“I Luv U”
When it comes to per capita rap talent, Great Britain ranks somewhere between North Dakota and Yemen. Brit-rap has seemed moribund since the early 90s, when rave culture, as Simon Reynolds put it, “swallowed hip-hop whole.” The MC was largely relegated to a supporting role–his job was to hype the crowd. Recently, however, a new breed of rappers has jostled its way to the mike, adopting the swagger and thuggish vibe of American hip-hop. And their raucous intransigence and privileging of words over beats has set ravers against one another as decisively as punk split rockers in 1976.
This nascent style, known as garage rap, has a lot in common with early punk. It was born out of a floundering economy, general social unrest, and a feeling of being shut out of the party. But it’s a hybrid genre: artists like More Fire Crew and Tough Chick owe their flow to hip-hop and dancehall equally, and tracks such as Dizzy Rascal’s “I Luv U” and OT Crew’s “Dubplate,” released as white label 12-inches, are still created with the cut and mix of the DJ in mind. The music is a culmination of sorts, bringing to a head many issues that were simmering throughout the 90s.
During the past decade, UK club producers and style magazines did their best to refine hip-hop to a single reference point: the break beat. By ’95 the influence of such tastemakers helped birth downtempo, trip-hop’s Milquetoast cousin. All lazy, moon-walking breaks and swirly textures that occasionally hint at actual music, it sounded right at home when it ended up piped into trendy boutiques. Up the pace about 60 beats per minute and you’ve got the blueprint for drum ‘n’ bass, which even shared downtempo’s affinity for Fender Rhodes vamps and tinkling chimes.
Drum ‘n’ bass also had roots in jungle, a style born out of UK B-boys’ desire to make indigenous hip-hop that would be messier, gaudier, and more frenetic than its American counterpart. Yet even after DJs like Aphrodite and Zinc ironed out jungle’s kinks to a G-funk roll, the triple-time boom-bap was still too manic for most MCs. (Those who were successful created a style that had more in common with toasting than American rapping.) Besides, the 160 bpm exigencies of the dance floor were a world away from American hip-hop’s languid jeep beats and somber minimalism.
But styles were changing in the U.S., as Timbaland’s Swiss-cheese rhythms reunited hip-hop with its estranged cousin, dancing. Folks in the UK were listening too, even as techstep bores like Ed Rush and treacly ooze merchants like Peshay strip-mined the remaining fun ‘n’ funk from drum ‘n’ bass. The London dance floor massive said so long to stank ol’ drum ‘n’ bass and hello to a luscious composite of house’s swing and Tim’s pothole beats called UK garage–better known in the U.S. as “the genre that gave us Craig David.”
After four years of drum ‘n’ bass romper room masculinity, UK garage was a major shift, getting the girls–“the ladies’ massive”–back on the floor. Garage combined a shiny top end, sure to please an increasingly coked-up club clientele, with butt-grinding bottom-end swing. Unlike many dance styles before it, garage not only explicitly connected itself to Jamaican dancehall, but also to U.S. R & B, resulting in plenty of bootleg remixes of artists like Brandy and Whitney Houston.
Much of it was soppy pop, but by 2000 tracks like So Solid Crew’s “Dilemma”–all bruising blue-black bass and ultraminimal electro business–started busting into the clubs. This new wave of “bass 2 dark” brutalism brought that embodiment of urban masculinity, the MC, jumping up at a frisky 130 beats per minute. The vibe here was a stoic (and, to the disinterested observer, frequently silly) toughness. This was hip-hop high drama transposed from the U.S. inner city to the rave world. This was garage rap.
And then, the new sound shot straight to number one, in the form of Oxide & Neutrino’s “Bound 4 Da Reload.” “Bound” owed little to the warm, song-based sound of U.S. garage, nothing to house: icy, brittle, idiot-simple, it pivoted on a theme nicked from the TV hospital drama “Casualty” and the stilted rap of MC Neutrino. There were no real hooks, no melody. The MC crews that rampaged over the Top of the Pops stage confused, terrified, or bemused anyone over 30 as surely as the Pistols and the Clash did in ’76. The R & B and garage aesthetes said no way but the kids said hell yeah.
