By Spencer Wilking
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A year ago, someone I work with at the record store played me what was then the latest dance song to take over the U.K. charts: "Sweet Like Chocolate" by a mysterious entity known as Shanks & Bigfoot. "Sweeter Than Chocolate" would've been more appropriate, as the song had more glucose in it than just about anything ever, the Archies included. "Oh, it's freestyle,"scoffed another coworker, except that it wasn'tnot exactly. "Sweet Like Chocolate" was part of a more recent development, the dance genre alternately known (depending on whom you ask) as "2step" or "U.K. garage." And though you'd never know it on this side of the Atlanticunless, like me, you're easily sucked into following new dance trends, especially when said trends involve people of mixed races from England wearing sharp clothing2step/garage ruled Britannia in the year 2000, as both an underground and overground phenomenon, splashing down hard on the club scene, pirate radio, Top 40, and of course, the popthough not, significantly, rockpress, where it was boasted (in The Face) that "it could only have happened here."
If you ask me, this genre should be called 2step, and not just because it rolls off the tongue easier, but because U.K. garage is not a British version of "Louie, Louie" and the Chocolate Watchband (it's sweeter than the Watchband). It is interesting, though, how British dance genres absorb U.S. dance sounds and U.S. punk words. When I recently interviewed MJ Cole, one of 2step's chief instigators, he kept referring to "hardcore" as one of the styles that led him down the musical path into "garage," and I thought, how odd to go backwards from Minor Threat to the Kingsmen. I've never understood the dance definition of "hardcore," especially as it applies to 2step: Sometimes the snare drums sound clangy or militaristic, but overall this music's about as hard as a rubber duckie.
Overall this music's about as hard as a rubber duckie.
Of course, "garage," in its dance definition, comes from the Paradise Garage, the legendary late-'70s New York club that spawned the high-pitched, diva-fied sound that would eventually evolve into house music. 2step, on the other hand, has existed for more than 150 years in the form of actual dances, from salon-era waltzes to Texas line shuffles. The two-step waltz, more popularly known as valse a deux temps(two-beat waltz), was, according to Victor Eijkhout on his Web page (www.eijkhout.net/rad/), rejected by many dancers because it was "jerky in its movement."
The new British 2step does not denote any specific bodily gyrations on the dancefloor, but its rhythm is also rather "jerky in its movement." Mathematically speaking, 2step is the mean average of house and jungle, meaning tempo-wise it's house (120 beats per minute) plus jungle (140 bpm+) divided by two. The analogy goes deeper than mere mathematics, though: 2step's beat is more complex than house (flittier hi-hat patterns, off-center kick drums), though not as cluttered as jungle (which is cluttered primarily by its speed).
There's also a strong dosage of Timbaland's and She'kspere's edgy rhythmic experiments and Miami bass's bouncy bounce-bounce, and though American producers have yet to jump into the 2step ring, Jill Scott, Destiny's Child, and Sisqó have recently had makeovers from Brit remixers MJ Cole, the Dreem Teem, and Artful Dodger, respectively. So maybe what we're starting to witness in dance music is something that occurred frequently in the rock world of the '60s: what Roger McGuinn called secret messages back and forth between the Brits and Americans, like the Beatles hearing the Byrds' use of 12-string guitars and responding with "Ticket to Ride."
Still, I don't think The Face was inaccurate in saying that 2step could only have happened in the U.K., for the "secret" card that British dance kids have stacked in their decks is the reggae and dancehall DJ: the free-floating, patois-based toasting style, exported from Jamaica, sure, but a seminal part of Britain's interracial stew, and positively crucial to the 2step sound. Following rudeboy culture, there hasn't actually been a lot of dance music indigenous to England. The U.K.'s biggest post-disco development came from Soul II Soul, who evolutionized house music in 1989 by slowing it down 20 bpm. Jungle grew out of this environment as well, but went in the opposite direction, upping the tempo 20+ bpm. In case you were lucky enough to miss that boat, not to fear: Most jungle musicians forgot about the music partyou know, songs, melodies, and hooks.
Thankfully, most of 2step's better-known producers have ears for pop craft, as proven by recent CD releases from MJ Cole, True Steppers, and Artful Dodger. There are 24 vocalists scattered across these three albums, plus occasional interludes between songs, making them feel less like digital artifacts and more like instantaneous, indeterminate flips of the radio dial. "MJ FM Interlude" on MJ Cole's Sincere (Talkin' Loud) features a bit of pirate-banter between DJ and listener ("Yo, MJ FMcaller, you're on the air!"), kind of like those old Malcolm McLaren and the Supreme Team skits. Cole is being touted as 2step's first "serious" musician because he holds a degree from the Royal College of Music, and on Sincere he fine-tunes his arrangements to both ill and skilled effect. The pizzicato strings on "Crazy Love," for instance, are superb, but there's a tendency to wallow in minor-key Jean Michel-Jarre soundscapes. Cole does ride a pretty sharp groove, though, and his hypnotic and sparsely arranged title track makes disco sound like the dance of doom. Just try erasing this triplet from your head: "Don't do it/Be sincere/I'm crazy." Don't do what?
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