​Need for speed: Why the UK fell back in love with bassline and speed garage - Features - Mixmag

​Need for speed: Why the UK fell back in love with bassline and speed garage

Warped basslines and inched-up garage have been hurtling through UK clubland since the late ‘90s and rippling through the noughties. Decades on, these sounds have come back into the charts and the underground with a burgeoning new wave. What do the originators think about it?

  • Felicity Martin
  • 20 March 2023

It’s a simple fact: the UK loves UK garage. Although that’s never really been up for debate, particularly as UKG has enjoyed a heavy revival over the last few years, its various strands and orbital genres have waxed and waned in popularity over time. But the throbbing, adrenalised sounds of speed garage and bassline have been steadily creeping back into the dance consciousness. Then in summer 2022, a speed garage-inspired track with a Korg M1 organ bassline shot to UK #1: Interplanetary Criminal and Eliza Rose’s ‘B.O.T.A (Baddest Of Them All)’. Big basslines, breakdowns and warpers are causing havoc in clubs everywhere, with a new crop of producers putting their own take on the rough and ready sounds.

When talking about UK garage’s explosion in popularity recently, you’d have to namecheck Conducta, whose Kiwi Rekords imprint has consistently championed bumpy rhythms with heart-rush melodies. But a cohort of artists have also been inching up tempos further and experimenting with old school euphoria, with bootlegging and sample culture central to this scene. Alongside artists like Manchester’s Interplanetary Criminal, people like Leeds’s Soul Mass Transit System and Bakey, Copenhagen’s Main Phase and Bristol’s A For Alpha are just a handful of the people playing with these templates. This new wave even seems to have its own aesthetic – with cheeky cartoon drawings on white, Simpsons iconography and graffiti tags populating the cover art.

Rewind back to the mid ‘90s, and speed garage, or "plus-8" first emerged after jungle basslines fused with garage house. Armand Van Helden’s dark garage remix of ‘Spin Spin Sugar’ and George Morel’s ‘Let’s Groove’ are often mentioned as some of the earliest tracks, before Double 99’s ‘Ripgroove’ lit the touch paper for speed garage in the UK. Jeremy Sylvester, along with MJ Cole, Dem 2 and Groove Chronicles, was one of those pioneers. “People went completely mental,” he tells Mixmag of the sound’s first wave. He “fell into it” after producing jungle in the early ‘90s under one of his aliases, Dubtronix, and started experimenting with reggae, dub and ragga samples from his old records and sound system tapes. “This period of time set the foundations as to what became speed garage, in my opinion,” he says.

Eventually, the major labels got involved, and many people agree that the genre’s time was cut short. But Double 99’s searing, time-stretched tune had a huge ripple effect up North which would impact the beginnings of bassline. “When I first heard ‘Ripgroove’, I went nuts,” says bassline and organ house pioneer Big Ang, whose productions have earned her a Top 40 slot as well as a beloved repertoire. “I was like, ‘What is this?!’, but in a good way. Anything that sounded a bit like this record – like the Jeremy Sylvester remixes or anything similar, I made an effort to seek out the DJs who were playing it.”

Read this next: The 15 best speed garage records released in '97 and '98

Interestingly, Armand Van Helden once claimed in an interview that speed garage permanently altered the structure of 4x4 dance music, saying that one thing people should remember about that era “is that there was a timeframe where you didn’t wait for this big bass drop” and, by introducing drum ‘n’ bass build-ups to the groove of house, we now have the big expectant builds and EDM drops taken to extremes by artists such as Skrillex.

Bassline, the naughty Northern cousin of speed garage and house, took hold in Yorkshire and the Midlands in the early 2000s. Sheffield club Niche was at the beating heart of the scene, the go-to place to hear warpy, Reese bass sounds and uplifting vocals, before the genre found crossover success with the likes of H2O’s ‘What’s It Gonna Be’. Along with Jon Buccieri and DJ Booda, Big Ang was one of the leading lights of the city’s first wave of bassline producers. She remembers first being taken by a friend to Niche. “The music blew me away,” she recalls. “I remember Shaun ‘Banger’ Scott playing a belter of a set and me offering him my phone and money for a copy of the tape of the set he had just recorded.” Having played keyboard since she was young, Ang became obsessed with old school rave aged 13. “I was determined to purchase, play and mix the music I loved.”

For many people, these sounds have never left. About their newfound attention, Big Ang says that “it’s what I worked very hard to see happen. It makes me smile that this is becoming mainstream and I hope to continue to be a part of this new resurgence.” Jeremy Sylvester agrees. “It’s great to see it come back, but for me it's always been there. I don’t think this sound can ever go away – it’s part of British culture, just like hip hop or house is a genre.” He says he’s been getting increased requests to play speed garage, as well as many of his old productions, of which there are a staggering number under various aliases like Strickly Dubz, Groove Connektion and G.O.D Limited – “it’s completely gone mental and I’m loving it!”

