Tuff Jams: Speed Garage: the Underground Sound of London
By Michaelangelo Matos
Speed garage is the newest convolution of a wrinkle to come out of the underground dance scene, and no, I don’t blame you if you think you can’t be bothered. On-line I recently came across a list of techno subgenres; scrolling down, there were dozens, all of which look and probably sound exactly alike to the uninitiated.
But speed garage happens to be the one that has dominated London club life for the past year. It’s officially wrested the roost from drum ‘n’ bass, which lost its street cred around the time Roni Size’s New Forms won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for 1997. Clubbers and ravers are a fickle bunch; adherents of this year’s squiggle and last year’s bleep can’t even bear to speak to each other–until next year, when the two sounds are joined to create a third one. This is what happened with speed garage.
Garage is a soul-based, vocal-heavy offshoot of house music. Speed garage is a hyped-up version of the same, shot through with jungle’s sound and sensibility. The speed comes from the five- to ten-beats-per-minute increase in tempo from the house norm. Its subsonic fuck-the-crowd-let’s-move-the-floor bottom end, rather than seeping slowly through the double-time snare rolls of drum ‘n’ bass, anchors a disco-influenced four-on-the-floor pound. And aesthetically, speed garage shares early jungle’s love of kineticism for its own sake. Vocals and instruments are often playfully filtered or mind-bendingly screwed with, and the end result registers less as forbidding esoterica than fun, almost bubblegummy pop music.
Tuff Jams (Ultra) is an 18-track, continuously mixed compilation put together by speed garage bigwigs Karl “Tuff Enuff” Brown and Matt “Jam” Lamont, whose club residencies and remixes helped put the style on the map. It bills itself as “the definitive speed garage compilation,” and while this may very well be so, my mouth dried out on first listen: even to someone who actually can explain the difference between jump-up and techstep Tuff Jams sounded like a pretty average house compilation, with only a handful of the subwoofer-thrashing bass lines I had fallen for in too many nights in clubs.
Still, over repeated listens I’ve come to enjoy it: Tuff Jams is full of the delirious delight that dance-floor denizens live for but that’s seldom delivered on five-inch silver platters. It passes the test of any decent dance record: when you’re listening to it at home, you wish you were at a club, ripping shit up. (There are a few weak exceptions, where the music is already starting to gnaw off its own good foot, most notably Roy Davis Jr.’s abysmal “Gabrielle”–somebody should do the world a favor and salvage the horn riff right now.) My favorite track is the Todd Edwards remix of Mantra’s “Away”–the most buoyantly psychedelic disco record I’ve ever heard–where a handful of vocal snippets get snipped to bits, reduced to syllables, and scattered like confetti. The effect is of a strobe light glancing off a disco ball. But though Tuff Jams moves and bounces and ticks like a Timex, even at its giddiest it never really breaks out. In that way, it really is an ordinary collection: quality and consistency and the occasional huge b-line aside, it’s not really that different from house comp x, y, or z. What, then, have I been going on about?
The music I’ve been talking about is on Basslines, a compilation on Moonshine. A big, fierce machine of an album, Basslines is the most shameless, wild-assed, nutzoid dance compilation I’ve heard since the prime jungle days of 1993-’94. It’s a monster, barreling forward, plowing down everything in its path and chewing on the wreckage. It begins with Armand Van Helden’s remix of C.J. Bolland’s “Sugar Is Sweeter,” arguably the very first speed garage record. It certainly set the template: a surging, crisp beat, with sampled vocals and an incredibly repetitive two-note keyboard riff, increasing tension, and ending with a strutting, broken bass line that’s funky like a Dumpster in August.
The compilation builds in intensity and lunacy from there, as the songs get successively more distorted and less inhibited. By track four we’re on Double 99’s “Ripgroove,” a rough, unstoppably propulsive piece of rhythm that broke speed garage on the UK pop charts and is probably the genre’s finest moment thus far. Basslines includes the original mix rather than the far inferior Tuff & Jam remix, which in itself is reason enough to pick up the Moonshine comp before the Ultra.
The set climaxes with Gisele Jackson’s seething “Love Command-ments.” A steel-drum fill introduces bass that ignites like napalm, shooting off in every direction, bright and fiery. Then Jackson starts screaming: “You need some UN-DER-STANDING! / From the start / I’ve got the LOVE COM-MANDMENTS! / Here in my heart.” Then she gets cut up and layered and looped: “You need some UN! / You need some UN! / You need some UN! / You need some UN!” And when, through the magic of digital manipulation, she testifies all over herself like that, she’s not preaching the gospel–she is the gospel.
This is the basic appeal of postrave dance music: its incantatory repetition goads visceral responses. So though a more “sophisticated” approach (soulful vocals, real instruments, rock structures, etc) may make the music more respectable, it doesn’t necessarily make it better.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.