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The Wire 300: Simon Reynolds on the Hardcore Continuum Series #6: Two-Step Garage (1999)

February 2013

Originally published as "Adult Hardcore" in The Wire #182 April 1999.

If you live in London, perhaps you’ve scanned the FM spectrum and come to a halt at a pirate station whose sound you can’t quite finger or figure. It’s got House music’s slinky panache, but the rhythm’s wrong – too fitful and funked-up, and besides, there’s an MC jabbering over the top, Jungle-style. Maybe it’s Jungle, then – but then again, maybe not: too slow, too sexy. Sometimes it’s a bit like American R&B – except it sounds druggy, the wrong kind of druggy: like Timbaland on E.

So what is it, this genre-without-a-name? It’s the latest in a series of mutations spawned from London’s multiracial rave scene, the next evolutionary stage beyond Speed Garage (itself a swerve sideways from Jungle). And the new style does have a name, albeit an unsatisfactorily dry, technical one: ‘two-step’, increasingly a general rubric for all kinds of jittery, irregular rhythms that don’t conform to Garage’s traditional 4-to-the-floor pulse. Somebody really should coin a more attractive name, though, one that captures two-step’s lip smacking lusciousness. Because all the juice squeezed out of Jungle by the post-techstep school of scientific drum ’n’ bass has oozed back in the succulent form of two-step.
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“Truthfully, Jungle stemmed from House music. It has a reggae influence, but it’s still House,” MC Navigator from Jungle pirate Kool FM insisted back in 1994. Three years later, Jungle returned to the source, when its rude bwoy spirit and rhythmic science violently possessed the body of Garage (the most soulful and songful form of House), in the process creating a new London scene, ‘Speed Garage’.

Jungle’s relationship with Garage actually went back some way. Instead of Techno clubs’ Ambient chill-out rooms, the second room at Jungle clubs usually bumped to US Garage; pirate radio stations often programmed Garage shows for mellow moments in the weekend (Saturday morning, Sunday afternoons). It was on these pirate shows that DJs started pitching up their Garage imports (artists like Masters At Work, Kerri Chandler, Todd Edwards) to 130 bpm, giving them the extra ‘oomph’ required by the London Jungle audience. DJs favoured the dub versions of the US tracks, says Spoony of DJ collective The Dreem Teem, because “not having much vocal element, you could play the dubs faster without them sounding odd”; these near-instrumentals also left gaps for the MCs to do their stuff. Soon the DJs started making homegrown Garage tracks that sounded like their pirate shows – faster than the US sound, with junglistic sub-bass, dub-wise FX, and ragga chants timestretched so that the vocal fissured and buckled like the wings of a metal-fatigued Boeing 707.
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This UK underground Garage also radically intensified the aspect of the New York sound that most appealed to Jungle-reared ears: intricate percussion patterns, highly textured drum sounds, and above all, the skippy, snappy, syncopated snares and busy, bustling hi-hats that make Garage much more funky than regular House. Reticular and metronomic, house is ‘banging’ or ‘pumping’; polyrhythmically perverse, Garage is all bump ’n’ flex, twitch ’n’ grind. But House and Garage are both underpinned by a 4-to-the-floor kick drum that pounds monotonously on every bar.

Two-step transforms Garage into a kind of slow motion Jungle – a languorous frenzy of micro-breakbeats, hesitations and hyper-syncopations; moments when the beat seems to pause, poised, and hold its breath. In its simplest form, it does this by removing every second and fourth kick from the 4-to-the-floor pulse, creating a lurching, falter-funk feel. More adventurous two-step producers program irregular kick-drum patterns which syncopate with the bassline, akin to Timbaland’s double-time or triple/quadruple/quintuple-time kicks. Two-step has actually taken the ‘speed’ out of Speed Garage, or at least the sensation of velocity, because removing two out of every four kicks subtracts that steady-pulsing energy. The effect is similar to the way the dub bassline in Jungle used to run at half-time under the frenetic breaks. Indeed, some two-step tunes have a ska or rocksteady-like skanking feel.

