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Death of a genre: evaluating and assessing the factors associated with the demise of Garage music

By Jack Straker

 

The concept of here today gone tomorrow is one that has been ever prevalent and consistent within the realms of popular music. This concept can be applied to a range of aspects within the pop music sphere: from the latest heartthrob singing sensation to happy accident, yet era defying, recording and production technique. It is arguable that no other style of music has been subjected to so much transition and alteration than, to use the incredibly broad term, Electronic Dance Music (EDM), one that is still relatively young in comparison to its musical counterparts. The ever coming and going styles and sub-genres often seem to emerge, achieve fame and subsequently vanish in what appears to be the blink of an eye.

This article focuses on UK Garage or UKG, a sub-genre of House music that rose to astonishing heights of popularity between the 1990s and the first few early years of the millennium.  Despite its mass popularity, UK Garage disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared. No sooner than Garage had become a Top of the Pops regular and made appearances on various Now That’s What I Call Music compilations, it seemingly vanished from the airwaves and dance floors becoming a dirtier word in underground music than commercial. There are several factors and components cited as being a contributor to the demise of UK Garage music during its decade long tenure as cutting-edge electronic music. This article will highlight and examine these factors before concluding on the greatest contributors to this decline. They include: over saturation married with commercial and corporate mismanagement; the ever changing stylistic traits and characteristics of the genre, leading it down various uncharted creative paths as the years progressed; the transition in technology throughout the decade resulting in the music being produced in alternative ways thus ushering in new production practices and sonic soundscapes; and finally the genre as an entity remaining stationary and not possessing the ability to stimulate other creative breeding grounds away from where it was conceived, which would have allowed it to grow and subsequently thrive.

Before examining the various components attributed to the premature demise of UK Garage music, it is first necessary to illustrate and characterise the state of electronic based dance music in the United Kingdom prior to and during its conception as well as key aspects that resulted in UK Garage’s metaphorical birth. The roots for the genre can be traced back to Britain’s Acid House boom during the second summer of love in the late 1980s, being identified as “the biggest youth revolution since the 1960s” (Walker 2018).  Acid House, the then latest American electronic music export genre, proved to be incredibly popular amongst its new British audience primarily due to its incorporation of deep, squelching basslines by utilising the Roland TB-303 bass synthesiser, as well as the various gritty and erratic drum rhythms and sequences.  Whilst at the time, and today, the preconceived image of Acid House was thousands of ecstasy taking partygoers dancing in a field or abandoned warehouse until sunrise, its increase in popularity resulted in a drastic transition of the once barren British nocturnal experience:

Before acid house, nightclubs in Britain were mostly depressing places where revellers went to get drunk and perhaps meet someone of the opposite sex or fight someone of the same sex (Bainbridge 2014).

As a result of the Acid House and subsequent Rave flourish of the late 1980s, by the end of the decade it was becoming increasingly difficult for the masses to ignore the electronic music epidemic that the country was being subjected to. Recording and electronic music production equipment was becoming ever cheaper, meaning the new breed of music producer, often dubbed bedroom producer, could consistently churn out multiple tracks at little expense. The addition of multiple and small-scale local scenes, with their own artist-cum-producer-cum DJs and many purpose-built nightclubs, saw the electronic dance fever seep into mainstream pop music. This was made obvious in a range of aspects such as conventional rock and indie bands opting to incorporate synthesisers and samples into their work, such as Primal Scream and their 1991 offering of ‘Screamadelica’ as well as electronic acts such as Orbital playing Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage in 1994.  It is thanks to the increase in the acceptance of electronic dance music within British pop culture and music that a sub-genre such as UK Garage could be conceived at grass roots level and thus expand in popularity within an environment other than Chicago, Detroit or New York, dance music’s spiritual homes.   The place credited with spawning UK Garage music is now the universally recognised London based super club and brand Ministry of Sound. Erected in the less fashionable (in comparison to the west end) Elephant and Castle region in the south of the city, this was based upon the now long defunct but previously immensely popular and musically significant New York venue Paradise Garage, a staple feature in the New York music scene. Berkmann (2018) explains:

In New York, the Paradise Garage was an amazing club. It had lights, darkness, music, quiet – everything you wanted. I thought it was the perfect template, so I came back to London in 1988, determined to do something similar.

