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The best UK garage tracks – ranked! – The Guardian

It’s 20 years since Sweet Like Chocolate became the biggest UK garage hit. Time to re-rewind and select the scene’s best tracks

The apotheosis of UK garage as pop, Sweet Like Chocolate was a platinum-selling No 1 in 1999. A noticeably more toothsome and commercial take on garage than its predecessor – Straight from the Heart, recorded when Shanks & Bigfoot were still called Doolally – it was apparently beloved of Britney Spears.
Over time, UK garage would mutate into dubstep and grime, and grime would ultimately lead to UK rap becoming a major commercial force. You could view Booo! as something of a glimpse into the future: certainly, the combination of sparse garage backing and Ms Dynamite’s dancehall-influenced rap hasn’t dated 18 years on. You can imagine it in the charts now.
Wiley has claimed that So Solid Crew’s debut single “started grime”. He has a point – it certainly helped usher in a new era of UK rap – although it might be more accurate to say that it is poised between the sound of UK garage and a future in which the MC, rather than the producer, would be the star.
Neighbourhood underlined the shared heritage of UK garage and drum’n’bass in reggae soundsystem culture thanks to MC Rumpus’s dancehall vocal. Nicky Prince’s chorus is pure house anthem; the menacing two-note bassline at odds with the track’s carefree breeziness.
Of all the US producers who inspired UK garage, none was revered like Todd Edwards: his technique of cutting up vocals into what writer Simon Reynolds called “blissful hiccups” – as heard on this dub of a track by French producer Ludovic Navarre – meant his tracks could be sped up to 130bpm without sounding cartoonish.
UK garage was a remarkably omnivorous genre, drawing in everything from R&B to the German breakbeat trance of Azzido da Bass’s Dooms Night. On the extraordinary Stone Cold, languid, sensual jazz enters the mix, alongside samples of Aaliyah and a monumental bassline derived from Kevin Saunderson’s Detroit techno project Reese.
At the other extreme from UK garage’s commercial hits were tracks that pushed the genre forward artistically: here, producer Grant Nelson strips virtually everything away from a house version of Stevie Wonder’s old hit, leaving only snatches of vocals and a stammering beat rooted in dancehall, to startling effect.
Production duo Dem 2 were early stars of two-step UK garage, issuing a plethora of tracks and remixes in the late 90s. Destiny might be their greatest moment: a patchwork of cut-up vocals and staccato instrumentation weaving effortlessly around the beat.
An underrated underground producer, Sky Joose had been making music in the hardcore era. His switch to garage began with Endorphins, a track that perfectly demonstrates how quickly UK producers transcended their US influences to create something entirely their own: a sparse, strange, compelling and faintly discordant collage of samples.
An early sign of UK garage’s chart appeal, this track by a minor US R&B singer was transformed into a club smash and a mainstream hit by the application of a monster bassline and the kind of skipping beat that would come to be known as two-step. This B-side remix – by Kelly G, an acolyte of Chicago house legend Steve “Silk” Hurley – became an A-side two years on.
Curious to think that Sia – she of the lung-busting self-help pop anthems – was once a UK garage vocalist, albeit by default not design. This remix (by producer Wookie under a pseudonym), keeps the song intact, but transforms the dreary trip-hop pop original into a party-starting riot of bass, beats and eerie keyboard riffs.
Technically speed garage, RIP Groove was essentially a mash-up of other garage tunes – by Tina Moore, Armand Van Helden and Barbara Tucker – given a distinctive UK slant via its samples from DJ Gunshot’s jump-up drum’n’bass track Wheel ’N’ Deal and its irresistible, immense bassline.
UK garage began as an adjunct to drum’n’bass – the stuff DJs in room two played while Ray Keith or Jumping Jack Frost did their thing next door. The potent Ennio Morricone-sampling Gunman captures the transition – the time-stretched vocals, rattling snares and bassline are pure d’n’b, the tempo and beat garage.
DJ Zinc first came to prominence as a drum’n’bass producer – responsible for 1995’s anthemic Super Sharp Shooter – before shifting style. 138 Trek’s sound was dubbed “breakstep”, which effectively meant it was a d’n’b track at UK garage tempo. Propulsive and funky, it still sounds fresh today.
Some of UK garage’s pop crossover hits had a tang of the novelty record about them, but Flowers was utterly charming. Essentially, UK street soul repurposed to fit a new style, Todd Edwards-style vocal cut-ups and all, its chorus was hooky and infectious, its light, summer’s-day atmosphere delightful.
A white label that never saw wider release – unless you count a rash of illegal bootleg pressings – Hobson’s Choice was a minimal underground masterpiece: pulverising bass and ominous synth chords spiked with a sweet female vocal. Its author, Jess Jackson, is currently part of Kanye West’s Good Music production team.
Despite its roots in New Jersey and Chicago, UK garage was quick to claim its own regional identity. For all MC Styles’s celebratory repetition of the title, the music on It’s a London Thing carries a faint sense of minor-key unease, as if suggesting life in the capital may not be entirely without its darker side.
A prime example of UK garage’s ability to repurpose obscure US tracks, the version of Gabriel that became a British hit was initially track two on the B-side of the US 12-inch. It stripped back the instrumentation, placed greater emphasis on the bassline and beat, and allowed Peven Everett’s sublime, haunting vocal to shine.
Sincere was a supremely cool and classy track, as luxurious as the Moschino and Versace clothes UK garage clubbers favoured. Its sound was based around muted keyboards and slivers of sax, its vocal was beautifully understated. MJ Cole went on to have bigger hits, but nothing quite as seductive as this.
Originally part of the Soul II Soul collective – which is name-checked in the lyrics of Battle – Wookie’s UK garage productions were genuinely innovative and fresh, playing with the boundaries of the genre’s sound. His 1999 breakthrough track Scrappy shifted the rhythm into the realm of cut-up breakbeat – emphasising the drum’n’bass aspect of UK garage’s roots. His biggest hit, Battle, was even better: a fantastic song, a soulful vocal, a lyric about faith and overcoming struggle that taps into the gospel-infused optimism of early Chicago house. It could be 2000s London’s answer to Ce Ce Rogers’s Someday, and boasts a beautiful production that is expansive but subtle, and that slips from staccato strings to bass and drums to Stevie Wonder-ish electric piano.
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