21st Century Skank: The Haunting of UK Garage (2001)
“I love the dark, dirty, grimy bass.
That is what is in my heart, that is what I am feeling”
- Ms. Dynamite
It’s the end of a warm, mid-summer London weekend 2001, and outbreaks of Sunday evening bass worship are once again rife in the global capital of hardcore. Not only have the Metalheadz Sunday Sessions returned to the unlikely location of the Limelight club, but the ‘lights-out’ vibe pioneered with early sessions at the Blue Note almost 7 years ago has migrated 35 notches down the bpm metric (and up Charing Cross Road) to infect the hypersoul of uk garage. The first set on the first night of Forward, the new depository of the darkstep vibe, sees Sheffield’s 2step pioneer Oris Jay (a.k.a Darqwan) rinsing his unique version of the underground garage sound. ‘As We Enta’ down the stairs of the Velvet Rooms, the soul of Eryka Badu’s ‘On and On’ is being surgically removed and grafted onto a beat pattern as tightly strung as 70′s jazz drummer Billy Cobham on DMT, weighted by a bassline bouncing so heavy that you can’t believe that it is only 8:30. As the club fills up, Oris drops Naughty’s (DJ Hype) sick ‘Pussy’(darkside rmx) with its soca-tronic intro and sub bass depth charge drop. ‘Pussy’ might be nasty, but as a sign of things to come, it is deeply promising. Unlike most breakbeat attempts currently flooding the garage scene, Hype’s darkside rerub of ‘Pussy’ is neither merely slowed down drum’n’bass or 1991 hardcore nostalgia. It reminds us that there is plenty life left in the 2step rhythmachine, contrary to what you might think if you are carried by the mainstream dance press’s preoccupation with the ‘young’ vs. ‘old’ garage wars. This overhyped stand-off is irrelevant to the Forward crew, as one promoter pointed out; “to draw a line between the old and the new is impossible. I just wanna hear riddims be they 2step, breakbeats or 4 beat, whatever.” Signs are that Forward has learnt from the mutations of drum’n’bass, promising a garage futurism that retains the juice; “whilst we might be playin’ proper hard beatz, doesn’t mean that DJ’s shouldn’t be droppin more melodic tracks. For me a good set is about contrast. ”
Forward is promoted by Ammunition, the label management team of Sara Lockhart and Neil Jolliffe, providing logistics and propaganda machinery for a number of future steppin’ garage labels including Soul Ja, Ghost, Tempa, Shelflife, Vehicle, Ride it Riddims, Bingo Beats, Sidestepper and Stealth People: Defendaz of the Underground. As well as Oris Jay, Forward’s opening night hosted by MC Juiceman saw Big Apple’s exciting DJ Hatcha droppin’ some 4 beat into the mix, Phuturistix’s Injekta taking it deep Bukem style, and J ‘Da’ Flex delivering a classic Ghost skank set. And with DJs as diverse as Andy Weatherall and Dego (4hero, 2000 Black, Reinforced) loading up some of Ammunition’s weaponry, their wide reaching sonar seems to be working well. It all sounds a bit like a military operation, until Neil proclaims that they “don’t really have a plan, it’s just upfront and underground.”
Sonic contrast maybe, but let’s be clear; garage-lite this ain’t! It is as close as uk garage has come to how El-B (Ghost trax co-founder, prolific and influential producer/remixer and former engineer for Noodles with Groove Chronicles) describes the mid-1990s drum’n’bass vibe when “everyone was kickin’ back on the aggressive flow, but it was all to do with the music – no bad vibes.” If you monitor the kind of basslines and off-kilter breakstep that Ammunition delivers, it would appear that the 2step underground has been indulging itself in a collective inhalation of skunk and it has taken 3-4 years for that delicous psychosis to fully set in. As El-B continues, “in garage today, producers are getting more into their equipment, drawing the frequencies out of the machines and keyboards.”