Prior to its closure, the DJs of Paradise Garage were championing a new, more erratic form of House music on their travels to residencies in British clubs such as Ministry of Sound, where it proved to be more popular with a British audience. It was incredibly common for budding ravers and partygoers to file out in the early hours looking for after parties to attend. At these after parties, often referred to as the ‘Sunday Scene’, local DJs would speed up the latest American House records pioneered in the clubs as a solution to maintaining the energy of the venue in which they were performing. Titmus (2014) states:

The pace of almost all dance music in the UK was rapidly accelerating. The result was a spaced out, sped-up version of New York garage perfect for weary dancers looking for a second wind at 10 AM. This was the primordial soup from where UK Garage would evolve.

It was inevitable that budding and inventive British, but predominantly London based producer DJs, would begin to produce and distribute their own original interpretations of the speeded up American House records with Jam Experiences 1993 single ‘Feel My Love’ (Lamont 1993) being cited as the first of this new breed of electronic dance music. As the music being created was a UK interpretation of the Paradise Garage soundtrack offering, the phrase UK Garage was coined to describe what would go on to be, the next electronic music phenomenon in Britain.

It is without a shadow of a doubt that one of the primary factors for the culling of UK Garage is one that has been the most consistent and relentless throughout the history of popular music and its sub-genres. By the beginning of the 2000s, conveniently enough the autumn of UKG’s famed run, a combination of over saturation and a misguided attempt at becoming commercially viable were two very significant, blows to the genre. These factors became negative issues predominantly because of corporate music industry and major record label mismanagement. The first indication that UK Garage music may have possessed a certain amount of commercial promise was the advent of an off-shoot variation of the genre that went under the pseudonym of Two Step. Whilst the more conventional Speed and 4/4 Garage, the styles at the other end of the UKG spectrum at the time, revolved around more traditional, pulsating rhythms and warped basslines, Two Step drew influence from a much wider eclectic range of genres: “Sonically Two Step is a bastard child rather than a purist descendant. It’s a mongrel mishmash of influences” (Reynolds 2013, p557).

Whilst elements from genres such as Jungle, House and even Dancehall can be identified in various Two Step releases, perhaps the most blatant direct influence on the style were the shuffling yet melodic R&B tracks being pioneered by predominantly American producers such as Timbaland and Dark Child. Indeed, many of the off-shoot styles’ biggest and most successful records were those of a bootleg, white label remix of well-known charted singles, often contemporary R&B. By aligning itself with the more globally recognised style of music in R&B, whilst also re-working already popular music, Two Step was able to draw in a significantly larger and socially acceptable audience than any of its previous UKG predecessors had been able to.   This was perhaps made most obvious when some of the unofficial remixes of the original charting songs began to perform more successfully in a commercial capacity in comparison to the initial release. A prime example of this practice in action is the instance of American R&B artist Tina Moore and her 1995 record ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’.  As of the week commencing July 29th, 1995, the track had reached its commercial peak at number 27 on the American Top R&B/Hip-Hop songs billboard. Two years later on August 24th, 1997 the Kelly G Bump-N-Go Vocal Mix, a bootleg version of the track, charted at number 7 on the UK Official Singles Chart Top 40. The significantly superior performing UK Garage version prompted Moore’s record label, RCA Scotti Brothers Records, to officially include both the remix and an alternative version of the release on Moore’s debut album in Europe in 1997. It was clear from this scenario that UK Garage was no longer an underground phenomenon and the opportunity for commercial benefit was becoming ever more possible.

Wanting to imitate and build upon the success generated by the Tina Moore track, many record labels began to commission UK Garage DJs, producers and artists to conduct a similar task but in an official capacity (as opposed to an unofficial bootleg, which could not be sold in copious amounts). As a result of this, many of Pop’s biggest forces and heavyweights of the era were subjected to a Two Step revamp on various single releases. Artists such as Mariah Carey, Gorillaz and Sia all saw alternative UKG versions of their songs released at the beginning of the millennium. Whilst these releases were beneficial for UK Garage’s portfolio, it was apparent to some that longevity and stability to a fledgling scene was not at the forefront of the minds of all major record label executives.

An example of this is the previously mentioned remix for Mariah Carey. The commission was ordered by her then record label Virgin for the 2001 single ‘Loverboy’ (Carey 2001) and assigned to prominent Two Step Garage producer MJ Cole. Assessing a promotion article released by MTV in a bid to arouse interest in a prospective audience the journalist writes “Carey recruited two-step producer MJ Cole to bring a bit of the latest British dance music craze to a remix of the first single from her ‘Glitter’ soundtrack” (Moss 2001). Whilst this sentence conforms to a professional standard, in my opinion, the use of the word ‘craze’ gives a strong indication as to how many in power within the music industry viewed UK Garage as a style of music. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of craze is as follows: “an enthusiasm for a particular activity or object which appears suddenly and achieves widespread but short-lived popularity”. It is possible that the language used to promote the single displays a certain prejudice, that those at the helm of the music industry sought the opportunity to exploit an up and coming style of music to appear well acquainted with the latest musical tendencies whilst simultaneously having no concern for the development of the genre.