To compensate for the energy deficit, two-step producers hype the funk by making every element in a track work simultaneously as rhythm, melody and texture. Organ vamps, horn stabs, keyboard pads, vocal licks, all interlock like cogs with the percussion patterns, which are processed through effects until the rhythm track alone offers an ear-tantalising panoply of textures: crunchy, squelchy, spangly, woody, spongy, scratchy. These tactile timbres combine with the twitchy triplets and syncopations to create weird cross-rhythm effects –nicks and barbs that seem to snag your flesh and tug your body every-which-way.

“The rhythm track is not just the backing for a song anymore,” declare Dem 2, the Thurrock, Essex based duo of Spencer Edwards and Dean Boylan, whose nubile nu-funk anthem “Destiny” was the UK blueprint for two-step. “The beats, the various instrument voicings, and any vocals within a track all carry equal amounts of importance – any one can be the hook that sticks in the mind.” Although Dem 2 correctly argue that you can hear this rhythmelody/texturhythm simultaneity at work across the gamut of contemporary dance music, it’s undeniable that UK garage mostly assimilated this knowledge from drum ’n’ bass; many of the leading two-step producers did their apprenticeship programming Jungle. But right now, it’s hard to imagine any neurofunk producer building a groove as seductively sleek and springheeled as “Destiny.”
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This is ironic, because two-step is in many ways a reassertion of the Jungle influence in reaction to the alarmingly rapid crossover of first-wave Speed Garage, which simply proved too attractive to mainstream House clubbers across the UK. two-step is a semi-conscious attempt to make Garage “a London thing” (even an East London thing) again, rather than a short lived nationwide fad. The similarity with Jungle comes across in the way two-step DJs mix. “With traditional Garage and House, the underlying beat and instrumental arrangement is more continuous and pulsing,” says ‘Bat’ Bhattacharyya, the resident two-step expert on the internet discussion forum ukdance. “New York Garage is designed so that the DJ mixes in a new track with a slow continuous fade-up. But two-step, like Hardcore and Jungle, is far more amenable for chopping and cutting with the cross-fader – the sort of hiphop techniques you can’t use with a House pulse-beat, ‘cos it sounds funny.”

You can also hear the Jungle ancestry in two-step’s low-end seismology, which has evolved way beyond the Jungle-derived wah-wah/‘dread bass’ that drove Speed Garage in 97. Listen to pirates like Freek, Mission or Smooth, and you’ll hear bubbling b-line melodies, chiming bass-detonations, and pressure-drop booms that have nothing to do with House as hitherto known. The baleful electro-dub rumble, plinky melody-riffs and migraine-wincing synth-tones of Steve Gurley’s remix of “Things Are Never” by Operator & Baffled hark back even further than Jungle – it’s just one of a number of tunes that flash back to the bleep and bass era of Unique 3/Nightmares On Wax/Sweet Exorcist/LFO/Forgemasters, that dawn of the 90s moment when the British merged House and reggae for the first (but not last) time.

If Jungle really did stem from House, as Navigator claimed, the true continuity between the two genres is not rhythmic or textural: it’s the use of vocals (almost always absent in Techno). At a rough guesstimate, maybe two thirds of Hardcore/Jungle anthems between 1991–94 relied on sampled diva vocals as primary hooks. Producers lifted them from old House or R&B classics, or from CDs packed with a capellas recorded specifically for sampling. While there’s no diva refrain equivalent to the ubiquitous, endlessly revisited ‘Amen’ break, certain classic vocal phrases were reworked time and again, with producers using similar techniques to breakbeat manipulation: acceleration, pitchshifting, timestretching, looping, filtering, and so forth.

