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Publication: The Face, cover story, 1999

Selecta! UK Garages come out of the underground

Spoony: "I'd say, for the past seven or eight weeks, Twice As Nice has ended with me playing a Wookie tune, Wookie in the crowd and MC Neat next to me just boosting it, boosting the music, the DJs, the people, the vibe, everything. I always keep my best tunes till last, and three out of the last four could be Wookie tunes. That's how good he is"  - DJ Spoony

"He's biased" - Jason "Wookie" Chue

If 27-year-old Jason "Wookie" Chue is the future of British black music, the building in which he's spent seven years marshalling renegade snares and throbbing basslines is the monument to its past. Off an inauspicious Camden backstreet, the walls of Soul II Soul Studios are hung with the treasure of the UK's last fully-requited tangle with R&B. Once buzzed through the front doors, you find no less than three platinum and eighteen gold discs, the proof that even a place as drizzly as the UK can get jiggy on a national scale when it really wants to.

In his compact studio, Wookie is dilligently fussing over a CD burned with eight of his tracks. He's has spent most of his twenties working here with Brit R&B chancellor Jazzie B, searching ways to parachute black music onto mainstream consciousness and between them, they've agreed that the agitated power-shuffle of UK garage offers the best chance. The exclusive deputation of A&R men who have heard dubplates of Wookie's thundering new "Battle" tune, share the same conviction. In an A&R bubble economy afloat on blisteringly hot white labels, Wookie's new tune couldn't be more on the money if it was Gordon Brown's pocket calculator.

Wookie is flying to New York to work with Angie Stone tomorrow, but don't expect him to make much of the fact. This profoundly considered young man does not do "large". He leaves that to colleagues "at the sharp end" of UK garage, which is the reason DJ Spoony and MC Neat bring with them a roomful of costly sunglasses, half-demolished Burger King takeaways, gold teeth, glottal stops, traded fists, big rings and massive laughs when they presently bundle in to Wookie's studio.

Craig David's might be the pin-up of UK garage, but Spoony is its ambassador. The 29-year-old DJ may describe himself as "not exactly the finished product as a broadcaster", but readily delivers a line of endlessly entertaining banter that couldn't be more suited to the speed burble of the Dreem Teem's Sunday morning show on Radio One. He drove here in his Merc, has a Nokia programmed with the James Bond theme and refuses to removes his sunglasses for fear the very act it might dispel today's eruption of sunshine. Meanwhile, MC Neat could pass for Britain's Hardest Man, but sounds like the softest when he begins to talk, which is not often. He's peculiarly given to deep oceans of silence for an MC, though that's possibly because Neat simply knows exactly when to talk and when not to. Because MCing has been his trade from the age of 11, after all.

Two days before easter, and UK garage's holy trinity meet THE FACE at Soul II Soul Central amid their own crucifying schedule of club appearances, radio, producing and partying, but they've good reason to be so chipper.

It's due in part to its own aborted clubland siege of three years ago that UK Garage is 2000’s most exciting sound. For whichever reasons the 1997-model speed garage failed to crossover - snubbing by by "cool" clubland and national radio, gauche misrepresention by the media, general miscomprehension by the music biz - on the third year, UK Garage rose again. This time, everyone's paying attention.

But don't worry if you didn't see it coming among this year's other cultural blips (most of the music business were looking the other way as well). Easily the best thing about this UK garage is its transformation from a persistent thud under the floorboards and across the darker reaches of the FM spectrum into a chart-busting "phenomenon" delivering Moloko-sized guerilla hits at a rate that leaves most music biz executives nervously thumbing through their chequebook stubs.

But UK Garage 2000's most satisfying feature, however, is the way struts around the upper reaches of the charts like it was born to do so yet continues to rule dance music's underground through a pirate economy run on pure essence of rude. As instant, available and throwaway as Steps, no less credible than trip hop, UK hip hop, nu-disco, trance, drum & bass, drill 'n' bass, big beat, epic, progressive and tech-house put together, proudly suburban, manifestly superficial and utterly multiracial, UK garage has achieved the improbable and got Edmonton postmen plumbers dancing to the same beat as Cheltenham schoolgirls. That's why summer 2000 is the summer of UK garage.

But if UK garage's single-mindedly get-down imperative is so ergonomcally correct for a nation that just wants to party, that's precisely because its signature tunes bridge the distance between the chartland and the underground. Face it: from Zed Bias' growl-bass "Neighbourhood" to Sweet Female Attitude's bantamweight  "Flowers", most underground tracks are so effervescently poppy that they would simply blimp off into the upper ionosphere if they weren't rigged to the urban experience by the weight of their own basslines.

