Burning Down The 2-Step Garage
Whats the hottest thing bubbling deep in the
UK underground? Its dubstep, its a London ting
and its the next step for both UK garage and drum & bass
Text Dave Stelfox Images Chris
Ever since Prince Buster and the tantalizing tempos
of "bluebeat" hit Britains shores way back in the
60s, the island nations urban subcultures have harbored
an insatiable fascination with Jamaican music. From the days of
the punky reggae party to Two Tones 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 sonicshalf-speed basslines, timestretched
effects and the concept of rhythm as textured melodywith the
hyperkinetic breakbeats of rave. Fuelled by the MCs 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 Londons 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. Whats more, the fruit of this fertile musical
meeting ground now has its own nameyardcore. 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 Londons freshest riddims."
As 2-step rapidly matures, with a host of albums
and new singles ready to drop from its leading names, its
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 Henchmens update of
Tenor Saws classic "Ring The Alarm," or Stickys
bashment syncopations with Ms. Dynamite and Stush, one thing is
for surethese 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 years 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 cyclesjust
take a cursory glance at the current revivalist trends for 80s
new wave and alternative rock. Whats more, theres 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, Britains 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 garages 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 Sykess
techstep label No U Turn. Meanwhile, East Londons Tempa imprint
boasts the majority of Horsepowers 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. Ive 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 UKs
underground music scene. Crisp breaksoften drawing from hip-hop
and jazzskip over rumbling, dread basslines as movie samples,
dancehall vocals, ghostly voices and spacey digitized effects combine
to create a haunting, wraithlike landscape. Its 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,"
"We came together as Horsepower Productions
because we saw garage as an open door," says Garner. "I
mean, it was a lot freer and didnt 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. "Theyll just come
in and sit in the studio and vibe with us, come up with ideas and
give their input. Also we dont all have to have worked on
it for it to be a Horsepower trackthe combinations we work
in are pretty changeable. Ben also does things under the name of
Dub War, which isnt Horsepower but is still strongly affiliated
"It just happens that we tend to think that
most of our best stuff does get done when were together, but
its 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 Bens spare bedroom), taking cues from a
wide range of styles, then warping these motifs to their own design.
Its an approach that gives Horsepowers sound a distinctive
character, with dub providing a foundation upon which other ideas
are built. The unique quality of Horsepowers 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.
"Were just a production team that wants
to make good music," opines Small. "Its as simple
as that for me. Im not interested in being put in a box at
all. If we looked at making music like that, there wouldnt
be any point doing it. Yeah, we make garage and those kind of clubs
are where the majority of our music gets played, but weve
got absolutely no problem with crossing over."
"Not at all," agrees Levesconte. "The
more people who are into what were doing, the better, whether
theyre into garage, drum & bass, dancehall, hip-hop or
[whether] theyre here, in America or over in Europe. Weve
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 daydark and warm, deep,
sometimes moody, but moody in a good waymusic 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 creditincluding
Blazing Squads "Standard Flow," Lenny Dees
rave classic "We Are E," Elephant Mans infamous
dancehall anthem "Log On" and a forthcoming interpretation
of Brit rappers New Fleshs "Stick & Move" on
Big Dada recordsits clear that considerable momentum
is beginning to gather behind the trio.
As Garner says, "Theres 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: youll have some kids going mad to a Zinc track,
then others really getting into a Ghost Tracks tune or our mix of
Log On. Theres room for all of us and thats
really healthyits all garage and its all good."