How UK Garage Conquered 2021

There’s no doubt that UK garage had a major resurgence in 2021, dominating the charts, clubs and airwaves. But is it here to stay? Or will this be another passing fad? Speaking to genre luminaries and newcomers, Kristan Caryl finds out.

31 min
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Sept 24, 2021
Kristan Caryl

“For years, people in the garage scene have been saying this is the revival, it’s happening this year,” says Bklava. “That’s always felt true to me, but in the end, it’s never really kicked off. This year though, I think we’re there.”

Indeed, UK garage — colloquially called UKG — is everywhere you look in 2021. Beatport’s charts have been heavily populated by new school garage artists for the last 18 months. Manchester’s The Warehouse Project has installed two distinctly garage artists as residents for the season. Bklava herself has signed to Ministry of Sound on a multi-release deal that harks back to the heyday of female-fronted garage acts like Sweet Female Attitude and Ms. Dynamite. And anecdotally, even non-garage DJs are playing more and more garage tunes in their sets.

This summer also saw London rapper AJ Tracey come back with a second garage hit following 2019’s breakout garage anthem “Ladbroke Grove,” which was produced by the now influential UKG talent, Conducta. “West Ten” from Tracey’s second number one album made number five on the UK Singles Chart and hit the top of the UK Dance Chart. On top of that, bottomless UKG brunches — though nostalgically themed around the original ‘90s sound — are some of the most popular events in London right now.

Check out our “How UK Garage Conquered 2021” chart on Beatport.
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Broadly speaking, genres like house and techno are always in fashion. But garage tends to move in cycles, ever since the term was first used to describe a speedier, soulful house sound that emerged from sets by the late Larry Levan at New York’s Paradise Garage nightclub, or by Tony Humphries at New Jersey club Zanzibar, in the mid-1970s.

By the late ‘80s, house music had a firm hold on the UK, and was quickly becoming mainstream. But A&Rs at Republic Records were one step ahead. And in 1988, they served up The Garage Sound Of Deepest New York, a 10-track compilation that showcased music that early adopters like UK DJ Dave Lee, then known as Joey Negro, were playing.

By 1991, UK DJs like Tuff Jam and The Dreem Teem regularly played dub versions of the soulful, vocal American garage cuts, giving the sound a different spin. But the costs of buying original US import records was prohibitively high for most DJs, and many began making their own approximations. As the soulful US garage sound mixed with darker bass and faster tempos of these UK producers, UKG was born.

Tarik Nashnush saw it all happen firsthand. In 1988 he founded independent record shop Pure Groove on a North London market stall with his brother Ziad and friend Peter Worthington. Eight years later in the back room of the shop they rented on Holloway Road, he founded Locked On, the UK’s greatest-ever garage label.

“We called it Locked On because of pirate radio,” recalls Tarik. “That was all anyone was saying — ‘stay locked on!'” With one pirate station located on the same street as the Pure Groove headquarters, the station’s DJs often came in looking for new radio material. “At the time, they all played drum & bass. That was it. But then they moved to play imported garage and so had a huge role in establishing the sound in the UK. At first, it was US tracks they had remixed themselves, and then they started making their own.”

Tarik wanted a way of showcasing all the new garage records Pure Groove was stocking, so came up with the idea of commissioning a DJ mix. “The scene was so young that there was no such thing as a garage night or a garage DJ,” Tarick says, so he reached out to US artist Todd Edwards, who in 1996 mixed Locked On. Inside The Mix, featuring tracks and remixes by George Morel, MK, Armand Van Helden, David Morales and Kerri Chandler. “He’d made a couple of tracks, so we thought we would ask. We didn’t even know he DJed, but what came back was just amazing. He nailed it.”

One particular track on the mix, “Never Let You Go,” is credited with the big first development in the garage sound. It was a minor R&B tune by American R&B singer and musician Tina Moore. But a b-side Pump & Go remix by Kelly G., who was mentored by Chicago house legend Steve “Silk” Hurley, layered in a monster bassline, skipping, syncopated beat, and off-grid hits that moved away from the rooted four-four beats of garage. The tune was re-released and became an a-side anthem two years later. It was the start of the 2-step sound. And soon DJs like Tuff Jam, Norris Da Boss Windross, DJ EZ, and Dizzie Rascal, began incorporating more garage into their sets, even pressing their own records before heading into Pure Groove to try and sell them.

By the mid-to-late ‘90s, tempos had increased, and speed garage was born. The sound was so popular that major labels quickly got involved, flooding the market. The UK charts were packed with enduring anthems like “Sweet Like Chocolate” and acts like Artful Dodger. The underground sound, meanwhile, was dominated by Dem 2, MJ Cole, Groove Chronicles and Double 99, whose “RIP Groove” remains a definitive anthem of the late ‘90s.