When techstep achieved dominance in 1996, vocal samples began to disappear from drum ’n’ bass. But the House/Hardcore/Jungle continuum of diva-worship didn’t end, it just branched sideways into Speed Garage. You can see it in the career of Steve Gurley. As a member of Foul Play, he sampled diva-vocals from SOS Band and Kleer for tracks like “Finest Illusion” and “Open Your Mind”; going solo as Rogue Unit, he crafted a gorgeous drum ’n’ bass revamp of “Say I’m Your Number One”, a 1985 hit for Brit-soul chanteuse Princess. Today, Gurley is a leading two-step producer, doing damage with torrid diva-driven tunes like his remix of Lenny Fontana’s “Spirit of the Sun.”
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Traditional New York Garage privileges the classy vocal, draping its melodious melisma over the groove. In contrast, two-step producers subordinate the singer to funktionalist priorities, slicing ’n’ dicing the vocal samples into staccato, percussive riffs that interlock with the groove to create extra syncopations. ‘Vocal science’ is Bat from ukdance’s term for this vivisection of the diva, which effectively transforms the singer into a component of the drum kit. Two-step’s vocal tricknology has resituated Garage on the other side of House’s great divide: songs versus tracks, melody versus rhythm & FX. Right from the start, there’s been a tension in House between veneration of the Big Voice (Darryl Pandy, Robert Owens, Tina Moore, CeCe Peniston, et al) and a more pragmatic ‘trackhead’ approach that uses anonymous session-divas as raw material (Todd Terry and Nitro Deluxe creating stammer-riffs by ‘playing’ the vocal sample on the sampling keyboard).

Jungle producers like Omni Trio took these crude techniques to the next level of sophistication, molding and morphing diva vocals into a sort of passion-plasma, a body without organs fluid. Then, just as the hypergasmic diva was fading from Jungle, ‘vocal science’ flickered back to life somewhere else – US Garage, of all places. On his remixes of St Germain’s “Alabama Blues” and his own tracks like “Never Far From You”, New Jersey producer Todd Edwards developed a technique of cross-hatching brief snatches of vocals into a melodic-percussive honeycomb of blissful hiccups, so burstingly rapturous it’s almost painful to the ear.

Todd Edwards’s music had an extraordinary impact on London’s emergent Speed Garage scene. If anyone in two-step picked up Todd’s baton and ran wild with it, it’s Dem 2. “Destiny” features an android diva whose plaintive bleat is so tremulously FX-warped that for months I thought it went “dance-ta-tha-beat” instead of “des-tin-i”. Dem 2’s “Don’t Cry Dub” of Groove Connektion 2’s “Club Lonely” is an even more ear-boggling feat of robo-glossalalia. This 1997 remix sounds like the missing link between Zapp’s vocoder-funk mantra “More Bounce To the Ounce” and Maurizio’s dub House. Snipping the vocal into syllables and vowels, feeding the phonetic fragments through filters and effects, Dem 2 create a voluptuous melancholy of cyber-sobs and lump-in-throat glitches: “whimpering, wounded droids crying out in desolation!”, as Spencer Edwards puts it.

“You can add a different soul that wasn’t there”, is how Dem 2 describe this kind of vocal remixology. ‘Deconstruction’ is not too strong a term, for what is being dismantled is the very idea of the voice as the expression of a whole human subject. “Instead of the ‘organic’ female singer of early Garage, you get a legion of dismembered doll parts,” says journalist Bethan Cole, who’s writing a book about the diva in dance music. On tracks like Dem 2’s remix of Cloud 9’s “Do You Want Me” or Colors featuring Stephen Emmanuel’s “Hold On (SE22 Mix)”, the vocal – a paroxysm of hair-trigger blurts and stuttered spasms of passion – doesn’t resemble a human being so much as an out-of-control desiring machine. What you’re hearing is literally a cyborg – a human enhanced and altered through symbiosis with technology.
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Two-step’s vocal science has intersected with the anti-naturalistic studio techniques of American R&B, whose producers have long been digitally processing vocals to make them sound even more mellifluous and diabetically ultra-sweet. US R&B tunes are routinely given a two-step remix these days. Two early, superior examples are The Dreem Teem’s sublime transformation of Amira’s “My Desire” into a gamelan-tinkling tumble of undulant percussion, and the sultry menace of First Steps remix of “Telefunkin’” by British diva-wannabes N-Tyce. Alongside such official remixes, there’s been a spate of bootleg revamps of R&B anthems like Jodeci’s “Freak ‘N You”. 1999’s heavy rotation pirate smash is Architechs’ unofficial two-step remix of Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”, which resurrects Hardcore’s infamous sped-up chipmunk vocals by whipping the dueting divas into a creamy warble of wobbly, high-pitched melisma. But two-step’s favourite R&B goddess is Aaliyah, whose Timbaland-produced “One In A Million” has been extensively pillaged. Best of the bunch is Groove Chronicles’s “Stone Cold”, which samples a handful of vocal phrases (“you don’t know/what you do to me,” “desire,” and other splinters of yearning) and deploys them to create endlessly fresh accents against the groove. The original song’s mood is totally subverted: what had been a devotional paean becomes a baleful ballad of sexual dependency, with Aaliyah digitally disintegrated into a multitracked wraith of herself, stranded in a locked groove of desolated desire.

