The only thing that the protagonists of the late 1990s UK garage wars can agree on is that not everyone was in agreement. Beyond that, things start to get messy. The period from 1998 to 2001 was a time of phenomenal bangers, dazzling fashion and the most incredible and unexpected swamping of the pop charts – and mainstream culture in general – with the sound of the UK underground. But when you get a simultaneous eruption of big sounds, big money and new voices, there are bound to be complications, not least because some of UK garage’s main players had already been building the sound in the clubs and pirate stations for the best part of a decade.
Bizarrely, the tensions between the old guard – focused on “smart and sexy” – and the grimier new wave came to a head in the UK garage committee meetings. It sounds reminiscent of the kind of sit-down familiar from The Sopranos, where representatives of mafia families would thrash out their differences, negotiate, mediate and cut deals. According to a Guardian feature from December 2000, the meetings were numerous, and even had their minutes tracked, with written agendas and job roles: Dreem Teem’s Spoony as spokesman, and legendary DJ Norris “Da Boss” Windross as chairman.
So it came as some surprise to learn from Windross himself that things were considerably less organised than that – he also rejects the idea that he was chairman. But he does corroborate the newspaper’s version of events that many of UK garage’s most prominent figures were present at one key strategy meeting, and that he was very much in charge. “The point of the meeting was to bring together the people that I knew – the number one promoters, the main DJs, the main MCs; it was literally just me calling up the people I knew,” Windross recalls. There were, he says, about 40 people in all, crammed into a room in Aldgate, in inner-east London. “A pal of mine, Adrian, one of the original promoters of La Cosa Nostra [club], we had the meeting in the restaurant he used to work at, because he’s a chef. It wasn’t a ‘committee,’ it was a meeting to gauge how people felt about things – in my mind I wanted to create unity in the scene.”
The worry was that the darker, “breakbeat” garage would also attract more undesirable elements to the clubs.
The primary motive was a sense that the genre was spiralling wildly out of the control of the people who had spent years cultivating it. “I saw it grow from nothing,” says an impassioned Windross. “I was there, predominant on the scene, in 1991/92. And it had become something very different by the late 1990s. It was making a lot of people a really good wage, and dominating all of the airwaves, commanding so many clubs and venues, up and down the country – but there was no real control. Tunes were getting signed to labels for big money that were not representative of what garage is.”
Partly their concerns were about terminology being used in the media – “speed garage,” he says, was a term hated by most of the DJs – but mostly, it was about the mutating style and temperament of the tracks themselves. Specifically, they had a problem with bouncy, jaunty novelty garage records, and the darker, grimier tunes that were getting labelled garage.
“I felt that we had to be conscious about our sound, and be true to it – otherwise new sounds were going to come in, and we were in danger of becoming something else. And that’s exactly what happened,” Windross laments.
“It wasn’t about individuals, it was always about the tunes. There were a couple of tunes out there that I felt blurred the lines, and became aggressive in nature. And up until that point, they were never aggressive – we weren’t built that way. We were built off a party vibe, a bumpy soulful vibe, a bassline-y vibe: all about celebrating the party and celebrating the music. Whether it was 4x4, or 2-step – garage was meant to make a party come alive, with a sexiness, with a danciness.”
Windross and his peers felt that the new MC-led crews and less polished productions were sullying garage’s grown-up reputation. The straws that broke the camel’s back were Oxide & Neutrino’s “Bound 4 Da Reload (Casualty)” going to #1 in May 2000, and “I Don’t Smoke” following it in to #11, after months as an underground smash.
The worry was that the darker, “breakbeat” garage would also attract more undesirable elements to the clubs. “I was always bearing the brunt of it,” Pay As U Go Cartel’s Maxwell D told me a couple of years ago. “‘Who’s this crew, Pay As U Go, talking all this gangster stuff? We don’t want them in the dances, they’re thugs, they’re this, they’re that…’ They really didn’t want to give us the mic.”
The garage wars came to a head with the notorious appearance of So Solid Crew on the Dreem Teem’s new BBC Radio 1 show, in the winter of 2000.
For RWD Magazine’s founding editor Matt Mason, who also DJed garage on pirate stations Mac, Ice and Flex FM, attending what he recalls as several meetings, alongside Viper, Jameson and Maxwell D, was important. “We wanted to be a voice” for the next generation, he says.
On the other side, he describes the likes of Matt “Jam” Lamont, Windross and MC Creed, and remembers there was mutual respect in spite of the arguments. “It was that crew that really put them together. I really like those guys a lot, although at the time I butted heads with them, especially Matt. I remember him having a go at us for putting a grime artist on the cover of RWD. This was only issue two of the magazine. It was a kid from Hype Squad, a crew on Raw Mission FM, sitting on a bike, and he was making gunfingers. And they were like, ‘You’re promoting violence, you should be promoting these artists, this isn’t garage.’ I said ‘Well, look, they’re playing it in garage stations and garage clubs, and they’re buying the records in garage shops, from the garage section. And I think you’re right – I think maybe this isn’t garage, and it’s becoming something else – but, we should absolutely be fucking covering it, of course it’s going to be on our fucking front cover.’”