Although garage rap has little use for punk’s anticapitalist politics–it inherited hip-hop and dancehall’s commodity fetishism–it does celebrate otherness to the point of self-seclusion. UK garage rap is all about, as the new pirate-radio catchphrase goes, “keeping it separate.” In the age of the solo hip-hop star, its reliance on the six-, eight-, or even ten-man crew is almost heartening; these MCs take refuge in collective security rather than the smugness that afflicts so many of U.S. hip-hop’s bloated plutocrats. But this approach has inherent contradictions. MCs claim that anyone can be a star but then shut out rappers who aren’t in their clique. One minute they claim to be in it only for the money and protest how much they care about their community the next. And from such subcultural quandaries arise guys like Mike Skinner, the studently response to UK garage’s prole art threat.
Skinner, who records as the Streets, has a tenuous relationship with UK garage, its press, its fans, its DJs, and its tastemakers. His tracks sound like UK garage, but his raps are lazy, mulch-mouthed tales of “sex, drugs, and [life] on the dole” (except not much of the first and a lot of the latter two). If garage rap is punk, he’s Ian Dury. (So Solid would be the Sex Pistols–gig violence, canceled tours, ambivalence toward America, and great singles followed by a crap album.)
By the end of 2001, the first wave of garage rap stars–Oxide, So Solid, Ms. Dynamite–had been defanged and absorbed into British pop. As with punk, the industry figured out exactly what it could sell–garage racks in UK chain stores have been halved. As a reaction, underground tracks have grown darker and nastier, leading to what critic Steve Goodman has dubbed “electrobashment.” This new style combines the masculine flavor of dancehall’s “bashments” (dances and club nights) with an unforgiving rigor.
Electrobashment has an oddly dry, unsatisfactory name on the scene: 8-bar. Goodman describes the formula as “generally 8 bars of beats, followed by 8 bars of buzzing electro-bass, followed by 8 bars of beats, etc.” Rhythmically constrictive, it substitutes hand claps and thudding beats for garage’s frisky snares and hi-hats. Musical Mobb’s “Pulse X,” a prime example, is rumored to have been made on a Playstation. Leaving beats behind altogether is the all-bass track “Eskimo 2,” which Goodman describes as “bass-lines switching up or down an octave every 8 bars.”
This new minimalism opens up space for the MCs to rap in–and there are more MCs than ever before. In fact the mike often gets passed through the audience now. And what are they saying? “Step to me and get your face opened,” warns female rapper Tough Chick, who echoes dancehall diva Lady Saw with her “slackness” (sex chat) and “gun talk” (self-explanatory). Goodman thinks the best MCs these days are female, but this new gangsta strain of garage rap is hardly making beautiful use of all that negative space.
And the British media are already howling about this new musical “threat.” There are rumors of “shady garage” pirate stations operating out of crack houses–unsubstantiated of course, just like those in the early days of jungle. The vibe at garage raves may be weed-fueled and moody, but the scene isn’t necessarily dangerous. Still the sound and the rumors are enough to keep the punters away. The most prominent underground garage club night in London, Forward, now only draws about 200 people. There’s a harsh winter on the horizon, and it’s warping UK rave, peeling away the sugary sweetness to reveal a dark, confused center.
Right now garage rap is a rattling mess, its trajectory impossible to chart. With the return of the MC came mass ego-tripping, and hostility between crews signaled the end of any feigned unity among the raving massive. Yet these artists are forced to stick together in the face of a hostile press and shrinking market. In their cold, brittle “Dubplate,” OT Crew raps, “There’s a feeling that if I keep doing this shit I’m gonna make it.” But there are no guarantees.