The biggest beat of all

A short introduction to two-step garage, followed by everything you need to know about pop music in the 21st century.

Topics: Music,

The biggest beat of all

It’s 3 a.m. in the downstairs lounge at Centro-Fly, New York’s mod-mad nightclub, and the walls are dancing. Really. The floor-to-ceiling panels that line the room are spazzing out, taking split-second turns emitting these blinking stripes of bright pink light. The flashes are short and clipped, jumping from panel to panel with quantum-mechanical ease. The dizzying, strobelike effect is nothing new to dance clubs. But there’s something about the vibe down here, in the Pinky Room, that makes it particularly warm and inviting — like a smooth, soothing sip of incandescent visual fizz.

The main room upstairs is throbbing with the ceaseless bass of house music, that four-to-the-floor boom-boom-boom-boom that has been dance music’s go-to sound for ages. The tourists are into it, as are the curiously made-up girls from New Jersey and the few lady-slaying sailors in town for Fleet Week. There’s a big-room purposefulness to the music upstairs, a workhorselike aspect to its time-tested thump. It’s the kind of music people want when they drop $20 every now and then to do the dance-club thing.

The scene downstairs is markedly different. The crowd is a mix of finicky music-obsessives and stylish scene-makers here to check out Drive By, New York’s hottest home for the hottest new sound in dance music. Those in the know are tipping flutes of champagne, the drink of choice for their subcultural compatriots over in beat-loving London. In the middle of the floor, the good dancers are bouncing and flailing, sticking their moves with an angularity those on the edges are still trying to work out. The music is really new and different, the beats snapping in crisply slanted ways that make the house tunes upstairs sound old-fashioned. It’s all precision and shine down here.

The DJ drops some remarkably irony-free remixes of chart-topping hits — “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” (twice!?) — alongside the genre-making tracks that have just started making their way to the States. An MC spits out gritty freestyle on the mike, toasting Jamaican dancehall style. “Hometown NYC … Drive By … . We’re gonna spin you out,” he belts. “Bring your energy, bring your love … Let’s get sexy … It’s time for two-step garrraaaaaaggggeee!!!”

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If you’re really into dance music, you probably know two-step garage. If you’re not — if the difference between house and techno seems like little more than the punchline-ready distinction between country and western — maybe you’ve seen it referenced in a magazine. Maybe it meant something, or maybe you just wrote it off as another example of dance music’s tendency to spit out new genre names as signifiers of readymade revolution. Either way, two-step is a legitimately distinctive new style that owes a lot to drum ‘n’ bass and the futuristic minimalism that dominates American pop and R&B. But its debt extends equally to every other strain of dance music that has cropped up in the past 25 years. Giddy disco, soulful house, mechanistic techno, rhythm-crazed hardcore, bouncy Jamaican dancehall, big-bottomed Miami bass, gin-sipping G-funk, glitchy ambience — they’re all there.

It’s an unfortunate circumstance in electronic music that such terms mean the world to some and nothing to others. If you follow the music closely, the distinctions are both meaningful and necessary. They all connote something specific, even if they often bleed into one another and break down when it comes time for precise definitions. But keeping up with the linguistic free-for-all can wind up amounting to a full-time job. And it unfortunately guarantees that the newest sounds get discussed most interestingly in coded language that only alienates those who don’t have a working knowledge of the vocabulary. This isn’t exclusive to electronica, but the music’s largely wordless and hyperspecialized nature certainly doesn’t help.

With this in mind, two-step offers an interesting way out of the classic postmodern jam. For all its exposed roots and historical ties, the music amounts to much more than the sum of its parts, both in its sound and in its ability to juggle specialized progressivism and audience-courting populism behind a premise that relies on disregarding the conflict altogether.