It is worth noting that there were two aspects of the Two Step Garage spectrum. On the one hand, the remix of an already recognised and popular recording, and on the other, original content matching the specific aesthetics of Two Step, capable of generating its own credibility:

By 2000 the scene plunged into Phase Two of its merger of R&B with house: generating its own good songs and fine vocalists. After three years developing outside the limelight, UK Garage shimmered like a galaxy of talent (Reynolds 2013, p562).

Whilst it is true that many of the new singer songwriter acts such as Craig David and Daniel Bedingfield were reaching the dizzying summits of the UK singles chart in 2000 and 2001 respectively, the era also spawned a chain of inconsistent charting copycat tracks in a bid to duplicate what had been achieved by other successful artists. Many of these tracks would often chart outside the fabled top 10 thus failing to live up to the plugging and promotion billed by the record labels. Makromallis (2016) states:

During the UKG boom a lot of A&Rs signed singles and artists which they thought would make it big. The problem was there were too many songs and artists signed to these majors. Big money got spent, none came back and those same A&Rs got fired. So UKG fell out of the mainstream.

As UK Garage had its foot well and truly in Pop music’s front door it was now subject to the same amount of criticism and scrutiny as any other form of contemporary music. As chart entries became scarcer and more inconsistent, the industry would move on in search of the next significant profit generator. It quickly became apparent that UK Garage was no longer flavour of the month.

There is strong evidence to suggest the way in which UK Garage music was influenced, written and arranged in a creative capacity had an incredibly large effect and influence on the way in which the genre changed and altered sonically on such a regular basis during its decade run, even prior to commercial success and appropriation. UKG managed to spawn many offshoot styles and sub variations within its innovative hub. This circumstance occurred primarily because of a British disregard of the basic foundations required to make dance music, established by their transatlantic counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s. In a similar context to the Britpop revolution that British Rock and Indie music was experiencing during the 1990s, UK Garage had its foundations built upon the idea of a rejection of an American cultural idea. Once the possibility emerged that there was potential for the materialisation of a new breed of British electronic music, there was an instant reaction by DJs, producers and artists alike to cultivate a sound that could move well out of the shadow of its American forefather. Lamont (2019) states:

As British DJs we started to feel like we had to create our own thing. It was great with that lot coming over, but we wanted something from it ourselves. That’s the reason that you heard the sound change a bit, the bass got a bit higher in the tracks and the tracks all got a little bit faster. That created our own identity.

As opposed to opting for solely direct influences such as House and Disco music, UKG achieved its signature erratic, unconventional, warped sound by including aspects of various other electronic genres enjoying success at the time. This included anything from the Reggae influenced sub basslines of Jungle, a pre-cursor to Drum & Bass, to the sampling and turntablism techniques of Hardcore and Rave music:

It’s not like a House genre where it’s all very big room and it’s very linear and things build up and there’s things that happen quite slowly in a majestic way; Garage was very bumpy and chuck this in (Coleman 2017).

Whilst this was an incredibly unconventional approach to creating music, the resulting outcome was an unmistakeably original ‘Brit’ hybrid genre.

House music, UK Garage’s parent genre, and its various offspring sub-genres e.g. Deep, Progressive, Tropical etc. may all vary in regard to compositional characteristics and have also occurred and achieved fame during various eras but are uniform in regard to basic arrangement etiquette in order to conform to the same musical umbrella term. The key traits for House music include: ‘four on the floor’ drum patterns – a kick drum sound/hit on the first, second, third and fourth beats of a drum pattern with a regular 4/4 metre; a BPM of around 120 – this was largely based upon an attempt to copy and impersonate a synthetic version of Disco, the most popular form of dance music prior to the conception of House music; extensive use of 808 & 909 drum machines – whilst being used initially because of their cost effectiveness, this equipment became synonymous with the signature House music instrumental backdrop.

As UK Garage had a much shorter lifespan in comparison to its still evergreen House parent genre, everything achieved was in a very limited time frame and happened at a significantly quicker pace. Whilst House music some thirty years on from its conception has matured and developed the ability to still influence and create new sub styles, many of Garage’s attempts to do the same inadvertently tore the genre apart. Throughout the decade, whilst many artists within the genre were still on their quest for authenticity, UKG was subject to many various aliases and pseudonymous. It should be noted for the most part many of these genres were commercially unsuccessful, lacked any credibility within a contemporary capacity at conception and have failed to age well even within the area of music they were created for. The various offshoots of UK Garage music included 4/4 Garage, Speed Garage, 4/4 Resurgence, 2Step, Break step and Nu Dark Swing.

