Angie Stone tomorrow, but don’t expect him to make much of the fact. This profoundly considered young man does not do large’. He leaves that to colleagues at the sharp end’ of UK garage. And so it goes that, when they presently bundle into Wookie’s studio, DJ Spoony and MC Neat bring with them a roomful of costly sunglasses, half-demolished Burger King takeaways, gold teeth, glottal stops, traded fists, big rings and massive laughs.

MC Neat could pass for Britain’s Hardest Man, but sounds like the softest when he begins to talk”

Craig David might be the pin-up of UK garage, but Spoony is its ambassador. The 29-year-old DJ and Dreem Teem member may describe himself as not exactly the finished product as a broadcaster”, but readily delivers a line of endlessly entertaining banter that couldn’t be more suited to the speed burble of the Dreem Teem’s Sunday morning show on Radio 1. He drove here in his Merc, has a Nokia programmed with the James Bond theme, and refuses to remove his sunglasses for fear the very act might dispel today’s eruption of sunshine. Meanwhile, MC Neat could pass for Britain’s Hardest Man, but sounds like the softest when he begins to talk, which is not often. Peculiarly for an MC, he’s given to deep oceans of silence – though that’s possibly because Neat simply knows exactly when to talk and when not to. MCing has been his trade from the age of 11, after all.

UK garage’s holy trinity have good reason to be so chipper. It’s due in part to its own aborted clubland siege of three years ago that UK garage is 2000’s most exciting sound. Three years ago, the 1997-model speed garage failed to cross over. It was snubbed by cool’ clubland and national radio, misrepresented by the media and generally misunderstood by the music biz. On the third year, UK garage rose again. This time, everyone’s paying attention.

But don’t worry if you didn’t see it coming among this year’s other cultural blips – most of the music business was looking the other way as well. Easily the best thing about this UK garage is its transformation from a persistent thud under the floorboards and across the darker reaches of the FM spectrum into a chart-busting phenomenon’ – one delivering Moloko-sized and Artful Dodger-shaped guerrilla hits at a rate that leaves most music biz executives nervously thumbing through their chequebook stubs.

UK garage 2000’s most satisfying feature, however, is the way it struts around the upper reaches of the charts like it was born to do so, yet continues to rule dance music’s underground through a pirate economy run on pure essence of rude. As instant, available and throwaway as Steps, no less credible than trip-hop, UK hip-hop, nu disco, trance, drum and bass, big beat, epic, progressive and tech house put together, proudly suburban, manifestly superficial and utterly multiracial, UK garage has achieved the improbable and got Edmonton postmen and plumbers dancing to the same beat as Cheltenham schoolgirls. That’s why Summer 2000 is the Summer of UK garage.

Jay Da Flex: London is the centre of the world when it comes to music. We’re open to anyone with good songs”

But if UK garage’s single-mindedly get-down imperative is so ergonomically correct for a nation that just wants to party, that’s precisely because its signature tunes bridge the distance between the chartland and the underground. Face it: from Zed Bias’ growl-bass Neighbourhood to Sweet Female Attitude’s bantamweight Flowers, most underground tracks are so effervescently poppy that they would simply blimp off into the upper ionosphere if they weren’t rigged to the urban experience by the weight of their own basslines.

And so Shanks & Bigfoot’s Sweet Like Chocolate and Artful Dodger’s Re-Rewind may have smuggled two-step into the charts and given a high-res TOTP gloss to the scene – to the tune of 700,000 copies, in the latter’s case. But it’s indie-launched salvoes like DJ Luck & MC Neat’s Little Bit Of Luck and N‘n’G vs Callaghan’s Right Before My Eyes (chart entry placings: 11 and 12 respectively) that are the true phenomena, the peoples choice anthems that have been staples of the garage circuit for years. But while many are being painstakingly serviced by major record companies, even more are readily available for £5.99 over the counter of a basement record store, or on a crackly FM pirate, or pumping out of the bass bins at Twice As Nice every Sunday. This Summer, it’s Spoony, Wookie and MC Neat’s world. We just go clubbing in it.

Why has it taken UK garage so long to arrive?

MC Neat: The way I look at it, Joe Public has spoken. Finally. All it is is exposure. He’s been trying to speak for so long, but no one’s been listening. The people who know the tunes is the street. And they buy the tunes.

