We Spoke to the Writer Behind a UK Garage Themed Play
Sabrina Mahfouz's production is set in 2001, the halycon days of Britain, Blair and bouncing BPMs.
Summer time, England, 2001. It was, as Lonyo sung in his honeyed tones, "The Summer of Love". Tony Blair's Labour were coasting towards a second straight election victory, the Nokia 3310 was the smartest phone around and the unique sound of UK garage was riding high in the pop charts. When we talk about halcyon days, this is what we're thinking about.
That's the scene in which playwright and poet Sabrina Mahfouz is setting her latest play With a Little Bit of Luck, a UK garage inspired production that is touring the nation from April 13th to May 21st, with a final run taking part over four days at the Camden Roundhouse 14th-18th June.
With the emergence of semi-ironic acts like Kurupt FM and the Craig David comeback plus the slew of revival nights in Brixton, Bracknall and beyond every Friday, it's easy to think of UK garage as the Mike Tyson of the UK dance scene. Sure, in his prime he was powerful, exciting and unmissable, but these days is kind of reduced to being the butt of wry "we're both in on this together style" jokes, used with a knowing look to the fourth wall. But, thinking about it with nothing more than cloying, fond nostalgia completely neglects the huge influence the genre has had on British culture at large.
It can be argued, quite convincingly, that without garage, there would be no dubstep, and certainly no grime. Artists as diverse as Wiley and Skream openly talk about the huge role garage played in their musical upbringing. If you're the type of person who buys their clobber from The Basement or Wavey Garms, you only need to have a look at any photo taken by Ewen Spencer to see a proliferation of Moschino, Gucci and all other manner of high end fashion mixing with Sports Direct labels like Kappa and Reebok.
Garage, like D&B and before it, reaffirmed the belief that the UK was yet again at the forefront of cutting edge urban culture, that it had it's own voice and look, that it didn't need to just beg whatever outlandish things the US was doing at the time.
So eager to find out more, I sat down with Sabrina to talk about her play, how Garage influenced her life and whether any soliloquies get a wheel up...
THUMP: So, what's the play about?
Sabrina Mahfouz: The play is about London, raving, summertime, the encroachment of adulthood, love, betrayal, money and of course, music.
And why did you want to make a play about UK Garage?
UK Garage has been, and is still a hugely influential genre of British music. Grime is currently one of our most loved musical exports and most of the grime artists I know began their careers at garage nights and even within garage crews, so garage can naturally be thought of as the precursor and current companion to grime.
I feel that it [garage] isn't documented enough in this country. If you Google 'Britpop' for example, there are immediately hundreds of articles, features, documentaries and commentaries from national institutions such as the BBC and all mainstream newspapers and magazines, as well as all the music ones. Google 'UK Garage' and the first pages are mixes, SoundCloud pages and a few dedicated websites. This isn't necessarily negative as it points to garage still maintaining that underground niche, despite the fact that it ended up as mainstream as it's possible to be. However, it can also be seen as a very particular choice of historical cultural documentation. Garage was the musical genre that saw large numbers of non-white, working class musicians initially make it on their own, without the help of corporations and without the approval of those used to controlling the industry. It opened up opportunities to people who had not been allowed to express themselves musically in the exact way they wanted and make a living from it. In turn, this harnessed an opening up of further opportunities—from fashion and event management to production and photography. This disturbed the status quo in a way that working class white musicians making it into the mainstream didn't. Garage was the very first specific genre of music to be explicitly banned from London venues. That's a huge political statement right there. I don't feel there's much exploration of this that happens, and I think the intentions behind this censorship are questionable at best, racist and classist at worst.
I have playwrighting as my means of documentation. I wanted to use it to put down in writing that this world existed, full of entrepreneurial and talented people who had no money but ambition, skill, tenacity and an uncanny knack for tapping into the feeling of the times that they were living in and turning it into music that made people happy.
Saying that then, why do you think UK Garage was, or is, so important was to British culture?