Played out regularly by the Hessle Audio crew and DJs like Shanti Celeste, Batu and Call Super among others, speed garage is undoubtedly one of the sounds du jour – but it hasn’t always been like that. Birmingham pioneer Tom Shorterz recently nodded to the historic derision of the genres, tweeting: “Was a few years ago [that] speed garage was snubbed as ‘chav’ music, now it’s played pitched down in Berlin and Amsterdam by the ‘cooler’ DJs and is now the ‘trendy’ thing to play and accepted by the chin strokers’. How the tables have turned.” Like donk, bassline was routinely subject to classism, labelled "chav house" and looked down on for its proliferation in working-class circles. Its association by the media with violence, anti-social behaviour and criminal activity mean that it too had a shorter lifespan than it deserved.

Read this next: Harder, better, faster, stronger: Has dance music got harder and faster?

“In the ‘90s and early 2000s chav culture was really, really uncool, something nobody wanted to aspire to,” Shorterz tells Mixmag. “This was a time of lads’ mags, Ali G, Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard and the demonisation of the working-class was a thing. If you went to the rough part of town, council estates, if you saw a boy racer in his souped-up Fiesta, you would 100% be hearing speed garage and bassline. It was without question the perfect example of the soundtrack to the stereotype of chav culture – a similar demographic to bounce music or happy hardcore. I remember a record shop in Birmingham that had a speed garage section with a newspaper cutting of Michael Carroll in a Burberry cap who the media referred to as the ‘lotto lout’ – this was stuck on the record divider. Even the record shops was taking the piss.”

Shorterz expands on the fetishisation of working-class culture that’s laid the groundwork for these sonics to come back in fashion. “It took 15-20 years for the scene to slowly die and go back to a handful of sporadic events and the term ‘chav’ to almost disappear to now – guess what are the cool things now to wear and collect? Nike Air Max, Burberry is doing collabs with Supreme, Stone Island is worn by all your fave influencers, clubs and raves are allowing sportswear, and is socially acceptable as official rave attire. It used to be club policy: no hats, no hoods, sportswear, trainers. It’s now ‘cool’ to be a chav but it took a long time.” He believes it’s for this reason that the media in the 2000s paid very little attention to bassline: “It was grassroots, multicultural, DIY, self-funded, underground, the clubs was pulling in hundreds and thousands week on week for years, and the music media was almost silent.”

Manchester’s Finn is one DJ who’s known for continually championing these sounds, as evidenced by his speed garage and bassline house NTS specials. “It’s Northern dance music, part of a canon up here,” he tells Mixmag. “There’s just something really breathless and overwhelming about it, it's proper rave music, I guess. I think modern dance music can sometimes sound a little contrived, and even a bit self-conscious – these records are the antidote to that. No cynicism, probably a bit indulgent, but totally functional too.” Last August, he teamed up with bassline icon DJ Q on ‘Speedy Gs’, a track that really does what it says on the tin with shuffly drums and the kind of stabby organs you’d hear all over Love Island, and in October he released the cassette-only Jungle House Tapes that flipped the parameters of both genres, with speed garage played at half speed, and bassline house hitched up to double.

If you’ve caught one of Finn’s sets you might have heard him drop Big Ang classics including ‘Over Now’, and he’s set to play an all-nighter with her at Manchester’s Soup venue in March. He feels it’s important to respect the foundation of the sounds, as does Interplanetary Criminal with his ‘Big Ang Forever’ T-shirt, courtesy of Manchester’s Donk Wear brand. “I have records from Naughty Nick and Big Ang that can be absolute tear-jerkers, not to mention the most soulful tracks in my set – I like that juxtaposition between tracks that keep the same energy level,” he says. Tracks from people like Serious Danger and Leeds key player Paul Sirrell are staples in his sets, and many of these producers such as Sirrell, Paul Rayner, Jon Buccieri and Jamie Duggan, are still about and active. Big Ang is working with vocalists on new material, while remixing for Mella Dee and others. “My clubbing days helped shape what I produce today and I always keep an old skool influence in my music. Long may it continue,” she says.

“I’m buzzing that we’re seeing a resurgence from some of the OGs,” Finn says. “I don’t think these artists or sounds have had anywhere near their dues paid yet, so hopefully some of the buzz translates into that.” He’s also noticed old tracks finding new contexts: “We’re seeing these styles being used in super interesting ways by a lot of US DJs – Eris Drew and Octo Octa sets make this stuff feel brand new to me, for example.” North American DJs including Chrissy and Bored Lord have been making speed garage tracks staples in their sets.

Read this next: UK garage is the best genre ever

In celebration of what’s been happening in garage comes a new compilation from Locked On, the pioneering label that brought out classics like The Streets’ ‘Has It Come To This?’ and Zed Bias’s ‘Neighbourhood’. It’s releasing 'All Thru The Night' on March 25, a 15-tracker curated by Interplanetary Criminal, thanks to “a renewed excitement around old garage records and a whole new scene of DJs and producers,” says label founder Nick Worthington. “The energy in the current scene is great and the way it's constantly evolving reminds me of the original garage scene. People aren't afraid to experiment, which means things never get dull.” Drawing together cuts from Ell Murphy, Holloway and Highrise, it arrives 25 years after Locked On’s very first compilation, released in 1996 and mixed by a then-unfamiliar Todd Edwards. “Garage always comes up for air for a bit before diving back underground,” Edwards tells Mixmag. “I think it’s great to see people continuously inspired by garage. It’s a testament of how important it is to dance music that it’s sustained 30 years of longevity.”