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The early days of most genres are associated with certain key clubs — petri dishes where DJs and dancers experiment and evolve the sound. For garage, it was places like The Elephant & Castle. Situated next door to Ministry of Sound, the Sunday morning party Happy Days at The Elephant & Castle captured people rolling out at closing time but still hungry for more. In order to meet the post-rave energy of those coming from Ministry, the New York house tunes played at Happy Days were played at hugely pitched-up speeds. The party served as a vital breeding ground for early UKG, and many other parties followed to make for a famously tight and exciting Sunday scene.

“There was definitely a community there,” says Tarik, who also remembers Mike Skinner bringing him tons of new tunes on a regular basis. They never really fit with the label, but Tarikloved them, which is why Locked On put them out as standalone albums. “People were helping each other out with remixes and it was all going well.”

Next to pirate radio, KISS FM played a major role in the early garage years. And DJ Spoony, along with his fellow The Dreem Teem DJs, gave garage a mainstream home on Radio 1 in 2000. But the beginning of the end for early UKG, in Tarik’s mind, was when pirate radio stations started doing their own events.

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“That was their way of making money to finance the stations and everything else. But it became gritty. There became a bit of a turf war element — people were trying to do bigger events, better sound systems, hiking the prices.”

By the early 2000s, the scene was increasingly misrepresented by the media and politicians. Gangs got involved to control the potential drug trade, and the government introduced the controversial risk assessment form, Form 696, which required club promotors to detail the music policy of their events and the ethnicity of their clientele. Garage (and later grime, which was subjected to the same form until it was abandoned in 2018) was a primarily Black scene, and the form was seen by many as a way of discriminating against underground Black music based purely on skin colour.

With parties de facto banned, garage had nowhere to exist. Even the famous and hugely popular Twice As Nice events in Aya Nappa were canceled by the mayor, and UKG crossover act So Solid Crew was increasingly demonised by the UK media for what they thought was glorifying gun culture.

The first wave of garage was effectively over. But its influence loomed large over the sounds that emerged from its ashes. Artists at the darker end of the garage spectrum, like Horsepower Productions and Zed Bias, stripped out the glossy samples and made grittier sounds that eventually became dubstep. The more soulful, R&B-oriented end of garage became popularized by huge UK chart acts like Craig David and MC Luck & MC Neat, and the role of the garage MC became ever more prominent, eventually giving rise to grime.

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Much of the early garage scene was oriented in London. But around 2000, a sound known as bassline spun out of speed garage and house. The sound was pushed mainly by producers in the north of England, who stripped out UKG’s vocals, bumped up the low end, and added synths. This energetic if not short-lived style is perfectly encapsulated in T2‘s “Heartbroken” ft. Jodie. Although Niche nightclub in Sheffield was red hot for a time, violence and anti-social behaviour led to a police raid. The club closed in 2005.

By 2010, enough time and distance had passed for producers to start bringing garage back once again. House acts like Huxley and Mosca had big, underground hits, and crossover duo Disclosure found chart success in 2012 with “Control” ft. Ria Ritchie. Female vocalists like Ria have always been well represented in garage, which is part of the reason a young Bklava — who’s become the face of the revitalized sound — first fell in love with the genre.

“Garage now is completely new and way more forward-thinking,” Bklava says. “I think what’s good about this new era is that no one is trying to be revivalist. No one, generally, is trying to mimic the old sound. With a lot of the new wave, the people that are coming through are being inspired by the newer artists rather than the old artists from back in the day.”

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And Bklava would know. She has worked with new-school pin-ups like Conducta, whose Kiwi Records is at the centre of the garage universe right now. “There are lots of artists coming through that are really exciting and have their own sound — people like Oppidan and Laura Alice — so I’m really inspired by the newer sounds,” Bklava says.

Now in her mid-twenties, Bklava’s introduction to garage began when she sang along to the commercial garage hits of her youth. And at university, friends introduced her to the classic ‘90s garage house sound. “I loved the sick samples, the repetitiveness of the loops, but the melodic side of the bass of garage house. And there were so many amazing, iconic singers back then — some you hear about, but many you don’t. They had big, soulful voices and really made the song.”

Her own new Autonomy EP on Ministry of Sound has plenty of those: there is seductive late-night 2-stepper, “Close to You“; lung-busting, UK funky-tinged banger “Only For Tonight“; and deep garage-house shuffler “Leave.” As distinctive as she is musically, Bklava also has a strong visual identity thanks to her bold fashion sense.

“I’ve always been someone who likes experimenting with different styles and clothes. To me, now, there’s not really a style of clothing that everyone’s wearing on nights out. It’s definitely more of a mixed style. We still kind of wear naughties-inspired clothing, especially women, but I’ve never actually connected with anyone in the dance world just over clothes.”

