There are some really fantastic tracks on Casio’s Garage Anthems 2005 compilation – Alias, Crazy Titch and Keisha’s “Gully”, Statik’s “Charge” (which graced my village voice top ten for last year) , Terrah Danjah’s “So Contagious” and P Jam’s “Can’t Hold It In” being notable examples – but by far my favourite track is Katy Pearl’s “Mr DJ”. I dunno when Casio started playing this on his show last year, but it must have been fairly early because several times when I’d listen he’d play a snippet of it, as if it was by that point far too obvious to drop the total track (kinda like how by the end of last year heaps of DJs were using “Rocker” as a hype-inducing tool rather than playing the whole track). I don’t think I ever heard it in full, but every time I caught a bit I was like “what is that fantastic tune????” Luckily, Cameo chose to use Garage Anthems as an opportunity to showcase his preference for tracks which fuse grime with R&B-flavoured 2-step (sadly “grimette” never seemed to catch on as term for this outside of my own blog), so I was able to finally hear this awesome track in full.
I’d wager that “Mr DJ” (produced by Davinche) is the best and most interesting example of this grime subset yet. As much as I love most grimette, I’d concede that to date the overwhelming majority of it has been characterised by mere symbiosis rather than proper synthesis: an assemblage of complementary elements (usually with dominant and submissive components) rather than a mutation per se. The earliest proper example that I’m aware of – the Lorraine Cato vocal version of “Pulse X” – seemed almost more like a Sticky-ish novelty than anything else, a surprisingly successful experiment to see how plush and pretty this none-more-forbidding 8-bar could become with the addition of female vocals. Subsequent attempts such as Davinche’s “What I Found In You” or the Danny Weed remix of Jamelia’s “Bout”, were essentially 8-bars utilising (often rather fucked up) female vocals, within shouting distance of something like Jammer’s “One & All”. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Terra Danjah’s “So Sure” is basically a straight-up R&B tune, with only Kano’s presence and an overall sonic/rhythmic approach gleaned from grime giving the game away. Mostly, this stuff has pitched straight down the middle: unusually melodic grime productions equally accommodating to rappers or singers, and usually containing both (see Katy’s own “Leave Me Alone”, essentially a vocal version of Davinche’s “Eyes On U”).
The contours of “Mr DJ” are more difficult to trace: the rhythm, a pole-vaulting gymnastic masterpiece of ratatat snares, shivery claps and deep faux-timpani kicks, is undeniably grime, but it’s a grime that owes as much to the fluid, frisky naturalism of late-period 2-step as it does to the absurd fits and starts of Wiley et. al. Likewise, the tune is draped in Eskimo-style synth moans, but everything else about the arrangement suggests a peculiarly unmasculine darkness: the bass is deep, resonant, a black pool sucking you down rather than punching you in the face. Even discounting Katy’s singing, it really doesn’t feel hip hop-centric like most grime does, even though Jendor provides an ace guest rap towards the end. If most grime is redolent of the Dirty South, this swings back towards 2-step’s appropriations of Timbaland, only it’s not so much the early Timbaland of, say, “Are You That Somebody” as his subsequent darker productions that walked the tightrope between dark hip hop and sexy R&B (“We Need A Resolution”, “One Minute Man”, “Gossip Folks”).
But the Timbaland comparisons are a bit of a red herring, because the most revealing frame for “Mr DJ” is indeed that “late-period 2-step” I mentioned first off. I am perhaps guilty of over-valorising a certain moment
or tendency in 2-step that emerged in late 2000 and dominated 2001, a moment where the femininity of 2-step was still in ascendancy, but this femininity was submerged within an increasingly rough and muscular groove framework, creating a music of subtle but rewarding contrasts, conflicts and contradictions. It was this tendency that Zed Bias celebrated on his awesome Sound of the Pirates
(see Bump & Flex’s brilliant Hardstep Dub of Doolally’s “Straight From The Heart”), and Sticky’s “Boo” is perhaps the most paradigmatic example, but for me it found its apotheosis in one track: TJ Cases’s “One By One”. I talked about this track at length in my Garage 2001 round-up, but to recap: a wonderfully physical track built out of a pirouetting soca-beat rhythm and a radioactive “Neighbourhood”-style double bassline, overlaid with robo-salsa keyboard vamps, percussive xylophone hits and Kat Blu’s gloriously anthemic Whitney-impersonation. The respective sonic tricks add up to greatness anyway, but “One By One” is more than the sum of its parts: what it accomplished so gracefully was a sonic maximisation of all of these theoretical contradictions present in 2-step (male vs female, rough vs smooth, sweet vs menacing), literally dropping an overblown diva into a swamp of rhythmic danger.
