"Oi, listen. One for the bass boys … Pure Garage – let's have it." - The Streets
When I was 12 I had my first girlfriend. I knew nothing about her as we'd never actually spoken in real life. It was a simple kind of love: the kind that lasts eight days, three £10 T-Mobile top-up cards, a few loaded glances across the classroom, and – unluckily for me – a birthday, her 13th. The big one-three.
At first I had no idea what to buy her but, new to the school and area, shunted from east London to Essex in the first year of secondary school, I knew I had to make an impression: I bought her Pure Garage Platinum: The Very Best Of… mixed by DJ EZ. It was the only album I knew she'd like for sure, since garage was the only music anybody listened to at that time and place, other than 50 Cent and maybe Evanescence. I slipped it onto her desk before 9AM registration.
It turned out she already had the CD – or else her cool, older brother did. He had hair like Kenzie from Blazin Squad and wore a thin gold chain from Elizabeth Duke for Argos over his white polo, buttoned to the throat – we all thought he was the bollocks. My first girlfriend and I broke up a few days later, when I was made aware that she was now dating a boy called Joe from two years above us. Still, my thoughtful gift wasn't completely hopeless; I was marked as a man with good taste, who knew how to treat a lady despite not knowing how to speak to one. This was 2003: Greater London's fourth consecutive Summer of Love.
The Pure Garage series debuted exactly 31 days after a lot of people thought the world was going to end. Released on 31 January 2000, DJ EZ pulled you through the other side like a vibe tugboat. It started with his name repeatedly dancing over a remix of Creative Thieves' "Nasty Rhythm" before snapping into the 10 Below mix of Glamma Kid's "Why" with Shola Ama's already iconic chipmunk vocal smattered all over the track's shuffling hi-hats, synth-guitar melodies and squelchy lasers.
We were then into a quick blitz of DJ Lewi's "Hold Me Tight" - its metre-thick low-end rumbling your ear drums – and the Daryl B & M Yardley remix of Tony Momrelle's "If You Were Here Tonight", a saccharine hit of R&B played on fast-forward with a bassline that sounded kind of like Lisa Simpson playing the jug. Later came Artful Dodger's still-perfect "Moving Too Fast", Zed Bias' jagged "Neighbourhood", and "Flowers" by Sweet Female Attitude, the song that made every girl in my school forget about the imminent break-up of the Spice Girls, and ditch their crop tops and combats for fake Versace and ice-white jeans. As an introduction to genres go, I don't know that it's ever been bettered.
DJ EZ was plucked from Freek FM by the newly-minted Kiss 100 in late November 1999 after a series of standout guest slots and stand-ins for garage pioneers Tuff Jam. Two months later, Warner Music jumped in and signed the Tottenham DJ to a live-mix compilation series – what we now know as Pure Garage. It arrived during a year in which garage's pop chart domination was secured with number ones for Shanks & Bigfoot's "Sweet Like Chocolate" and Armand Van Helden's "You Don't Know Me", while only one million crying nans buying Cliff Richard's "The Millennium Prayer" could stop Artful Dodger's anthemic "Re-Rewind" with Craig David from doing the same. And so, DJ EZ was given prime real estate on the mainstream face of a genre reaching its pinnacle.
The first Pure Garage compilation swiftly went platinum, reportedly selling over 2 million records to date. Growing up, it felt like that CD was in every car I found myself in – except my family's, because my mum and dad only listened to the Gypsy Kings – and it was in every friend's house I crashed at, under piles of ash and a couple of Rizla. It was always there, bubbling away in the background, the constant, hum of sub-bass and tickling 2-step rumbling through the adjoining wall of a neighbour and sibling, even if we were too locked into Metal Gear Solid and Rayman to pay too much attention to it at the time.
"Everyone was listening to garage back then," said Oneman, who still DJs garage and its myriad offshoots live and on Rinse FM, to journalist Martin Clark in 2010. "Everyone was happier back then. You could go to school, chill in the playground with a girl and listen to Upfront FM tapes from yesterday."
