The pop underground

By the

February 8, 2001

An energized ghettofied style of American pop flies out of the speakers at 100 decibels. The crowd goes nuts. This isn’t an arena concert; this isn’t the basement of a sleazy bar. At this point we could be just about anywhere, and the music would be equally potent.

The latest sounds from the United Kingdom just might be poised for a serious takeover of American airwaves and sound systems. Combining elements of hip-hop, house, soul and U.S. pop into up-tempo, poppy beats, 2-step seems to contain all the ingredients necessary to please the American ear. The style has already established a solid footing in most major U.S. cities, but has the potential to play a major role in American music, both within the underground and on the pop charts.

This particular genre brings so many influences to the table that its development is rather hard to track. It actually began with American producers experimenting with U.S. house tracks. The cut generally awarded with founding the genre was American Kelly G’s 1997 remix of Tina Moore’s “Never Let You Go.” New York house DJ Armand Van Helden was also a major player between 1997 and 1998. Oddly enough, at that time 2-step was known as “speed garage,” reflecting the tempo increase that marked the sound’s split with more the traditional house of everyone from David Morales to Larry Levan.

The style remained somewhat low-key for a while, then exploded onto London in 2000 so that by this point 2-step has definitely become a U.K. sound. The other big American name in early U.K. garage, Todd Edwards, has remained somewhat stagnant in his initially brilliant sample manipulation style. U.K. producers continue to pay homage to him, often awarding him with remix duty, but his day has passed, as has Van Helden’s.

At this point, 2-step is a full-blown scene with its own superstars, including The Artful Dodger, MJ Cole and Wookie. The sound has been evolving away from its heavily London-influenced ragga tinges to American pop stylings; MJ Cole in particular has released tracks with mandolin melodies to make any American pop radio producer envious. It is in these sounds in particular that suggest the possibility of a serious takeover of the U.S. 2-step often resembles U.S. pop so much it’s scary.

Diva vocals, warm piano chords and quirky sound effects are a must. The distintively ghetto-fabulous attitude associated with U.K. garage is ridiculously American, as is (arguably) cocaine, an accessory of varying prevalence. The 2-step scene seems to represent an ongoing fascination with American pop culture as experienced by the U.K.

In addition, American pop and hip hop lends itself quite well to 2-step remixes; prominent rappers (Pharoe Monche, for example) have already begun to release 2-step mixes of their singles. Not that 2-step producers have waited for official approval to begin remixing radio hits, as bootleg reworkings seem to be the sound’s official stomping ground. However, such similarities alone are nowhere near enough to guarantee real success in the U.S.

Critical differences in organization between the 2-step scene and American pop will mostly likely hinder a true U.S. explosion any time soon. U.K. garage is an underground venture, powered mostly by anonymous producers working only to gain respect and out of their love for the music. American pop is a high-powered industry, focusing on the marketability of individual artists and songs. After the initial hype over “electronica” calmed down, it became relatively clear to industry types that the marketability of a DJ playing other people’s music was shaky at best. They’re right; the U.S. music industry would face serious risks if they attempted to find and promote any more than a handfull of DJs as long-term investments. The music evolves too quickly; its innovative spirit is an immediate disqualification if high profits are the only motive.

Within the underground, however, the story is quite different. Organizations of 2-step DJs have already sprung up in most major American cities. At first, it may seem that the addition of yet another sound to the American rave scene would be somewhat of a non-event, however, 2-step may prove to be a cure for what ails the U.S. underground.

An ill-founded sense of separatism has plagued the American dance scene since its size swelled about five years ago, stifling development and excluding people whose musical tastes encompass more than the accepted styles. In part this is attributable to the generally young ages of American scenesters, in itself a reflection of the relative stability which often goes hand in hand with life in the United States. Ever painted in controversy by the press, raves tend to only appeal to youth.

The introduction of 2-step into this mix may help promote the idea of the underground as a musical venture in which all are welcome. In many ways, there really are very few differences between hip-hop, pop and dance; yet within the U.S. these elements remain quite separate. 2-step just may be the force needed to bring U.S. listeners together, maturing them in the process. The prospect of real development in American music depends on it.

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