Footnotes from Blissblog to the Garage Rap Village Voice piece
Blissblog March 2003
1/ there was even hybrid rave-rap, with performers like Rebel MC, Ragga Twins, and Demon Boyz.
Plus the ones I didn’t have space to mention: Unique 3 (most reknowned for pioneering bleep’n’bass tekno, but on various B-sides and on the album Jus Unique they did a few rather shaky-sounding rap-rave tracks and were basically a B-boy crew who got tripped out by acieeed) and most heinous omission Shut Up and Dance. Who started out as the Britrap outfit Private Party ("My Tennants", way ahead of Roots Manuva, and a pisstake on Run DMC for sponsorship tune "My Adidas), then as SUAD did tunes like “Rap’s My Occupation” and “Here Comes A Different Type of Rap Track not the Usual 4 Bar Loop Crap”. Their conflicted relationship with hip hop (they wanted to be a UK Public Enemy, but thought the latter were sonically staid) was surpassed only by their conflicted relationship with rave (they deplored drug culture and declared “we’re not a rave group, we’re a fast hip hop group”). But despite doing socially concerned tunes raps “This Town Needs A Sheriff” most of their big anthems were sample-collages that updated slightly the DJ record style of Bomb the Bass/Coldcut/MARRS. Still, SUAD’s comeback of the last few years is all too appropriate, with killer tunes like “Moving Up” (not a fully-fledged rap track with verses, but with enough of a MC vocal lick thing to fit the current moment). Ragga Twins, who I did mention, were on the SUAD label and now seem especially ahead-of-their-time, with the Belgian h-core uproar of their “Mixed Truth” prophesying the gabba-garridge sound.
But let’s not bring MC Tunes into this, eh?
2/ a strictly supporting role, exalting the DJ and hyping the crowd
The MC's role in hardcore/jungle/earlygarage was paradoxically crucial-yet-menial: he (invariably a he) functioned as a membrane between the expressive/social and the rhythmic/technological, vocalizing the intensities of machine-rhythm and in the process more or less transforming himself into a supplement to “the drum kit”. Another key part of the job description: the rewind, in which the MC relays the will-of-the-massive to the DJ. A ritual aknowledgement, at least on the symbolic level, of the idea that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
From ’92 onwards, though, you could sense a latent expressive potential in rave Mcing -- especially on the pirates, when MCs like Don FM’s OC or Trace and Ed Rush’s sparring partner Ryme Tyme would go off on one, get real imagistic and panoramic (“North South East and West, we got you locked”), as if surveying their domain from a lofty vantage point. Never quite getting to the point of storytelling, but still, you could tell that there was an artform in waiting, something that could bloom if given the opportunity.
3/ there were star MCs
You had name MCs from quite early on in rave--mentioned in the pirate ads, obviously considered part of the draw. But the real character MCs arrived with jungle, when rave's aerobics instructor/cockney street vendor style of hoarse hollered rabble-rousing was replaced by something more relaxed (even as the music got more frenetic), warmer, magnanimous, full of authority. These guys--GQ, Dett, Moose, 5-0, Navigator, et al--were almost MCs in the old showbiz sense, hosting the event, stroking the egos of all present, from the selecta in the booth to the massive on the floor. And now and then you’d get the first hints of the MC’s role as truth-teller and vibe-articulator, someone expressing the values of the scene. Overwhelmingly, these were black voices. While the DJ and production sides of hardcore/jungle/UK garage seem close to racial parity, MC-ing, from jungle onwards, seems like it's a 98 percent black thing. Does this monopoly of the role of host/articulator/spokesman have a symbolic role, expressing the dominance of black musical/cultural priorities in a subculture that in terms of population composition is actually pretty mixed? A sense that the public face of the scene ought to be black (the MC is generally actually more visible than the DJ, out there with his mic). Or is it just something about the grain of the voice, suiting the flow of MC-ing?
4/ but their careers were largely based around a few trademark catchphrases or signature vocal licks
Which could wear real thin real quick. Somewhere I have this eight-cassette pack, the looks-like-a-video sort you could buy back in the day as a memento of megaraves like Raindance or Dreamscape, but this was for a Pure Silk garage event in ‘98. Eight cassettes, eight top DJs, and all playing the same hot-that-week tracks as each other: talk about “changing same”. Worse still, there was two or three top MCs hosting the night, and so you get to hear the same trademark vocal gimmicks and human-beatbox tricks over and over and over again.
