Burning Down The 2-Step Garage

What’s the hottest thing bubbling deep in the UK underground? It’s dubstep, it’s a London t’ing and it’s the next step for both UK garage and drum & bass fiends.

Text Dave Stelfox Images Chris Davison

Ever since Prince Buster and the tantalizing tempos of "bluebeat" hit Britain’s shores way back in the ‘60s, the island nation’s urban subcultures have harbored an insatiable fascination with Jamaican music. From the days of the punky reggae party to Two Tone’s plundering of ska and rocksteady, its influence cannot be overstated.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the ongoing metamorphoses of what critic Simon Reynolds terms "the hardcore continuum." Nineteen-nineties jungle heralded the fusion of dubwise sonics–half-speed basslines, timestretched effects and the concept of rhythm as textured melody–with the hyperkinetic breakbeats of rave. Fuelled by the MC’s vocal pyrotechnics, a thriving underground dubplate network and version obsession, the pioneers of drum & bass wove these echoes of Kingston Town into the fabric of London’s inner-city life, while concurrently warping them into their own futuristic space.

All these elements remained pivotal in the birth of the slinkier, sassier UK garage scene, and continue to be so to this day. What’s more, the fruit of this fertile musical meeting ground now has its own name–yardcore. As Steve Goodman says: "Yardcore, from jungle to garage and forward, is the mutant strain of the UK hardcore audio virus, where Jamaican dancehall flavor meets London’s freshest riddims."

As 2-step rapidly matures, with a host of albums and new singles ready to drop from its leading names, it’s only fitting that the most dazzling developments should spring from a group of artists mining the seams of soundsystem culture.

Be it the dread reverberations and Elephant Man remixes of Horsepower Productions, the spacious, skittish rhythms of El-B and the Ghost Tracks crew, the Henchmen’s update of Tenor Saw’s classic "Ring The Alarm," or Sticky’s bashment syncopations with Ms. Dynamite and Stush, one thing is for sure–these sounds are ruling the dance.

2-step and UK Garage Resources:





Call it dubstep, breakstep, 2-step or raggarage, the most potent sounds coming out of London have a distinctly dub and breakbeat flavor. Horsepower Productions have, in the past two years, written some of the anthems of this new dance music subgenre. Are they merely this year’s new model, or will they become the engine behind a new epoch in UK dance music? words Dave Stelfox Images Chris Davison

Music is said to move in 20-year cycles—just take a cursory glance at the current revivalist trends for ‘80s new wave and alternative rock. What’s more, there’s even an exception to prove the rule.

With its resolutely forward-looking aesthetic, the hardcore dance scene is the very antithesis of retro, yet nowhere is the influence of African-American and Caribbean culture more vital. By drawing upon the sounds of the past in order to construct a brand new future, the closely intertwined family of rave, drum & bass and UK garage inhabits a place where time dissolves, along with the oceans between London, Kingston and the inner cities of the US.

And, true to form, Britain’s underground dance scene still has plenty of surprises in store, not least the work of Horsepower Productions. Over the last couple of years, this three-man crew has built an expanding catalogue of boundary-pushing releases, placing them among UK garage’s foremost innovators.

Ben Garner (Benny Ill), Matt Levesconte (Lev Jnr) and Yannis Small (Nassis) are together responsible for acclaimed tracks, including the tough, jack-knifing grooves of "Electro Bass" and the sultry vocal science of "One U Need" on Turn U On Records, the lower-velocity offshoot of Nico Sykes’s techstep label No U Turn. Meanwhile, East London’s Tempa imprint boasts the majority of Horsepower’s womblike, noirish take on the 2-step blueprint, from "Gorgon Sound"’s sci-fi dancehall skank to the filmic textures of "Fist Of Fury" and their latest offering, "The Swindle."