Two-step really is a new sound, one that was cooked up as both an inevitable offshoot of everything that came before it and a marked departure from the history it tries so hard to revise. But while its big-picture history gives it some serious conceptual underpinning, its most immediately noticeable trait is its delicious accessibility. In England, where it’s been positively huge for a couple of years now, two-step (or U.K. garage, as it’s interchangeably known) appeals equally to both screaming teeny-boppers and underground DJs who disseminate it through pirate-radio stations and specialty record shops. The secretive white-label culture that dance music is famous for - DJs trading unlicensed remixes, trainspotters trying to steal ideas, etc. — is a big part of two-step. However, in England at least, the same tracks that get passed around like Samizdat in the underground can end up sitting pretty atop the singles charts, with no love lost on either side of the cultural divide.

If you’ve ever sat around and wondered what might one day pop up as a new sound that could make waves, however big or small, you’d be right to be intrigued by this. There’s a lot going on in two-step garage, both on the surface and beneath it, that speaks to both the present and the future in illuminating ways. It’s not likely to change the world in any magically profound fashion, but there’s something inspiring and true in the mere existence of a style that offers something to both jaded aesthetes and their 6-year-old nieces. Two-step’s mix of sophisticated stylization and pleasantly Epicurean excess just feels so … so culturally right.

Of course, England has always been a little cooler than America when it comes to recognizing this kind of thing. From the days when English rockers heard something in the blues that had slipped past American ears for years, the Brits have been building what your casual everyday Anglophile could rightfully call impeccable taste. The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” nowadays the leading vote-getter for best album ever, was a smash in England from Day 1, while it went largely unappreciated back home in the States. Examples like this are a given in rock history. But none of them even comes close to techno, which was invented in Detroit but really blew up only after Europeans recognized the soul that was hiding beneath the music’s posthuman future shock.

There’s a certain degree of overromanticizing going on here — Spice Girls, anyone? — but take a look at the magazine racks and it’s clearly more true than false. For reasons that are tough to pin down, England is home to a whole slew of publications — Mojo, the Wire, Uncut, etc. — that consistently treat music as something weighty and important and telling about our culture. It’s hard to think of an equivalent in the States simply because there isn’t one. (Or at least there isn’t one that can afford not to hide matters of substance in a mix of cheeky charticles and industry-stroking sloganeering.)

And this is to say nothing of the serious theory that has sprung up around electronic music in England. The better writing about techno and drum ‘n’ bass regularly places beat science alongside the most head-crunching social and political thought. Throw down a slamming break-beat and there will be a British writer ready to decorate it with a quote from Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida or Theodor Adorno.

If the British rave theorists’ intellectualizing is occasionally overreaching, it’s still invigorating in a way that seems almost inconceivable on this side of the pond. It’s also enough to make your casual everyday Anglophile imagine New Electronic London as a sort of cultural dreamscape, an updated fantasyland along the lines of the Old Weird America that Greil Marcus invoked around Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.” In a similar way, this New Electronic London is an overly idealized construct that helps the quixotic music fan accept that music isn’t all things to all people. But it’s also an instance of constructive romanticism capturing a certain essence by mixing the real with the imagined. There’s something to be said for swinging hard in case you hit something (or at least miss the point in a tellingly interesting way), and the critical flailing that surrounds London’s teeming dance scene lands a lot of punches in the name of electronic music’s progressive promise.

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It’s probably safe to assume that ‘N Sync’s Justin Timberlake doesn’t care much for the nuances of cultural criticism. When he recently told Entertainment Weekly that two-step garage is “where we think music is going,” he was talking about cool-ass beats. “It’s more futuristic,” he said, referring to the two-step influence of “Pop,” his group’s new single. “It’s like R&B twice as fast.”

Two-step’s debt to chart-dominating pop and R&B is yet another example of British aesthetes recognizing greatness in what their American peers traditionally write off as unlikely sources. The Brits aren’t entirely alone in holding up pop producers like Swizz Beatz, Rodney Jerkins, Kevin “Shek’spere” Briggs, et al., as serious artists. In America, though, the kind of producers who have worked with Destiny’s Child, Ruff Ryders and even Britney Spears are appreciated more exclusively by a cottage industry of critics whose dialogue rarely seems to drift outside the pages of magazines and large cities’ weekly newspapers.

