If you have reached your mid-30s, dabbled in London life and been a clubber or DJ (or both), there is a high chance that your musical progression went something along the lines of this: Rave/Jungle/D&B to UK Garage to House Music. This was my musical path and there are still a legion of white van drivers listening to pirate radio, caught in gridlocked traffic and tooting their horns to poor passers-by, that will attest to something similar.
But I’d like to concentrate on the middle part – UK Garage- and take a retrospective look at a scene that once took over the airwaves and the nation, for it to then crash and burn and inevitably rise like a phoenix. A lot was written back then. Especially the sensationalist headlines that focussed on the violence opposed to the good it brought to London.
“I don’t really understand why the proper garage scene disappeared. In my humble opinion it’s still one of the best sounding club genres of all time. It was the perfect balance of urban music and dance/house music. It united people from all walks of life and still does today.” – Greg Stainer (DJ/Producer)
There have been numerous books and documentaries chronicling the scene. I’ve read and seen most of them but I’ve often wondered why UKG didn’t make it as a constant scene, much like D&B and House Music did. Back in the mid-90s pirate radio was King. Freek FM, De Ja Vu, London Underground and what seems like hundreds more bullied their way onto your pull out car stereo all across London.
Initially, the music being featured was very much a US thing, with artists like MK, Todd Edwards and Kerri Chandler gathering heavy rotation. But among the US stuff was a tougher, more twisted strain of garage that was decidedly British. Grant Nelson, Booker T and the Tuff Jam pairing of Matt Jam Lamont and Karl Tuff Enuff Brown are very popular examples of producers who were taking inspiration from across the pond and giving it a fresh UK spin.
Ironically a new genre – Speed Garage (that was widely vilified by DJs on the scene at the time) was borne via the spate of chart smashing remixes by American Armand Van Helden, which included Tori Amos ‘Professional Widow’ and Faithless ‘Insomnia’. The Speed Garage sound definitely brought heavy weight basslines and although the clubs were filled with Moschino wearing, champagne swigging ravers, the filthy basslines couldn’t help but bring the screw face. It was hard not to pull a bass face if you were at a club like Powerhouse in Hackney and DJ Ride dropped Renegade Bass.
Out of the dark, came the light and the ying to the Speed Garage yang gave us 2Step and a more musical, melodic style of UKG driven by artists like MJ Cole, TJ Cases, the Baffled crew and record labels like 4Liberty, who were putting the emphasis firmly on entertaining the ‘gyal dem’. As the original keyboard warriors of the UK Garage Worldwide Forum concerned themselves with the millennium bug and gunning noobs, it was becoming extremely apparent UKG was no longer underground.
The writing was all over the pirate radio studio wall. The holy triumvirate of UKG DJs- who were pushing the sound all-round the UK- were Tuff Jam, EZ and The Dreem Team with prime time shows on Kiss and Radio One. People paid for music back then- a crazy concept I know- and with Tuff Jam selling 75,000 copies of their Underground Frequencies compilation (one of the bestselling UKG compilations of recent years, Garage Nation sold 10,000) this trio and their peers were looked upon to remix all manner of chart stars or break new artists, as EZ did with Daniel Bedingfield.
With the spotlight on the UK Garage scene and money being poured into it, the cracks began to show with three defining factors taking the fore. Over Saturation – so many sound-alikes and any R&B track that didn’t come with a legit remix was bootlegged and pressed to white label. Separation – with Speed Garage gone, it was replaced by a darker type of garage like DJ Narrows ‘Saved Soul’ and this darker sound split the scene. Aggression: it was always there in the background but different cliques were clashing and regular violence was occurring in the clubs.
The once bubbling effervescent scene was getting shut out of clubs, played less on legal radio and gaining notoriety from arrests made to members of new garage crews- like So Solid. It wasn’t quite overnight but before you knew it the UK Garage scene was pretty much dead. Having been in this scene myself, I often wonder where it all went wrong? I think it’s too easy to point the finger at the violence. It didn’t help matters but I feel as a genre UK Garage was what I call a ‘Carrier Genre’.