In retrospect, the soca-beat trend of 2001 was to UK Garage a bit like what schaffel has been to German house and techno: an inherently short-lived escape-route from the overly-familiar confines of the more dominant groove-structure (classic 2-step for garage, four/four for house) (another nice parallel is that it makes Steve Gurley and Wolfgang Voigt – the earliest practitioners in the two styles – roughly analogous figures, which immediately brings to mind all sorts of consequent similarities between the two). In both cases, what makes this diversion so enjoyable (so immediately identifiable and distinguishable from everything else, so specifically physically affecting, but most of all so obvious and simple) also makes it something of a dead-end, at least in terms of any teleology of progression (both persist, but neither offers a stepping stone to the next big thing). Both are taken up incredibly quickly and enthusiastically, only to be dropped rather unceremoniously (see Mayer’s cooling toward’s schaffel, or the sudden across-the-board replacement of soca-beat with 4/4 revivalism, and then later “Pulse X” and all that followed).
But soca-beat was really the last the gasp of garage as an at least partially-feminine style of music; I remember being incredibly ambivalent towards 4/4 revivalism, not because I had a problem with either 4/4 generally or speed garage specifically, but because most of the newer material at the time (eg. DJ Narrows’ “Saved Soul”) seemed so grim and joyless a la most breakbeat garage! Later on, grime compensated with other considerable qualities, but it was clear by that stage that garage’s trademark femininity had been all but eradicated. And as much I love grime, I have always wondered: was the soca-beat as far as “proper” garage could go? Did it have to be the last gasp? 2001 and 2002 were peppered with a handful of tracks that seemed so alive with possibility, with an electric open-mindedness that was halfway between rave and dancehall, while being a world away from grime: London Dodgers’ “Down Down Biznizz”, Babu Stormz’s “Electricity” (which I’ve sadly never found a copy of), some of the better work from Sticky and Bump & Flex… Even The Endz’s “Are You Really From The Endz” belongs to this tradition, with its snappy choppy live-sounding drums. Surely there was a way forward for this music, even as it began to appear less and less frequently?
“Mr DJ” provides a possible answer: groovewise, not only is it Davinche’s best work to date, but it’s like “One By One” or “Boo” forced to undergo grime reprogramming, emerging more or less intact but bearing the unmistakeable stamp of about three years of post-“Pulse X” innovation. Some people have deplored the smoothing out of grime, the move away from madcap wonky grooves like “Ice Rink” or Danny Weed’s “Rat Race”. And there is something lost in the marginalisation of that aesthetic. At the same time though, “Mr DJ” shows how this “smoothing out” does not have to spell the blandification of grime: you could equally argue that it is a case of grime producers having now become so comfortable and confident with this counter-intuitive way of constructing a groove that they can now craft experimental, intricate rhythms that nonetheless make sense
to the body. But even more dramatically, Katy Pearl’s performance dramatically recalls Kat Blu’s work on “One By One”, only edgier, weirder, better
. Impassioned but eerie and ethereal, Katy’s multi-tracked vocals hover over the track like lightning-lit clouds, gorgeously transmuting into a robotic three-note chord as she implores “play that SONG!” like a dependent android.
Coming from the opposite direction, grime has recreated that moment
in late garage where the diva is surrounded by musical forms that would appear at first glance to be inimical to her presence, but is just light enough
to allow her to fight back, to hold her own. Cast down into a position of subservience while the MCs and crews took over, R&B songfulness is seeping back into grime at the exact moment when the sonic maelstrom can begin to accommodate it again. And I can’t help feeling that, had the dark 2-step of “One By One” and “Boo” and “Down Down Biznizz” persevered, survived and prospered, it would have produced “Mr DJ” before too long. Grime, so central to so many, becomes in this particular narrative a mere detour, a route around an impasse previously thought insurmountable. I’m not advocating the dimunition of grime in favour of this revival by any means – the former is still too vital, too exciting, too alive with possibility, to be done away with any time soon. But I’m enthused by the signs that the choice between grime and 2-step, and all that they represent, may no longer be that of “either/or”; that the flux and turmoil of (for want of a better binary) male and female impulses will again exert its force over this music.