Still, Bklava understands that fashion and music “100% go hand in hand,” and it’s true that in days gone by, what you wore at a garage event was as important as what you heard. Look at any photos from Sunday scene parties in the nineties and early naughties and you’ll spot Timberland boots, Moschino belts, Versace shirts and big hoop earrings. Today, the Facebook group Wavey Garms (now also a London clothing shop) is hugely popular for its carefully curated vintage pieces, which often hark back to first-wave garage fashion.

Read: Artist of the Month – Bklava

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Today, via the rise of social media, the world is much more visual than it was during the early days of garage. Conducta has said that he sees this as a good thing, because a scene needs a visual identity in order to make it stick. And it is fair to say that, for example, US hip hop artists promote each other, feature on each other’s products, and guest on each other’s records. They know how to build an image, foment a brand, and make money. These are all important factors when it comes to the longevity of a scene.

“I agree with that,” says Bklava. “It’s nice to be ambiguous and not put yourself out there in terms of showing your face and making it more about the music. But to show your face and have a presence gives you more of a connection to the scene; it allows others to connect to you on a personal level. It’s more welcoming and shows what you’re up to. And being active on social media helps all that. It allows other marginalised groups to see people who look and sound like them, and plays an important role in inspiring them to get involved.”

Bklava has her own Spin Suga project which, like BBC Radio 1 host Jaguar‘s Future1000 project, wants to bring traditionally marginalised communities into dance music. She also wrote a dissertation at university that dug into why there are fewer people of colour and women in dance music — is it because they are not getting booked, or because they are not there to be represented in the first place? “I found it’s very much lack of representation,” she says. “So it’s just about getting more people out there, at any level.”

Notably, women played key behind-the-scenes roles in the early days of garage. For instance, Sarah Lockhart co-founded the legendary FWD>> club before later co-founding Rinse FM. DJ Femme Fatale was an influential early resident at Smoove and also mixed Ministry of Sound’s popular garage compilations. And Kaizen label boss, BBC Radio 1, NTS and Rinse FM host Madam X plays a similarly important role today.

Madam X grew up in Milton Keynes, spent time in Manchester and is now London-based, and it’s fair to say she has a widescreen perspective on the current scene. The modern sound is “a bit cleaner and more polished,” she says. “It’s interesting to see how it’s evolved from its ruff-tuff-n-ready days to more of a refined sound.” She explains that her love of garage as a DJ and dancer comes from the fact that “it does something to my body. If I hear a good garage beat, I’m gone. The grooves, the pitch-bended samples, unpredictable drops, it’s a nonstop vibe. There’s nothing like feeling those subs running through your feet, singing along with your mates waiting for that wobbly bassline to drop.”

As much as she is a fan of the new school sounds, she also strikes a note of caution. “I’ve definitely seen garage filtering through the mainstream over the last few years. You had [hit UK TV sitcom] Kurupt FM reviving Craig David’s career, and Jorja Smith and Dua Lipa bringing it into pop. That’s kind of cool, but I think that’s probably a catalyst for a lot of same-y and uninteresting attempts at garage. For something to stand out as an impactful garage weapon, I need something more than happy piano chords, skippy vocals and wavy basslines. If you’re gonna jump on the garage train, you need to step away from the generic plugins, and bring your own style and flavour.”

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UK producer James Burnham is the face behind names like Burnski and Constant Sound. For more than a decade, he released tech house on labels like Hot Creations and Crosstown Rebels. But he’s now best known as prolific garage artist Instinct. He also runs a label by the same name, with releases by the likes of Pinder, Holloway and 0113.

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“There’s a point where you’ve been making tunes for years. You might have had a bit of success. But then you just take a bit of a step back, regroup and think about what really gets you excited. I’d be lying if I said garage was the number one thing I got into, but it’s always been there from the start. I’ve always dabbled with it, but then without really thinking about it, I just put some more garage-style tunes out and it grew from there. There was no reason behind it. I just found myself doing it and enjoying it.”

“It’s a very fun genre,” he continues. “When I first started playing more garage gigs, they were so different, it was much more of a laugh. People in the crowd just seemed to be having much more fun.”

He admits to using samples in his music in order to get an authentic garage sound, but is in no way a garage historian who pours over the genre. In fact, he prefers to stay a little isolated so as to hone his own unique sound, free from outside influences. Nowadays, he feels more comfortable with what he makes and plays than ever.

“I remember playing a few garage tunes in Burnski sets around 2005 and they just weren’t working. I felt quite restricted. I think at that time there were more defined rules about what you could and couldn’t play. Doing my own labels now means I have no one to answer to. As a DJ, there are less expectations on me. As a producer, I have way more freedom than back then. It was a bit of a rat race, fitting in and making sounds that people want. I’d maybe gone into autopilot before. Garage has given me a new lease on life, really.”