Dark garage certainly is no new phenomenon, and there have been several rival strains competing for evolutionary selection. The only difference now is that there is enough quality dubs on the market to make it potentially autonomous as a scene, with all the black holes and dead ends which that can pose. The shadowy end of the uk garage sound has been on rotation since the word ‘go’. The initial infamous and short lived ‘speed garage’ period saw the collision of jungle’s dread bass pressure with a 4beat pulse inherited from uk garage’s more soulful transatlantic elder twin. But it was only when producers started dropping kicks out of the 4beat structure to create 2step’s shuffling patterns that the uk underground got back on track as global epicentre of rhythm’n’bass booty innovation. From then on, we can track the emergence of a sound, which has used full vocal garage-pop’s over exposure and the corresponding flood of compilations as a host for viral proliferation. While some take an overly defensive tack to encroaching darkness, Andy Lewis of Locked On understands that the constantly mutating UK scene “should be encouraged and embraced. It is not surprising that after a good few years of the more ‘pop’ garage tracks crossing over into the national charts, that the kids on the street, in the clubs and on the pirate radio stations want a more underground feel again, and that is what these producers and serving up!”
Alongside El-B, Zed Bias, a producer with a wide range of styles in his repetoire (check his awesome Madslinky styles), has largely been held responsible for opening the door to darkside 2step with the rigid ‘Standard Hoodlum Issue’ on Social Circles. For Zed, the “development of the darker side of garage was inevitable. I’ve noticed most scenes morph into harder, darker, faster hybrids of themselves until somebody wants to call it something else.” And with a flurry of midtempo DJ Zinc breakbeat tunes literally rushing the scene – from ’138 Trek’ through to ‘Monkey’ and the Bad Company styled ‘Hello’ – the familiar uk darkside arms race Is now in full swing.
Aside from this breakbeat revival (partially spurred by a convergence with a vibe-lite Nu Skool Breaks scene), there is also a more subtle, fluid or organic sound which underlines that the UK’s multi-racial audio underground is not merely repeating itself (as a breakbeat hardcore revivalism), but producing innovation into its cycles. This sound could be termed ‘nu-dark swing’ and carries forward the rhythmic DNA of Steve Gurley’s blueprint. ‘Nu dark swing’ is driven by scuttling, sidewinding, 2step shuffles, treble and bass scattered with woodblocks and rimshots, often completely snareless drum patterns, with accents in all kinds of strange positions. ‘Nu-dark swing’ is usually too stuttery to provide breakbeat hardcore’s required rush factor, and this is probably why it is has been destined to undersell its more conventional breakbeat counterparts. We can trace a series of routes to the future of this understated sound, joining the dots between landmark low profile darkness such as Dem2′s Da Grunge Mix of U.S. Alliance’s ‘All I Know’ on Locked On, So Solid’s ultra-minimal ‘Dilemma’, X-Men’s ‘Storm’ and a battery of killer sub bass warmth from Phuturistix, Wookie Dubs, Sovereign, Horsepower, San Francisco’s DJ Abstract and of course, Ghost. It is the swingin’ pole of the breakstep spectrum.
‘The influence is so much, words cannot express’
Probably the most recognizable ‘nu-dark swing’ sound is that of El-B and J ‘Da’ Flex’s Ghost label, with its sateillite imprints, Shelflife, Bison, South West, El-Breaks, Scorpion and the incoming Voodoo. El-B’s angle has always been clear, pronouncing that it was “when drum’n’bass went dark, that I was really feeling it.” El-B recounts with a certain sinister glint in his eye, those nights when Jonny L’s ‘Piper’ received its first rinse at Metalheadz and remembers witnessing the venue explode after Ed Rush passed Grooverider a fresh dub of ‘Locust’. He informed the dance press that Ghost were the equivalent of Dillinja or the RAM Trilogy in the garage world. He even told 7 magazine that “if garage is going to separate and go into either the song vibe or a heavy vibe, then at least let us be known for starting the heavy shit.” And they haven’t disappointed. With the other Ghost crew members, Roxy, Nude, Blaze and Es-G, El-B and J ‘Da’ Flex have spent the early 21st century pushing a spooky yet warm dub step vibe, maintaing all the dynamic syncopations and swing that 2step innovated.