Hang out at a Garage shop like Rhythm Division in East London, and chances are you’ll hear one of the blokes behind the counter say “the girls love that one” in reference to certain tracks – like Doolally’s Top 20 hit “Straight From The Heart” or the duo’s pirate smash/UK number one “Sweet Like Chocolate,” released as Shanks & Bigfoot. In most dance scenes, this comment would be a diss. Take the unwritten boy’s own constitutions of Techno and drum ’n’ bass, where overt melody, explicit emotion, and recognisably human feelings are regarded as ‘cheesy’, conventionally poppy – in a word, girly. For the UK Garage scene, though, “the girls love that tune” is a recommendation. There’s a striking deference to female taste. Pirate DJs dedicate tunes “to the ladies massive”. And most DJ/producers share Ramsey & Fen’s opinion: “When the girls start singing along to a tune like our own ‘Love Bug’, it gets the guys hyper! If the ladies love it, they all love it.”

Feminine Pressure is the name of an all-female Garage DJ crew. In a very real sense, UK Garage is organised around the pressure of feminine desire; a key factor in the scene’s emergence was when women defected en masse from the junglist dancefloor, fed up with the melody-and-vocal-devoid bombast of techstep. Two-step Garage bears the same relation to Jungle that lover’s rock did to dub reggae: it’s the feminised counterpart of a “serious” male genre. Like two-step, lover’s rock was a UK-spawned hybrid of silky US soul and Jamaican rhythm that restored treble to the bass-heavy frequency spectrum and replaced militant spirituality with romantic yearning. UK Garage pirate MCs send out shouts to couples cuddling at home (“or even engaged in horizontal activities”). The mic chat can get seriously lewd, in the beyond suggestive, explicit style of modern R&B; on one station I heard an MC rap “to the ladies, undo my zip/and you’ll find I’m well equipped”! There’s even a pirate station called Erotic FM.
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Two-step is lover’s Jungle; it’s also Hardcore for grown-ups. Ravers who were teenagers during the 1989-92 era are now in their mid-to-late twenties, with jobs, marriages, even kids. At Rhythm Division, I saw a guy behind the counter bottle feeding a six month old baby, who seemed utterly unperturbed by the thunderous b-lines booming out the speakers; later that day I picked up a flyer for a club that boasted it was “the very first rave with a genuine crèche for the children – with registered child minders, five quid per child. So there’s no excuse, bring the fucking kids. Rather than abandon the drug and dance lifestyle, the first rave generation is finding ways to accommodate it to their new adult circumstances – coupledom, relative affluence. The Garage remakes of Hardcore tunes like Jonny L’s “Hurt You So,” the samples from Shut Up And Dance’s 1989 “$10 To Get In” redeployed in Some Treat’s two-step anthem “Lost In Vegas” – these represent not so much old skool nostalgia as a celebration of continuity. Hardcore to two-step, the subcultural infrastructure of pirate radio/specialist record stores/dubplates/etc abides. The dress code, crowd rituals, and other elements have evolved; MCs, for instance, now superimpose a smoov R&B patina over the junglist’s creole hybrid of ragga patois and cockney patter. But the subcultural project is the same as it ever was: the creation of ‘vibe’.