5/ Gradually, MCs started to write actual verses
Some key transitional records here:
----DJ Luck and MC Neat, “A Little Bit of Luck”. Not many words by comparison with today’s norms, but the beginnings of MC tunes that actually said something (in this case, I-and-I survive, “with a little bit of luck we can make it through the night” doubling as a big up to his DJ, who takes first billing despite contributing a really rather perfunctory groove over which Neat croons the most naggingly catchy and rootically haunting lick). Big BIG tune this: I remember someone telling me they heard a pirate station play this tune over and over again for half an hour. For a month or so in 98 this tune WAS the scene.
----Corrupted Crew, “G.A.R.A.G.E.” Again, not saying a lot really, but awesomely hooky and the MC (Neat?)’s baritone is wonderfully commanding. Also probably the first letters-for-words spelling anthem (“E’s for the Energy etc”), a routine that still gets re-used.
--- N&G feat. Rose Windross and MC Creed, "Liferide” . A classic plinky xylo-bass tune, with Creed spinning out some dizzyingly assonance-thick rhymes in his trademark clipped’n’prim style (weird how something so compressed and inhibited sounding is so cool).
---Middle Row's The Warm Up EP. Are these the first real narrative tunes? I’m talking about “Millenium Twist": Shy Cookie, Sweetie Irie and Spee reinventing the Englishness of canonical literature and costume drama with this hilarious slice of Dickensian dancehall, starring an updated Fagin from Oliver! instructing modern urchins how to duck 'n' dive Y2K stylee. And "K.O.", with its bizarre boxing-ring MC narrative (Neat again, accompanied by Shy Cookie and Spee).
Should also mention perhaps the “singjay” tunes, half way between chat and song, by the likes of Richie Dan (on the M-Dubs tune “Over Here”) and Glamma Kid ("Sweetest Taboo", yes a Sade cover), not forgetting the various 2step hook-ups with dancehall dons and don-ettes such as Lady Saw (underlining the point that UK garage’s return to the vocal, after the vocal-free desert that was techstep drum’n’bass, wasn’t just about diva vocals but about ragga chat, e.g. Gant’s “Sound Bwoy Burial”).
6/ they refused second billing status (DJ/Producer X featuring MC Y)
As in Scott Garcia feat MC Styles “It’s A London thing.” From ’97, which might very well make it the first garage rap tune of all.
7/ Suddenly the scene was swarming with MC collectives
There was a predecessor to So Solid Crew, a group no one cares to remember, because they weren’t much cop. I’m talking about Da Click of “Good Rhymes” infamy. A seriously naff record (Chic’s “Good Times” reworked) but it made the pop charts and was “important”, just like “Planet Rock” (surely the most over-rated dance record of all time? I always thought it wooden and dreary, but I bought it anyway: you just knew it was important). Same applies to “Good Rhymes”, had to have it, if only for the sleeve with its pix of 70 players on the UKG scene. Da Click was basically the scene’s premier MCs teaming up to make a record with the explicit intent of bigging up the role of the MC in UKG. They were inspired in a major way by Puff Daddy and the whole Bad Boy thing of flash thugs riding/rolling with this collective swagger. One of the record’s instigators, Unknown MC, used to be in Hijack, a Brit-rap group signed to Ice T's Rhyme Syndicate label. In late 2000, quite some time after the group’s profile had waned (the follow-up single was even worse), he told me “in London right now, there's a thing happening where true MCing is coming back to the floor. You have these clubs with 2000 people where the MC really is interfaced between the DJ and the crowd. And he's whipping the crowds up into mad frenzies, getting them involved in the party. Which I imagine is what it must have been like in the Bronx in the 70s, you know what I'm saying?”
8/ American rap's clan-as-corporation structure
Crews and posses have always been part of hip hop lore, but it’s fair to say that until the late Nineties rap's dominant lyrical mode had always been been first person singular. But with the rise of Ruff Ryders and Cash Money (both based around real families) and with the likes of Roc-A-Fella’s styling themselves as Cosa Nostra-like syndicates ("You Are About To Witness A Dynasty Like No Other), there’s been a dramatic first person pluralisation of rap; ego eclipsed by what might be called "wego," the collective triumphalism of Ruff Ryders's "We In Here" or Hot Boys's "We On Fire". Likewise in UKG you’ve got Kartels (PAUG) and Famos (K2) galore.