It erupted off the back of US House, Garage and Jungle/D&B and merely served as a carrier for all the ravers, producers and DJs coming out of those scenes. Once things started to go wrong it split again, spawning the Grime scene and the majority moved on, becoming fully fledged House heads.
“What started as an underground movement, with innovative new sounds, became saturated. When a hit new song comes out many follow it, but they are not as good. During the UKG boom a lot of A&Rs signed singles and artists which they thought would make it big.
The problem was there were too many songs and artists signed to these majors. Big money got spent, none came back and those same A&Rs got fired. So UKG fell out of the mainstream. Same thing happened in the club’s.” – Ed Case
Some would argue that UK Garage never went away. Yes- DJs like EZ and DJ Luck continued to play plenty in the barren period but old commercial tracks being played in Luminar Leisure back rooms and on Kisstory, does not constitute a scene. Meanwhile Grime was making waves with Wiley and Dizzee doing the business.
A decade on from the first carrier genre, the UK ravers were treated to its second coming – UK Funky. Which put crudely, was just UKG in disguise and not a great disguise at that. Lyrics, melodies, vocalists and MC verses were all the same as before. This time round the 2step drum patterns were replaced by afro beats. UK Funky didn’t quite hit the heady heights of its predecesso, but it made some stars, like Crazy Cousinz, Katy B. Of course the majors were sniffing around again and getting those compilations on the shelves at Tesco.
“The underground deep house and garage scene started as a very close knit party scene. UK producers started making our own tunes with our own influences and this morphed in to 2 Step. Eventually the powers that be decided it was too much of a threat, after some unfortunate incidents and it went back underground where it belonged and we are now seeing it as an underground sound, with a much wider, younger, friendlier crowd” – Dominic Spreadlove
But as quick as it came it was gone, and ravers moved on in their droves. Does this musically transient behaviour come down to the fact London is constantly evolving? As someone who was born and bred here and watched it transform dramatically over the years, the constant musical progression in London fascinates me.
London is a tastemaker and what we do, others pay close attention too. But conversely, if a scene looks like the wheels are coming off, we scarper like we never had any playlists on our iTunes…Dubstep anyone? Sounds fickle but that’s the nature of the beast. We will always have our constants: D&B and House Music are the King and Queen of our musical game of chess. Knights and Rooks are solid scenes like Soulful House and Techno and the Pawns are nano-genres that journos like to create on a daily bases.This intricate game is constantly being played and sometimes a scene like UK Garage gets checkmate.
But is UK Garage truly dead? Ministry of Sound certainly didn’t get the memo. The club giant has recently programmed a Garage night on a Saturday (which was previously unheard of) and while it may have attracted plenty of old ravers, there is also a new legion of UKG clubbers. Plenty of those newer clubbers even get a fix of UKG at one of London’s most popular events Abode, who tend to include a garage hour at their events that is book ended with some serious house and techno.
The Kurupt FM crew from BBC 3’s ‘People Just Do Nothing’ mockumentary series and the rebirth of Craaaaaaig David would’ve gone some way to put garage on many peoples’ radar too. Along with new music on UKG stalwart Tony Portelli’s M.I. Raw Recordings being played by DJ Target or DJ Q on 1xtra and Kiss FM respectively. If you want it and you’re looking beyond your Kiss FM UKG classic mix block, Garage music is out there and maybe this time round it will remain constant?
Grant Richards Not-so-obvious UKG Top 10
Myron – Get Down (Groove Chronicles Mix)
Active Minds – Hobsons Choice
Industry Standard – Just The Way (Now You Now)
Thump N Johnson – Valley Of Love (TJ Cases Dub)
Anthill Mob – Burning
New Horizons – It’s My House (Bassline Mix)
Baffled feat Colour Girl – I Believe In You
Sprinkler – Don’t Wanna Work No More (Tuff Jam Dub)
KMA Productions – Kaotic Madness
D’Influence – Falling (Booker T Mass Fusion Mix)
Club Scene: Headfirst Bristol