Sunday, August 13, 2000
MJ Cole = Roni Size. Hmm... Well, yes I'll concede that this argument, which has been bandied around an awful lot lately, is true in regards to one very real similarity - Sincere has been nominated for Mercury Music Award, just like New Forms was. And, further similarly, these nominations represent a slightly misguided attempt on the part of the judging panel to come to grips with an urban form they're not really familiar with in order to gain credibility. But to say that Sincere is to garage what New Forms was to jungle is a grossly inaccurate reduction, and suggests certain presumptions about both albums which are just plain wrong.

One accusation leveled at both is that they've made the styles they represent palatable to a certain audience that isn't prepared to engage with the harder, grittier realities of each respective scene. And sure, in MJ Cole's case I can certainly see where his critics are coming from. Tracks like "Sincere", "Sanctury" and "Crazy Love" really do downplay all of the roughness that make so much of UK garage exciting in favour of a sort of garage/classical/acid jazz hybrid which is undoubtedly "fresh", but not particularly threatening to the stylish dilettante. I myself criticised the guy earlier this year for "representing an attempt to turn the style into a critically viable but creatively redundant subset of the US Garage/Deep House genre of quality dance sounds".

The problem is that my fears have been patently unrealized. Unlike within jungle between '95 and '97, there has been no conscious desire among the garage scene to ascend to some sort of East London bar culture dominance. Whereas jungle had a whole number of record labels revolving around this central aim (see Good Looking, Moving Shadow, Creative Source, early Certificate 18, Modern Urban Jazz), in the garage scene MJ Cole stands alone amidst a counter-urge towards a different sort of acceptance: commercial crossover success.

In fact, to tease out the jungle/garage comparison further (and it holds up incredibly well, all things considering), the mainstream success of garage can be viewed as analogous to a sort of alternate history for jungle, where the initial success of M-Beat's novelty smash "Incredible" was not followed by internal recrimination and calls for reaffirmation of the scene's artistry, but rather a hedonistic celebration and various mercenary attempts to capitalize on the original hit's success.

By embracing pop, garage has neatly sidestepped the need for middle-brow validation from the danceworld cognoscenti, and thus the sort of values implicit within an MJ Cole track are not indicative of a broader movement within the scene. Lots of producers check for the guy, but it's generally not an oppositional respect (ie. "I like MJ Cole because I'm sick of all those bassline-and-ragga-chant tracks") - rather its a simple acknowledgement of the man's occasional flashes of brilliance. Which is pretty much how the scene has avoided splitting in half. Of course there are people outside the scene who use that sort of rhetoric (and they're the sort that the Mercury Prize panelists were probably listening to), but their opinions, when they can be heard over the piles of Glasgow Underground compilations surrounding them, are hardly going to influence the scene itself.

The fact that Cole stands alone then makes his stance a lot less objectionable. In fact, with the shameless commercialisation of garage he's almost a necessary component - not because he offers a more viable alternative to, say, Posh Spice collaborations, but because he provides context for the sheer range of sounds which this music can encompass and incorporate. More importantly though, he doesn't represent a threat to the scene; by releasing his album so comparatively early, while garage is still new! and exciting!, Cole has inadvertantly ensured that his album will only be a small part of garage's process of initial self-realisation, rather than the conclusive full-stop that New Forms turned out to be in so many ways.

There's quite a bit more to add to this rant, including a long, possibly tedious discussion of Roni Size, but I'm going to have an early night so you'll get it tomorrow instead.


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