Earlier in the week, BBC3's Mockumentary ‘People Just Do Nothing’ premiered it’s 4th season. The failed pirate radio Garage MCs have a found a place in mine - and the nation's heart. Written, created and performed by group of real friends: Allan Mustafa, Steve Stamp, Asim Chaudhry and Hugo Chegwin, the former real life Garage DJs and MCs have portrayed the scene with humour and integrity. And with some of the cast doing real life Garage sets across the UK over the last few summers, I can’t help but wonder why the nostalgia of the late 90's UK Garage scene remains so popular with audiences like myself today. Why for example, earlier this month, did approximately fifteen thousand people attend Garage music festival 51st State - 20 years after I attended my very first Garage rave?
It was Jungle first. The frantic, pulsating beats and bass-heavy sounds created an electric energy. The crowd, largely male, would jump around dancing; MCs ‘chatted’ over the mic at crazy speed – and although there were many other girls in attendance, my first impression of clubbing at this Under 18 rave at Alexandra Palace, was that whilst fun - this was a very ‘boyish’ space, and I wasn’t quite sure of my place within it all.
But that quickly changed. By 1996/7 songs like ‘Sugar Daddy’ and ‘Closer Than Close’ and 'Never Gonna Let You Go' infiltrated these nights, replacing the Jungle that had dominated. Suddenly, it felt like a place that I belonged. These new soulful house style songs were slower than Jungle and featured a vocalist to sing along with. Nadina, 35, a Pastoral Co-ordinator from East London remembers her early under-18 club experiences, celebrating this arrival of this new music: “You could dance to it, you could sing to it, you got dressed up for it - it wasn't like Jungle, which was super intense”.
Garage soon found a loyal fan-base and our love for this new music sound got us travelling across London to clubs such as Colosseum in South, Stratford Rex in East, Gas Club in West and Bagleys, Temple and Eros in North. As the scene blossomed in the late 1990s, Nadina laments “I felt it (Garage) becoming a lifestyle. It was shiny, fabulous and unapologetically extra. Everybody in Garage was flashy, be it through your Off-Key Mosh; Versace or designer sunglasses; a bottle of Moet or Gucci suede loafers. You were a ‘Garage Girl’. You could tell who was going to a Garage rave on the train or bus without even speaking to each other”.
Garage had truly become a British sub-culture. Every generation since the 1950’s has had this; where groups of young people going through adolescence 'find their tribe’ and rebel against mainstream society - from the 50's Teddy Boys to the 80's Punks – identifying themselves thorough music, dress-code and behaviours. The Guardian article ‘Youth Culture’ references cultural commentator Dick Hebdige, who argues “the multicultural nature of post-war Britain was crucial to the formation of many subcultures; each one ... a response to the presence of black culture in Britain” and I’d agree that Garage was no different. Heavily influenced by the sounds of the Jamaican immigrant generation before us, particularly 'toasting’, which clearly influenced the style and patios of the Garage MC, to the unmistakable Cockney accents featured in songs like 'It's a London Thing', to US soulful house; Garage celebrated multiculturalism. It also celebrated women.
For women like myself, the Garage scene provided a liberating, safe space for girls to engage in urban club culture; something that I have not experienced before or since. Unlike the masculine sounds Jungle before it or Misogynistic US Hip-hop (which was also popular at the time), Garage remained fully, female friendly.
Songs like ‘Flowers’, 'My Desire’, ‘Destiny’, ‘Moving Too Fast’ and ‘Enough is Enough’, were all sung by women, creating an uplifting, feminine energy (which importantly didn't alienate the boys).
These female Garage artists not only provided aspirational role models to young women like myself, but their integral role in the scene, validated our experiences as consumers of this club culture. Nadina animatedly talks of her favourite female artists: “I absolutely loved Elizabeth Troy (‘Enough is Enough’) I loved her voice, so distinctive and velvety, you could tell she was a proper singer. She was elegant, soulful and brought a grown and sexy vibe to Garage. Obviously Ms Dynamite was an integral force in Garage too; she was so relatable and undoubtably talented lyrically. What she achieved throughout her career was phenomenal; although not entirely Garage, she definitely flew the flag for the scene. And let's face it Booo! still bangs.”
But most crucially, the women I spoke to said they didn’t feel intimidated, or treated as sex objects in Garage raves. “(In a garage rave) you could have a dance with a guy and not see him for the rest of the night with no aggression if you didn't want to give him your number”, says Sarah James (name changed) 34, from North London. “You would see girls and guys dancing away and the vibe was always pleasant and full of jokes, similar to the music and not how It is today”. Nadina agrees: “You could have a one whine with a guy, or a solo dance, or a full out dance routine with your girls and no-one really bothered you.” This feeling of freedom and safety is unfortunately a rare experience in club culture these days, with sexual assaults in clubs on the rise. Recent Metropolitan Police statistics reveal that between 2011-2016 reports of rape in bars and clubs in the U.K. have risen 136 percent and sexual assault more than doubled.
