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’t—not 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 Atlantic—unless, like me, you’re easily sucked into following new dance trends, especially when said trends involve people of mixed races from England wearing sharp clothing—2step/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 pop—though not, significantly, rock—press, 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.
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 part—you 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 FM—caller, 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?
If MJ Cole manages to keep his pop instincts intact, True Steppers, a duo featuring former junglist Jonny L and his partner, Andy Lysandrou, positively bathe in cheap, for-the-moment gimmickry. If robotic disco puts a smile on your face, check out the group’s debut, True Stepping (BMG import), which has vocoders on almost every track, used to greatest effect on the Posh Spice-guested “Out of Your Mind,” and in the melodic “Sunshine,” which may be the warmest, funniest tribute Roger Troutman will ever get. Fans of “real” music will hate these guys.
Apparently Mark Hill and Pete Devereux, a/k/a Artful Dodger UK, have more than their fair share of haters (the adjectives “limp” and “candy floss” show up in a couple reviews), but as 2step’s most chart-proven act, that’s probably inevitable. All last year, while this movement was still a mystery to me, I kept seeing “Artful Dodger Remix” plastered on various dance comps, and now I know why. Their album, Its All About the Stragglers (London import), contains three of the genre’s best singles. “Movin’ Too Fast” has the same nimble touch (thanks to some pitched-up church bells) occasionally heard in freestyle; “Woman Trouble” and “Re-rewind” (both also included on AD’s U.S. DJ-mix album Rewind) are showcases for Robbie Craig and 2step’s first pinup boy, Craig David, two classic r&b-style vocalists. (David’s solo album, Born to Do It—set for a U.S. summer release on Atlantic—is excellent when the 2step rhythms nudge out the mid-tempo, streamlined r&b flavors. Otherwise, he comes across as a less libidinous R. Kelly.)
Thankfully, AD’s album isn’t all about the singles, though—almost every track is expertly arranged and written. Like Madonna on Music, Artful Dodger pretend that disco was something someone invented yesterday, and in the process bypass “genre” altogether. (I suspect we’ll see “Artful Dodger Remix” stamped over a Madonna single before the year’s over.)
I haven’t touched on 2step’s fashion/lifestyle/drugs element (designer suits, “posing,” and a lot of Baby Duck-sipping, I’m told), or on any number of cool one-shots by people like Sweet Female Attitude (“Flowers”) and Neesha (“What’s It Gonna Be”), names that won’t likely survive, even as footnotes to Shanks & Bigfootnotes. At the same time, I’m not all that partial to some of the genre’s more earnest strains. Wookie, a protégé of Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B, has been called the scene’s “saviour” in the Britpress, but most of his self-titled release (Soul II Soul import) is basically Seal with a perkier beat (though to be fair, Wookie does do a dynamite cut-and-paste job of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” in “What’s Going On”).
2step is also enduring an inevitable swing toward a “deeper, darker” aesthetic. Sound of the Pirates (Locked Out import), a compilation mixed by Zed Bias, pushes this angle: The basslines aren’t as warm, the rhythms have less sparkly Detroit funk finesse, and the whole sound verges on the premise that dissonance equals “more challenging” (and is thus superior). And yet the poppiest 2step’s challenging enough, certainly if you’re the type who pays close attention to how beats are structured. A friend of mine, who hears rhythms better than anyone I know, finally heard an Artful Dodger tune the other day and remarked, “It’s hardly 2step at all. The kick drum’s all over the place, and everything else seems really off.” He couldn’t even believe it was in 4/4.