Warning: a finnicky and overly detailed discussion of the UK Garage scene follows. If the music or scene politics in general don't interest you, skip over this.
So I was half-heartedly skimming through the latest issue of Select at Borders yesterday and came across an interesting but worrying article about "breakbeat garage" - the new rough'n'raw subgenre of UK garage that is suddenly being talked up everywhere. Not surprisingly Select represent breakbeat garage as the garage that dyed-in-the-wool indie rock fans can boogie to, much like big beat before it, as opposed to the alleged girly pop that makes up the rest of the genre.
The truth though is that this "new thing" is a bit of a sham, at least in the sense that it is somehow fresh, or that the producers within the scene have latched onto a new style. Darker tracks like E.S. Dubs' "Standard Hoodlum Issue", Richie Boy and DJ Klasse's "Madness In The Streets" Antonio's "Hyperfunk" and KMA's "Cape Fear", plus countless dark productions from Dem 2, Groove Chronicles, Steve Gurley and M-Dubs have shared the floor with R&B style numbers since the 2-step scene started, but if they were to come out today they would be lauded as prime examples of this "fresh" sound. M-Dub for one were describing their style as "breakbeat funk" as far back as the '98 remix of their classic "Over Here".
Similarly, many of the original 4/4 speed garage hits from '96-'97, like Double 99's "Rip Groove" or R.I.P's "Industry Standard Volume 1" are heavy bass stormers that, if not for their house beat, would fit right into this emergent scene. The idea that garage is only now aquiring a dark underbelly is preposterous; a nice fiction for new producers who want to fabricate major innovation where only a small or at best moderate amount exists.
Select justifies the scene's existence by pointing to the growing practice of building tracks from splinters of breakbeats rather than the typical drum machine. The reporter whispers darkly about an emergency convention of the UK Garage scene's big movers and shakers called by either Norris 'Da Boss' Windross of N&G or Matt 'Jam' Lamont of Tuff Jam (I can't remember which, but I think the former) to try and put a lid on the breakbeat-ification of the scene, and specfically to counter the success of DJ Dee Kline's "I Don't Smoke".
It's a bizarre reflection of the tale of the "Council" of jungle's leading lights who have apparently controlled jungle's development since '92 or so, and dramatically took action to squash the career of ragga star General Levy and his jungle producer M-Beat after the success of their novelty single "Incredible" and Levy's claim in The Face that he was "runnin' jungle." I also reckon it sounds pretty unlikely. For one the latest mixes of N&G's "Liferide" are propelled by, of all things, amen breaks, and Tuff Jam are on the whole 4/4 purists who have always been disgruntled by 2-step's success anyway.
Furthermore, Dee Kline is painting himself as a martyr for the new scene, which belies the fact that "I Don't Smoke", like "Incredible", is a fun but ultimately throwaway novelty tune that doesn't even use breakbeats anyway. The subsequent success of the awful "Bound 4 Da Reload" by Oxide & Neutrino suggests that the prevailing distaste for "I Don't Smoke" is at least partly well-founded. Where most pop-based garage marries pop smarts with experimental sophistication expertly, the big novelty tunes tend to be ugly, abrasive and irritatingly repetitive, on par with lowest common denominator Gatecrasher trance. DJ Spoony of The Dreem Teem denied any conspiracy in The Face, saying that while he doesn't like "I Don't Smoke", he'd be more than happy to play future Dee Kline tracks if they're any good.
The Select article avoids a number of issues that would tarnish its hypothesis that breakbeat garage is rock boys' dance music, like the fact that breakbeats are springing up all over the garage spectrum, and all sorts of established producers are incorporating the general sound into their work (for a great example check out the fabulous Shanks & Bigfoot remix of jungle act Kitachi's "Boost Dem"). Not to mention that the main exponents of the style like the Stanton Warriors and The Wideboys are getting a lot of support and props from the scene's major players. Meanwhile Zed Bias's classic "Neighbourhood" was released on Locked On Records, perhaps the highest profile garage label around.
Significantly, all three acts use a lot of female vocals or remix vocal tracks all the time. Indeed, my favourite breakbeat garage tracks are the ones which unify the two extremes - the shrieking diva on "Neighbourhood", or the Stanton Warriors' excellent breakbeat mix of Jocelyn Brown's house classic "Somebody Else's Guy". At any rate Select's proposition that breakbeat equals non-girlpop is way off base.
What distinguishes the current breakbeat garage sound is not a musical paradigm shift so much as a socio-cultural struggle within the scene. Much is made of DJ Donna Dee's army-pants uniform because it directly contravenes the dress codes of clubs like Twice As Nice or Pure Silk. In a reversal of the classic "back to the clubs" push within most rave-derived scenes, the artificial separation of breakbeat garage is largely about the white working class fans of garage wanting squat clubs that reflect their values and bank balances. The harder, dirtier music is a reflection of the fashion, not the other way round.
More insidious is the fact that nearly all of the producers interviewed in the article were originally from other scenes, and have arrived in garage only recently. Zed Bias used to be part of The Almighty Beatfreakz, a nu-skool breakz duo, and similarly Dee Kline was releasing tracks on Botchit & Scarper, a prominent breakz label. DJ Zinc's "138 Trek", a contemporary landmark for the breakbeat scene, sounds just like slowed down jungle, which is not surprising since Zinc is actually a member of the drum & bass collective Ganja Kru, responsible for the '95 hardstep classic "Supa Sharp Shooter".
Now normally this wouldn't make a difference - quality music is quality music and crap is crap, and in the face of that a pedigree or lack of it counts for little. But it seems to me that a lot of the "underground" artists that complain about garage's pop success were originally producers working in other, less successful breakbeat styles. Having noticed that they weren't shifting units and garage was, they've cannily switched scenes, only to try and turn garage into what they were making in the first place. So now who's being opportunist?
As I've said before, I love a lot of breakbeat garage. It's just that from here the future for the garage scene seems all to depressingly clear and familiar. Breakbeat garage will probably be for garage what techstep was for jungle - initially invigorating, but rapidly degenerating into a creative cul-de-sac of purist minimalism (goodbye twinkling xylophones and vocal cut-ups, hello nothing but breakbeats and basslines) and unnecessary and unconvincing poses, and in the process quite possibly taking the whole scene with it.