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Stepping into the Light: UK Garage and the Rave Virus (2000)

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Gareth Metford
London – Hyperdub HQ

Originally published in 2000

By 2000, it has become possible to speak in terms of a rave continuum. Thought of as ‘hyperdub,’ or simply ‘hardcore,’ this entity transcends mere musical genre, being more usefully understood as a set of nomadic sub-cultural practices, to which a relentlessly deconstructive art practice is central. In this sense, it is useful to conceive of rave as a virus – a cultural contagion that moves rapidly between host styles, its vectors both individual humans and technological apparatuses such as the sampler. (As Steve Goodman puts it, hyperdub is an “info virus” that “replicates in both humans and machines.”)

There has been some discussion as to whether 2-step garage can properly be placed within this continuum. Bat Bhattacharyya has described 2-step as “musically very different, antithetical even” to previous rave styles, a view which has been echoed by many. However, while 2-step’s referencing of US house and R&B models might appear most un-hardcore to some, at the structural level we find a striking degree of continuity between 2-step and its breakbeat-oriented antecedents. Central to the effect of both breakbeat hardcore and early jungle was the emphasis that these forms placed on the gap, the fissure, the lurch. In precisely the same way, 2-step tracks are full of discontinuities, both literal and figurative. Take Second Protocol’s ‘Basslick,’ shifting in the instant from a sickly-sweet piano arpeggio to a pounding, clangourous bassline. Wookie’s ‘Scrappy,’ meanwhile, layers Rhodes piano and Hammond organ stabs – in the jazz-funk tradition, signifiers of all that is ‘musical’ and tasteful – over tweaked, acidic synth-bass. These sorts of jarring, exhilarating, head-fucking moments are the very essence of rave.

Where 2-step does depart from rave orthodoxy is in its lack of concern with the ‘rush’ – in other words, with accentuating the effects of Ecstacy use. While, in Bhattacharyya’s view, this implies a fundamental break, a “catastrophic shift” in the rave continuum, I would argue that this has allowed 2-step producers to push rave’s ethos of destabilisation further than ever before. Freed from the necessity to provide dancers with a surging, propulsive soundscape, producers such as Dem 2 have developed a rhythmic technology which, with its constant interplay of shuffles, jerks, and surges, aims to baffle the body, challenging its ability to resolve these shifting lattices of percussion into anything resembling regular motion. Moreover, rather than unifying the crowd into a single, Ecstatic unit, 2-step produces a distributed, disarticulated array of body parts, each individual hip, elbow or toe responding to a different accent, a separate micro-syncopation or double-time incrementation of the beat. No wonder that the staple drug of this scene is cocaine; no music, certainly no rave style, has yet sought to generate such massed isolation, such communal fragmentation.

If, at present, the rave virus seems alive and strong in 2-step, what are the chances of the infection persisting? The biggest risks faced by any rave scene are formal calcification and media overdetermination. Despite having been established for some time, 2-step continues to innovate at an astonishing rate; we might even begin to talk about a 2-step ‘golden age’ comparable to jungle’s late 1994 – early 1995 heyday. Unlike jungle, however, UK garage has so far managed to negotiate the ‘underground’ / ‘overground’ divide with ease, its more sophisticated approach to the media and to commerce enabling it to avoid being distorted out of shape by the pressures of success. In all likelihood, 2-step’s sublime blend of twitch and grind will continue as the dominant hardcore sound well into next year.

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Copyright © Hyperdub 2001 – Reprinted with permission.

Category: Hyperdub

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Riddim.ca was founded by DJ/writer paul autonomic (aka Mr. Bump) in February 2005 as a hub for North America's nascent grime and dubstep scenes. Since then we've helped promote events across the continent and made friends around the world. Mostly dormant now, we're host to one of the web's largest collections of writing on the late-Garage dis/continuum as well as a growing collection of rare audio and scans (coming eventually).