Pop Playground
UK Garage: The Primer

one of the most anticipated debuts of the year is the full-length from recent XL signing Dizzee Rascal. A 17-year-old member of South London’s Roll Deep Crew (which includes Wiley Kat, Flo Dan, Breeze, among others), Rascal is the leading light of MC-based UK garage. His slim CV is highlighted by a 1,000-press 2002 single, “I Love You”, guest appearances on a variety of tracks, and freestyle pirate radio sets that made their way on to onthedecks.com, soulseek, and other file-sharing portals. Despite such a limited output, he is expected to be one of England’s biggest stars by the end of the calendar year. My expectations for Dizzee are even more ambitious. As an XL signee, his record will be distributed in the U.S. by the Beggar’s Group, positioning him to legitimize and popularize British MCing in the United States. With garage MCing’s increasing similarities to American hip-hop—and the path from outside of the U.S. to rotation on BET and urban radio blazed in recent months by dancehall—it could finally happen.


When UKG first began to dominate the English charts in 2000, producers essentially had two choices. They could make the light, skittery, R&B-influenced; music that first made the sound popular or the emerging dark breakbeat style that eschewed female vocalists for male MCs, in most cases. There was a hope a few years back that the first wave of UKG—feminized and R&B; influenced—would catch on in the U.S. Justin Timberlake claimed it as an influencing sound on “Pop” and some labels tried to sell producer-based records, something Americans don’t tend to go for. It didn’t take, in part because Americans like to give and credit where we think credit is due, but also because we’re suspicious of dance music and its impenetrable vocabulary. Over the past few years, the few stars with tangential relationships to UKG who have attracted attention in the U.S. weren’t billed as such, and often weren’t strictly working within the genre. Craig David and Ms. Dynamite turned to R&B; for their debut albums, Daniel Bedingfield went top 10 as a pop dilettante, and the Streets—often erroneously considered more hip-hop-influenced than garage based—is practically an anomaly.


Now after years of working within the framework of dance music and playing second fiddle to the DJ and the beat, MCs are stepping into the spotlight and taking lead roles on garage tracks. Rascal is one of a new breed of artists who emerged from UKG’s post-dichotomy landscape that ignores the either-or of the early part of the decade and instead thrillingly resembles the giddy anything goes of rock’s post-punk or jungle’s post-hardcore years. Freeing the music from its scene-oriented constructs has taken its primary role out of the clubs, allowing bpms to slow and giving MCs more to room to showcase their skills and attempt more intricate wordplay than hyping the crowd or the DJ in between clipped bragadoccio. It’s a framework and a product so different from its predecessors that new genre names such as “gutter garridge” are being penned. Flow is trumping speed as a dominant value on the mic, and narratives, humor, and a lyrical eye—long strengths of American MCs, but little-valued in UK dance culture—are becoming more prevalent. Crucially, it’s also a dynamic that makes more sense to American listeners.


In the U.S., the MC is the star. DJs developed the genre—and their skills and invention first wowed audiences and attracted crowds—but once Sylvia Robinson decided to form Sugar Hill Records and put the stuff on vinyl, it was the men on the mic who were highlighted. After years of working crowds at raves, English garridge is seeing a version of the same, a peaceful coup by the MC, and with rapping dominating the scene an inevitable one. Certainly many would-be producers and DJs saw the trend and paired with MCs. Now the name on a record is as likely to be that of a crew—Roll Deep, So Solid, Pay As U Go, Heartless—as it is to be a producer. With groups working as units, it’s easier to sell them, easier to cultivate successful working relationships between MC and DJ, and easier to create enough product to record a full-length—something that isn’t necessary in UKG, but is imperative if an artist is to reach an audience in America.


With the incestuous, almost patronage, system of U.S. hip-hop, a leg up from American hip-hoppers could be necessary to give the Brits a final push to the U.S. mainstream. The groundwork is being laid with an increasing number of transatlantic collaborations. Dizzee Rascal has added a verse to a remix of Ashanti’s “Baby” and Jay-Z is set to do the same for MC Panjabi’s “Knight Rider” theme-sampling bhangara hit, “Mundian To Bach Ke”. When Nas played in London in the spring, UK hip-hop stars Taskforce and Braintax warmed up the crowd. And the popular BBC Radio 1Xtra, influential Radio One DJ Tim Westwood, and well-selling British compilations such as Urban Explosion draw the line between “black’ music in England and the Americas, featuring UKG alongside hip-hop, R&B;, bhangara, and dancehall.


It’s dancehall that is laying the groundwork for British hip-hop and its potential invasion of (or secession by) America. Jamaica also offered the blueprint for British MCing – their role in the soundsystem clashes and dancehalls of Jamaica (although there the MC is called the deejay) was the same as Brit MCs at raves. The three nations have long had a healthy musical relationship, with Jamaica acting as the vibrant melting pot, a conduit intercepting messages even when they aren’t being actively sent. In recent years, ragga dancehall has increasingly found inspiration in U.S. hip-hop—borrowing everything from its riddims to slang to narrative styles—and has even invaded the American charts. (Granted, all of the American-known ragga MCs—Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, and Canada’s Kardinal Marshall—first earned notice on collaborations with American artists.)


American hip-hop has shown an increasing willingness to search outside of the country’s borders for inspiration—from Timbaland, Erick Sermon, and the Neptunes’ recent Indian-influenced tracks to Clipse’s “Grindin’ (Selector Remix)” to dj/rupture’s tigerbeat6 mixes—so why not embrace England? UK MCs are increasingly embracing American sounds—primarily the Dirty South-influenced Bouncement—but asserting their own dance-culture roots and Englishness. The Streets’ call to stop aping American hip-hop (“Round ’ere we say birds not bitches”) and Roots Manuva being “contended with his cheese on toast” or “drowning 10 pints of bitter” are among the British MC lines most likely to be printed in reviews or articles. In America, hip-hop is among the last bastions of regionalism. The strip malls and theme restaurants may be the same in St. Louis, Atlanta, L.A., Houston, and Newark, but the hip-hop retains local flavor even as it has become a worldwide phenomenon. Maybe it’s time for the America’s phenomenon to annex some new territories. These days, what could be more American than that?


By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2003-04-01
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