Spoony: Pound for pound, people have the choice. They can buy Oasis or they can buy UK garage. And they buy UK garage.

UK garage is newly respectable, but isn’t the most exciting aspect to its triumph the way it’s been managed through an independent pirate economy?

Wookie: It only takes less than 10,000 singles to get in the charts legally. If you put a barcode on a tune the way you’re supposed to, you’re in the charts straightaway. If people had done that in the first place, underground would have been in the charts a long, long time ago.

MC Neat: Try and hit a major with this music five or six years ago, they’d think you were a nutter. Straightjacket. Off you go. But because the majors dissed garage, we had to build it all up on its own. They didn’t want this to happen! We’re the winners now, though. We survived, we held out, we’ve got a healthy club scene.

Spoony: We’ve been in the trenches, running around selling 2,000 copies on our own in the street, dodging the police on the way into tower blocks, turning up at the venues with no mic. But maybe what happened in the past is a blessing in disguise. Building foundations, getting roots is what it’s all been about. Everyone’s gone up to the mountains and come back stronger and wiser.

Last year, Twice As Nice ran a five-date national tour; this year, there’s a 45-date tour planned. That sounds more like a national clubland phenomenon than strictly a London thing.

Spoony: Demographically, all the places that are similar to London are feeling the music: Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, Cardiff, Huddersfield, Wolverhampton, Leeds – big cities where black people are living next to white people in council flats, not white people living in suburbia and black people living in the slums.

MC Neat: Up north now it’s like, yeah! You come on after a local DJ and MC, and it’s like a switch. It becomes a different rave.

Spoony: That’s because Neat gets all the groupies.

Wookie: Dem feel up yuh batty…

They’re running out and buying Sweet Female Attitude’s Flowers instead of Boyzone”

It’s rumoured that Oxide Neutrino’s Bound 4 Da Reload was licensed by EastWest for £150,000

Spoony: I heard it was more like £100,000. But it’s still silly money.

Wookie: The majors are hungry. They’re seeing underground artists making so much money on their own, selling 15,000 vinyl singles. Majors can’t sell 15,000 vinyls. They want a piece of it, so they’re signing whatever they see first. That’s why they threw big money at DJ Dee Kline for I Don’t Smoke. That kind of thing could break the scene. They did the same thing to drum and bass.

Are tunes like I Don’t Smoke – sampled from comedian’ Jim Davidson’s Chalkie character – giving garage a bad name by being more populist than it already is? And it could hardly get more populist, could it?

Spoony: I don’t like Bound 4 Da Reload; I’m not into I Don’t Smoke either. If DJ Dee Kline came tomorrow with something I liked, I’d play it.

But not that record In the last year, UK garage records have sampled Flat Eric, Whitney Houston, Faith Evans, Armand Van Heiden, Stardust, Ed Rush, the theme tunes to Rocky, Superman, Dr Who, Blue Peter and EastEnders, I‑Roy, Bel Biv Devoe, Ali G, Baby D and Public Enemy. Surely that’s a sign of the scene’s vitality and imagination?

Wookie: But a lot of those tunes are cheap shots. You shouldn’t have money in mind when you’re making music. Bound 4 Da Reload has taken things people know: to get a hit, you need to use something the public know. But that’s blatant.

UK garage’s audience demographic is approximately the same as that of Boyzone.”

Neat: But they’re running out and buying Sweet Female Attitude’s Flowers instead of Boyzone.

Spoony: It’s definitely about the kids – that’s who the audience is. I played a Monday night at Camden Palace: three thousand kids. Saturday night when it’s all adults in there, you can’t park for miles; but on this Monday I parked straight up outside. It was rammed like I’ve never ever seen it before. But outside, you wouldn’t have known it was open

Neat: No cars! I did something there with Dane from Another Level, and there were 3,800 kids there.

Spoony: First track I played was N‘n’G’s Right Before My Eyes and they went mad, singing every word. I thought: This is what it’s all about.”

Craig David is reputed to have turned his back on UK garage to concentrate of a career as a serious R&B artist’. A wise move?

