UK Garage

When I first moved to London in mid 1997, the fashionista media at the time (e.g. The Face, ID) were all over this new sound called speed garage. Champagne lifestyle, cars with low racing skirts and massive subwoofers in the back, designer clobber and chunky jewellery, people shooting gas canisters with lighters in the clubs, and so on. I wasn’t familiar with the sound at all but after looking at the pics of the nights out in those magazines I wanted nothing to do with it. The pseudo nouveau-riche attitude, ostentatious displays of wealth, particularly the cars (I have a particular hatred for cars, but especially hot hatches and ramped up Subarus/Cosworths back then), made my toes curl. There also seemed to be some loose association with Ministry. So that was pretty much that for me and whatever that genre was – not interested.

Meanwhile, encamped in a bedsit in a definitely-illegal subdivided Victorian mansion on a hill in Finsbury Park, I was staying at home most evenings to scrimp from my definitely-illegal sub-minimum wage warehouse labour income. I was on the top but one floor of the house, where I had an elevated view of north London. One of my co-residents had donated me a battered black radio and it was there, while reading books from the local library, I navigated through the dial swirl of static and chatter, stumbling across Chicago FM somewhere around 90.5. This sounds alright, whatever this is, I thought to myself. To me, with that radio probably missing out the subtleties of the bassline frequencies, it came across as pitched up house music, with a bit more emphasis on the vocals than I was used to. Still, it was the best of the lot and the skipping rythyms had me hooked, tuning in most evenings, while digesting my beans on toast washed down with tap water.

After getting over the hump of no money from deposit / first month in advance, I was able to drift back into Soho and whittle away an afternoon around Berwick Street, where one or two shops were playing the sort of stuff from Chicago FM. I had no idea of the names of any artists or tunes because there never seemed to be any DJ chatter on the station – a welcome respite given that they had Heart piped over the warehouse PA where I worked from dawn til dusk. I did catch the jingles once every two hours which was how I was able to put a name to the station. It sounded markedly different on the record shops’ sound systems, with the rolling, incessant throbbing basslines adding a new dimension to the groove.

Similarly I was able to hit the odd club or two with my crew of mates who were were in similar (if not so dire) economic circumstances. We went to some cavernous, four-storeyed venue, I don’t remember where or the name, possibly somewhere around Angel. They had a roll call of DJs playing different genres according to the floor. The techno area, where my friends were, was sparse and unengaged. But the UK garage room was rammed and it was only then the penny dropped that this was the music on Chicago FM, this was what was being documented in the Face et al. I was the only one of my crew who stayed there for most of the night. When Double 99’s “RIPgroove” cut in, the place went into full meltdown with people climbing up the speaker stacks, hands in the air, a complete frenzy of joy and abandon. I went into Soho the same week to ask Black Market if they had it – trying to describe it to the counter staff with my cheeks flushing with embarassment (“it’s got some guy doing these ragga vocals, saying ‘brock wine’ and then it has these spinbacks” – Ah yeah, I know what you want, the guy said, and gave it to me).

So yep I was hooked. Devoured the sound, found another station playing it, bought a few 12″s every week with whatever meagre spending money I had left over, losing two stone in weight in the first three months with the physical work and general living like shit. The music started to morph and crumble into other forms, and I was never so enraptured with 2-step as I was with the 4/4 skip. How could you not get up and vitus dance to the rubbery bassline of something like “key dub” ? But among my crew it never shed the stigma, and I was out on a limb with it so could never drag people along to the devoted nights. The bling was still a real turn off – if it’s all about the music, then what the fuck difference does it make if I’m taking the bus or driving a car? Or why does it matter if I’m wearing sambas and a t-shirt or Gucci loafers and Ralph? And I identified with that logic.

It’s been rehabilitated in recent years. As with most music subgenres these days, it comes back around in a wash of nostalgia and regret for the loss of localised organic growth music scenes in the age of the internet. And sensing an opportunity to get a babysitter for an afternoon, we went to Red Bull’s heavily-branded Sunday session in the Union St. car park. It took a while to get going, I guess the crowd wasn’t quite as amped up as a pilled up mob on a Sunday morning at Elephant & Castle, but by 4pm enough people were dancing to get a vibe started. Riz La Teef and Anz from the newer wave played back to back and that was really good fun to see them feeding off each other, while later on DJ Q and Todd Edwards saved my life (ha) by playing “Main Vibe” in more or less its entirety. They also had an exhibition of the labels that defined the scene, in addition to the cars mentioned earlier – my toes still curled. We had to rush home to the kids, and missed the So Solid Crew – no shame in that for me – but my ears were ringing and my soul was soaring on the music again just like 1997, if a little tempered by bitter age and experience. Being a perpetual music snob with my current (five year long) dip into deep house, UKG feels like a guilty pleasure or habit sometimes, but I can’t shake it, and don’t want to.

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