As some of the names of these various aliases suggest, a variety of the styles of music listed were the initial seeds sown for other styles of electronic dance music that would gain subsequent popularity in years to come as the UK Garage family tree began to grow. The sheer variety of different versions of the one genre does give a favourable indication that UKG, despite its marginally unconventional approach and off sounding auditory backdrop, had a certain air of vanity when considering what would appeal to a potential target audience. For example, those who were at the helm of the Speed Garage movement, the first significant splinter sub-genre of the scene, were those concerned with not having enough women in their nightclubs, the apparent formula for a credible space:

The refrain “the girls love this tune” – typically uttered by record-store assistants as a recommendation has functioned as a self-policing mechanism, keeping the scene on track (Reynolds 2013 pg. 559).

However, despite being forward thinking, because UK Garage was still relatively within its infancy when much of the growth and expanding from within took place, it became increasingly difficult to determine what specific characteristics and traits made the genre something in its own right. Due to its very nature, having many different genres as key influences, combined with a never-ending desire to be completely authentic, UKG was a genre always on the brink of a major identity crisis.

Bedroom producers creating UK Garage as a genre required a certain standard of music technology during the 1990s, but this began to change drastically towards the turn of the millennium. Previously it had required an array of samplers, sequencers, drum machines and a variety of sundry musical equipment. Whilst these items may have had their limitations, they were a key part of generating UK Garage’s jittery and erratic instrumental backdrop that those in association with the genre championed throughout the decade, as opposed to other popular forms of dance music at the time such as Drum & Bass. Coleman (2017) notes that “people didn’t cut the start points exactly and properly on their samplers, so you’d end up getting a swing and a groove that you didn’t necessarily intend to be there”.

At the turn of the millennium, the development and advent of the home computer system as we recognise it today, enabled new ways of creating this type of music and subsequently pushing the boundaries to such an extent that would have been as good as almost unimaginable at the start of the 1990s at the inception of UK Garage music. The beginning of the decade, the 2000s, saw the emergence of an alternative, lower budget electronic music production spectrum largely in software format as opposed to the vast array of assorted equipment that had been required previously. The ‘higher’ end of the spectrum was occupied predominantly by newly developed DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) such as Propellerheads Reason and Image Lines FL Studio. Whilst the early incarnations of these DAWs were significantly limited, (which in many ways aided creativity) the fact that they had their own emulations of well recognised, iconic hardware items meant they were a more viable option for a new generation of younger, cash strapped bedroom producers. Watts (2014) explains:

Propellerheads Rebirth was launched in 1997 and, significantly, featured accurate emulations of the TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bass synth. This meant that for the first-time bedroom producers would be able to recreate some of their favourite sounds without actually having to buy the pieces of hardware in question.

Whilst digital audio workstations such as these managed to seamlessly burrow their way into contemporary music production’s sub conscious, serving as another weapon in the arsenal of well-established electronic producers, it is arguably the lower end of the afore mentioned spectrum that was the key technological component in moving UK Garage music out of the limelight, ushering in a new darker minimalistic sound and an unambiguous approach to making electronic music. The PlayStation 1 game Music 2000, released in 1999, is a typical example of this method of music production.  Whilst visually unappealing, Music 2000 was adopted by many disenfranchised, music enthusiastic young people who had no affinity with the Garage genre but possessed a desire to create something new: “This wasn’t a game for eyes like Sypro or Final Fantasy, but a program for ears and the inner creative spirit.” (Phillips 2018). Many of the resulting final musical products created in this manner didn’t comprehensively comply with the aesthetic criteria associated with Garage music and in fact the initial concept behind Grime music, another hybrid electronic genre of which Garage was a prime influence. Whilst Grime would subsequently eclipse UK Garage as a more globally recognised style of music, at the time when the playing field was even, the lack of production etiquette required to use software such as Music 2000 to create this new music, was an aspect which many of its users found so appealing. “All I care about is the reaction it gets when I play it in a club. How technically well-made art is doesn’t matter: it’s art” (Rae 2006). Opinions such as this symbolised a drastic change in how an electronic music production was to be received in Britain in the years to come. That being the luscious, melodic, vain UK Garage scene being superseded by other brash more modest styles of electronic music such as the afore mentioned Grime.