Spoony: Right now, the labels are dropping R&B acts because they’re flipping over garage. It would make so much sense for UK R&B vocalists to collaborate with UK garage producers. Dane from Another Level did Buggin’ with True Steppers. Now, if we put Lynden David Hall in a studio, we’d have another hit. They took Kele Le Roc from garage because they wanted her to do R&B. Now they want her to do garage. They’ll get Westlife to do R&B, so why do they need Kele Le Roe to do it? As it is, UK R&B is still a poor substitute to Lauryn Hill, Puff Daddy and Biggie Smalls. The difference is that UK garage is what it is. Wookie is Wookie: he’s not Roger Sanchez in disguise. UK garage is real, it’s unique, it’s got totally its own identity.

With that, MC Neat bustles out into Camden, leaving the producer and the DJ to pore over Wookie’s latest track, Joy & Pain, a lissom ballad cranked up by angular two-step rhythms. Too mellow for the dancefloor,” judges Spoony. Nevertheless, he practically melts into his swivelling chair, wearing a smile as Wide as the horizon.

To recap, then: having been stolen from the USA, gone dark’, been reduced to a cliché of black men, white girls and Krug, burrowed underground, subdivided from four-four into two-step and rewound its way to number one, UK garage couldn’t be any more real even if it needed to be.

Appearances on concept albums and washing powder adverts may well be imminent. But right now, locked into the underground, locked onto the charts, UK garage is exactly where we need it to be. A’ight?

UK Garage: The Secret History

How did the playing of Robert Owens dub mixes at a pub in London’s Elephant and Castle turn into a champagne-fuelled pop revolution? The prime players rewind and reminisce…

FIRST STEPS

Colour Girl, artist/​songwriter: The roots of what is now called UK garage go right back to 1992/​1993. At that time, a lot of people who’d been Into house, hardcore or jungle started getting Into US garage: labels like Smack, Eightball and Strictly Rhythm, artists like Robert Owens – music that had a bit of soul In It, while house and hardcore were becoming formulaic. A few clubs were playing it in their main rooms; the biggest one was Rulin’ at the Ministry Of Sound on Saturdays. It was at a club that was like an after-Rulin’ party that the UK sound began…

Timmy Ram Jam, owner of London clubs Aquarium and The Temple: I’d been promoting a drum and bass night at the Paradise Club in Islington on Sunday nights. We played garage in the second room; when drum and bass started attracting trouble in 1993, I brought In Matt Lamont to play garage In the main room. Then that Summer I started a Sunday club called Happy Days at the Elephant And Castle pub In South London, near the Ministry Of Sound. It opened at 9am, so we’d get all the people coming out of Ministry who didn’t want to go home. Matt Lamont, Mickey Sims and Justin Cantor were DJlng; we’d play US garage, but pitch up the speed because people had been up all night and I didn’t want people falling asleep. I added an MC to drop the UK style onto the US music because I was used to drum and bass.

Timmy Ram Jam: It got too packed, so we moved to the Frog And Nightgown pub on the Old Kent Road; Timmi Magic, now in The Dreem Teem, started DJing there soon after. And drum and bass DJs started to come in and play garage music. When we moved to [cavernous South London venue] The Arches, Karl Tuff Enuff Brown joined up with Matt to form Tuff Jam. Spoony was playing there too…

Spoony, OJ, The Dreem Teem: We were playing hard US stuff, but the dub mixes, or the vocal mixes with an edge. If you played the dub and pitched it up, you kept a soulful feel but it was sparser. People liked it because it was more aggressive.

Matt Jam Lamont: The most popular producer (American – it was almost all American then) was Todd Edwards. He put more skip into his drums, changed the vocals round and cut them up. There was a guy called MK [Mark Kitchen] doing something similar too. When British producers started making their own music, they’d take the drums and the cut-up vocals, and push the bassline up a bit. We were creating our own style.

FOR THE PEOPLE 

Juliano, editor/​publisher of UK garage fanzine Sound Guide: There was a new spirit at garage clubs. It was sexy; it still is. I remember talking to girls who said they bought cheap copies of Versace or Moschino so they could afford to wear the outfit just the once. They didn’t want to be seen in the same outfit twice.

Matt Jam Lamont: The dressing up? Well, early on, Ministry had huge crowds which were really well dressed. When the garage thing happened, certain people thought to themselves, We’ve got to put a stop to any trouble, make it feel exclusive.” It was quite black-oriented back then, and black kids like to dress up. The champagne-drinking came from the desire to be exclusive. And there were less drugs than on the house scene: a lot of the kids were coming from R&B clubs, and that’s not drugs-oriented music.

