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These days, British dance music is pretty confusing and convoluted. Sure, there are some more traditional house and techno DJs, but the garage phenomenon muddied the waters.
Believe it or not, Burial, Skepta, Disclosure and James Blake were all influenced by the same scene. They all would have got into music during the late 90s/early 2000s so it makes sense that garage is in their DNA.
What makes garage so different from American EDM, though? It’s the subtle touches: the syncopated rhythms, wobbly bass and pitched vocals. For example, this minimalist single by Shanks & Bigfoot hit number one and went platinum!
Here are five more recommendations of the same ilk.
Essential Album: ‘Sincere’ (2000)
“Let’s take a ride // On the wild side // Just look what he’s done for me // My eyes are on you // So special // Just look what he’s done for me.”
It’s difficult to imagine now given how hyper-masculine its derivative forms have become, but at the time, many considered garage as a trippy UK offshoot of R&B. It makes sense when you hear a producer like MJ Cole – his 2000 album, ‘Sincere’, was so smooth it could have made Lionel Richie wince.
That’s not to say all of his tracks comprised a female vocalist and 2-step drums. Cole had an ear for pop hooks and he articulated them in a variety of ways: funky grooves, hypnotic synth melodies and an assortment of vocal styles.
Do his albums sound a little dated now? Undoubtedly, but that’s part of their appeal. MJ Cole’s music is an accessible representation of mainstream UK garage from the time that still shows hints of its later experimentations.
Essential Album: ‘In Fine Style’ (2002)
“How can I see what I’m leaving for? // How can I give what I gave before? // How can you tell me that you want me to stay? // How can I stay when I’m trying to say? // That I can live without the rain.”
While teenagers tend to believe that Skrillex unearthed dubstep as if it was a mystical artefact like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, London garage trio, Horsepower Productions, are actually credited as creating the style.
Horsepower understood lineage: their garage tunes were rooted in both drum & bass and American electronica but introduced fresh production techniques. The group started by remixing well known garage hits, which explains why their own tracks began to sample heavily and emphasise sub-bass.
Younger dub-heads will tell you that Horsepower were pretty primitive in their approach to dubstep; older listeners will tell you that they were making complex, futuristic garage music years before anybody else.
Essential Album: ‘It’s All About the Stragglers’ (2000)
“Making moves, yeah, on the dance floor // Gotta move on dancing yeah, real hard core // From the front to the back that’s where I was at // You know, you know, the Artful Dodger do it like that.”
Not to be confused with the 70s power pop band of the same name, Artful Dodger were the hottest producers at the turn of the century.
For starters, they practically launched the career of a certain Craig David with the single Re-Rewind (they also had a hand in Sisqo’s infamous Thong Song but we won’t delve into that). While their own eventual LP, ‘It’s All About the Stragglers’, felt more like an incoherent compilation of hits, they were admittedly fantastic hits.
Like MJ Cole, Artful Dodger were very much of their time. Anybody fascinated by garage will probably have come across one of their productions even if they don’t realise it. Notwithstanding, it’s also worth checking out various mixes for Ministry of Sound that they released over the course of the last two decades.
Essential Album: ‘Execute’ (2001)
“When I say, you say, we say, they say make some noise // When I say, you say, we say, they say make some // Bound for the bound, bound for the reload.”
Best known as members of the controversial So Solid Crew, Oxide & Neutrino made a massive splash of their own in the early 2000s. Consisting of a DJ and an MC, it’d be easy to dismiss them as a party-oriented proto-grime duo, but that would gloss over the huge impact they had in a short space of time.
Their tunes sampled from the TV show Casualty and the film ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’, and they even featured in cult classic Ali G Indahouse.
While they lacked the artistic pedigree to be remembered as garage icons, they’re an essential recommendation simply because they reflected the zeitgeist of the time. If anybody can bring you back to 00s London, it’s these guys.
Essential Album: ‘Original Pirate Material’ (2002)
“I’m just spitting, think I’m ghetto? // Stop dreaming, my data’s streaming // I’m giving your bird them feelings // Touch your toes and touch the ceiling.”
Foreigners’ first exposure to UK ‘rap music’ was probably The Streets, even though he ironically bears little resemblance to actual UK hip hop music at all. However, Mike Skinner aka The Streets wasn’t a grime emcee either – in fact he was releasing albums before it even existed.
Back then, people had no reference point for what he was doing. His poetic, spoken word-esque delivery was like nothing heard before in British music at the time. It’s only in hindsight that people recognise the genius behind it.
Once you’ve heard the aforementioned garage suggestions, an album like ‘Original Pirate Material’ makes sense. Skinner’s abstract poetry fit the vibe of the music perfectly, giving lyrical context to the atmospheric sample-based style that was becoming increasingly prominent.
They say the quality of music depends on the listener. Some may find that running through these artists is a trip down memory lane. However, if you’ve never investigated the roots of your favourite genres then you’ll find yourself transported to an entirely alien time and place.
Garage music was music for (and of) the masses in Britain during this period. Did you grow up surrounded by it? Who else would you recommend?