And so Shanks & Bigfoot's "Sweet Like Chocolate" and Artful Dodger's "Re-rewind" may have smuggled two-step into the charts and given a high-res TOTP gloss to the scene - to the tune of 700,000 copies on the latter's case - but it's indie-launched salvoes like DJ Luck & MC Neat's '"Little Bit Of Luck" and N'n'G vs Callaghan's "Right Before My Eyes" (chart entry placings 11 and 12 respectively) that are the true phenomena, the people's-choice anthems that have been staples of the garage circuit for years. There are more hits to come (You want names? Try MJ Cole's "Crazy Love", Comme Çi Comme Ça featuring MC Onyx's "Summer Of Love", TC Case's "Do It Again", Brasstooth's "Celebrate Life and b15 Project's "Girls Like This" for starters). But while many are being painstakingly serviced by major record companies, even more are readily available for £5.99 over the counter of a basement record store, or on a crackly FM pirate, or pumping out of the bassbins at Twice as Nice every Sunday.

This summer, it's Spoony, Wookie and MC Neat's world: we just go clubbing in it.

Why has it taken UK garage so long to arrive?

MC Neat: "The way I look at it, Joe public has spoken. Finally. All it is is exposure. He's been trying to speak for so long, but no-one's been listening. The people who know the tunes is the street, and they buy the tunes - and they buy the tunes in a way that man can live."

Wookie: "In volume."

Spoony: "Pound for pound, people have the choice. People can hear the record, they can go an buy it. They can buy Oasis or they can buy UK Garage, and they buy UK garage."

Has UK garage made friends outside of the UK?

Wookie: "Ha ha! No. US garage producers don't like us."

Spoony: "They think we've bastardised their music. But as far as I'm concerned, it's not their music these days. In a nutshell, fuck 'em. Some of them are friends, but fuck 'em anyway!"

UK garage is newly respectable, but isn't the most exciting aspect to its triumph the way it's been managed through an independent pirate economy?

Wookie: "It only takes less than 10,000 singles to get oin the charts legally. If you put a barcode on a tune the way you're supposed to, you're in the charts straightaway. If people had done that in the first place, underground would have been in the charts long, long time ago."

MC Neat: "Try and hit a major with this music five or six years ago, they'd think you're were a nutter. Straightjacket. Off you go. But because the the majors' dissed garage, we had to build it all up on it own. They didn't want this to happen! We're the winners now, though. We survived, we held out, we've got a healthy club scene."

Spoony: "We've been in the trenches, running around selling 2,000 copies on our own in the street, dodging the police on the way into tower blocks, turning up at the venues with no mic. I approached Touch magazine three years ago to do garage reviews. They said, "I dunno Jon, there isn't a demand for it." And that was Touch... But maybe what happened on the past is a blessings in disguise. Building foundations, getting roots is what it's all been about. Everyone's gone up to the mountains and come back stronger and wiser."

Wookie: "Put it this way: [gestures around studio]  no major label owns this."

Is the best thing about the Dreem Teem's Radio Show that it gives a daytime space to Black British music, or is it Mystic Mikey B's dream-analysis slot?

Spoony: "It works because it's about fun. Us talking bollocks to each other. It's not The Word According To The Dreem Teem. Even if people only tune in for Mystic Mikey, they're hearing 30 UK garage tunes. He'll tell me about my nose, I'll tell him about his eyes, and we're having a good crack. It could be anyone's mate in there to do a radio show. But if it wasn't us, it would be someone playing house records instead" [winces].

Wookie: "But it's got be taken seriously. It's not a gimmick or a fad. It's not just here for two or three three years. That's what we're trying to get across."

Last year, Twice As Nice ran a five-date national tour; this year, there's a 45-date tour planned. That sounds more like a national clubland phenomenon than strictly a London "ting"?

Spoony: "Demographically, all those places that are similar to London are feeling the music: Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, Cardiff, Huddersfield, Wolverhampton, big cities where black people are living next to white people in council flats, not white people living in suburbia and black people living in the slums."

MC  Neat: "Up north now it's like, yeah! You come on after local DJ and MC, and it's like a switch. It becomes a different rave.

Spoony: That's because Neat gets all  of groupies.

Wookie: Dem feel up yuh batty...

There's a gold-rush mentality surrounding UK garage at the moment. Have the majors been caught short?

Spoony: "Defintely. Once, A&R men used to got to pubs and watch people on stage with guitars. Now, they'll turn on a pirate or Radio One on Sunday Morning, see what we're into, then go to a club to see if it's being played. And then they'll sign it. Now they're A&Ring endproduct instead of nurturing artists. Two years ago, the man could have signed the Dream Team for £15,000 and now they've gotta spend £150,000 to get a single.

It's rumoured that Oxide & Neutrino’s "Casualty" - a year-old two-step novelty tune sampling "Crimestoppers" and "Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrel"s - was licensed by East West for £150,000. Can you confirm that?