While Spin or the Village Voice might freak out over Timbaland’s production work on Missy Elliot’s new album, it’s hard to imagine many underground American musicians — i.e., the guys in Tortoise — talking earnestly about “Get Ur Freak On,” much less doing something with its sound that would satisfy both indie kids and the people whose market-driving dollar makes records go platinum. It’s a phenomenon that speaks to simple logistical differences between the U.K. and the U.S., from the vastly different makeup of the radio industries to the obvious discrepancy in geographical size. But more than either of those, it’s evidence of the racial divisiveness that seems to dominate music-making in the States.

Unlike London’s two-step community, whose catchall musical recipe could only be the product of free-flowing culture-swirl, the lines that separate race here are bold and unmoving. Even if the monstrous success of hip-hop and R&B on the charts suggests otherwise, when it comes to the creative process, black music is black music and white music is white music. There are exceptions, of course, but the crosscurrent of racially blind musical influence here is more like a gentle breeze that blows only occasionally. And when it does, it’s more often than not on the empty-seeming pop charts, so that while Justin Timberlake speaks with surprising prescience about the culturally diverse two-step scene, it’s still hard to imagine the surly rock grouch at your corner record store doing the same.

Two-step garage was born from the ashes of drum ‘n’ bass, the hard-driving club sound that had all of London screaming “revolution!” in the early ’90s and then wondering what happened when the music hit a stylistic dead end. For all its churning progress, jungle was doomed to pound itself into remission. As it became increasingly popular, drum ‘n’ bass ultimately repelled its audience with the same characteristics that made it big to begin with: grating sonic attacks, speed-fixated break beats and chest-shaking bass lines. Because the purists didn’t allow it to change, it was easy to see why the once-frothing fan felt a little dissatisfied and ended up turning away like a foie gras goose come grain time.

In big-picture terms it might as well be the Edsel of hyped-up musical movements. But regardless of the way the fall of drum ‘n’ bass is caricatured now, there’s no denying that it was a seriously important and influential strain of musical thought. Excepting certain examples from hip-hop, there’s been no sound that better captured the personality-diffusing identity swirl and paranoid teeth-gnashing of turn-of-the-century culture. As a snapshot of the times, drum ‘n’ bass — and by extension, electronic dance music — delivered a relevance that rock ‘n’ roll simply wasn’t capable of invoking in its limping, arthritic state.

Two-step garage doesn’t exactly deliver on this promise either, but that’s largely because it learned from the morality tale that so consumed drum ‘n’ bass. A big part of two-step’s allure is simply that it strives to be alluring. In an effort to restore dance music’s social graces, two-step producers slowed down jungle’s pace and pumped their tracks full of the soulful atmosphere and sing-songy choruses of house music. It was a move that played to dance music’s communal aspirations and also brought back the women, whose noticeable absence had reduced large parts of the drum ‘n’ bass scene to something of a break-beat sausage party.

Besides, who’s really looking for a scorching indictment of the world in pop music these days, anyway? It’s not necessarily a good thing, but that new-century complacency everybody talks about is very much alive and well in the musical realm. Ecstasy, a drug whose long-term ill effects allegedly inspired the dark-core turn of rave music in the early ’90s is now more expressly associated with hip-hop artists who are enamored with their newfound lovey-dovey revelations. Feminism has become little more than a sexy parlor game, with Madonna entertaining her animated pimp fantasies and Destiny’s Child waxing all bootylicious. And so on. There’s Radiohead, of course, but their paranoid psychic crunch is more a meditation on the problems of the world than a reaction against them.

