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November 16, 2001

++ Swing Kids: Sound Of The Pirates

I drove up to Point Reyes with a friend last week. While she dozed in the passenger seat, I put the kibosh on Death Cab For Cutie and snuck in Locked On: Sound of the Pirates, my current favorite mix CD of UK garage, or, as it's more commonly called, two-step. I suspected, rather guiltily, that she wouldn't be too into the aggro kicks, the swung grooves, the seismic sub bass and diva samples, all of which seemed formulated specifically to jolt her awake. But the lure of the open road and the rolling touch was too much, and I gave in to the breakbeat devil perched on my shoulder. I think the disc was in the middle of Zed Bias' irresistible "Neighborhood," throbbing with bass harmonies and all a-twitch with snares askew, when my friend opened her eyes. "What is this?" she said sleepily. "I like this."

"UK garage," I said, affecting my best accent: UK garridge. "You know, two-step."

"What's two-step?" she asked. I was afraid she'd say that.

If you're in the UK, the question's moot — the sound of two-step is by all accounts ubiquitous, played everywhere from pirate radio to the top 10, heard booming from subwoofer-shaken cars idling at stoplights and chiming over adverts for luxury autos. Monty Luke, a San Francisco house and two-step DJ, spent several months in London during 2000, the year of garage's ascendance; he reports, "You hear it in the High Street shops, you hear it on the radio constantly — both legal and pirate are programming it. There was even a storyline on Eastenders [a popular BBC series] where the ailing local club had a UK garage night just to get more people in the door. It worked." And when Prince Charles (in)famously had a go at the decks recently, he was reported to be spinning UK garage tunes.

In the U.S., though, it's a different matter. The stuff gets no airplay on commercial stations, precious little on the college airwaves. And as for pirate radio — well, the FCC has made it pretty clear that when the interests of mega-corporations like Clear Channel are at stake, no kid with a backyard transmitter is going to be allowed anywhere near even the puniest morsels of bandwidth. So while a handful of ravers and dedicated club kids have gotten turned on to the stuff via DJs who are converts from house and drum 'n' bass, most people have never heard the music.

The term, in fact, has gotten considerably more airtime than the tunes themselves. As with all UK-based Next Big Things, it's quickly been Hoovered up Stateside by hipster journalists eager to jump on board (why is it that American writers are so frequently Anglophiles?). While a quick search of both the New York Times and the Village Voice online netted only a handful of mentions (both publications referring to Craig David, the UK singer who came up in the two-step scene over there, but was marketed to urban audiences in the U.S. as an R&B crooner), I'd bet that Esquire, or at least Details, has cavalierly dropped the term at least once in the last 12 months.

So it remains a spectral genre in the U.S., a sign without a referent. (It doesn't help that, like jungle/drum 'n' bass, the genre's divided at its very core by a split over its name — two-step vs. UK garage — that's more or less arbitrary.) Lots of people have an opinion on it — the general opinion being that it's cheesy, lightweight, fluffy stuff — but when you dig, their knowledge doesn't run very deep. Even the usually astute staff of San Francisco's Aquarius Records misstepped, in my book, when they recently accused Aphex Twin of dabbling too much in the "tepid waters" of two-step. As far as I'm aware, that's just plain off base: his mate Squarepusher attempted a cheeky (but oddly reverent) swipe at the genre with the blistering "My Red Hot Car," but Aphex hasn't gone anywhere near the genre's zippy swing. That Aquarius would take such a cheap shot — tarring James with a brush dripping with a substance we're all supposed to recognize as being irredeemably pop, shallow and low — speaks, I think, to the way two-step's reputation has, in the U.S., practically superseded its reality.

On the other hand, such underexposure has its benefits. Two-step's oversaturation in the UK has led to stylistic stagnation, sagging LP racks full of shite remixes, and increasing commercialization and commodification of the scene. (After several publicized shootings, the scene also seems increasingly prone to the kind of violence that has plagued U.S. hip-hop.) In the U.S., on the other hand, DJs and fans are free of the hype, not to mention class- and race-based contexts that define the music in the UK, and can go about choosing their own path into the genre. While the lack of information and the spotty availability of records can be frustrating, there's a marked lack of pressure on the U.S. scene.