It would be incorrect to suggest, though, that this vogue for presenting what are clearly economic organisations as quasi-families is just ideological window-dressing for business realpolitik. Hip hop’s family values represent a kind of privatized socialism, based around ideals like sharing, altruism, co-operation, and self-sacrifice. In the war of clan against clan, loyalty is paramount, not just because teamwork is more effective, but because cameraderie provides refuge and respite from what would otherwise be a grim dog-eat-dog struggle. Effectively, the rap clan offers a haven from the rapacious cut-throat competition of the hip hop industry/capitalism, and on some level offers solace and security in what would otherwise be a desolate moral and emotional void. This is also why the Ruff Ryders/So Solid style emphasis on unity resonates with their fans--the idea of the clan on the warpath magically reconciles the contradictory impulses to be a winner but also to belong.
Of course, there’s a tension between business realities and these quasi-familial relationships: rappers like The Lox and Snoop Doggy are flexible in their fealty, shifting allegiances as deftly as sportsmen changing teams at the drop of a cheque. Still, for many, the "thick like blood" rhetoric is for real. DMX, in particular, regards loyalty as a transcendent value. In a hyper-individualistic world where market forces tear asunder all forms of solidarity and everybody has their price , he claims: "They do it for the dough/Me I do it for the love". Lyrically DMX is fixated almost exclusively on loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. Then there’s his curious obsession with dogs. Strikingly different from the lecherous hound persona adopted by George Clinton ("Atomic Dog" etc) DMX's use of "dog" seems to draw on the idea of canine fidelity--to the pack in the wild, to its owner (hence Fido). In song after song, DMX insists "I will die for my dogs". Then there’s the way he reinvokes what Foucault called “the Medieval symbolics of blood": Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, his new label Bloodline. All seem to relate to atatvistic notions of blood-brotherhood and the loopy fantasy of DMX and his dawgs as some sort of pedigreed aristocracy of the streets ("My dogs, the beginning of this bloodline of mine"). So it’s interesting that in UK garage slang “bruv” has been displaced by “blood” as a salutation or bonding term--“ya get me blood?”
“Dog”, “blood”, “nigga”: all these terms have superceded the old racially encoded but more universalizing greetings like “brother”, which one associates with the civil rights era. The idea of family offers a kind of unity that seems more tangible and grounded than allegiance either to abstract, remote and problematic entity known as the United States of America, or any of the various forms of African-American nationalism. In rap and in UKG, group affiliation contracts to the compact and plausible dimensions of a clique, and one usually one tied to a place---a project, a council estate, a borough, a postal district (More Fire Crew shout out to the E4 and E11 crew on the sleevenotes to their debut album), or at the very most, a city (from “it’s a London thing” to “Millenium Twist”’s "L.O.N.D.O.N, London/That's where we're coming from"). As opportunities for feelings of solidarity and communality shrivel and retreat all over the social landscape, the withering especially pronounced in the very places where people once found them (trade unions, electoral politics, organized religion), it makes sense that this basic human need for a sense of belonging would find other points of focus, albeit on more diminished terms. In the neo-Medieval scenario of unchecked capitalism and holy war, it’s no surprise that we’re witnessing a resurgent atavism in the form of these Mafia-inspired clan structures (“amoral familialism”, Italian sociologists call it, diagnosing their persistence as caused by the relative weakness of nationalism in Italy--as a political entity, Italy is a relatively recent creation). Musical mobs indeed.
9/ torrential wordiness
Never ceases to amaze me, this. In UKG at the moment there's almost like a battle between the words and the music for dominance, the MC's almost seem to trying to drown out the DJ. Are there even name DJs anymore? Who gets top billing on the flyers these days? Recently playing Pied Piper's 'Do You Really Like It', which can only be two years old, I was struck by 1/ how as MCing it just wouldn't cut it now, it sounds so wack, and 2/ there must be about 25 words in the whole song. That said, the first true examples of rampant logorrhea I can think of date from shortly before ‘Do You Really Like It?’: Sparks & Kie on Teebone’s “Fly Bi” (wrong Matthew, sorry this tune is the B.O.M.B. and what's wrong with the spelling thing anyway) and Skibadee on Teebone’s “Super S”, mad-hectic tongue-twisty sinous sibilant biznis.
