UK Garage, previously known as speed garage or two-step, is characterised by two step beats, simple catchy melodies and vocals, see two-step garage for a more technical explanation. It emerged out of the London drum and bass scene around 1996 as DJs tried to move away from the dark sound that drum and bass had moved toward. DJs took the more mellow styles of garage music and sped it up to around 130 bpm to conform to the London and UK junglistic demands. Over the top of these tracks came MCing and vocals. As Giles Peterson puts it, DJs went into clubs, saw all the sexy women and decided that they wanted to play some sexy records, rather than the thought provoking and hard to follow drum and bass records around. They took classic simple melodies and soulful vocals but kept the bass and a new style was born. Whilst this was happening some drum and bass DJs moved towards UK garage from a different direction. Disappointed with the commercialisation of drum and bass they moved back to the underground to rethink their music and began to run into the new sounds of garage. The new impetus that these DJs provided was key in giving UK garage a kick start.
As Jazzy B of Soul II Soul puts it UK Garage is the new soul music. It takes soulful R&B vocals such as Craig David and lays them over a modern beat. Here are the sounds that the London youth grew up with but with a new flavour and direction. UK Garage is very much a genre of black Britain, stemming, as it does, from the black reclamation of techno, Jungle, the artists are all black except for the Artful Dodger. As raves had driven techno and hardcore the pirate radio stations drove UK garage. They sprung up all over the country, particularly around London, and no UK garage producer or artists has succeeded without a stint in pirate radio, Craig David did it, even the Dreem Team did it.
The first really big break through hit for UK garage was the Artful Dodger's Rewind, featuring Craig David. Now Artful Dodger are not your typical UK garage producers, their white, middle aged and middle class, perhaps it was thanks to this that they were chosen to be the first mainstream ambassadors of this underground movement. Whatever the reason it worked and there followed a plethora of successful crossover tracks. Producers made the beats and record companies found the vocalists, with the likes of Wookie, MJ Cole and True Steppers hitting the top of the charts. As UK garage emerged from the underground and into the charts it had to make a decision, it had to choose between keeping the record deals in house with small record companies or going to the big labels. It went to the big labels and this is the reason for much of the criticism of the genre. UK garage chart hits became more and more mainstream and less and less inspirational. No longer did they reflect the tight beats and soulful vocals that had inspired a generation of Londoner's to buy their records but poppy catchy dance tracks. Drum and bass DJs, such as Fabio (of Fabio and Grooverider) have criticised this decision seeing a replay of the greed fest that took place in Jungle scene around 1995/1996. This is where UK garage's reputation for irritation and shallowness came from and why fondue's views may well strike a chord with many UK music lovers.
As UK garage records continued to storm the charts the most well known star of the scene was born, Craig David. First appearing on the Artful Dodger's Rewind Craig went on to make his own album and he could no wrong. UK garage was at last providing a mainstream outlet for talented UK musicians and it gained a very nationalistic reputation. UK garage came to represent the best of young black UK talent. UK garage became the hip hop scene that Britain never had but despite its role as the new black music it hasn't escaped its dance roots, holidaying in Ayia Napa in the summer months.
The record companies realised that the public weren't going to keep buying garage tracks sampling TV theme tunes and so they searched for something different. They found the So Solid Crew. This huge posse of twenty something and younger South Londoners became the next big thing. They rapped over archetypal garage beats and gave the scene a new flavour. The likes of Oxide and Neutrino, themselves So Solid Crew members, had paved the way with their jittery sampled records, a contrast to the soulful roots that had given birth to UK garage. The DJs who had begun this movement, such as the Dreem Team, lashed out against this new commercialised direction and even refused to play some of their records. However they still managed to waltz up the charts. Tragically what these trendy young'uns have failed to realised is that they are pretty faces that sell records and that the innovation and direction will still be directed by the likes of DJ Spoony and his Dreem Team. The commercialisation that held back Jungle may well do the same for UK garage as creativity fails and these 19 year old rappers realise they have rapped their entire life already on their first album. The record companies also may have bitten off more than they can chew with So Solid who have been banned from all live venues in the country due to a wave a violence. Five talented musicians with twenty five hangers on have proved more difficult to control than they predicted. This violence in garage culture has fuelled the split in the scene with the older DJs as they attempt to use the UK Garage Committee, yes there actually is one, to react against this commercial movement. A startlingly similar move was taken by the drum and bass crowd around 1996 as they attempted to ban records that they felt were cheapening the scene. Alas the attempt was doomed to failure as the power of the record companies proved too great.
The self-destruction of the UK garage scene may take years but it will come and with the music may well never resurface from the underground. Stars like Craig David will undoubtedly pull through, he is sufficiently talented and versatile to break the US and his fan base simply won't desert him. The future for black music lies in drum and bass and its evolution. New styles will emerge but they will emerge from the drum and bass underground, not from the likes of the spoilt cocky So Solid Crew. The odd genius may emerge, like Roots Manuva, that seems to show some hope for some genuine UK hip hop talent and a genuine UK hip hop scene but alas it is unlikely to develop. Maybe in a few years drum and bass will re-emerge, maybe it already is with the likes of Shy-FX and T-Power hitting the charts with a classic D 'N' B track, we can but hope.