What follows is a haphazard introduction, a rundown of but a handful of records, picked almost at random from the stack sprawled out next to my turntables. Some brand new, some old. They all speak to the radical potential of two-step and all its bastard children, and they all provide a launching pad for ample further investigation.

++ Maddslinky, "Dark Swing/Future Chicano" (Sirkus)

++ S & Z, "Def Movez" EP (Sidestepper)

++ Julias & Hypa Hypa featuring MC Juiceman/HMP featuring MC Marshall, "Congo Fever" (Shelflife)

No survey of avant-garage would be complete without Zed Bias, AKA Maddslinky, Phuturistix, ES Dubs and more. The man seems to have invented an entire subgenre of UK garage. Practically no one else has managed a sound so blunt or tough; his joints thump on the ribcage with dull, truncated beats before exploding in dark bursts of color. Likewise, his take on two-step swing is unparalleled; his syncopations weave drunkenly around the one, never on beat, but never quite off either. He's not afraid of a little Bukem-style lushness, but his real thrill is in the grumble of the bassbin, or better yet, the atonal bump of an unadorned kick drum.

Maddslinky is two-step, but there's more than a hint here of broken beat's propulsive funk (indeed, one of the most interesting things to happen to either genre in the last nine months is the mutual magnetic attraction they've developed). "Dark Swing" couldn't be more perfectly titled. Working a backmasked drum track, he puts together a rhythm so syncopated it barely holds together, and the whole track seams ready to rip apart at the seams at any moment, rivets flying. Below this, there's a cavernous bass drop, a laser squelch that writhes deep into the dubsphere. And in the midst of the mix, ghostly samples — barely there, they're almost transparent — flit about: a snare salvaged from tech-step, a Jazzanova-tinged Rhodes stab, and even a spoken snippet of ambiguous provenance. You never really hear all that, though: you just feel it hot against you, blank shadows in a blackened space. On the flip, Jazzanova-styled bells and Rhodes make the atmosphere less ominous, but that drunken swing is still in effect — shuffle, smack, shuffle, smack — and clips of movie dialogue bubble up as if from far below, shirred scraps risen from the wreck.

For the sixth release on his Sidestepper label, the coyly anonymous duo S & Z play with flat, reverbless drums, itchy hip-hop scratching, and the faintest varnish of synth strings. The kicker's in the way they fill in the spaces: a hiccup here, sax bleat there, rimshot rolls and rave stabs galore. There's space around every sound, so no matter how dense the track, it always breathes.

On Shelflife 6, Julias, Zed Bias and crew bring ragga edge and bass urgency to a label better known for its Spartan production and minimalist quirk. Mudslide bass oozes beneath crisp rimshots and the occasional outburst of toasting, more of that 'ardcore nostalgia that permeates the current breakbeat renaissance. Who'd have thought that a simple refrain like "Congo Fever!" could sound like a call to arms? On the flip, "Rollin Touch" is a spacious, sci-fi thriller with brushed, metallic timbres and the brightest snare sound going; the title's spot-on, as it ambles along with an easy, syncopated glide.