10/ with its raucousness and Englishness
One of my favorite bits ever on a garage rap record, can’t remember the tune or artist right this minute, occurs when, after a series of grisly threats, the MC’s killer verbal blow to his adversary is the instruction: “Behave!”. It’s like some eerie transcultural morphing effect: Bounty Killer turns into Frankie Howerd. That’ll be lost on non-Brits, I’m afraid, as is the next reference: the way Horra Squad’s Mr Guns’s has this bizarre tic-like mannerism of going “just like that”--an immaculate imitation of Tommy Cooper--right in the middle of the most bloodcurdling eruptions of “thugsy-ugsy” threats and “messy-essy” slackness.
11/dainty crispness of diction
Actually, it’s all about the tension between the impulse towards criss precision and the “drag” of the uncouth grain-of-the-voice that resists and impedes that impulse. But, and this is crucial (what some Americans, no offence, don’t get), the refinement doesn’t equate with whiteness and gentility (Masterpiece Theater, your daft ideas that the U.K is all castles and cucumber sandwiches), and the ruffness doesn’t equate with black/Caribbean. The uncouth element isn’t so much the patois as the Cockney gutternsipe factor, and the slick diction is more about a Black British elegance-smoothness aspirational thing. So you have this really semiotically rich and overdetermined criss-cross collision of class/race factors, a tug-of-war between assimilation and recalcitrance, “this is where we came from" and "this is where we're going" . But most of all it just sounds wicked.
12/expressing its rage-to-live through individualistic fantasies of stardom or crime
The art of Mcing doesn’t really entail opening up virgin zones of unexplored content. “Originality” means finding fresh twists on a stock set of themes. Like that literary critic who broke down the entirety of western drama and fiction to seven basic narrative structures (I.A. Richards?), here's my stab at isolating UKG’s core thematics (which are also stances, outlooks, dispositions, states of mind, ways of walking through the world).
i/ “I will not lose/we’re gonna make it/ain’t know stopping us/we are coming through”
more on this below
ii/ “know we/they don’t know/people dun know/if you don’t know, get to know”.
Probably the most interesting and unique to UKG theme (despite my Notorious BIG quote just now). Interesting, because the scenario it implies is that the MC is actually unknown---it evokes an imminence, a star status or stature that is being suppressed, thwarted, or is simply latent. The MC is an unknown on the brink of breaking out massively, a "supernova" (to quote Neutrino) microseconds before ignition. They don’t know but they should know and they will know. It’s hard to imagine an American rapper writing from this position: regal triumphalism, Jay-Z style, or even ennui (that standard face of blase derision you get in all the videos) seems to be more appropriate for a music that has won and is basking in its victory. Because “they don’t know” also suggests a collective demand for recognition, which US hip hop enjoys but UKG hasn’t; the theme seems to convey something of the marginality and underdog status of UKG-rap as a whole. “They” could be mainstream UK culture (which only acknowledges UKG when it is scapegoating it for street violence), or it could even be American hip hop. Alternatively, "They don't know" sometimes carries a suggestion of (see Black Ops cru) of secrecy, subterfuge, assassins with deadly powers moving unnoticed through society.
iii/ making paper/chasing cheddar/we floss the biggest whips etc
Wish fulfillment, one assumes, or hope: there can’t be that much money to be made on this scene, surely. (So Solid sold 400,000 of their album but when you divide the royalties by 30…). Nice UK-specific touches to the conspicuous consumption/status games, e.g. A-reg and K-reg license plate disputes.
iv/ biters/why you want to imitate me
yeah right, if you're so unique how come you sound just like everybody else?
—yeah yeah they're all sick to their guts on account of your wealth/fame/success with the ladies, well why not desist from rubbing it in their faces every chance you get then?