"How we got together is a long story," says Garner from his Croydon, South London home. "I met Matt in about 1996 when we were both working for a guy who did club visuals. We were always talking about music and eventually got together and started laying stuff down. Then Yannis came into it later through his studio. He had his own place where we used to work, and he kept coming up with great ideas and just kind of joined like that.

"Before that, though, we were all doing different things, like DJing, working on other projects and making different styles of music. I’ve made techno, hip-hop and all sorts of stuff over the years, and Matt and Yannis were both really involved in drum & bass, with Yannis working with Rhyme Time and a lot of other people, too. I think this shows in what we do together."

In fact, their bubbling "deepstep" style clearly tracks the ongoing, multi-faceted mutations of the UK’s underground music scene. Crisp breaks—often drawing from hip-hop and jazz—skip over rumbling, dread basslines as movie samples, dancehall vocals, ghostly voices and spacey digitized effects combine to create a haunting, wraithlike landscape. It’s the sound of tomorrow, filtered back to today, teeming with references to a diverse musical heritage.

"Yeah, we definitely like to dig in the crates," says Small.

"We came together as Horsepower Productions because we saw garage as an open door," says Garner. "I mean, it was a lot freer and didn’t have so many of the stigmas of certain other genres, so we could do what we wanted. We do tend to weave in a lot of elements from the past, but we try to do it without focusing too much on any one thing. Our music is just a big melting pot of different flavors."

"We also get friends in to help us out, which keeps it fresh," adds Smalls. "They’ll just come in and sit in the studio and vibe with us, come up with ideas and give their input. Also we don’t all have to have worked on it for it to be a Horsepower track–the combinations we work in are pretty changeable. Ben also does things under the name of Dub War, which isn’t Horsepower but is still strongly affiliated with us."

"It just happens that we tend to think that most of our best stuff does get done when we’re together, but it’s not a strict thing at all," adds Levesconte.

They then go on to explain how the process of production often begins with lengthy listening sessions in the studio (which currently occupies Ben’s spare bedroom), taking cues from a wide range of styles, then warping these motifs to their own design. It’s an approach that gives Horsepower’s sound a distinctive character, with dub providing a foundation upon which other ideas are built. The unique quality of Horsepower’s music has also carved out a special place for them both within the garage scene and further afield, with a wide spread of DJs and listeners from all genres checking their output.

However, the trio laugh at the prospect of being placed in the bracket of "experimental" or "intelligent" 2-step, and have no desire to find a comfortable niche and stay there. After all, the whole idea behind Horsepower is that of an engine of change, constantly forging ahead.

"We’re just a production team that wants to make good music," opines Small. "It’s as simple as that for me. I’m not interested in being put in a box at all. If we looked at making music like that, there wouldn’t be any point doing it. Yeah, we make garage and those kind of clubs are where the majority of our music gets played, but we’ve got absolutely no problem with crossing over."

"Not at all," agrees Levesconte. "The more people who are into what we’re doing, the better, whether they’re into garage, drum & bass, dancehall, hip-hop or [whether] they’re here, in America or over in Europe. We’ve never really set out to do any one thing and never tried to fit in any particular area of the scene. I just want to make music that I like the sound of at the end of the day–dark and warm, deep, sometimes moody, but moody in a good way–music that does something for me and that you can get something out of."

And with their debut album due out on Tempa in the fall and a growing list of remixes to their credit—including Blazing Squad’s "Standard Flow," Lenny Dee’s rave classic "We Are E," Elephant Man’s infamous dancehall anthem "Log On" and a forthcoming interpretation of Brit rappers New Flesh’s "Stick & Move" on Big Dada records—it’s clear that considerable momentum is beginning to gather behind the trio.

As Garner says, "There’s such a massive variety of music within the garage scene. You can be at a night and you can see different records working different sections of the crowd: you’ll have some kids going mad to a Zinc track, then others really getting into a Ghost Tracks tune or our mix of ‘Log On.’ There’s room for all of us and that’s really healthy–it’s all garage and it’s all good."