‘Vibe’ is UK Garage’s biggest buzzword – from Aftershock’s classic “Slave to the Vibe (Dem 2 Remix)” to Garage dons Tuff Jam’s “Unda-Vybe” remixes, from MC chants like “I’ve got the vibe to make you hyper” to Da Click’s “Good Rhymes”, an MC anthem that culminates with a roll call of the scene’s key players, all of whom “got the vibe”. But isn’t ‘vibe’ just one of those nebulous buzzwords, like “street” or “real”, used to evoke blackness? Yes, but it’s also what everyone (except maybe chronic hermits or Detroitphiles) is looking for from music: that palpable forcefield of tribal energy generated by the perfect convergence of music, drugs, technology, and popular desire.

‘Vibe’ works through evolution rather than revolution: producers simultaneously giving the people what they want and slyly seducing them into wanting things they’ve never had; DJs pulling off the same trick through sheer sleight of mix, all the while carefully avoiding a lapse into disparate (vibe-less) eclecticism. And ‘vibe’ only really occurs when music is a component in a subcultural engine, an urban folkway with its own privileged sites and rites. Its musical methodology may be postmodern, but two-step Garage has no truck with Techno notions of the post-geographical or transcending the local – hence the recurrent variations on the old Hardcore themes “just 4 U London” and “London sum’ting dis”. Like Jungle, two-step is heard at its utmost through a big sound system, by a body surrounded by other bodies (the massive). Which is why two-step, like most Hardcore dance styles, can sometimes sound flat when heard as an isolated 12 inch, outside the DJ’s mix, without MC chat or the participatory clamor of the audience. If you want to ‘catch the feeling’, the next best thing to being there is to tape pirate radio transmissions for free; third best is buying a mix CD like the Ramsey & Fen mixed Locked On, Volume 3, probably the finest introduction to the full span of UK Garage.

Compared with the anhedonic severity of its estranged cousin drum ’n’ bass, one of the most striking things about UK Garage is the scene’s relentless emphasis on pleasure. The names of clubs, labels, and pirate stations evoke melt-in-your-mouth, sensuous indulgence – Cookies & Cream, Nice ‘N Ripe, Chocolate Boy, Ice Cream, Pure Silk, Twice As Nice, Bliss, Lush FM – and mirror the sonic penchant for warm, organic textures and thick, succulent production. Garage’s fetish for ‘niceness’ and luxury – champagne and cocaine, designer labels, ‘rude bimmers’ – has a long history in black British dance culture, going back to the pre-rave dancehall and R&B scenes. The most charitable reading of such ‘living large’ is that it’s a refusal of your allotted place in the class system, an insistence that “nothing’s too good for us.” A more hostile viewpoint would argue that Garage’s opulence is mere hyper-conformism, deluded mimicry of the high life.
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Either way, cocaine is the perfect signifier for Garage’s ambivalent politics – not only because of its associations with prestige, but because it’s a drug that stimulates the appetite for all pleasures, and because the dynamics of its use (insatiability, basically) offer a kind of parody of consumerism. Sonically, Garage seems to fit cocaine like a glove: the playa-pleasing patina of deluxe sound, the fidgety, febrile beats that feel itchy with desire. The ‘cocaine ear’ favours bright, toppy sounds – hence Garage’s harsh glare of crisp hi-hats, shrill brass, glossy synths, and trebly vocals.

Horny-making coke has changed the vibe in other ways, encouraging a return to the sexed up, dressed up mores of pre-rave clubland. The shift from Ecstasy to cocaine represents a kind of Fall from paradise, with rave’s androgynous asexuality displaced by repolarised gender roles and rapacious sexuality. And although the standard image of the cokehead is of a chatterbox who finds himself endlessly charming, the effect in clubland has been to replace loved-up bonhomie with charlied-up hauteur. “On coke, you don’t feel the need to talk ‘cos you’ve got so much brilliance within yourself,” says Bethan Cole. “But there’s no E-like empathy, it’s a hollow feeling.” You can feel the difference in the music – the gaseous diva vocals of Hardcore mirrored the swoony, boundary-melting intimacy of Ecstasy; two-step’s staccato vocal stabs accentuate coke’s cold, brittle glitter.