Despite being a scene that was inclusive to women, celebrated multiculturalism and provided feel good experiences across London and the UK, the hey days of UK Garage were not going to last forever.
As the early 2000's saw Garage gain more commercial success (“Flowers” by Sweet Female Attitude, reached number two in the U.K. Single charts in the year 2000), with it, brought a rebellion in the scene. We didn't like Daniel Beddingfield's Top of The Pop's performance, we detested the corny Chocolate Boy video - we were losing control over something that was ours. Garage belonged to us. Soon there was a desire in the clubs for darker sound – something that the mainstream culture couldn’t touch. And as always the way in subculture cycles, this marked the beginning of the end.
The scene fragmented. A new sparse, sound with a strong bass line took hold in the clubs. The role of MCs changed - instead of getting the crowd lively and celebratory, these new MCs would rhyme back to back in aggressive battle form. Crews like Pay As You Go and Nasty Crew formed, taking space on pirate radio and booking sets in Garage clubs. By 2003, the Garage scene had been well and truly replaced with something else. It had no name for a while, but it would eventually be known as Grime.
Sheherazade Hamilton, 33, a Student Support Manager from North London says “I never connected to Grime in the same way as I feel connected to Garage.” Nadina similarly notes; “I always saw it (Grime) as Garage’s angry ‘lil brother. I loved what it stood for and how it positively changed the trajectory of some young people. Even with that being said, Grime did not have that shiny appeal that Garage did; in fact they were polar opposites in terms of fashion and the message in the music."
Clubbing had became once again, similar to the Jungle days before it – a masculine space. Additionally songs like Dizzee Rascals’ smash ‘I Luv U‘, whilst showing the potential Grime had for developing talented artists, creating albums and a longevity, still often pushed misogynistic messages, resulting in alienating and excluding many young women, including myself.
So, we left the clubs. We either moved on to a different scene, had babies, got married, settled down, had careers and well, quite frankly - adulthood took grip.
20 years or so on, I’m not even sure subcultures like Garage exist anymore for today’s youth. The internet and social media with it’s constant barrage content seem to have replaced the need for it. Alexis Pedridis says in his Guardian article ‘Youth Subcultures: What are they now?’ that today’s youth are more self aware and ironic, choosing no single culture or lifestyle to align with: “we now live in a world where teenagers are more interested in constructing an identity online than they are in making an outward show of their allegiances and interests", he says - which whilst sounding kind of liberating, also sounds a bit of a shame to me.
Perhaps that’s why the BAFTA winning Mockumentary ‘People Just Do Nothing’ works so well today, appealing to both this younger audience and also fans of the original Garage scene. Full of contradictions and irony, it's the perfect mix: aired on a digital channel, yet about a pirate radio station; with uncool characters, who are actually very cool in real life and rooted in nostalgia but sitting firmly in today’s world.
But for me, for my girls – we’ll just take the nostalgia part and run with it. And as I settle down tonight to watch Miche, Grindah and the crew, pathetically and gloriously, cling onto a music era of a lost time – I’ll smile, ‘cos, I get it. Garage was an era full of possibility – and clearly, it still is.- - -
It was New Years Eve 1999. On the news it said that the Millennium Bug might hit and at best the computer systems would crash. Fanatics said it was the end of the world. All we wanted to know was what Garage rave to go to tonight. In true disorganised form, it was 10.30 pm and we had no concrete plans. I was dressed in my favourite pink halter-neck top, hooped earrings, low-rise cut-off waist jeans and loafers, sitting on Davina’s bed – trying to work out a plan for the night. ‘Why didn’t we just book tickets to the garage rave at the Millennium dome?!’ I moaned, ‘that’s where everyone was gonna be tonight’.‘It’s too late now.’ D sighed. Then her eyes lit up ‘Trafalgar square’ she said,‘ That’s it – let’s just go there and find out about a rave through word of mouth’, and as there was no better plan, off the 3 of us went. We bought Barcadi Breezers at the Off Licence and jumped on the Tube at Finsbury Park station. We exited the station at Oxford street and joined the growing crowd walking down to the square. The atmosphere is buzzing. Already tipsy, D shouted in her best garage voice: ‘Come down operator with the 99 remix’ and Kee and I replied in half shout and half song - ‘It’s the waaaay!’ at the top of our lungs. We laughed and carried on singing, not stopping until we reached Trafalger square. We saw in the year 2000 with strangers trying to kiss our faces; laughing giddily, dodging them in avoidance; rapping Heartless Crew lyrics as we guzzled our Breezers. We never did find a garage rave that night, but in many ways, we didn’t need to. We were 18. True Millennials. The new century had arrived. We could be anything: the future was ours.
Dedicated to the best garage raving partner ever - Davina Hinkson (1983 - 2017).