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Beyond the Streets

More fire crew: strength thru oi!
photo: Courtesy Go Beat Records

So everybody knows about the Streets now, but only as an isolated case: that unprecedented phenomenon, the U.K. rapper who's both excellent and authentically English-sounding. Skinner actually comes from a context, though. It's not that perennial lame duck Brit-rap, but a new genre that some have dubbed "garage rap": basically, 2step fronted by MCs. Nowhere to be found in the American house tradition, the MC has been an important figure in U.K. rave culture from the start. All manner of Brit B-boys and dancehall chatters got swept up in the late '80s acid house explosion, and for a while there was even hybrid rave-rap, with performers like Rebel MC, Ragga Twins, and Demon Boyz. For most of the '90s, though, the rave MC knew his place: a strictly supporting role, exalting the DJ and hyping the crowd. Through jungle and early U.K. garage, there were star MCs, but they weren't nearly as well paid as the top DJs, and even when they appeared on records their careers were largely based around a few trademark catchphrases or signature vocal licks, like MC Creed's funky bullfrog stutter.

Gradually, MCs started to write actual verses, and then, two years ago, came the putsch: They refused second-billing status (DJ/Producer X featuring MC Y). Suddenly the scene was swarming with MC collectives—So Solid Crew, K2 Family, Pay As U Go Kartel, GK Allstars, Dem Lott, Horra Squad, Nasty Crew—as if only by ganging up for sheer strength of numbers could they shove the DJ out of the spotlight. American rap's clan-as-corporation structure was also an influence, with collectives like So Solid modeling themselves on such entrepreneurial dynasties as Wu Tang and Roc-A-Fella. If the trend continues, the DJ in U.K. garage could become a vestigial figure, just like in mainstream American rap. This power struggle has musical implications. Listening to U.K. garage these days, the most striking thing is its torrential wordiness. Rave music was always about the nonverbal sublime. But in garage rap, verbose and swollen egos trample all over the loss-of-self that was originally house culture's promise and premise.

With its raucousness and Englishness and sometimes sheer malevolence, garage rap is comparable to another music of the embattled ego: punk. The Englishness comes through in the delivery: Mic chat has always been fast in Black British sound system culture, but there's also a tightness-in-the-throat, a dainty crispness of diction, that is distinctly un-American. As for the nastiness, you only have to look at garage's current lexicon of superlatives— "gutter," "stinking," "disgusting," "thugsy"—to see where it's coming from. There's even a character called MC Vicious! Sometimes it's closer to the original '60s garage punk: lots of sexual malice and second-person hostility. But when MCs drop lines like "there's a lot of anger that's been building up inside," there's a sense of pre-political rage and social frustration that feels very 1977. As it happens, the state of the nation in 2002 uncannily mirrors the mid-'70s U.K. context that fueled punk's ire: a fatally compromised Labour government, recession, public service workers on strike, and resurging racial tension reflected in both electoral success for far-right political parties and a revived Anti-Nazi League. As far as U.K. garage's underclass audience is concerned, though, collective struggle is a sentimental, distant memory, strictly for suckers. And so it bypasses the failed realm of politics altogether, expressing its rage-to-live through individualistic fantasies of stardom or crime: Staggerlee transplanted to Sarf Lundun.

Garage rap isn't all crime-pays false consciousness, though. Like punk, the nu-garage upheaval has opened things up for all sorts of quirky voices: Skinner obviously, but also honey-dripping Barrington Levy-like charmers such as Laid Blak's MC Joe Peng. On "Scream & Shout" (Moist import), he describes himself as "a nice and decent fellow," gently chides "the ladies dressed in black" ("those are the colors of a funeral"), and even pulls off a non-cloying plea to build a better world for our children. Judging by their name, Heartless Crew ought to be peddling more Social Darwinist ruthlessness, but "Heartless Theme" verges on positivity, talking about how hard they've worked for their success, and claiming that they're only heartless "cos our hearts are in the music." Then there's the geniality of Genius Kru, whose "Course Bruv" revives the amiable (if insanitary) rave-era ritual of sharing your drink. The insanely addictive chorus goes: Male Voice: "Can I 'ave a sip of that?" Genius Kru: "Course bruv!" Sexy Female: "Can I 'ave a sip of that?" Genius Kru: "Course luv!!"

Your best chance of hearing "Heartless Theme" and "Course Bruv" is on (groan!) Crews Control, a Warnerdance U.K. compilation you might find in Tower or Virgin. Somewhat patchy, this double-CD justifies the import price by containing around eight certified classics, including Purple Haze's "Messy" and More Fire Crew's "Oi!" Early in 2002, the latter became the most avant-garde U.K. Top 10 hit since the Prodigy's "Firestarter," its dead-eyed drum machine beats sourced in Schoolly D and "Sleng Teng," its patois-tinged jabber equal parts Cockney Rejects and "Cockney Translation" (Smiley Culture's 1985 dancehall classic). Garage Rap, Vol 1 (Eastside import) is more consistent and up-to-date, ranging from the quasi-orchestral grandeur of Wiley & Rolldeep's "Terrible" to the thunderdrone rampage of GK Allstars' "Garage Feeling."

The trouble with comps, even superior ones like this, is they inevitably lag behind where the scene is at right this minute. With 2step's crossover bubble long popped, it's like the "real musicians" (MJ Cole, et al.) have fled to more prosperous climes, leaving the genre in the hands of barbarian teenagers who don't give a shit about things being in key, who break the rules 'cos they don't know the rules.

Right now, London's pirate-radio underground is like a primordial swamp, seething with protean new forms and percolating with ideas nicked from Dirty South bounce, electro, ragga, even gabba. Much of it is sub-music: unfinished experiments, prototypes thrown onto the marketplace for the hell of it. Some tunes want to be proper rap, but sound like all those No Limit wannabe labels: cheap 'n' nasty synth-refrains inspired by or sampled from video-game muzik or cell phone ring-tones, doomy horn fanfares à la Swizz Beats or Ludacris. There's a whole vein of spartan tracks, just beats and B-lines, designed for freestyling over—the most famous and ubiquitous being Musical Mobb's "Pulse X," the U.K.'s very own "Grindin'." In techno, tracky tunes of this type are regarded as "DJ tools"—uncompleted work that only becomes music in the DJ's mix 'n' mesh. In U.K. garage, they function as MC tools, designed to both enable and test the rapper, the most extreme riddims as buckwild challenging to ride as a mechanical bull. Every big tune these days comes with an instrumental lick on the flip, so aspiring MCs on the pirates can version it, throwing down solo freestyles or sparring in on-air ciphers. Increasingly, they're using the instrumental B-sides of current rap hits.

Like its precursors dancehall and hip-hop, garage rap is capitalist competition at its most honestly brutal, a free market governed only by the fickleness of popular desire, a/k/a, the massive. Reigning rhymestar Wiley asserts, "I will not lose/Never, no way, not ever"; he's next in line for So Solid-style stardom, alongside his Rolldeep cohort Dizzy Rascal (who's quite possibly the most inspired and provocative U.K. rapper since Tricky). But most MCs will be lucky to have one or two hot tunes, and run t'ings for a season before they're dethroned.


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