by Simon Reynolds
Step into a
2step has been bubbling on the
underground for several years, but
recently it's conquered the British pop mainstream, with artists like Artful
Dodger and Truesteppers virtually annexing the Top 10 for most of the Y2K. As
well as hot singles by the score, the scene has generated a bona fide superstar
in Craig David, who's been the prize in a fierce bidding war between American
record companies. For a while Virgin had it sewn up, until David gave them the
slip at the last minute. Def Jam and Bad
Boy were also keen. "Puffy phoned me while he was in London for the
L'il Kim tour, " says David via cellie from England , the latest stop in his massive
European tour. "I was really flattered." Finally Berlin Atlantic
"There's only been a few
urban artists--Soul II Soul,
Loose Ends--who've impacted UK
in a huge way," says Craig Kallman, the Atlantic A&R executive who
signed David, and whose past exploits including hooking Aaliyah up with
Timbaland, and Brandy up with Rodney Jerkins. "But Craig is really poised
to break here with that kind of hugeness. By the time his album come out in America , he'll
have already sold three to four million worldwide." Still, Kallman
concedes that nothing's a shoe-in in the record business. "In the America , Craig
benefited from the club vibe creating the groundswell of his buzz---there's
this tremendous underground culture of white label releases. But in UK , that
doesn't exist and 2step is still an unknown genre." America
Craig David is at the forefront of a lost generation of black British vocalists who, facing insurmountable obstacles as homegrown R&B artists, broke through via 2step and the club scene. British R&B has long been perceived as a redundant concept. R&B fans in the
It took a little while, though, for the vocal talent--singers like Shola Ama, Elizabeth Troy, Nana, Lifford, Kallaghan, and more--to connect with the 2step producers. Instead, the early days of 2-step saw producers slaking their thirst for quality vocals by going straight to the source--American R&B's creme de la creme--and doing illegal remixes of hits by Dru Hill, Jodeci, Aaliyah, and so forth. Sampling the a capella versions on
inches, 2steppers dissected the divas and reworked the vocal shards into catchy
percussive riffs. Or they kept the songs intact and built brand-new grooves
around them. US
Close behind "The Boy Is Mine" in popularity was an even more unlikely
That said, 2step is far from being merely a British imitation of an American sound and style. True, the stop-start beats in Aaliyah and Destiny's Child tracks caught the ears of
big-time. But most of them figured that Timbaland & Co got the idea from
drum and bass, which is where 2step producers generally learned their
repertoire of rhythm tricks. Another warp factor that makes 2step more than
just the new Brit-soul is the influence from dancehall reggae. Black British
youth may look to UK ,
but most of them have Jamaican ancestry. Craig David, for instance, comes from
a mix-race background, with reggae influences on his father's side. Starting
out as DJ playing a mix of R&B, hip hop and ragga, his gimmick was
"spinning records and MC-ing at the same time". These tangled
influences from rap, dancehall and drum'n'bass shaped David's distinctive vocal
style, which moves fluently between melody and stuttering chat in the fashion
of Bone Thugs 'N Harmony, Sisquo, and dancehall "singjays" like Mr.
MCs are a crucial part of 2step culture, with chatters like PSG, Sparks & Kie, and Creed as famous as the leading DJs. Many come from a UK dancehall or homegrown hip hop background--fields of endeavour just as blocked and fruitless as British R&B. "Rappers and ragga MC's had a hard time in this country," says Kwame. "But now thanks to 2step, 'nuff man get a chance to come through and express themselves 'pon the 'mic." 2step is full of Jamaican slang, like the MC chant "we're bubbling criss": "bubbling" means "grooving," "criss" means slick, sharp-looking, crisp. Then there's the "rewind", in which the crowd shout "Bo!" when they love a record and the MC instructs the DJ to spin it back to the start. Borrowed from dancehall, this audience participation ritual is so crucial in 2step that Craig David and Artful Dodger harnessed it for their smash hit "Rewind (When the Crowd Say 'Bo! Selector!')".
