The world of UK garage is split down the middle. The young guns want
to make a new kind of music, but the thirtysomethings who started the
scene accuse them of making 'piss-take records'.
UK garage, the freshest British dance music for a decade, is in the throes of an improbable revolt. In the red corner are the self-styled "old guard" of original UK garage DJs, now mostly in their 30s. They refuse to play the slew of energetic records that has insolently replaced UK garage's traditional soul elements with novelty noises that were once more at home in a hardcore rave. In the blue corner are the gung-ho, often teenage producers behind this new style, who are outraged that their records have been dismissed.
"We're taking over," says the 18-year-old producer Alex Rivers, one half of the garage duo Oxide and Neutrino. "It's a generation thing." "There's this new kids/ old boys thing going on," says Spoony, 30, of Radio 1's specialist garage trio, the Dreem Teem.
Last Sunday morning, on the Dreem Teem's Radio 1 show, the issue hit the airwaves. Spoony was interviewing Lisa Maffia, Romeo and Mega Man from the south London posse, So Solid Crew.
"Any tip for ageing rockers like ourselves?" Spoony asked them sarcastically. "How can we stay out there?"
"Give the youth of nowadays a chance to bust through that barrier - 'cause you lot have been there for so long and it's our time now," retorted Romeo.
"Are you saying we must step over?"
"A little sidestep," Romeo suggested. Mega Man added: "Look for new talent that can carry your name when you lot are too tired to DJ."
Despite the Dreem Teem's jocular insistence of support - they're currently giving airtime to two Oxide and Neutrino productions - the tension was all too audible.
The problems began in April when Oxide and Neutrino - who are closely tied to So Solid Crew - went to number one. They sold 250,000 copies of (Casualty) Bound 4 Da Reload, a noisy hit built around a sample from the music to the TV series Casualty and Neutrino's frantic MC rapping. Later, a gimmicky party record called I Don't Smoke by DJ Dee Kline reached the top 20. The UK garage scene's elite - the Dreem Teem and elder statesmen DJs like Norris "Da Boss" Windross - refused to play either single. Other records have followed and music magazines dubbed the new style "breakbeat garage". "I don't like many of those records of that style," says Spoony. "I like music with more soul and groove in it."
Amazingly, for a form of music that defined the urban underground, there is now even that most British of institutions, a UK garage committee. It was formed in 1999 to foster unity, but earlier this year the committee found itself locked in a heated debate about this issue during a meeting at Bill Bentley's wine bar in the City of London. The young guns of garage were not invited. Comments were made on pirate radio station phone-ins. The ideological battle lines were drawn.
DJ Dee Kline (22-year-old Nick Annand from Wimbledon), built his hit around a jokey sample about smoking and a stretched West Indian voice screeching: "I don't smoke da reefer!" Windross says: "That takes the piss out of my colour... It's portrayed itself as a garage record and for me it's a piss-take record." He refused to have his photograph taken with Dee Kline for the Face magazine. "It was a novelty record. Just a party," Dee Kline counters. "I made a lot of money."
Oxide and Neutrino are currently promoting their Christmas single - a rough-edged groove called No Good 4 Me that is closer to the early hardcore sound of the Prodigy (which it samples) than anything in garage. It will probably reach the top 10. During a rehearsal break, Neutrino - 18-year-old MC Mark Oseitutu - explains his view on the split in garage. "I think it's because we're like 18 years old and everyone's young and those guys are like 30 to 40. We're moving them over and they're gonna lose their jobs. They're gonna lose their income. That's what they're scared of."
Just as the music is moving closer to rave, so there are echoes of a similar storm that beset drum'n'bass, another urban British music form with close links to garage that grew out of the early 90s rave scene and threw up the celebrity producer Goldie. They too formed a committee and attempted to blacklist the MC General Levy, partly because of his party record Incredible, which some felt was cheapening the scene. DJ Rap - a leading drum'n'bass producer - attended one meeting where she was told she couldn't play the record, and couldn't DJ at certain events. She refused and claims to have later received anonymous threatening phone calls. "I fell out with everybody because of it," she says.
Dave Piccioni, owner of Soho's Black Market record shop - a key centre for both drum'n'bass and UK garage - remembers a visit from Goldie and Black Market's drum'n'bass specialist, Ray Keith, who politely asked him not to stock the General Levy record." (there is no suggestion that either was involved in DJ Rap's phone calls). "The gist of it was they didn't want these tunes on their scene. I was quite amused," he says. At the time the DJs and producers were being handed six-figure record company advances, and Piccioni can recall rows of gleaming BMWs and Mercedes parked outside the shop. He told them he'd sell what he liked - unless they fancied paying his rent.
