Words: Coco Khan

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story about UK garage and me; a story that started around 1998 through pirate radio stations and blue-lit nightlife photographs printed in the Evening Standard (on a Thursday, the day the club listings came out).

But first: some disclaimers. I was not old enough to go to those clubs, and I wasn’t old enough to know anyone that worked at those stations. I never knew who put the records out, and who was really making the money from it. I know now, as a journalist, that those questions are integral to understanding the culture and significance of a musical genre, but I simply wasn’t old enough to know back then. Instead, this tale begins at 1pm on a Saturday afternoon.

I am sitting in my usual spot at the top of the stairs in my house in East London. On my right is my older sister’s bedroom. She is just waking up, which I can tell because I hear through the closed door the sound of radio static as she searches for a station playing her favourite garage tunes. She’s been out all night at a club. Mum is clattering around in the kitchen, annoyed to hear that sound again—the sound that kept her (good, Asian) daughter out all-hours, God knows where, her worst nightmare—but the sound itself is the stuff of dreams; sweet, female voices, soothing, crooning, singing over a 2-step beat. That beat would eventually lead me to a lifelong affair with music, in particular dance and house.

It might seem simple, but there was much in those beats, a multitude of influences from all over the world (still to this day, few sound combinations make my heart skip like a hi-hat and a Frankie Knuckles-esque synthy keyboard sample) but it was the vocalists that really stayed with me.

Sure, UK garage wasn’t just about female singers—there were a multitude of amazing male emcees, hypemen, and Usher-style smooth-grooving heartthrobs—but to me this genre wasn’t about them: this was a female domain. It was the women’s voices we tuned in for, we turned up for, we sang along with, we hurt for. They were the stars.

It reminded me of the voices I heard at my friends houses, friends whose parents grew up on—and still worshipped—the sultry tones of Motown, songs where love was the first and last, and everything else not worth a note. Years later, I’d find out that actually many of the female voices on the UKG tracks I loved most were just samples of American soul singers. These women weren’t actually there at the clubs or in the studios—they existed only in records and in my imagination.

Still, garage was the perfect soundtrack for a girl hitting her teenage years, where a glance from a boy would give you butterflies and a crush would colour your world pink. It was music with a kind of innocence, thrilled and preoccupied by love; soul music but pop. Which perhaps explains why garage regularly filled the charts, and stars (Craig David, Alesha Dixon) were born from it. But by the time I was old enough to experience garage outside of my house, it was on the way out. There was a new sound that filled the radio stations, the clubs, and in my case, the school corridors: grime.

In many respects, grime was a continuation of some parts of garage, or at least it was influenced by it. Towards the end, UKG was becoming saccharine and manufactured anyway. This new sound, however, was bombastic, infectious, knowingly humorous yet unashamedly real—but where had all the women gone?

The first time I went to a grime gig—and to a punk gig or house rave—the same thought stayed with me: where are all the women? When I would steal into my sister’s room and try on her clothes she’d don to Twice as Nice, it was all high heels, and black dresses, power-feminine, hyper femininity—which seemed out of place in this new sharp-edged world. I know now that the garage scene I came of age to—a world of soulful female superstars getting lost in love—wasn’t totally real. I fabricated it in my mind, at least partly, probably possessed by that unshakeable admiration youngers have for their older siblings and everything they do.

It was a man’s world, really—a DJ and producer’s craft. But it doesn’t change the fact that those women did sing, whether in real life or in a sample: Kat Blu did sing, Lynsey Moore did sing, NaNa did sing. And their songs spoke to me; they gave me life through awkward teenage years. They made my sister break all the rules and don her heels while thousands of women did the same. Their voices soundtracked an era, front and centre, even if it was a man on the decks. History will say otherwise, but I feel in my heart it was a women’s movement after all.

Posted on September 18, 2017