The compilation collates a spectrum of 4x4 plucked from a selection of artists who formed something of a community via the Shuffle N’ Swing Facebook page, from a bleepy belter by Main Phase to a noodley piano jam by Ollie Rant and Frazer Ray splicing vocals over pressurised bass with dub sirens. Edwards and Interplanetary Criminal have a joint cut on it, ‘Reckless’, which layers a sugary vocal atop a tough bass, with an airy spaciousness that has you thinking of trance classics. “I want people to look back at the comp and go, ‘Wow, this was that era!’,” Interplanetary Criminal says.

30-year-old Zach Bruce, AKA Interplanetary Criminal, has had the kind of instantaneous success over the past 12 months that a track going viral on TikTok can now produce. Now based in Manchester, he grew up in Bolton, where the bamboo bass of the donk was a prominent sound. “There was a floor on the club we used to go as young adults that just played edits, but super tastefully, nothing felt cheap or wrong,” he says. He sees speed garage as sharing much of its DNA with donk, “like how high octane it can be, pure party music, even when it’s using really bait samples and long emotional breakdowns. Personally a lot of passion I have stems from that era.” He recalls the first time he played speed garage out, at a sit-down rave in Leeds with Main Phase and DJ Cosworth, “we almost weren’t sure about playing to people as it felt like we were tapping into something else sonically, as 2-step was at the forefront. But the thing is, we were really just having fun. I think people are receptive to DJs more when you can tell they really love that sound.”

You couldn’t talk about the new wave of speed garage and bassline without mentioning the raucous energy of Bad Boy Chiller Crew, the Bradford trio putting their own spin on the Northern style with their bolshy bars and big pop hooks since 2019. “We found our own sound doing it over bassline,” the group’s Kane told Mixmag in 2021. “Organ bassline, old skool Bradford/Leeds type of bassline. It's not like down south bassline, it's not like garage. Fair enough we might do a few garage tunes, but our bassline is the organ.”

But what’s set this resurgence into motion – and why now? Music is increasingly becoming shorter and faster, as the TikTok "sped-up" trend proves, and dance music is also firmly in its pop music phase, with bootlegging and interpolation at an all-time high in music. “I think post-lockdown a lot us have been smashing out the more 4x4 sounds in our sets and moving away from the more 2-steppy and conventional UKG drum patterns,” suggests Dr Dubplate, director and A&R of dubplate label ec2a. It’s named after the postcode of Plastic People, the club his dad used to work in, and pushes full-on UK sounds through its releases from London grime to up-North speedy G like Silva Bumpa’s recently-released ‘Feel Aight’. He loves the “4-to-the-floor element while still having those dirty and quintessentially British warping basslines – it’s the perfect mix of classy and gritty.”

Dr Dubplate points to the crop of artists who he sees as leading the charge: “Interplanetary Criminal, Main Phase, Soul Mass Transit System and A For Alpha have all been flying the speed garage flag, and in my honest opinion I feel like just those names alone have been responsible for its revival.” ‘B.O.T.A’, he adds, “also played a massive part”. His go-to speed garage track is a ‘97 untitled cut from 2xNyce, a tip from Tom Shorterz – “it always goes off,” he says. Jeremy Sylvester namechecks people like Perception, Dr Banana, and Thunderkats alongside some of the aforementioned ones. “These people really get it, and understand the science of the productions,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of them and play their music regularly on my sets around the UK and the world.”

Read this next: 11 best bassline bangers from Big Ang

It would be tough to name every single artist currently touching these sounds, but there’s a healthy string of labels including Bristol’s Shall Not Fade, who recently started garage-focused sub-label Time Is Now, along with Cheeky Music Group, Hardline, White Peach, ATW (run by Interplanetary Criminal and Main Phase) and Nottingham’s Wot U Sayin’?, which has even pulled together a compilation of bassline house by Japanese producers. Fallow recently started Skipping Rope Recordings, a bassline label, and artists like salute, Bklava, Instinct (UK), Skeptic, Oldboy and Prozak are also turning out tracks inspired by this era while introducing elements of bass, dub, acid, breaks and more. SoundCloud and Bandcamp are rife with all manner of speed garage tracks and edits, from Britney’s ‘One More Time’ to Tempa T and House of Pain.

As appetite for these sounds peaks and experimentation continues, there will always be a solid foundation for them that continues in the UK, particularly in Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham today, and a never-ending vault of old material to explore. “The deeper you dig the better it gets too, I find an amazing new record every week,” says Finn. Interplanetary Criminal adds that the love for garage will always be there: “I always found it interesting when I was playing student parties, it didn’t matter how much headsy stuff you played, you could clear a room so easily, but the second you dropped a garage tune it never failed getting people moving. I feel very blessed to be playing tunes that I have an affinity with to people, and have them being just as gassed as I am.”

Felicity Martin is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

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