The first signs of the Ghost sound can be heard in El-B’s work for Noodles and the excellent Groove Chronicles. Listen to collaborations like ‘Masterplan’ or ‘Stone Cold’ from way back in 1997 (where heavy, heavy bass pressure is dropped in the middle of the sweetest little Aaliyah and saxophone work out) and you find the Ghost embryo. Even closer to the Ghost skank were releases on Groove Chronicles offshoot, D.P.R. (Dat Pressure Recordings) such as ’1999′ & ‘Black Puppet’. At the turn of the millenium Ghost 001 appeared featuring the tracks ‘Bison’(J ‘Da’ Flex), ‘The Club’(Blaze & El-B) and the heavy update ’2000′. Ghost 002 and 003 followed, carring the dub step vibe deeper with ‘Hesitation’, ‘Count it Off’, ‘Lyrical Tempo’, ‘Bison 2′, ‘the Spooks’ and ‘Assasin’. Simultaneously, the full crew were flexing their stealthy technique on Ammunition imprint Shelflife, and El-B was delivering countless vocal rerubs, adding a brooding undercurrent to the otherwise salvationary ‘Celebrate Life’, and further extending the chill factor on Mutiny’s already haunting ‘Virus’. Check also J ‘Da’ Flex’s basslines on the mixes of ‘Millenium Twist’, his version of ‘King of Tomorrow’ on Defected and Nude’s Ghost dub of Kosheen’s ‘Suicide’. If that wasn’t enough, the Roxy/El-B collaborations on new imprint Bison (‘Cuba’/’Breakbeat Science’), the Dancehall E.P., and Blaze’s awesome ‘Blair Witch’ E.P. have become collectors items for microsteppas everywhere.
In Ammunitions artillery, inflected by the Ghost sound, but coming with their own fresh angles are Oris Jay and the Horsepower Productions crew. With ‘As We Enta’/’Pipedreams’ (Soul Ja 2), Oris has literally moved up a gear from both ‘Biggin Up the Massive’ and ‘Brand New Flava’, with speedy little fills giving the groove even more elasticity. ‘Confused’, the first release on Oris’s Texture label, gives you a taste, but it is his remix of ‘Ladies First’ that provides the pure darkcore hypersoul. While the basslines drive you forward, the tight snares pull you sideways, maximizing the unique wiggle of 2step’s torque engine. Taking the Ghost thing even deeper, with their rootsy organ stabs, socatronic percussion and dread samplemania, the Horsepower productions crew (Benny ill, Nassis and Lev Jnr.) are pushing this vibe on the immaculate dubstep imprint Tempa, and Nico Sykes’ ‘electric soul’ label, Turn U On. The second release on Tempa, entitled ‘Gorgon Sound’ represents, alongside El-B & Roxy’s Dancehall E.P, some of the most seminal dread garage yet produced. In the bass your can hear the ghost of techstep, the rhythms skip along friction-free, and the delay echoes somewhere between Mad Professor and Maurizio. And the first 2 releases on Turn U On with the smoky vocal of ‘One U Need’ and what Nassis describes as the nice’n’nasty ‘Electro Bass’ ensure that swingdub remains laced with juicy synthezised slices of soul.
For Nico Sykes to invert the name of his pioneering ‘surfboard into hell’ drum’n’bass label ‘No U Turn’ to ‘Turn U On’ in order to carry Horsepower’s releases was to lock onto the ghost which haunts uk hardcore from Jamaican sonics. It is a ghost which inhabited the tension between lovers rock and early dub in the early 70s. Music journalist Simon Reynolds has felt this ghost too, and it is in his stomach : “how many holes can you have in your cheese before it looses its flavour”. Tracking this ghost, this sonic hologram, is the balancing act of any hardcore futurist venture, and a challenge which Forward has set itself. With Ms. Dynamite guesting in September with Horsepower’s Benny ill, Oris Jay and Hatcha, Ghost’s J ‘Da’ Flex returning in October, plus regular support sessions with True Playaz at Fabric, the vibe looks safe. But can you feel the tension?
Words: Steve Goodman
Location: London Hyperdub HQ
First published in Deuce magazine 2001