So, for better or worse, garage music’s good-time vibe plays to the culture that surrounds it. Listen to the lone pair of two-step compilations currently available in the U.S. — “Vital 2-Step” (V2) and the Artful Dodger-mixed “Re-Rewind” (London) — and it’s clear that the aim of this stuff is to move serious musical ideas while also paying serious respect to the pleasure principle. “Vital 2-Step,” the more appropriately varied of the two, mixes startling rhythmic inventions with hands-in-the-air diva vehicles, so that balladeering odes like Y Tribe’s “Enough Is Enough” rub up against the seething break beats of DJ Zinc’s “138 Trek” and sound in no way out of place.

It’s even more difficult than usual to describe this music for a couple of reasons, the first one being the almost impossibly wide range of styles that converge within the same movement. There are raw, skittering break-beat artists (Stanton Warriors, Reservoir Dogs), dubby bass enthusiasts (Zed Bias, Wideboys), speedy ragga vocalists (Ms. Dynamite), shiny pop purists (Artful Dodger, Oxide & Neutrino) and tons of others who fit different tendencies within the same two-step framework. What draws them all together is an intricate attention to detail and a working method that dreams up beats as immaculate conceptions. The two-step rhythm, as much as it formally exists, borrows the lurching stutter of drum ‘n’ bass, creating a similar sensation of beats continuously falling forward, close to tripping but always landing on their toes. But at most, the pattern works only as a suggestive foundation.

The second reason — and the one that makes two-step so startlingly new and distinct from drum ‘n’ bass — is the dizzying number of ideas that play out in almost every track. If musical progression could be measured in units of Ideas Per Song, two-step at its best would be completely off the scale. The music’s shiny surface couldn’t be much more inviting, but once you dig down into the mechanics of what’s going on beatwise, the simple pop appeal turns into something gloriously disorienting in its micromanaged obsessiveness. The tracks snap into shards, like crackling ice sculptures, while the beats resist any efforts to isolate the six, seven, eight different rhythmic patterns that create the rollicking whole. A big part of two-step’s M.O. is to do with treble what jungle did with bass, so that its big, body-dominating effects play out on hi-hats rather than a thudding kick drum. The effect is as consciously manipulative as any brain-tearing bass rip, but it’s sneakier and more finessed, with the beats receding in reverse perspective as they invite you in and then laugh as you try to pick out what exactly makes them work.

Take a song like Artful Dodger’s “Re-Rewind,” a mellow track that’s one of the scene’s first monster hits. On one hand, it’s a warm bath of melody and soulful vocals by British R&B star Craig David. Its verses roll comfortably over Mellotron chords and sizzling rim taps that sound like clinking wine glasses. When it gets to the chorus, though, it turns to musique concrète, with a darkened bass figure ripped from gangster dancehall setting a base for endlessly spliced tape-edits and found sounds like skidding cars and shattering windows.

Both the “Vital 2-Step” and “Re-Rewind” compilations offer a good introduction to this stuff, but the time delay that separates British dance music from proper domestic release makes the newer developments available only on imports. At Tower Records in New York at least, there are enough people paying import prices that two-step has earned a listening station display on the main floor, right next to the racks that hold Missy Elliot and Destiny’s Child. It’s on those imports — the four double-disc volumes of “Pure Garage,” the two editions of “Sound of the Pirates,” DJ Dee Kline & Donna Dee’s “Beat Freaks” — that the style coalesces into its crystalline order and offers all its sage advice for ways to reconcile pop and the avant-garde.

Scan the aboveground musical horizon and you’ll turn up no shortage of artists who are similarly pushing their forms while moving serious units: Daft Punk, Radiohead, Missy Elliot, Basement Jaxx, OutKast. What they share with the artists who make two-step a style worth obsessing over is a firmly raised hand to the idea that nothing’s going on in music these days. Spend some time trying to size up two-step garage and the argument reveals itself more than a little bit lazy.

As two-step artist MJ Cole, on the phone in the middle of a current U.S. tour, tells it, “This is pretty much some of the only really fresh music that nobody can put their finger on yet.” He’s right — and it’s not for lack of pointing.

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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