Nu-Birth - Anytime
I just chanced upon this rather excellent UK Garage single from way back in 97, which motivated some thoughts about the current direction of the genre. This being so old, the original is actually speed garage I guess, with turbocharged-but-jumpy 4/4 beats, soulful vocals and dubby "dredbass", and some surprisingly nice saxaphone. It's more relaxed and spacy than most speed garage though, closer to American counterparts like Masters At Work rather than the straight-up obviousness of 187 Lockdown.
The dreamy remix by the ever-reliable Rhythm Masters teases out this trans-genre affiliation by suggesting a hitherto unnoticed link between speed garage and progressive house: the beats are more regimented, the bass line is undulating and metallic in a way that resembles much trance, the vocals are soothing and drifty and the mix is filled with stately synth washes and stereo-spanning effects. Still, it's undeniably speed garage and as such works brilliantly. I'd love to hear more tracks in this vein.
The Tuff Jam Kick Dub mix is similar in quality but less distinctive. It's a solid combination of electrofunk synths, clodhopping beats and Todd Edwards-style crosshatched vocals, but nothing we haven't heard a hundred times from these erstwhile kings of the garage scene. The reason why 2-step has emerged as the dominant form in garage can be traced to the proliferation of tracks and mixes like this early on, which although working excellently on the dancefloor, really do sound the same. Because 2-step derives its songfulness from R&B rather than US garage per se, and generally uses original and unheard beat arrangements for each track, it has an infinitely longer shelf life than speed garage, which is really just one method of constructing a house track.
Of more interest are the rather prescient 2-step mixes from Crazy Bank and Dem 2. The former is similar to many of the early stabs in its hesitancy to stray from the 4/4 norm (a mindset which now seems ironic considering the subsequent total reversal), and so instead of actually adopting a 2-step rhythm it fills the spaces in between the 4/4 beats with jackhammer kickdrums and trippy snare rolls. Which, bizarrely, reminds me of the percussadelic filagree of artists like Hybrid and Tsunami One who have since emerged out of the nu-skool breaks scene. It's a signpost for a path that garage producers didn't take, perhaps wisely, but I can't imagine that there won't be some convergance between garage and nu-skool breaks in the future.
Dem 2 meanwhile are looking more and more like the lost heroes of the garage scene. After being the first on the block to really exploit the potential of 2-step beats in late 97 and 98, they have been almost silent for over a year - although I'm hoping to grab last year's single "Baby" and their mix of Basement Jaxx's "Jump And Shout" soon. Their near-disappearance makes a certain sense listening to their "Nice 'N' Sleazy Mix" of "Anytime", which, like "Destiny" and the totally bizarre "Don't Cry Dub" of Groove Connektion's "Club Lonely", still sounds totally unlike anything else in the garage scene.
It's fantastically off the wall. The frisky-but-juddering electro breakbeats that push this track are almost dancefriendly, but still stretch the limit of garage's basic kick drum/snare/hi-hats combination in their compulsiveness. The musical filler is a string sample phased and reversed into a piece of soundsculpture that could have been stolen from Orbital, and the vocal, "I'm looking for some love/I'm gonna give you love" is warped until it sounds like a sickly threat.
What really distinguishes Dem 2's productions though is that they don't comply with the song structures of most garage. Their mix of "Anytime" has no melody to speak of, and no crowdpleasing hook or chorus. It's full of holes, spaces of silence during which you wonder if the track has just disintegrated into nothingness. Ultimately, despite garage's much-touted popular appeal, this is defiantly uncommercial dance music. Context is all however; Dem 2's tracks and remixes predate "Sweet Like Chocolate" and "Rewind", and the realisation that garage wasn't so much a dance style as the UK response to R&B. The slow self-awareness that has crept over the scene has been great in stimulating new ideas and directions for the style, but the slightly restrictive nature of the current model has pushed producers like Dem 2 who don't comply with its rules to the outer edges.
In a sense Dem 2's tracks resemble some of the more bizarre hardcore techno from '93, like Hyper-On Experience's "Lords of the Null-Lines"; tracks which though wildly experimental and innovative, were pushing other boundaries than the cut-up breakbeats/sub-bass axis which dominated hardcore's transformation into jungle. Most such tracks were consequently written out of the "narrative" of the scene.
In the year 2000 garage is now resembling jungle circa 95, with artists, fans and critics all rallying behind different figureheads who represent their conception of real garage. It's quite obvious that MJ Cole is the equivalent of LTJ Bukem as the producer that those not into the scene check for. However, it also seems clear to me that Wookie is fast becoming the Roni Size of the story, garnering both critical and underground credibility; that M-Dubs are the garage Ganja Kru (hip hop loving producers with delusions of being in the Wu-Tang Clan); and that the Artful Dodger are currently mirroring the fragile shot-in-the-pan beauty of 94-95 era Omni Trio.
What this all means is that the directions in which garage can now go are already being locked into place, which is inevitable but slightly disappointing, especially when I listen to the alien brilliance of tracks by Dem 2. Happily the more flexible nature of the scene (with all those models mentioned above being unified by a songfullness that Dem 2 lack) will keep it whole and thus more vital than jungle proved to be, as producers exchange ideas rather than simply refining their own style into a creative dead-end. But as the UK continues to bump-and-flex through its summer of garage, I can't dismiss the possibility that the "golden age" of the scene may already be drawing to a close.