Why UK garage is enjoying a cultural renaissance

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Twenty years after paving the way for women in the music industry, UK garage is having a major resurgence. Get ready for the re-rewind…

Were you bouncing around a school disco to crossover hits from Mis-Teeq and Sweet Female Attitude’s Flowers? Or were you dressed in a fly outfit, dancing and crooning with your mates to classic anthems such as Kele Le Roc’s My Love or Shola Ama’s Imagine? Miss it? Well, the time’s come to dust off your Moschino and get your dancing Choos out.

UK garage, or UKG, was born around 20 years ago on London dancefloors and airwaves. And right now, there’s a renaissance happening. People Just Do Nothing – the popular BBC Three comedy series based around a UK garage pirate radio station, now on its fourth series – certainly deserves a nod for renewing interest levels, but there’s a lot more bubbling in 2018.

After a successful launch in London, UKG Brunch has announced nationwide tour dates visiting Sheffield, Bournemouth, Southampton, Cardiff and Leeds over the next few months. It starts at midday, with unlimited fried chicken and rum punch cocktails, plus live performances from DJ Luck & MC Neat, Artful Dodger, Kele Le Roc and Romeo of So Solid Crew. The promoter Sidewinder has announced an old skool festival in Manchester this May, while Garage Nation is heading to Hainault Forest Country Park in June. And if you haven’t got tickets for The Streets’ tour this April then you’re already too late: most dates sold out in a day.

But in 2018, UKG is also worthy of highbrow consideration. DJ Spoony – who, along with his fellow DJs from The Dreem Teem helped the genre find a mainstream home on Radio 1 in 2000 – is now presenting Garage Classical at the Barbican Centre. With composer and conductor Katie Chatburn, and the 36-piece Ignition Orchestra, the original vocalists will be performing reinterpreted versions of hits such as DJ Pied Piper’s Do You Really Like It?, Artful Dodger’s Please Don’t Turn Me On and MJ Cole’s Sincere

Sabrina Mahfouz, an award-winning writer and poet from south London, wrote her play With A Little Bit Of Luck in 2016. Described as “theatre you can rave to […] rhythmically underscored by UK garage bangers”, the play will be broadcast on BBC 1Xtra on 2 April – the first theatre play broadcast on the station. Super Sharp is an exhibition running at the London College of Fashion’s Fashion Space Gallery until 21 April, focusing on how high-end Italian designers such as Versace, D&G and especially Moschino became such a huge part of the garage scene. (Online shop Wavey Garms finds that vintage Versace and Moschino pieces move faster than unicorn dust). Then there’s the cultification of photographer Ewen Spencer’s book, UKG.

Published in 2013 and featuring documentary photos from garage’s heyday, the book has become a cult classic. Mint copies are listed on Amazon for in excess of £300.

What’s interesting about this resurgence is the positive feminist impact UK garage originally had. It led to an increased presence of women on the dancefloor. A strong preference for female vocals meant you could hear women too. Mis-Teeq were in the charts and on daytime radio. Shola Ama made the transition from pop star to underground darling via a series of remixes. Ms Dynamite started to grace every critic’s end-of-year lists. And behind the scenes a band of women were breaking barriers and carving their own paths.

“It all started for us in south London during the mid-Nineties,” explains Elle J Small, 38, a journalist who documented the scene for radio stations and magazines. “It was Gass Club, Leicester Square, on Sunday nights or The Frog and Nightgown, Old Kent Road, on Mondays. I’d rave with DJs Lynda Phoenix, Donna Dee and Emma Feline.”

“A defining moment for the scene was when myself and [producers and DJs] Lisa Unique and Lynda Phoenix started [all-girl DJ collective] London’s Most Wanted,” Feline recalls. “We put on an event at The Colosseum with an all-girl line-up. I wrote a press release and sent it out to all the magazines and newspapers I could find. The Guardian got back to us and ran a full-page story, then the phone didn’t stop. We even ended up on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour!” Suddenly, the establishment was paying attention to the women from this initially underground movement.