Juliano: With house, you drop an E and It doesn’t really matter what you do; so long as you’re moving, it looks like you’re dancing. With garage, you have to concentrate on the beat, so you can’t really get off your face.

Spoony: Garage attracted girls. It’s a sweeping generalisation, but girls in clubs tend to like songs and vocals. As soon as there was a music that had grit in the production, a beat like drum and bass and lots of singalongs, they were going to like it. And guys like to go to clubs where girls are.

In 1996, their crowd started changing from being cool and trendy to young kids”

SOMETHING’S TAKING OVER 

Karl Tuff Enuff Brown, DJ and producer: The arches was the really seminal club for that scene. Then a circuit called the Sunday Scene developed, with Spread Love at the Gass Club, which was very important, The Yacht Club at Temple Pier and others. I’d go out working on Saturday nights, then drive to the Yacht Club and sleep in the car until it opened.

Colour Girl: The UK sound started to take over around 1996. I used to go to US garage club Horny at Legends In the West End on Thursdays; in 1995 they were playing US stuff like Mariah Carey’s Dreamlover and the Morales mix of Jamiroquai’s Space Cowboy. There was a group of young British producers, DJs and musicians, like me and Timmi Magic, who wanted to make garage music, but the people who ran clubs like Horny were sceptical. And then in 1996, their crowd started changing from being cool and trendy, to young kids who’d heard early UK garage on the pirates and were asking for the records. By the end of that year, Matt Jam Lamont and Timmi Magic were playing, the club was using pirate garage DJs and MCs, and they’d hosted the launch party for my Things Are Never single – the first UK garage track to be playlisted on Kiss.

THE SPEED GARAGEDEBACLE 

Spoony: In terms of national hits, Never Gonna Let You Go by Tina Moore set the ball rolling In 1997. That was an example of a stripped-down US track. And RIP Groove’s Double 99 In the same year was the first UK track to go all the way.

Andy Lewis, head of A&R at Locked On: Record companies and the media jumped too quickly. There was a six-month period when every big dance publication got on it – bottle of champagne, black guy, white girl, speed garage’ on the cover and they hammered that vision of a big sub-bassline, time-stretched vocals style…

Matt Jam Lamont: They fixed on the style RIP had done on the back of the Armand Van Helden sound [his remix of Sneaker Pimps Spin Spin Sugar]. But that was just one style.

Tony Portelli, director of Four Liberty records: The majors did a typical Job, telling Europe, This Is 187 Lockdown, the speed garage act.” They released Kung Fu in Europe, and it wasn’t a hit, so people could say, Oh, it’s all over then”, and they lost interest. 187 Lockdown are talented, but that was a novelty record.

TWO-STEP!

Andy Lewis: Just after that, a new sound come through with tracks like The Dreem Teem’s mix of Amira’s My Desire, Dem 2’s Destiny, Steve Gurley’s Lessons In Love and Spirit of the Sun. This was the start of two-step – the style that uses breakbeats at two beats to the bar. It has the skippy drums, and it’s basically an R&B groove at a house tempo. If you go through the pirates they’re all playing two-step, and of course, tt’s two-step that’s having the chart success.

Huckleberry Finn, DJ, producer and buyer at Uptown Records, London: Sweet Like Chocolate moved things on in a big way. People knock Shanks & Bigfoot because they’re not part of the scene, but they showed the way forward by taking it poppy and having a hit. Everyone else thought, Hang on – we can do that!”

Daue Norton, press officer, Four Liberty: And when it went platinum, Sweet Like Chocolate did the most of anything to convince people that this music could be daytime-radio friendly.

Huckleberry Finn: A&R men from major labels come to Uptown Records to ask what we think are promising records. Up till last November, they wouldn’t accept UK garage. But that was before Re-Rewind. And now we’ve seen Craig David and Sweet Female Attitude go in at number one and number two, beating Steps. Dance music is pop music now.

It’s become a very diverse scene, and that’s its strength”

Tony Portelli: We’re looking beyond the UK now. Every day we get calls from companies In the US, Australia and Europe asking about licensing tracks and how to contact artists.

Matt Jam Lamont: There are different crowds now, and everything’s bridging off. There’s the R&B‑influenced stuff like Flowers, the middle ground, bassline tracks, the RIP, Armand Van Heiden-type grooves, and dark tunes like I Don’t Smoke. I think producers will take the two-step sound away from being poppy, back underground. When that happens, the four/​four beat will come back.