Now four years old, Burnham’s Instinct label is 17 releases deep and is leading the way when it comes to the more dark and physical end of the garage spectrum. “The mad thing is, there are kids now, 21, 22, 23 years old, and their tunes are mint,” beams Burnham. “The new producers, there’s a bit of innocence in the music. They’re approaching it completely differently to someone who’s been doing it for 10 years. They mash different things together in a DIY style, but it really works. And that has an impact on me when I produce my own stuff.”

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One of garage’s most appealing features is its universality. You don’t need to understand the nuances of it in the same way you do a sparse, 11-minute deep-techno roller, or stripped-back micro house tune. Anyone can step into a club, hear a garage tune and experience an instant hit of euphoria. A good garage tune is often sweetness balanced with bitterness. It’s characterized by swinging drums and a driving bassline that makes you contort your face in mock disgust at the filthiness. Garage even has an ability to sample, shall we say, sub-cool acts like Jamairoqui in a way that is palatable to even the most serious music heads. It’s instant fun, and maybe that’s one of the reasons the genre has been so popular in these difficult pandemic years.

Y U QT is a Leceister-based garage duo featuring longtime friends Daryl and Cooper. They’ve released some essential tunes on Conducta’s Kiwi Records as well as their own self-titled label. Like garage don DJ Q, who hails from Huddersfield in the North of England and fomented his own low-end fusion of garage, grime and house, Y U QT have developed their own garage style. With its melodic bass, lush vocal samples and proper chords, it’s accessible anywhere, any time — not just in the midst of a dark and sweaty club.

Daryl reckons that accessibility is key to making this garage revival stick. He’s a big fan of the “super musical skills” of early pioneers like MJ Cole, and says that Y U QT’s aim is to make tunes that are not so obvious and hooky that they are throwaway, but not so dark and underground that they remain a niche sound. He says that even in a smaller city or suburb, “you can mash house and garage together in a car, a bar, a takeaway or through a Bluetooth speaker in the park, and people still hear it and get it.”

Music has been his business for a number of years, even before the Y U QT project. He can play drums, keys, and guitars, and is keen to bring all that to the music he makes. “I’m so obsessed with drums and drum sounds,” he says. “That’s what I started playing when I was younger. So I do go back and listen to the older stuff as research. I think back then, the tunes were definitely more like songs. And sound-wise, we love that New Jersey stuff — the big drums. It was all super musical with a real house beat. That’s where I went to find my inspiration from, but I’m not trying to copy those sounds. The 909 drums on, say, The Nightcrawler’s tune ‘Push The Feeling On’ sound like that because they were recorded in that room at that time. If I try and do the same it just won’t sound the same.”

Like Bklava, he recognises the importance of having a brand and identity aside from making good music. “We want to last. We want to make sure we really push it forward. That’s why we have a logo and have a certain look to our press photos.”

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House and techno have always had albums that have helped cement the genre’s legacy. Aside from the odd stone-cold classic like MJ Cole’s Sincere from 2000, and early works by The Streets like Original Pirate Material, garage never did. “The way labels made money early on was licensing their tracks to compilations on the majors,” says Tarik. “That brought big money, so it was always going to be favourable to putting out your own albums, with all the financial and logistical challenges they bring.”

Right now, he is working on the proper return of the seminal Locked On label. “Back then, people always said it was a passing fad. They said garage would blow over, so that sort of got in our head. We ended up just enjoying it while it lasted, but it never fully went away.” Over the years, he has continued to do the label’s accounts, statements, and dealing with licensing requests, and noticed the numbers had improved in recent times. He also overheard his daughters streaming old Locked On tunes on Spotify, and realised garage was really back in a big way.

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The new era of Locked On started with fresh Bklava and Steve Gurley remixes of Antonio‘s game-changing 2-step classic “Hyperfunk.” After that, it will be a case of looking for fresh new garage sounds as well as branching out to events, merch and more. “I love that Bklava sings on her tracks. There’s definitely a whole new dynamic that is really exciting. My advice to those young artists and labels out there is to believe in what you’re doing, work your way through and remain independent. 30 years ago, the majors strangled it by signing tracks, putting in album clauses, then exerting control or not getting properly stuck in. Now, you’re better off doing it all alone.”

With UKG once again dominating the spotlight, it feels like things have come full circle. But this time, many of the scene’s main players are using lessons from the past to build a more sustainable future. And the path ahead for UKG has never felt brighter.

Listen to our “How UK Garage Conquered 2020” chart below.

Kristan Caryl is a freelancer living in Leeds. Find him on Instagram.