Spoony: "I heard to was more like £100,000-120,000. But it's still silly money."

Wookie: "Right now, the majors are hungry. They're seeing the underground making so much money on their own, selling 15,000 vinyl singles. Majors can't sell 15,000 vinyls. They want a piece of it, so they're signing whatever they see first, going for the buck. That's why they threw big money at DJ Dee Kline for "I Don't Smoke". That kind of thing could break the scene. They did the same thing to drum & bass."

Are tunes like DJ Dee Kline's "I Don't Smoke" giving garage a bad name by being more populist than it already is. And it could hardly get more populist, could it?

Spoony: "I don't like 'Casualty', and I'm not into "I Don't Smoke" either, I don't like them. If DJ Dee Kline came with something I liked tomorrow, I'd play it. But not that record."

In the last year, UK garage records have has sampled Flat Eric, Whitney Houston, Faith Evans, Armand Van Helden, Stardust, Ed Rush, the theme tunes to Rocky, Superman, Dr Who, Blue Peter, Eastenders and Jim Davidson, I-Roy, Bel Biv Devoe, Public Enemy, Ali G and Baby D. Surely that's a sign of the scene's vitality and imagination?

Wookie: But a lot of those tunes tunes are cheap shots, man. Your shouldn't have money in mind when you're making music. "Casualty" has taken things people know: to get a hit, you need to use something the public now. But that's blatant. (i)Blatant(i)."

There's talk in the UK garage scene of "depth" and "longevity". Are albums are necessary?

Wookie: "It's not all about fun. "Battle" is not about fun. The fun is the clubs. People like me and Artful Dodger are trying make it serious with albums adult can listento. The object is to get the music to as many people as you can. You can't sell out.

UK Garage's audience demographic is approximately the same as that of Boyzone: discuss.

Neat: "But they're running out and buying Sweet Female attitude's "Flowers" instead of Boyzone.

Spoony: "It's definitely about the kids: that's who the audience is. I played a Monday night at Camden Palace. Two and a half thousand kids. Actually, kids are smaller than adults, so probably 3,000. Saturday night when there's adults in there, you can't park for miles, but I parked straight up outside. It was RAMMED like I've never ever seen it before, but oustide, you wouldn't have known it was open"

Neat: No cars! I did the something there with Dane from Another Level, and there were 3,800 kids there.

Spoony: First track I played was N'n'G's "Right Before My Eyes" and they went mad, singing every word. I thought: This is what it's all about."

Craig David is reputed to have turned his back on UK garage to concentrate of a career as a "serious R&B artist". A wise move?

Spoony: "Right now, the labels are dropping R&B acts because they're flipping over garage. It would make so much sense for UK R&B vocalists to collaborate with UK garage producers. Dane from Another Level has just done 'Buiggin'" with True Steppers. Conservatively, I'm saying Top Five. Now, if we put Lynden David Hall in a studio, we'd have another hit. They took Kele Le Roc from garage because wanted her to do R&B. Now they want her to do garage. They'll get Westlife to do R&B, so why do the need Kele Le Roc to do it? As it is, UK R&B is still a poor subsitute to Lauren Hill, Puff Daddy and Biggie Smalls. The difference is that UK garage is what it is. Wookie is Wookie: he's not Roger Sanchez in disguise. UK garage is real, it's unique, it's got totally its own identity.

Neat: "Here are the stars. Here is our Quincy Jones, our Puff Daddy, our Ma$e. People here have grown up looking up to big American stars, but why should we should we? (i)We're(i) the players now."


With that, MC Neat bustles out to Camden, which leaves the producer and the DJ poring over Wookie's new track, "Joy & Pain", a lissome ballad cranked up of angular two-step rhythms. "Too mellow for the dancefloor," judges Spoony, nevertheless practically melting into his swivelling chair with a smile as wide as the horizon. While they're are in the business if choreographing garage's immediate future, they'll also take a moment to tie up a few ends from the past. To wit:

1. Did Armand Van Helden really invent speed garage?

Spoony: "Pfft. No. Of course he fucking didn't."

2. If UK garage is true expression of British R&B waiting for its moment, have you been keeping it real all this time?

Spoony: "Booyakasha! [Laughs] All the people I associate with - Omar, Wookie, Norris da Boss, Timmi, Mikey B - are passionate about the music. We live it and we feel it. If that's what keeping it real is then, yeah."

To recap, then: having been stolen from the USA, gone "dark", been reduced to a cliché of black men, white girls and Krug, burrowed underground, subdivided from four-four into two-step and rewound its way to Number One, UK garage couldn't be any more real even if it needed to be. Appearances on concept albums and washing powder adverts may well be imminent, but right now, locked into the underground, locked on to the charts, UK garage is exactly where we need it to be. A'ight?

© Kevin Bradddock 1999

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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