++ The Streets, "Has It Come To This" (Locked On) "This is the day in the life of a geezer," proclaims Mike Skinner (AKA The Streets) on this tune from the always-on-point imprint Locked On. At first it's tough to understand what he's getting at, as he raps in a thick, working-class Birmingham accent that sounds like it's just barely shed the last gangly shackles of adolescence: "Check it, yo/ Make yourself at home/ We got diesel off some of that home grown/ So sit back in your throne, turn off your phone/ 'Cause this is our zone/ Videos, televisions, 64s, Playstations/ Weaponry with precision/ Few herbs and a bit of Benson/ But don't forget the Rizla/ Lean like the Tower of Pisa/ These are our ways, ya/ And this is a day in the life of a geezer." But with a mournful piano line drizzling down over a skittish breakbeat — like, really mournful, the kind of melody that gets stuck in your head as you scuff your way along the rain-slicked sidewalk, turtled into your parka — it all becomes clear: a working-class anthem for post-Thatcherite England, it's about kids too broke to front the 15 quid for the club, for whom UK garage isn't about uncorking Cristal in a corner booth, but skinning up in a Council flat. "If you don't know, stand on the corner, watch the show, 'cause life moves slow/ Sort your shit out, then roll/ Sex, drugs and on the dole/ Some men rise, some men fall/ I hear your call, stand tall now."

And standing tallest through it all is the image of the pirate radio transmitter, cutting across geography, race and class to unite searching youth in the womblike web of sound: "Original pirate material, you're listening to The Streets: lock down your aerial." Still, despite this potential line of flight, upwards and outwards, Keith Hammond's heartbreaking plea, "Has it come to this?" anchors the pain at the heart of every redemption song.

++ Wookie, "Battle" (S2S) Wookie, or Jason Chue (pronounced "Chewie," get it?), was my introduction to the genre, first through a handful of features in UK mags like Sleaze Nation and Jockey Slut, and soon after, through this track, which was one of 2000's biggest tunes in the UK. It's at once dead-on and atypical for the genre: the first thing you hear, creeping under a glowing keyboard wash and strutting violin, is a rat-a-tat figure tapped out on the hi-hat, not quite syncopated, not quite straight. The past year and a half has actually seen two-step's swing become more pronounced, but Wookie's rhythmic ambivalence remains the linchpin between the slinky funk of soul and the wooden rigidity of drum 'n' bass and breaks, two genres with deep ancestral ties to two-step.

As soon as the vocal cuts in, the track blows up in all directions. R&B singer Lain delivers an ecstatic sermon on struggle, drenched in pathos and kaleidoscoped through multitracking, as he sings the chorus: "Every day is like a battle/ But we'll overcome/ When we get back in the saddle/ Faith will overcome." Not what you'd expect from a genre that's become synonymous with cocaine-Cristal-and-Versace hedonism. UK critic Kodwo Eshun has called it "militant gospel, a modern Pilgrims Progress for faithless 2 Steppers everywhere, a slowstep anthem for Jesus Loves You Children of England Army."

Meanwhile, Wookie's beats kick down Paradise on the dance floor, slow and radiant as Moodymann. The lurching drum track, beefed up with a stumbling kick drum and Sahara-dry snare, finds its dancing partner in a Moog-born bassline that plays the melodic counterpoint to Lain's plaintive tune, and skanking Rhodes stabs fire volleys of light through the bass-heavy murk. There's no single perspective: you can listen to the track from the top down, or the bottom up, or the inside out; it seems to acknowledge that there are many paths to faith, and myriad rhythms once you get there. That in itself should be enough to make a believer out of you.

++ Further resources:

Hyperdub — The essential reference for viral culture and urban Softwar, featuring Kodwo Eshun on N*E*R*D, Wookie, Zed Bias, and Groove Chronicles; Simon Reynolds on hip hop and E; Steve Goodman in conversation with Landslide, Miss Dynamite, and Oris J; and much, much more. An indispensable reference in charting the points of the Black Atlantic.

Dubplate.net — Upfront tracks in RealAudio from underground producers such as Zed Bias, Landslide, DJ Zinc, El-B and more, from labels including Tempa, Ghost, Bingo, Shelflife and Locked On.

Heavyweight Sound — Chicago-based resource for two-step and UK garage, including reviews, features, top 10s, MP3s and streaming DJ mixes.

Soul Champion — Tracks by North American producers like San Francisco's DJ Abstract, Baltimore's DJ Oron, Chicago's Iris Recordings, and Toronto's Deep Six.

Strike FM — Online radio dedicated to UK garage with serious pirate flavor.


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