UK garage holds a special place in the hearts of millions. A rare case of homegrown club culture that translated perfectly to the charts, UKG was inescapable in the late 90s and early 00s. Even today, countless garage-themed brunches show how the sound remains a joyous time capsule people never want to let go.
It might seem alarming to anyone who grew up watching Craig David saunter around Top of the Pops in a cream rollneck, but there are now school-age kids born after his mid-2010s comeback, let alone his time as the first pinup pop star of the new millennium. Who’s going to keep new garage generations loving it, loving it, loving it?
Enter the ABC of UKG: an illustrated book ostensibly for children, though really for their parents. London-born musician Rukaiya Russell lovingly details UKG’s moment in the cultural sun, spanning A to (DJ E)Z. With clouds of MC catchphrases and armfuls of wink-nudge references for the garage veterans (it’s even published by a company Russell set up called “Ayia Nippa”), it is a delight for anyone whose eyes happily glaze over when buying flowers or seeing 21 seconds on a clock. Over to Rukaiya to fill us in.
VICE: Let’s start with your journey as an artist. Am I right in saying you came up through UK funky?
Rukaiya: So, I was making music before there were really any computers. Once I started producing properly around the mid-00s I found myself gravitating toward funky, but that wasn’t necessarily reflective of my raving background, and I wouldn’t introduce myself as a UK funky producer as such. I wasn’t sure if I could make garage and do it justice. I loved Todd Edwards and all those guys, their music would give me so much life. It was special and sort of untouchable to me. The drum patterns, chords and arrangements of funky and soulful house did it for me, so I fell into that quite naturally.
It’s clear to see your reverence for the first wave of UKG in the book’s subtitle: The Golden Era. It’s mirrored in hip-hop as well, The Golden Age of ‘86 to ‘94 or whenever, where a load of talent rushed to the front and took over the world. You kind of want to preserve that moment: put a little jewel frame around it, stand back and admire the best of times.
That’s it. I love garage, but I want to leave it at peace.
I’m interested in your criteria when putting together the alphabet. For A, the title card is Ayia Napa but you namedrop Agent X and Artful Dodger in the copy. Later there’s an illustration of champagne, but a Bacardi Breezer is on the table too. Were you trying to crunch 200 ideas into 26?
That was one of the biggest challenges. I’m a purist, and early feedback was that I had to cut it down. For every entry I was going, “nah, you can’t move that out!” Initially the plan was to just run an A to Z of tunes, artists and producers, but that wasn’t the full picture. The fashion, the horns, the chants: it’s all part of the story. Take “Booo!”: that was a major tune by Ms. Dynamite and Sticky, but it became the audience’s expression too. I was hands-on with every single detail. I needed to pay homage in every way I could.
The presentation is lively and colourful, but there’s tons of information that will surely be new to anyone who didn’t live it in person.
If I’m really honest, it’s more for the adults. But then, one day my son might hear enough of me and my husband playing it and come asking: “what was that all about?” And this is a way to present it as fun for both parent and child.
A lot of people feel like they had their culture snatched away when garage was forced out in the early 2000s – how was it for you? And do you engage with UKG heritage events now?
Garage raving for me was bliss, a weekly occurrence. Then things got completely shut down and we were all like, “where do we go now?” It was sad, such a wonderful time was suddenly over. Now, yeah, I’ve been to the Barbican and taken my son to some of these lavish revival concerts.
The clubs and festivals, not so much, because as a parent going out is sacrificing sleep. 20 years ago I would walk past a flyer with MJ Cole on and I’d stop what I was doing like, “Oh my gosh! I need a ticket!” Now, I don’t need to be there. It makes me smile that this scene is alive, but I had my time. And I’m cool with that.
Do you think there’s any risk of garage’s lingo, verbiage and culture being lost?
I don’t imagine people are going round acting and chatting the exact same. But then, I clearly remember the word “wicked” getting big off the back of M-Beat’s “Incredible” at the start of jungle, and that’s stuck around, right? The chatter of MCs and DJs interacting stays current every time you listen to a YouTube recording of a vintage set or see a meme recycling old sayings in new ways. Certain slang and style might be less prominent today than back then, but it definitely lives on.
You never know, after the book drops you might have parents telling you their kids won’t stop shouting “Booo!” and “Selectah!” at school next term.
[Laughs] Exactly. And if I start hearing my son say that around the house, I think I can work with it.
ABC of UKG: An Alphabet of UK Garage (the Golden Era) will be available on Amazon and www.abcukg.com from 10th August.