The return of UK garage

The sound of early ’90s UKG is back on London's dancefloors

The distinctive battle cry of UK garage is unforgettable. But, says Kate Hutchinson, it's more than just a distant dancefloor memory. Whether it's futuristic sounds or old school anthems that you'll hear in London's clubs, garage is back for good.

Dust down those Moschino shirts and polish up your loafers: UK garage – or UKG, as it is commonly known – is back in a big way. The sound that, along with jungle, defined London’s underground nightlife scene in the mid-’90s has returned to inject some smooth, high-energy and shuffly 2-step nostalgia into the capital’s clubs.

We don’t mean Dane Bowers banging out a DJ set at a cocktail bar in Uxbridge. London’s garage renaissance isn’t averse to throwing the odd cheesy pop number (think Craig David, Oxide & Neutrino and Sweet Female Attitude) into the mix but, for the most part, its new incarnation runs much deeper. The original pioneers, who shaped the sound before it was co-opted by the mainstream and came to soundtrack the likes of Daniel Bedingfield’s pigeon croons, are playing classic sets all over London. And, crucially, there is a new wave of producers who are propelling it into the present.

These two forces form the foundation of forward (and backward!)-thinking new night Heritage, the second of which is at Hidden in Vauxhall on Friday February 24, thanks to party promoters Found, Multiply and Days Like That. Unlike other garage-centric parties, which usually focus on old-school anthems and UKG’s younger relative, funky house, Heritage aims to be a ‘deeper exploration’ of the sound and its history. It will cover 2-step, a less aggressive derivative of the fast ‘speed garage’ sounds of the late ’90s, four-to-the-floor smashers and, crucially, today’s UK bass-led interpretations.

Enter UK producers and DJs like Mosca, Hackman, Jamie XX, Deadboy and Oneman. They are purveyors of, as garage heavyweight DJ EZ puts it, the ‘new east London sound’ and have been producing or spinning garage-inflected tracks and sets over the past year. It’s because of them that the sound is surging forward. Mosca’s sublime garage track ‘Bax’ has even had airtime on Fearne Cotton’s primetime Radio 1 show, a tip-off from fellow BBC-er Toddla T.

Why has it become so popular again? James Benenson, who forms the Found team with Will Patterson, and who runs youth brand and club Urban Nerds, has some ideas: ‘The 2-step garage sound is a purist antidote to much of the wobble-orientated dubstep music that’s out there now,’ he explains. ‘A new breed of producers, from labels like Hessle, Swamp81 and Numbers, have looked back to these dubstep origins for inspiration. Consequently, they’ve shown that there’s always a place for feel-good garage hype: tracks like Mosca’s ‘Bax’ are living proof of the power of UKG.’

But whatever you do, don’t call it ‘future garage’. The controversial phrase confuses producers like Mosca and co (who experiment with numerous other club sounds) with the new future garage movement, a nascent scene spearheaded by DJ Whistla. He runs the Future Garage forum, an unofficial spin-off from the nexus of all dubstep music discussion, Dubstep Forum, and its related Facebook and Soundcloud pages, amassing nearly 10,000 members.

But Mosca, and influential scene writers like Martin Clark, are quick to draw a line between their garage productions and future garage. ‘As an initial idea it’s well intentioned and not without merits: to make garage-y beats you can actually dance to (not mosh to, like dubstep circa 2012),’ explains Clark. But according to Mosca, the music that comes from it is ‘just fucking terrible. It’s all Burial rip-offs and emo-garage stuff.'

You won’t hear any such gripes at Heritage, however. Mosca will be representing the exciting new school alongside some legendary garage names like DJ EZ and Matt 'Jam' Lamont (who was one-half of Tuff Jam Records, the most influential UKG label in the ’90s, along with Karl 'Tuff Enuff' Brown), Scott Garcia and Double 99.

The garage renaissance has paved the way for other innovators to come back too: look out for stalwarts like Wookie, MJ Cole, Sunship, Noodles, Artful aka Mark Hill (formerly one half of Artful Dodger) and, on the cheesier side, Oxide & Neutrino and DJ Luck & MC Neat, who have all made a return to clubland in the past year. As Clark says, if anyone can paint an accurate picture of UKG in the ’90s, it’s DJ EZ and his peers.

Still, if you see Dane Bowers billed anywhere, you know to go running…