Away from possibly more obvious components associated with the cultural purging of a sub-genre, Garage music fell victim to a factor that was on the one hand uncontrollable, but paradoxically part of the reason its rise towards the top of pop culture had proved so formidable – its environment. Upon listening to any ex-Garage producer or DJ give an interview reviewing the era, the inevitability of an Estuary English accent makes it more than apparent that UK Garage’s home was firmly within the gravitational pull of the Greater London region. It could however be suggested that UKG’s inability to vacate the safety barriers of the M25 was to be one of the most catastrophic moves the whole scene undertook during its time within the public eye. It is not uncommon to associate certain styles of music with very specific geographical locations and time specific eras, for example Hip-Hop, the Bronx, 1979. Whilst it is important to recognise and appreciate heritage in music, a metaphorical passing of the torch to others is vital to its growth and progression. David Hesmondhalgh writes about the idea of a decentralisation within the British dance music industry, the idea of things becoming less London-centric and transferring its influence to other less obvious regions. Hesmondhalgh (1998) states:

Since the late 1980s, many towns have had a club with at least one night which specializes in the kind of underground dance forms which thrived in rave and post-rave culture: house, garage, techno, jungle/drum and bass, or some mixture of these.

An example of an electronic genre successfully decentralising was during the progression of the aforementioned Acid House genre. This genre was particularly effective at spreading its influence outward to a variety of places up and down the country. Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub was arguably just as important in developing and raising Acid House’s profile both musically and culturally compared to other London based establishments such as Shoom in Southwark, (Shoom being one of the first locations in which the genre gained popularity in Britain after emigrating from America): “Nineteen years on, The Hacienda remains the nightclub that the city is best known for – in part because of its immortalisation on screen in movies such as 24-Hour Party People” (Walters 2016). In comparison, any specialist nightclub, Ministry of Sound, organised event, Twice as Nice or pirate radio station, Rinse FM worth its weight in cultural gold within the Garage scene were based in an incredibly concentrated, several mile radius of south east London.

Of course, it is of no great surprise that the London region was the epicentre for such a cutting edge, innovative style of music.  Having been and remaining the most densely populated area in the country, underground electronic music, often unappreciated by those of a more corporate persuasion, had an already well-established creative hub and community, with a production line of artists and producers distributing their content to specialist record shops, nightclubs and pirate radio stations and subsequently to the masses. As Romeo states, “The record shop is the source, it the fuel the food you know, so without the record shop you don’t really have any music at all” (The Last Pirates: Britain’s Rebel DJs 2017). This eco-system was a viable way for a genre to operate during this period of time, but the inevitable arrival of digital consumption and distribution platforms such as iTunes and the short-lived Napster would herald a lengthy dormancy in the popularity of physical music products. The digital epidemic was a global circumstance, not just London-wide. Had the UK Garage model been wider spread, it is possible the scene could have survived and sustained itself on a small, niche, national skeleton network.

In conclusion, there is a strong argument to suggest that the main trailblazers in the dismantling of UK Garage’s popularity and status was a combination of both the corporate industry mismanagement it was subjected to during the Two Step era and the musical identity crisis that the genre constantly suffered throughout its lifespan. In becoming a conventional style of popular music as a result of its initial commercial success, Garage would always be at risk of the vicious cycle of the changing musical fashion trends of contemporary music. As it was unable to maintain its position, it fell away from being a viable music industry cash cow and was subsequently banished back to the underground music circuit, with the various off-shoot genres it had created over the years, themselves now matured and with a voice and audience of their own. Disregarding the off-shoots and tracing the most direct descendancy line possible, UK Garage had transitioned and changed so regularly that it was left with a new generation of artists unaware of the basic components required to create it and latching on to another more prevalent grass roots genre. Furthermore, the advancements in music production technology aided the transition away from conventional, well-recognised methods, thus ushering a new era of British electronic music. Undoubtedly the city which UK Garage called home was the fundamental factor as to why it rose to prominence, but then subsequently fell from grace, in such an astonishingly short period of time. The gritty, anonymous corners of south and east London would become one and the same with gentrification, seeing the sites of many famed venues converted to apartment blocks and those that remained being regulated by culturally controversial government bills such as form 696, a bill designed to target UK Garage and its offspring by law enforcers. The form was mandatory if the event ‘predominantly features DJs or MCs performing to a recorded backing track’. By not diluting its concentration to other geographical areas which were not subject to such drastic upheaval, UK Garage had nowhere else to revert to for any form of a potential renaissance.


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