Thursday, September 28, 2000
Pet gripe: Hip hop fans dj'ing UK Garage. Spent last weekend in Brisbane and managed to check out the local garage night up there. Despite a couple of excellent (if obvious) tracks like Artful Dodger's mix of "Thong Song", the dub mix of MJ Cole's "Sincere", Zed Bias' "Neighbourhood" and N&G's "Right Before My Eyes", the night was somewhat disappointing.

There was a couple of things wrong; for one, the music was too loud. Even when dancing the beats hurt my ears, and trying to have a conversation was useless. More generally worrying though was the tone of the mix in general, which leant overly towards the breakaway sound Simon Reynolds calls "breakbeat garage". Now, I don't have a problem with that sound in general; in fact it's producing a lot of the best garage around. Artists like Stanton Warriors, Zed Bias and The Wideboys are making absolutely excellent tracks that revive the looped breaks sound of rave, only intensified with post-Timbaland twitch, not to mention those boneshaking basslines.

The problem is more that as a separate genre it doesn't really work. Sure, play a good breakbeat garage track after an Artful Dodger tune and it goes down a treat, but five, six songs in a row? The sound's rough sparseness becomes oppressive, harsh and interminably boring, on par with the worst of current drum & bass (Reynolds ignores the good use of dynamics and acid tomfoolery in similar style nu skool breakz, but slow down a track by one of jungle's lesser lights like Konflict, Skynet or Cause 4 Concern and you've got a typical crappy breakbeat garage track).

Closely linked to this emergent sound is the rave nostalgia infecting the scene. The increasing amount of rave-style tracks neither excites nor worries me, as their quality seems entirely dependent on contingent elements. The remake of "Let Me Be Your Fantasy" is lurvely, largely because it is still very much in the usual garage mould: shimmery female vocals and dewdrop chord progressions.

Mix rave and breakbeat garage though and you can often run into problems. Chiefly, most of the producers working in that populist interzone (eg. DJ Dee Kline) are poor producers/programmers, rendering their work vastly inferior to the original rave tracks they're paying homage to, particularly in the breakbeat department. Furthermore, garage runs at a slower tempo than hardcore techno, so what you're getting is a curiously stunted kind of hardcore, full of rave's cheese but with none of its rush.

With a good garage dj, this isn't going to be a problem. In moderation, mixed in with more house or R&B derived garage, this breakbeat sound is the business (plus the dj is likely to play only quality tracks). But beware the dj who has jumped into garage only as a result of this subgenre's emergence, and would never have dared to join in when it was considered merely a new type of house music. He (I use the pronoun advisedly) has probably tried making his name in hip hop, jungle or nu skool breakz (all very masculine scenes), and is now congratulating himself for being canny enough to be on the new bus from the word go.

He hates tracks with female vocalists (they're "girlish" or "cheesy") but loves the novelty tracks based on tv theme tunes, or rave homages if they've got MC's chanting all over them. He likes to scratch unnecessarily, because he once won a hip hop dj competition in his home town and wants people to know that mixing is an artform. Etc. Etc. ad nauseum. Watch out I say, 'cos he can ruin a perfectly good evening.

Another thing: like breakbeat garage, ragga chants and MCs can be excellent if used in moderation, but on track after track it causes similar problems. After all, if you want to hear hip hop or dancehall, there are more than enough clubs providing them. Not to mention the huge variation in quality, from the good good good (Richie Dan's sentimental "Call It Fate" to Oxide & Neutrino's awfully repetitive "Bound 4 Da Reload") And none of the MCs have nice enough voices that they sound good with the volume too high.

Sorry to be griping, but it just annoys me that a style as vibrant as UK Garage can be so poorly represented by its DJs. Especially in Australia where each major city has only one or two clubs playing the stuff once a week, such figures have the potential to suffocate the scene locally.


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