Did UK Garage ever disappear? If so, it’s back and brash like a reboot of your favorite Saturday morning cartoon. More and more labels are popping up devoted to the sound that defined UK dancefloors in the early aughts, and while they come from the minds of grime heads and dubstep ravers, the vibe is decidedly retro: Releases come branded with black and white renditions of popular cartoon heroes and mascots that match the classic and playful attitude of the tunes on record.
In the case of recently inaugurated label Timeisnow, founded by Kieran Williams, this cheeky artwork helps to differentiate its releases from parent house platform, Shall Not Fade. Being from Bristol, Williams’ first introduction to electronic music came from attending the legendary club night Dubloaded. “At the time, it was ultimately a mixture of garage, jungle, and other forms of bass music, all coming together and creating this hybrid genre which we now know to be dubstep,” Williams explains. While the rise of dubstep and other genres may have stolen some of garage’s limelight, Williams wouldn’t say UKG ever went away; its elements just scattered across countless current genres.
Conversely, artists like those on Timeisnow (and other labels like Banoffee Pies, Dr Banana, and Kiwi Records) are honoring the original UK garage vibe by sprinkling in other sounds: a little rave here, a touch of DnB there, vocals from classic rap, R&B, and even Y2K pop. The overall sound, though, remains that of classic, 20th century garage, showing a comforting sense of nostalgia at work, both in a musical and visual sense. Essentially, these tracks are a return to the genre that influenced dubstep, funky, grime, and more, and the result, Williams says, is a scene that is stronger than ever—and which led to the birth of Timeisnow earlier this year.
“There are some amazing producers coming through,” he raves. “It’s the most excited I’ve been musically for a very long time.” Check out 10 recent tracks that have got us equally excited about UKG in 2020.
Underground Soul Collective, “Sybil’s Groove” (Dr Banana 2020)
London fashion/music platform Dr Banana supports new UKG producers while reissuing lost garage gems, all under a cartoon branding distinct enough to print on a T-shirt. The A-side of their compilation DRB11 came from phone digits found on a 20-year-old white label: Underground Soul Collective answered the call with new track “Sybil’s Groove,” the vocals like manna from heaven over slick and silky beats. Somehow, it even outshines the re-released 2000 cut.
Interplanetary Criminal, “Maybe” (Banoffee Pies 2019)
This Move Tools 12″ shows this Manchester producer’s unexpected way with samples, mixing up disco with acid or adding cartoon sounds over 2-step. “Maybe” stands out the most with its chipmunk soul twist, perfectly poised yet as playful as Jim O’Raw’s Animaniacs screenprint on the label. It’s also the best Brandy sample this side of Blawan’s “Getting Me Down.”
Conducta & Sammy Virji, “Whippet” (Kiwi Rekords 2019)
There’s a wealth of material to be found in Conducta’s acclaimed Kiwi mixes on his label under the same name, but there’s something extra magical about this track from the collaborative tape BK2SKL. His and Sammy Virji’s flute hook is a total earworm, making for something as fruity and fun as Kiwi’s bold Y2K aesthetics.
Interplanetary Criminal, “Supreme Level” (Timeisnow 2020)
No, that isn’t Santa’s Little Helper on the label; it’s actually Interplanetary’s dog as drawn by James Lacey, who brands each Timeisnow release its own mascot of sorts.
“Supreme Level,” from the Darkside EP is already full of character, though. It’s garage. It’s breakbeat. It’s rave. It’s even rap, thanks to a well deployed Tribe Called Quest sample.
Y U QT, “I Can’t Hold It In” (Warehouse Rave 2020)
Leicester duo Y U QT make for the sweetest song on our list with a harp-imbued number that takes you back to the poppier, warmer side of garage that was once all the rage. Find it on the Buff Traxx EP via London UKG label Warehouse Rave.
Angel D’Lite, “CRYSTALZ (DIAMANTÈ MIX)” (Banoffee Pies 2020)
We’ve had a Brandy sample, so how about Britney? A familiarly “toxic” siren call adds an otherworldly element to this garage mix of the lead to Angel D’Lite’s debut EP. The rest of the euphoric Dolphins Have Sex For Pleasure is atypical for label Banoffee Pies, which is adding ever more UKG to its retro house and jungle-influenced catalogue.
If you like what you hear, then check out Angel’s H&S set, one of our seven favorite mixes from August.
K-Lone, “MC” (Dr Banana 2019)
The only MC on this cut is GZA, the Wu Tang legend, cut up over some very bouncy garage. The keys that come in are pure house, making for a soulful time capsule of styles. You can find this on K-Lone’s DRB08 release for Dr Banana; also worth a listen is his 2018 spectral-stepper “Furious Styles”from the same label.
Soul Mass Transit System, “Gimme Gimme (your love)” (Warehouse Rave 2020)
Judging by their socials and set posters, Soul Mass Transit System are obvious retro Simpsons fans. Homer himself appears on the cover of their Don’t Hold Back EP.
Choosing such a 1990s icon is apt, as “Gimme Gimme” rides large on the kind of plaintive yet defiant hook that epitomized the first Summer of Love.
Holloway, “Homage 2 Claro” (Timeisnow 2020)
There’s something special about the B-side on Holloway’s EP Some Bad Days, an EP that begins with Joy Orbison-esque hybrid intensity. “Homage 2 Claro,” meanwhile, is more subtle, tightly winding around an intricate and fluid rework of an electro favorite by Claro Intelecto.
El-B, “Brixton 2 Croydon” (GD4YA, 2020)
Dubstep pioneer El-B is by no means a new name, but the brassy title track to this 12″ is unbelievably fresh. Straight-up garage with cheery horns may not always sound like a winning combination, but “Brixton 2 Croydon” bops along regardless.
While GD4YA doesn’t follow the cartoon trend of other UKG labels, all of its photographic artwork keeps the nostalgia going by borrowing from the acclaimed collection of Georgina Cook, whose photos date back to the early days of dubstep (as documented in her visual archive, Drumz of the South).
Published September 17, 2020. Words by Giacomo Lee.