Windross says he doesn’t recall either Maxwell D or Mason being present, but he agrees on one thing. “It got fairly heated,” he says. “There were some key people who were a bit… what’s the word I can use… they didn’t understand. To have something that you’ve built from nothing, if you don’t formulate a way of controlling it, and putting a certain perimeter around it, then they can define it for it you, and come in and wash it down.”
The garage wars came to a head with the notorious appearance of So Solid Crew on the Dreem Teem’s new BBC Radio 1 show, in the winter of 2000. The atmosphere was frosty, to say the least. "Give the youth of nowadays a chance to bust through that barrier,” So Solid’s MC Romeo told the scene’s gatekeepers, “cos you lot have been there for so long and it’s our time now."
As the genre’s mainstream flag-bearers, the Dreem Teem had to play So Solid’s records on Radio 1 – but they weren’t happy about it, says Shabs Jobanputra, the latter’s label boss. The Dreem Teem attitude was, “‘Why are you doing this to us? It’s just unbearable, and we just don’t really want to play any of it.’ They viewed So Solid as people who didn’t really care, or give a fuck, but they did.”
For Jobanputra, the whole idea of planning and managing UK garage was misguided. “Trying to control music never works. The music doesn’t want to be controlled or managed. The media never liked us, and it was the sort of music that musical types felt was cheap, polystyrene music. But it was so powerful that they couldn't be ignored.”
In an interview from the DJ History archives, the Dreem Teem’s Timmi Magic spoke about the awkward moment they refused to play “Bound 4 Da Reload” on their UK garage stage at Notting Hill Carnival – not realising it was one of Oxide & Neutrino’s tracks. “To me it was like they might as well have been playing David Bowie. It wasn’t anything to do with our sound… It was more like kiddie stuff, going backwards.”
For the old guard, perhaps there was a “last days of disco” feel to the new millennium, the resplendent purity of one of the greatest periods in British music history facing up to its own looming mortality: These were the best days of our lives, and this is how it ends? With some hyperactive teenagers chatting about guns and drug dealing? With a song that samples the Casualty theme tune and a Guy Ritchie film?
Garage’s decline and fall was certainly no fun for those at the heart of a scene with so much promise. The genre’s mainstream takeover was certainly broken off abruptly, still in its prime, before most artists could ever release the albums they had been working on – and the clubs were suddenly swarming with police. Finally, the Metropolitan Police’s notorious Form 696 was introduced in 2004, specifically targeting garage, and London’s black club culture, and remained in place for the best part of a decade.
“The raucousness of certain tracks caused the dances to be raucous,” insists Windross. “They helped degenerate the sound, from being sexy, to more violent. All of a sudden that music isn’t getting respected, because that raucousness took over, and a lot of the producers stopped making garage. And I can’t talk about the roads, I can’t talk about gangs, or crews, but I can say that, systematically, [Metropolitan Police Operation] Trident was formed, and Trident targeted garage – to say ‘that's where all the gangs are turning up,’ and using that as an excuse. All of a sudden, everyone’s name’s getting tainted, because of the crews, and the parties are getting shut down. It got dismantled, from top to bottom.
“We had a music that was from the street, but wasn’t street music – it was a way to celebrate, a way of going out, getting dressed up, and dancing, rather than being moody. I’m not saying the crowds were any better or any worse – because there was some serious people back then! The scene weren’t built on goodie-two-shoes people – but if you play the music that makes the girls want to dance, and makes the guys want to get down, you alleviate the problem of violence.”
Having been on one side of the argument at the turn of the millennium, Matt Mason saw history repeating itself when UK funky began to emerge in the mid-2000s, to the chagrin of the faltering grime scene.
“Machiavelli wrote about this: it was a power struggle,” he says. “It’s not the first time it happened, it won’t be the last. I remember one of the last articles I wrote before I left RWD, in 2005: We did a big spread on the then-emerging UK funky sound, which I was really into, and I got so much shit! From Logan [Sama] – again, someone who I love – and everyone in grime; everyone was giving me shit! And I was like, ‘Fuck you, this is exactly what the UK garage committee did to you lot!’”
He laughs incredulously. “Don’t you see it’s just a different flavour of the same fucking ice cream? Really, this is the same thing, and it’s great - and the more flavours there are the more people want to come and buy ice cream?
“But there was an emotional pain associated with it, because people were seeing culture move on. And that’s never fun if you’re the MC or the DJ at the centre of that, and it starts to move on – that’s not an easy thing to deal with.”
When the gatekeepers are losing control, and there’s a new generation bum-rushing the show, it’s always going to be difficult. There is an unmistakable tinge of regret for Windross’s generation, that their attempt to hold the garage scene together, and control its perimeters, failed – and that, as they predicted, it fell from grace so tragically. A series of violent incidents in clubs and gun possession arrests culminated in two people being shot at London’s Astoria during a party celebrating So Solid Crew’s MC Romeo’s birthday.
“2001 is when it all went tits up,” Windross recalls, “with the shootings – and in a heartbeat, everything was shut down. And now I can look back and I can say ‘Ugh.. I must have had some kind of crystal ball.’”
Does he feel vindicated by what happened to garage?
“I don’t feel vindicated, I feel upset. I was never looking for vindication, or to stop other people doing what they do…” he tails off. The old guard just wanted UK garage to thrive, and keep on thriving.