2-step's paradox is that everything it's made of comes from elsewhere--New York's house scene, Jamaican dancehall, American R&B--but the resulting composite could only have happened in London. "You have this clash of cultures here---European, Indian, African, Caribbean," says Ras Kwame. "Everyone brings something different to the table." Kwame's own story is a prime example. Raised in Ghana, he played in reggae bands at high school, and met singers like Dennis Brown and Bob Marley through his father's sound system. Later, as a DJ and aspiring producer in London, he criss-crossed the R&B, hip hop, and drum'n'bass scenes. With his partner in M-Dubs, Kwame opened the record store Sugarshack and operated a little studio in back. Using the store as a way of keeping in touch with street-level tastes, M-Dubs produced massive tunes like "Over Here," featuring the nasal raggamuffin drawl of MC Richie Dan, and "Bump N' Grind", which layered a raunchy vocal lick sampled from Jamaica's queen of slackness Lady Saw ("put me on your face, ninja boy") over a beat stolen from Aaliyah's "Hot Like Fire." With a fully-fledged collaboration lined up with dancehall don Mr. Vegas, Kwame is pushing 2step as the 21st Century "rudeboy shuffle." "It's bassline music, like all London music really," he says. "It goes back to when the sound-system culture got brought over from Jamaica, thirty years ago. "
One rainy Sunday in December, MJ Cole--like Wookie, one of the first 2step producers to release an album--makes his New York debut as DJ support to Def Soul artiste Muziq Soulchild. Just like a garage club in London, the audience at the Bowery Ballroom is 80 percent black, but that's where the similarity ends. The crowd's smart but not flashy; in terms of music taste, you'd align them with Common/Erykah Badu/Montell Jordan, as opposed to Sisquo/Destiny's Child. When Cole takes over the decks from an R&B DJ playing slow jams, the 50 beats-per-minute tempo increase gets most of the guys scowling and looking round like someone's cut the cheese. You can almost see the thought-bubbles: "what IS this shit, house music or something?!". Gradually, the women are seduced by 2step's frisky beats and effervescent, joystruck vocals. And when Cole drops some fiercer bass-driven tunes, like his own remix of Glamma Kid & Shola Ama's "Sweetest Taboo," even the men start busting moves instead of looking bemused.
A few days later, hanging out at the West Village art gallery Alleged, Cole confesses to having been "quite scared actually. I was like, 'shit!, this is a real R&B crowd'. Danny Vicious, my MC, just totally lost his nerve, that's why he was so quiet on the mic'. See, he's a UK hip hop man, and suddenly being right there in the city where it all started.... " Cole frankly admits he has no idea how to break his music in the USA. 2step is already developing a small following as an offshoot of the American drum'n'bass scene, and the more "musical" style purveyed by Wookie and MJ Cole is likely to do well with the acid jazz crowd. But this is strictly cult success, small potatoes compared with the tyrannical thrall over the pop mainstream 2step enjoys in the UK. So the real question is whether BET and Hot 97 will take a chance on this music. And the problem is that, with R&B and street rap showing no signs of flagging commercially, these urban culture gatekeepers have no real incentive to take a risk on some weird shit from the UK.
Then again, the last year has seen American R&B and rap sounding ever closer to electronica and house music, possibly as a side effect of the rising popularity of Ecstasy in hip hop culture. From Timbaland using an acid bassline in Aaliyah's "Try Again", to the L'il Kim tracks based on old house classics, from OutKast's drum'n'bass dabblings to the eerie techno flavor of cuts from Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek, it could be that R&B/rap will meet 2-step halfway (given that 2-step is coming out of rave culture and heading towards American urban music). Digital technology and the near-instantaneous way that musical ideas migrate these days means that the borders between all the different street musics are increasingly meaningless. From Brixton in South London to the Bronx to Kingston, Jamaica, it's getting to be a single unified bass-beats-bleeps culture, a transAtlantic confederacy of booty-shaking sounds. Right now, the UK has a one-way alliance with American R&B, an unreciprocated love affair. But listen to 2-step, and it's hard to imagine this sound not booming out of cars from Atlanta to Los Angeles some time in the near future. I mean, how can you guys resist?