Small kickstarted her writing career by accident. She nominated Feline for a Woman of the Year award given out by Cosmopolitan magazine. The accompanying essay clinched Feline the prize and meant Small was suddenly at the centre of the scene she was starting to write about. “I had to carry the records,” she laughs. “But Emma was fearless. Forget the female bit – she was one of the best DJs full stop. To see so many women proving themselves then was amazing.” Feline went on to DJ for Choice FM, write a column for Touch magazine and secure a residency at club night Twice As Nice. Small, in the meantime, adopted a pen name and wrote an exposé for Wax magazine on the gun crime threatening London’s nightlife.

“When you go to work and someone gets shot outside the club, it’s mad,” says Michell Hunter, 40, former promoter of Smoove, Ministry of Sound’s Friday-night offering. “I wore a bulletproof vest to work for five years. After the first shooting I remember saying, ‘I need a vest’ and being told, ‘They’re not going to shoot you ’cause you’re a girl…’ I told them: ‘I grew up on the streets and a bullet doesn’t see creed, colour, gender or sexuality.’”

Hunter grew up in Brighton, finding her spiritual home in illegal parties. She moved to London to hand out flyers, and by her early 20s – despite having no qualifications – was a one-woman army come Friday night. UKG started her career.

“One night we took £80,000 cash on the door. The only other time I’d seen that was at big illegal raves. Nobody thought a garage night in a house club would work, but it did. To be part of a movement that was a lifestyle, but also had a musical connection to the street where I was from, it was the first time I’d seen young entrepreneurs coming in and making something that was theirs. F*cking fantastic.”

Still a firm champion of women and garage, Hunter’s work method was always ahead of its time. “I knew music, people and the streets – that was the blessing. I’ve always just wanted everyone to win. People will sometimes ask me how I found it not just as a woman but as a gay woman, but I’ve never seen myself as straight, gay, white, black… It sounds cliched, but I grew up in an area where everyone was just trying their hardest to get by. We all just wanted to be in the game and we were hungry. If you didn’t have an edge, you wouldn’t survive. Sarah Lockhart, she was edgy and integral in keeping new talent coming through.”

The much-revered Lockhart is a co-owner and managing director of pirate-turned-legitimate radio station Rinse FM. She was a co-founder of the hugely influential club night FWD>> (Ms Dynamite was a resident MC), which grew from small, dingy venues to huge festival stages. Other women on the scene included Sarah Xtreme Talent and Nicky Jackson of Vital Edge, both live booking agents; Louise Porter, creator and manager of Alesha Dixon’s former band Mis-Teeq; Philippa Reed, an esteemed journalist who wrote for DJ Mag and The Face; Katy Moseley, responsible for running the door at FWD>> and Smoove’s UK club tour; bass-loving DJ Femme Fatale, the Smoove resident who mixed Ministry’s popular garage compilations; and Donna Cousins, the original sing-chat toasting MC. Musicians such as Rose Windross, Shelley Nelson, Lynsey Moore, Elisabeth Troy, Angie B… The list is long.

“Women like me in the scene didn’t need a surname – it’s kinda cool, like Prince or Madonna,” laughs Eleanor Williams, 48, a former record label manager. “Everyone was that well known within a tight-knit scene.” Having achieved notoriety throwing illegal warehouse raves in the early Nineties, Williams ran Underground FM, where she could also be found on the roof adjusting an aerial.

Williams says getting involved in UKG changed her life. Soon she was fronting the UK Garage Awards as well as working at a successful independent label, Social Circles. Responsible for Ms Dynamite’s Booo!, which charted at No 12 in 2002, Social Circles knew how to sell records: it was renowned for ‘upscaling’ club smashes to major labels and Williams was negotiating six-figure deals for singles. “Social Circles brought me in when they were working with Ms Dynamite. They finally realised you need a female dynamic in a team, especially if you’re working with female artists.”

Williams currently works on Warner Music’s successful compilation brand Pure Garage and there are plans afoot to bring back the UK Garage Awards and Social Circles. “Garage didn’t go anywhere; none of the DJs or artists stopped working. This last 20 years has shocked us all. The amazement of being at a Garage Nation event now and seeing 8,000 kids knowing the classics… People are raving with their parents because it’s music you can sing along to; that’s largely missing in dance music today. Now we need producers to get creative, not just reinvent the past. If only women ran the music industry, it would be a very different place. Can you imagine?”

Words: Chantelle Fiddy 

Images: Rex

Super Sharp is at the London College Of Fashion’s Fashion Space Gallery until 21 April; free;