Dr Mark De’Rozario
London Hyperdub HQ
UK Garage: Past, Present and Future: so runs the portentous subtitle of The Dreem Teem’s recently-issued retrospective LP, In Session. The LP flags itself as more than merely another dance music compilation; it stakes a claim, constructs a narrative, not only about garage, but about British dance music in general.
It would be churlish and pointless to complain that In Session is selective. All retrospectives are necessarily partial, and pop culture has always been about the production of synthetic memory, about hearing new potential recombinations in the already-actualized. The problem with In Session is not that it is unrepresentative but that the history it recalls and the future it projects are, for the most part, extremely dull.
The irony of the rebranding of speed garage/ 2-step as UK garage is that there has never been a British dance genre that has sounded so American. (If indeed this is still dance music; it’s difficult to find any groove in so much of this stuff – everything is so pushy, fussy and upfront.) From Acid House through to rave, hardcore, jungle and speed garage, what has been most impressive about British dance music has been its capacity to absorb American influences without being absorbed by them. Unlike the head-in-the sand, backs-to-the-wall stance of British guitar rock, these genres were fazed neither by America nor by the contemporary. They didn’t locate British identity in some lost village green idyll which had to be invoked by some appropriately archaic form. In any case, this wasn’t a matter of representing a British culture, but of performing it, as an ongoing act of metamorphic synthesis. Instead of declining into the senescent lethargy of post Empire blues (a-la The Kinks’ Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon), dance music repositioned Britain as a crossroads, a traffic zone on the Black Atlantic.
But UK garage seems to be dominated by one overwhelming ambition: the desire to be American. As it becomes more and more like US R and B at its most tediously, robotically glossy, UK garage resembles a foreign visitor at a party embarrasingly overkeen to impress her hosts with knowledge of their culture. Everything that made garage and jungle so unique – the deepcore base, the skittering breakbeats – has now been politely downplayed, suppressed under the heavy weight of Soul syrup and naturalized instrumentation. There’s been a self-conscious cleansing of the vulgar exhilerations that made speed garage so powerful.
As with jungle, early speed garage was essentially pulpy. Like the gaudy invocations of pulpcult personae painted onto the side of fairground rides, the cheap and nasty pulp references in jungle and speed garage functioned as sonic-fictional intensifiers, wiring abstract sensation into mass-mediated myth. Jungle’s low-rent frightmares were located in the subways and underpasses of Ramsey Campbell’s England, a dark(flip)side to the increasingly homogenised blandness of UK spin culture. As jungle mutated into speed garage, splattercore horror gave way to spaghetti westerns and kung-fu flicks, but garage maintained a pulp intensity sadly absent from UK garage now. And if speed garage’s effersevensce no doubt suggested some affinity with the empty champagne fizz of Blairite boom, there was sufficient dark undertow in the bass and e-d up vox to ensure that it was never going to be fully assimilated into the tedious banalathon of Cool Britannia. UK garage’s blanded out vistas, meanwhile, are so much Sunday Supplement fodder: the soundtrack for media smugerati to sip imported beer to in some insufferable Style bar. And the remixes of 98/99 classics like Dem 2’s sublime Destiny and Amira’s My Desire on In Session only serve to underscore the brilliance of the originals.
Listening back to it now, the 2-step of that period sounds almost like the perfect genre. In combining the experimental velocity of jungle with the gorgeous flow of a systematically deranged (in)human voice, 2-step opened up all kinds of potential spaces, most of which have been closed down in UK garage’s flight from the synthetic. In parallel with the de-soulified techo-abstraction of R and B essayed by Timbaland in the States, 2-step executed a re-occupation of the song, but not in the name of the natural and the authentic. The Soul paradigm always demands respect for the sanctity of the voice: 2-step had no such qualms, and displayed a Gibsonesque facility for the microfusion of vocal micromemes with machine blips and pulses. Cubase manipulation of the female voice produced a swooningly addictive digital scat, a stuttering machine chatter that affected electronics at the same time as it electrified affect. Listen to Dem 2’s 99 Don’t Cry Dub mix of Groove Connection’s Club Lonely and you’ll swear you can hear machines weep. But you’ll find more experimental use of the voice – and cyborgian deterritorialization of conventional instrumentation – on Madonna’s excellent latest album than in most UK garage now.
Early 2-step exemplified the technique of dubtraction. Dubtraction is the hyperdub practice par excellence, and its abstract sorcery (and sorcery of abstraction) connects Lee Perry to Nico Sykes, Brian Wilson to Can. Fundamentally, dubtraction is about the the production of virtualities, implied songs all the sweeter for their lack of solid presence. It’s all about what is left out, an involutive process that identifies desire with the occupation of a plateau. Hints, suggestions, feints: these complications of desire function not as teases but as positive deviations from both climax and monotonous idling on the spot. Dubtraction understands that desire is about neither engorgement nor emaciation, but about getting the right amount you need in order to keep moving.
It’s no accident that the rebranding of garage has taken the form of the removal of (the word and the affect) speed. Speed mania – in the literal sense of amphetamine psychosis and in the more abstract sense of the desire for new, accelerated modes of experience – has driven all the major working class pop cultural explosions in the UK, from the Beatles and the mods through to punk and beyond. Lacking the effectively endless leisure time and financial resources of the master class, the proletariat had to produce and consume its sonic fictions in times and spaces outside the working week. Escape into the noonday underground and the weekender demanded the production of a new body, one running at an inhumanly fast metabolic rate, and the artificial energy provided by amphetamine was of course a crucial component in this mutation. Speed commensurated easily with psychotropics because, like acid, it was fundamentally about the production of synthetic times beyond the disciplinary structure of the factory and the office. Ecstasy – as a kind of combination of acid and speed – was already virtually there in 60s and 70s proleculture, and its arrival – in actuality – with acid house in the late 80s impelled more or less everything exciting that has happened in UK sonic production over the last decade and a half. Acid house and jungle didn’t keep time, they manufactured it, proliferating and commoditizing time-systems beyond the boss’s watch. Prolesonix were driven by an aspiration that had nothing to do with the desire to become bourgeois; on the contrary, the ulterior zones of deviant joy produced in the speed labs of proleculture mocked the sad, dismal restraint of master class culture simply by dint of their crazed exuberance.
All of this has been airbrushed out of UK garage. Driven by conspicuous consumption of master class drugs like cocaine and champagne (drugs whose pleasure seems to consists in large part in being seen to take them), UK garage is a soundtrack to gentrification, and as such is hideously, mordantly tasteful. With its ‘jazzy’ vibes, acoustic guitars and glossy brass, much UK garage reminds me of the depressing eighties sheen of the Style Council – I can’t think of a worse insult than that.
It’s no accident of course that UK garage is characterised by a reterritorialization of 2-step’s de-genitalised electro-libido onto a familiar boy/ girl love-sex narrative. UK garage is now part of Blairite Britain’s depressing hegemony of molar aspirancy whose most visible symbol is ITV’s Popstars. Again, it’s no coincidence that the dominant vocal styling favoured by Popstars’ will-to-fame blandroids is the same transantlic bawl now dominant in UK garage. It’s the sound of people desperate to both look cool and get ahead. So if you’re still hungry for sounds produced by those who want to disturb, to disappear, to mutate, you’ll have to listen Out for sonic strains that have escaped the ‘past, present and future’ of UK garage.