Tony Portelli: It’s become a very diverse scene, and that’s its strength. I was talking to Jazzie B the other day, and I asked him If he thought this was as big as Soul II Soul when they had hits In the US. He reckons this is much bigger: That was just our clique. This is millions and millions of cliques.”

London’s Twice As Nice is still the crucible of UK garage clubs. But around the country, the goldrush is on…

Karl Tuff Enuff Brown remembers the old’ days. Over the last 12 months, it’s all changed. It seems like I’ve blinked and gone from playing to the regular, mature crowd of ravers who used to go to The Arches, and now it’s all teenagers!”

The queue checking each other outside London’s Twice As Nice is no longer the archetypal UK garage snapshot. You only have to listen to the nation’s favourite’ on a Sunday – The Dreem Teem report that most callers to their Radio 1 show are from outside London, while at the other end of the afternoon, no Top 40 rundown this spring has been complete without a complement of garage tunes firing into the uppermost chart positions.

Scott Garcia might not agree, but it’s clearly not the case that It’s A London Thing. UK garage is, at last, living up to its name.

It’s completely crossed over all over the country,” says Jean Branch, programming director of Galaxy FM, the Leeds station from which Radio 1 poached The Dreem Teem. It’s a real scene that’s grown organically over the last couple of years. Radio One want to own this music now, but nobody can. You can get Radio 1 playing your song, but without the underground and the pirates, it won’t be a hit. There’s pirates all over Britain now.”

From the Mint Club in Leeds to Cultural Vibes in Southend, The Matrix in Reading to Silk City and Harmony in Birmingham, every city in Britain boasts some kind of garage night. Some are recent replacements for traditional Saturday party venues; others are more genuinely grassroots. But the net effect is the establishment of a tightly-knit network of DJs, MCs and pirate stations like Nottingham’s long-running Scene FM. Andy Ward of Galaxy FM now plays all over the Midlands, from slipping Artful Dodger in amongst four-to-the-floor house at Miss Moneypenny to strictly underground raves at the Pink Coconut in Derby. I doubt you’ll ever see a garage room in Gatecrasher,” he jokes, but I’ve even got Milk in Belfast ringing up to get me playing.”

The initial sub-bass rush of speed garage’ might have floundered outside the Home Counties but Juliano reckons that it laid the groundwork for this year’s explosion. It stayed stagnant in London for a couple of years,” he says, but that meant the DJs and MCs learned to be a bit more professional, learned how the business works. Now the scene has roots: it won’t be blown over in a hurry.” The support network for UK garage always existed. From the Hacienda to Southport’s soul weekenders, the Nineties saw strong enthusiasm for garage’s gospel-voiced American cousin – particularly in Northern clubs, where the affection for US garage took longer to wane. DJs like Bristol’s Kevin Real Deal and Andy Ward in Birmingham all started out playing Kerri Chandler records.

I used to play US garage,” says Kevin, but about four years ago American records were very lightweight and British tunes were a little heavier. Now if I try and play any US records the crowd simply won’t have it. They see it as house music and they’re not interested.”

Garage might now be the nation’s favourite sound, but each city has its own take: Bournemouth is still on the old soulful sound, so you’ve got to balance out what you play,” enthuses Karl Tuff Enuff Brown. In Essex its a mix of the old garage stuff with some of the real drum and bass‑y stuff. Up North the music is harder. Two-step is massive in Birmingham. The place is renowned for it! They’ve been brought up with a really strong reggae vibe and that tells in the garage they like.”

Regional flavours aside, Britain’s dancefloors, it seems, have been caught in a pincer movement affected by two highly unlikely allies: clubbers and children. If you go to a christening now it’ll be playing garage,” says Andy Ward. My brother’s ten and he knows the words to Flowers. I’ve seen a girl as young as three sitting on her dad’s knee singing along to Sweet Like Chocolate!”

Kevin Real Deal is one DJ only too happy to play to this new, younger crowd. I’ve just signed a deal with First Leisure,” he bubbles. To play pure garage at their discos for 13 – 18-year-olds!”

Garage UK: this isn’t any craze, and it’s more than just a scene. This is a phenomenon, age-wide and nationwide.


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