I think UK Garage is phenomenally important to British culture. Of course, it owes its existence to a long line of other important black musical genres, from jungle to soul to hip-hop and R'n'B. I think that musically it allowed people to dance with more heart than they had for a long time and it also gave a platform to often salient social commentary from the MCs who accompanied the beats. Looking at the recent Music Week 30 Under 30 Awards, where only two of the 30 were from non-white backgrounds, it shows that things have still not moved on as much as people like to think, despite the charts and the underground being dominated by non-white artists or musical genres that have origins outside of white and western culture. This is why anyone who is able to needs to do what they can to recognise and publicise the achievements of those who will not be recognised by those responsible for documenting our cultural history.
What was your personal experience of growing up with UK Garage? How did it influence your life?
I grew up in South London, raved at Colliseum and everywhere else, volunteered at Delight FM, worked in Ayia Napa for four months every summer from 1999, spent all the money I made in bar jobs on patterned Moschino and Versace, took the photos for the flyers—which in those days needed developing—sold tickets for raves big and small and most importantly met some of my most treasured friends doing all of this. It was a huge influence on my life. When I eventually started doing performance poetry I'm sure a lot of that was down to the fact that I would have always loved to have been an MC. But unfortunately the scene wasn't one I would attribute with breaking down gender barriers! Of course women like Dynamite were absolute inspirations, but they were certainly in the minority. Me and my mates didn't have the confidence to get involved on stage at that point. The women I knew were mainly behind the scenes making sure everything ran smoothly—promoting, managing, producing. These things allowed the scene to flourish, so they're also very important and I give them the spotlight in my play.
You set the play in 2001 with headline, 'Raves, Revision, Re-election'. Do you think that was the peak UKG time, and do you think that the Tony Blair Labour years had a big effect on youth culture back then?
Personally I think the peak UKG time was 1998-1999. But of course everyone comes at it with their own personal experience and nostalgia. 2001 for me is really the start of the end. That's why I've chosen it for the play, as it's a dramatic time. The time of trying to hold on to the hope. It's the year when 9/11 happens and the world is changed hugely, especially for non-white westerners. It's the year when Tony Blair gets elected again, but his "things can only get better" slogan is starting to sound hollow.
I think Blair's early years had a monumental influence on youth culture. It wasn't all him, he was at the precipice of a particular time of course, but at the start he really sparked that hopefulness for those who had previously been encouraged to accept their secondary positions in society. University for all was a huge part of this and is something I thread into the play's narrative. To me, UKG embodied all of this. It sometimes gets criticised for not being more 'conscious' but I think it was an accurate reflection of the times and is therefore a very political genre. The general tone of the music was hopeful, ambitious, striving, aspirational. The aspiration usually related to money—which was certainly true of the time and is still the case now in the mainstream. To be able to make money showed power and to be empowered, when most of the people making and consuming this music initially had occupied disempowered positions in society, was a brilliant thing—even if the eventual consequences were not really being considered, just as they weren't in the main political arenas.
You say that the play is 'Theatre you can rave to', so have there been many instances where the crowd has really gone for it?
The show has only played at Latitude Festival so far, but yeah, the people there were properly going for it. They kept being told off by the ushers on the first night as they were getting all over the place. The next night the ushers joined in and the audience went even more mad. I think the timing and the set up of the space will have a lot to do with whether people genuinely get up and dance, but any fan of the music will be hard pressed to sit still when the drops kick in!
But what if the crowd asks for a wheel up (or encore), does the play do it but with a whole scene rather than a tune?
No, but that's a great idea, if a logistical production nightmare!
What has the reaction been like in the whole, and has there been any negative reaction from the more classic theatre crowd?
Not yet, as it's early days. I think the classic theatre crowd are open to different ways of telling stories now and recognise that not everything has to be three act kitchen sink dramas in order to make a valid contribution to the current theatre scene.
What do you want an audience to get out of watching your play? What's the one thing you'd like them to take away from it?
I'd love for them to relive their best UKG memories and make some new ones. I'd also like for them to view UKG with a cultural importance they'd not perhaps considered before.
So lastly, what's your favourite UKG tune?
Oh too difficult to say. There's so many. But if I had to pick one, the hint is in the title!
More information about With a Little Bit of Luck can be found here.
Tom Usher is on Twitter