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Friday, April 4, 2003

++ More Chat About Garage

++ "You music critics are a painfully self-concious bunch aren't you?!!" writes Luke, my new source for all things underground. (I think this was in response to my self-deprecating confession that I'd been making minidiscs of ruffneck gutter garage to jog to. How bougie can you get?)

He's right. I'm starting to feel like my column is turning out to be one of those joke presents the recipient tears open, only to discover another gift-wrapped box inside — and another inside that, ad absurdum. I keep meaning to talk about the music, but every time I try to unpack a tune (in the language of the academy), it seems like there's another mess of yellowed newsprint and twine to be tangled with first.

Simon Reynolds is right as well, of course: UK garage isn't exactly opaque, even if you're not in a position to decipher what an MC means when he starts giving shout-outs to East London postal codes. There's no lack of documentation regarding the evolution of the genre right now, but that's part of the problem, get me? (Ha.) There's almost too much information.

I spent enough time in grad school to know that you can never have an unmediated experience of, well, anything. But UK garage seems even more problematic to me - not least of which is the fact that garage rap's lyrical focus, with its damn near untranslatable accents, London-only references, and perpetually mutating slang, is basically lost on me; I've always privileged beats over boasts, rhythms over rhymes. (This isn't an ideological thing, it's just how I hear music. If anything, the more unintelligible the words, the better — that way I don't have to worry about 'em. And yes, I know this is an indefensible position, so we'll just call it a quirk and leave it at that.)

++ When I discovered dance music, what fascinated me was the fact that no single track made sense unto itself, but could only be interpreted in relation to other tracks. As garage exists now, the question of context becomes even more crucial. Because the primary way that people interact with garage is not going down the shop and buying records, but listening to pirate radio. (Reynolds has an excellent analysis this week of the relationship of mainstream culture and the pirate continuum's response, not a counter-culture but an alter-culture.) And so when my primary relationship to the genre is via 12-inches ordered from overseas, that puts me one step removed. What's the point of dissecting Platinum 45's bizarro gutter-Kompakt shufflegunk when it's meant to be heard with an MC riding it?

I don't mean this as some meta-critical agonizing. On the contrary, I'm drawn to limitations like this. It's almost a relief to realize that despite the increasing mediatization and informationalization of just about everything, there are some things you'll just never learn from the Internet. On the one hand, of course, geography seems almost laughably irrelevant; as Jess Harvell noted on the ILM forum after a months-long discussion of Dizzee Rascal's "I Luv U," "Does anyone else find it as amazing as I do that we've spent all this time talking about a song that was released only in a limited edition of 1000 white labels up until now? Does anyone here even OWN the 12"? God bless the Internet."

But sometimes there's just no replacing experience. I've been listening to J Da Flex's show on BBC 1xtra, which is the BBC's "street" network. But London Luke warns me, "Don't underestimate how quickly things move here. J Da Flex is old skool now, he's for adults!" Whoops. The scene, it turns out, is full of kids — the demographic is 10 to 20 years old, says my source. Hardly what we in the U.S. think of as the nightclubbing audience. The hottest property on the scene, Dizzee Rascal — recently interviewed at Hyperdub — just turned 18. (Suggesting how quickly underground becomes overground in the UK, somewhere I read that Dizzee recently opened for Jay-Z in London, but I can't find a verification for that.)

You can hear Dizzee in action alongside his breddas from the Roll Deep Crew, Wiley and DJ Slimzee, on Roll Deep's Web site. Full of shout-outs, breathless in-studio rapping, and messy, adrenine-laced beats, the recording is the single best example I've heard of the state of garage at the moment. Dizzee's voice treats octaves like a fat fist mashes the piano keyboard. It sounds like his voice is breaking with every other word. The mix opens with Dizzee's "I Luv U," which has been floating around on test-pressings (and MP3s, of course) for months and months, and only now is getting a proper release (on XL, of all labels); Dizzee's point/counterpoint with an uncredited female MC perfectly encapsulates the sexual tension and adolescent angst of the scene. For a buyer of import 12-inches, the mix is doubly interesting because it recontexualizes everything. Dizzee and Wiley rap over all kinds of instrumental garage tracks, like Mos' Wanted's "Hungry Tiger." Suddenly the records make sense — the debilitatingly minimal riddims suddenly come into their own once wetted down with Wiley's ragga-style chat. And here's another development: taking cues from dancehall, garage MCs are re-using riddims. The 12-inch is no longer the definitive form of the tune; it's only realized when played out, or played on the radio, with an MC riding it. It's chemical: the compound is so potent that the elements have to be kept separate, for fear of spontaneous combustion.

++ It's worth noting that, despite catchy neologisms like "gutter garage," grimy garage, garage rap, etc., this isn't even really garage any more. As Luke points out in a decidedly unfoolish April 1 entry to his excellent blog Heronbone, the rappers are actually saying things like, "I don't like garage or four-to-the-floor" (Demon), "I ain't UK garage so get used to it" (Dizzee), and "Garage, I don't care about garage" (Wiley). They're right, of course. There are elements of breakstep, of dubstep, of two-step, but no MJ Cole fan is going to feel compelled to wind his waistline to these crude, clumsy beats, these Hoover bass lines that suck the wind out of you, these ugly, gaping silences that yawn like bomb cavities. I don't know what the hell to call this stuff. There is something to be said for the term "bashment" (which, as I understand it, refers more to dancehall), just for the physicality of the metaphor. The new garage beats sound like a righteous pummeling.


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