Today, General Levy is still recording but drum'n'bass has slipped from the limelight. As for that committee - "Where is it now?" asks DJ Rap. The garage committee is less militant. Their HQ is in a neat north London mews house, at the offices and recording studio run by Norris "Da Boss" Windross. On the walls are gold discs for his sister, the Soul II Soul singer Rose Windross. While having their photos taken, committee members Windross, MC Creed and DJ Jason Kaye joke about the weather. For a group that has so provoked UK garage's renegade youth faction, they're remarkably affable.
Formed in autumn 1999, the committee aimed to deal with issues like radio playlists (the music wasn't getting the exposure it does now). Forming a committee is a very British thing to do, I suggest. "It's a British thing. Not black, not white," says Creed. "This is the only music in the whole world that we're best at." They met on a number of occasions in May and June, electing Spoony as spokesman and Windross as chairman. They wanted their own chart and magazine. Looking at some of their minutes, if it wasn't for the names - DJ Stepz, DJ Dominic Spreadlove - they could have been from a climbing club. "Encourage everybody to send in agendas!" requests the agenda for Tuesday June 6. "Decision on name for 'UK Garage Committee'". They even held their own garage awards ceremony.
MC Creed explains that their problem is not so much with the personalities behind "breakbeat garage", but with the music itself. "If the old guard goes, then most of the music will be like that - and then UK garage is dead." Proper UK garage consists of core elements, adds Norris. "A certain element of soulfulness and, above all, a certain groove." He is 37, Creed is 34; is there a generation gap going on here? "I got a daughter of 17 and I get on with her like she's my friend," Norris counters. "So in my mind, I ain't no old geezer that's fuddy-duddy."
They stopped short of banning any records. They had no choice. Huckleberry from Uptown records was at the meeting. "Everyone in the room knew that if they wanted to play stuff, they would play it," he recalls. There was some debate over whether "darker" records like this would attract rougher elements to the garage club scene - which some commentators have argued was a problem drum'n'bass struggled with when it, too, took a musical turn in a more aggressive direction. "I stood up," says Huckleberry, "and said trouble isn't down to the music - it's down to society."
Committee member Jason Kaye broke ranks after one gig, where he had deliberately not played I Don't Smoke to show loyalty to the committee. "I played a wicked set and the crowd was into it and people came up and said that was brilliant and whatever. Geezer came on after me and played I Don't Smoke and ripped off the roof. The whole place. One tune. I thought: 'Never again.' " Norris laughs, clearly unperturbed. "I dissed you, didn't I?" These three lived and breathed garage music for years before the teenagers and pop radio got on board, shunned by the mainstream dance-music industry (which is why UK garage summers in Agia Napa, Greece, rather than Ibiza).
Everyone wants to maintain UK garage's all-important credibility. "Kids buy into credibility," says Piccioni. "Kids want to be associated with cool, they don't want to be associated with mass market. They want to be counter culture." The dispute is over what that credibility consists of. For the garage committee, it's about keeping true to the original sound they persevered with for so long. "We haven't got a problem with people making garage like [Oxide and Neutrino's]," says MC Creed. "Just as long as there are other guys making the pure stuff to balance it out." But the predominant garage style, called "two step" and characterised by chirpy vocals and skippy beats, has become chart fodder, sampling major artists like Whitney Houston, providing a hit of urban remix cool to mainstream singers like Gabrielle. Twenty-three per cent of garage singles are sold not by underground record shops, but by the V-shop chain, formerly called Our Price.
The people buying the breakbeat records by Oxide and Neutrino, Dee Kline and fellow travellers such as Zed Bias, are 16 to 18; too young to remember UK garage's origins five years ago. In the end, they will decide. "You can't buck the market," says Piccioni. Currently inactive, the garage committee has proved itself more of a trade union for approved practitioners, a kind of closed shop. "If one of these guys like Norris is associated with one kind of music that goes out of fashion, they're fucked," says Piccioni. Meanwhile, Oxide and Neutrino are unlikely to be mollified. They have already prepared their next shot across the old guard's bows, a revenge record called Up Middle Finger with an angry rap that rails against unnamed enemies, due to be included on their debut album next year.
"That's aimed at people that did say things about us," says Oxide. Harsh, edgy, and thoroughly pissed off, it is unlikely to go down well at future garage committee meetings.
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