Biters and haters are essential accoutrements, status symbols, on a par with the flash phones and cars. Mo money mo problems etc.
vi/ alpha male biznis (is that your chick/steal your wifey/kiss her on the lips you’re tasting my semen).
vii/ “wego-mania” (ride with us/imagine, you’re with a crew like this, etc)
the scenarios seem to get more vivid and colorful and cruelly creative every month
13/ Laid Blak .
From Bristol, and not just a UKG outfit, their spokesman tells me, but a proper band that can do all sorts. I await their next release keenly and with real curiosity.
14/ equal parts Cockney Rejects and "Cockney Translation"
The cover of that More Fire Crew single is a beautiful thing. Not because it’s especially attractive or remarkable-looking (it’s quite plain and nondescript actually) but simply because it has these three black lads and the word “Oi!’ on the sleeve. And the last time the word “Oi!” appeared prominently on record sleeves, these were early Eighties Oi! compilations and the young men on the sleeves would have been cropheaded and pasty-faced hooligans with dubious political allegiances and jingoistic leanings. In one infamous case, Strength Through Oi! (a supremely tasteless and inflammatory title), the chap stomping his 18 hole DMs at the camera (almost as if to suggest if the photographer was the victim of a racial attack) turned out to be an ex-member of the British Movement or NF or some similar neo-Nazi outfit. So the More Fire Crew sleeve is an encouraging sign, in some weird way, of a degree of cultural miscegenation that's taken place in the last twenty years: a once noxious word being defused and reclaimed. (“Oi, oi!” was always a big MC chant on the hardcore scene, come to think of it).
As much as electro or the proto-ragga Casio-riddim ‘Sleng Teng”, I like to think of Smiley Culture’s "Cockney Translation" as the Eighties Origin for “Oi!” and for MC garage as a whole. At least it makes for an appropriately fertile fiction, as Mythic Origin. Released on the Fashion label (worth rediscovery I reckon, it captured a phase-shift in the Caribbean-British story), this is the tune where Smiley translates back and forth between patois and patter, West Indies and East Enders. “Say Cockney say Old Bill/We say dutty Babylon”, “we say bleach. Cockney knackered”, “Cockney say triffic. We say waaacked…. sweet as nut. just level vibes. Seen?”
It pointed ahead to the future hybrid argot of multiracial London, the hardcore/jungle/garage mix’n’blend of rhyming slang and rhymes-and-slang.
And talking about the More Fire Crew song, here’s a particularly apt line from Smiley’s song:
“We bawl out YOW! While cockneys say Oi!”
“Cockney Translation” is an ancestor for garage rap in more than a symbolic/mythic way, though. The tune was an example of the UK fast-style reggae sound, which Dick Hebdige describes as “reggae’s answer to rap”, as spearheaded by the Saxon International Sound System and its MCs like Tipper Irie, Asher Senator, Lady Di, and Philip Levi. Fast-style chatter is, if not ‘the roots’ then one key root for everything from Ragga Twins and SUAD to jungle/UKG MCs like Skibadee.
More Fire’s debut album is good BTW.
15/ a Warnerdance U.K. compilation you might find in Tower or Virgin.
At one point I was thinking about framing this piece as a ‘world music’ story. Because that’s what this music is at this point—impossibly exotic and hard to get hold of outside the UK. In America, it’s easier to buy records of Madagascan guitarpop or Javanese court gamelan than it is to acquire UKG.
16/ "I will not lose/Never, no way, not ever"
Been really struck by the recurrence in UKG Mc-ing of expressions of uncontainability: “we’re coming through, whether you like it or not” (Black Ops), “this style be original/we can’t be stopped” (GK Allstars). Or a sense of destiny and determination that would seem pie-in-the-sky if it wasn’t marked by such hunger--the scrawny ardor animating lines like: “always believing/follow my heart, keep up the dreaming/behind the cloud, there is a shining….I know my time is coming.” (GK Allstars again). Talk of dedication, hard work, all of my energy going into this. Again and again, this almost-American insistence, not that anyone can make it, but I’m gonna make it (I’ve got to make it; there is no alternative). Flying in the face of statistical reality.
Here’s Peter York (an under-rated analyst of UK socioculture) on what happens in a tightly class-stratified country like Britain where talent is “blocked off from conventional embourgeoisment”. “If you have a whole lot of people who are blocked, then the steam is much more intense. And where it finds a crack it rises more violently.”