Drug phenomenologist David Lenson describes almost too vividly the “third stage” of cocaine intoxication, “hypersexuality”, a frenzy in which desire is unable to focus on any single object (kinky sex, grandiose fantasies, other drugs) for more than a few seconds before flitting off elsewhere. Ultimately, the mania fixates on cocaine itself – desire-for-desire. Not far beyond hypersexuality lies the paranoia and undead delirium of “stimulant dysphoria”. Whether anybody on the Garage dancefloor regularly reaches hypersexuality is beside the point – the music’s own internal dynamic is pushing it into the twilight zone. Often hidden on B-sides or released on white labels that circulate for only a few weeks, two-step is producing some fiendishly fucked up tunes that merge twisted vocals, convulsively DJ-unfriendly beats, and svelte but sinister textures. Easier to find pinnacles of darkside Garage include DJ Richie & Klasse’s “Madness On The Street”, productions by Skycap like their 97 classic “Endorphin”, and the “Plenty More”/“Get It” 12" by rising producer Chris Mac – tracks whose unsettling blend of brittle and supple, desperation and desire, show how the pursuit of pure pleasure can take music to some pretty strange places. Dem 2 also look set to probe “a darker, deeper electro direction” in 1999, what Dean Boylan describes as “Gary Numan meets Tina Moore”; the duo are also starting an overtly experimental label called Purple Orange. For now, check their alter ego US Alliance’s “Grunge Dub,” with its angular anti-groove and gibbering, strung-out vocal (like a crackhead Bobby McFerrin).

The original 1993 darkside Hardcore was a catastrophic plunge, the first rave generation succumbing to E-induced malaise en masse. With Garage, though, it’s more like ‘darkness’ is a normalized component of the scene, a zone some cross into if they overdo the stimulants, perhaps even a phase of any given club night (after 4am, say, when some of the clientele has crossed the optimal threshold of enjoyable wiredness, or reaches a weekly apprehension of the void at the heart of the hedonistic lifestyle). In fact, dark Garage existed right from the earliest days of the London scene. KMA’s “Cape Fear” combined breakbeat rhythms, ominous ‘video vocals’ and destabilising ‘bass warps’ that triggered crowd pandemonium the very first time the tune was played out, in late 96. “You could see the goosebumps rising on everybody’s neck, the hair standing on end,” says KMA producer/vocalist Six. “The crowd erupted, they were so confused about what just happened they forced the DJ to rewind the track.”
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The anecdote recalls the early, stunned responses to the body-baffling pitchshifted beats in “Terminator”, the Goldie tune that pioneered darkcore. Six talks like Goldie, declaring “my music is like a movie” and “I see myself as a painter, a surrealist painter”. After following “Cape Fear” with another moody, breakbeat Garage anthem, “Kaotic Madness,” Six tired of KMA’s darkside reputation and decided to go in a smoother, more “musical” direction – just like Goldie did circa “Angel”. The result was “Re-Con Mission EP”, whose highlight track “Blue Kards” meshed disjointed emotions, phased vocals, bluesy guitar, and asymmetrical beats to create one of 1998’s most exhilarating sonic con-fusions. What’s exciting about “Blue Kards” and the other dark two-step tunes that have surfaced in the last year is that the music often sounds like a hybrid where the grafts haven’t wholly congealed. Sometimes, it sounds ‘wrong’, but only in the way that 1993 darkcore sounded not-quite-there-yet. If you want seamless, fully realised fusion, listen to drum ’n’ bass, a style that has arrived at a definitive version of itself and accordingly spent the last two years scratching its head wondering where to go next. Two-step sounds like it has a whole world of places left to go.

Footnotes to this piece, originally published at Simon Reynolds’s blissout website, are now to be found at energyflashbysimonreynolds.blogspot.com

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