For a certain area of the country, generations found themselves defined by which Pure Garage edition they grew up with: Pure Garage was for original heads, Pure Garage II for stragglers (Oneman was a II), and Volume 3 was mine. I begged my mum to buy it for me from the big Woolworths on Chrisp Street Market in Poplar simply because it featured DJ Pied Piper & The Masters Of Ceremony's "Do You Really Like It?". In retrospect, the song is retrograde dibby-dibby nonsense, but it'll always hold a place in my heart for two reasons: i) when I was nine, me and all my mates learned every single word and repeatedly shouted them on the coach during a school trip to east London Victoria Park; and ii) it cemented my love for UKG.
Like most dance music, garage never translated properly to album format, because it was all about that One Big Track. Besides Craig David's Born To Do It, there was hardly a single cohesive LP worthy of your time, but that made it all the more exciting and vital to see all these tracks crammed together in one plastic-cased compilation with a tracklisting – a fucking tracklisting? Never again the horror of trying to catch the name of a banger through a crackling FM radio in your mate's kitchen. It was almost too easy once the floodgates had opened: artists came from nowhere, released hat-tricks of absolute tear-off-your-hooky-Valentino jams, and then dissolved back into the shadows. MCs went from local heroes to household names to forgotten relics in the space of six months, the shifting breaks and beats of the genre mutating so quickly that no one thing could survive for very long. And then, just like that, they didn't have to.
New music stopped almost as quickly as it came. When the garage bubble burst – a date that I'm setting as 24th October 2001: a week before I moved to Essex; two days before the fifth and final Pure Garage of the original canon; and the day Wideboys released "Sambuca" with Dennis G (since sambuca always spells the end) – tracks stopped getting the chart traction they once had and grime nuzzled into its place as London's freshest new genre.
Pure Garage saw three compilations in 2000, two less-well-received compilations and a tepid Pure Garage Presents: Bass Breaks & Beats special in 2001, and then it was onto the three-CD The Very Best Of the year after. It took two years for garage to become frozen in time. When I started secondary school in 2002, songs released just a year earlier became "old-school" – a word which has remained twinned with garage on playlists and Google searches and club nights and Facebook groups in the proceeding 16 years. In that time, there have been five Pure Garage greatest hits compilations released.
In the intervening years, garage has – in many ways – stayed outside the ravages of time by seeping into the blood of much contemporary dance music, constant "revivals" from half-decent artists like Jamie xx, SBTRKT, and Disclosure, and also, in part, thanks to DJ EZ. To this day, EZ's work-ethic is nothing short of extraordinary. For 20 years it seemed he was playing sets in clubs or on radio every single night, but what's more, it felt like his playlist barely changed. It didn't matter, people flocked for the classics: when every beat hits and swings, when every vocal is instantly recognisable, nobody cares when it's a track they've heard a million times.
At my best guess, I've seen EZ play on eight different occasions, something that I'd never actually thought about until this exact moment. It seemed to be a natural part of the Essex ageing process: get your licence, go out, go to a garage night, see EZ play the same tunes, love every minute. He might as well have been playing that same compilation I bought for my first girlfriend from beginning to end, on repeat. Not a single person would've complained. He made it all look so easy and, better yet, fun. "The first DJ who inspired me and pretty much everyone I know who DJs garage was EZ," said Oneman in that 2010 interview. "[And] the Pure Garage compilations were our first look."
The atmosphere at garage nights were always hot and lively, coasting on the ghosts of good times had at legendary spots like Time & Envy next to Romford Station and Charlie Chan's under Walthamstow Dogs, making everyone want to dance and everyone want to be a DJ. I remember being 18, leaving clubs at 4AM to be home at my parents' at 5AM, sat there in the dark downloading a cracked copy of Virtual DJ and a bunch of 320kbps MP3s by M-Dubs and Steve Gurley and Champagne Bubbler and DEA Project from Soulseek to play at a house party at my mate Rob's the next weekend, or squirrelling them away on my iPod Mini to play in our hotel in Magaluf that summer. It was exhilarating because the music was so good and you knew everyone you knew loved it. Even now, when someone passes me the aux cord at a party, I play garage. Nobody ever complains.
If the Pure Garage compilation series did one thing better than any other, it was showcase a genre that felt fun and unpretentious from top to bottom – a Todd Edwards remix of Hakan Lidbo felt as accessible as some banger from Mis-Teeq – bringing this particular brand of dance music to the masses and making people really happy. Like all decent compilations, it also managed to bottle that very specific era; one in which you're immediately transported back to when you hear that weird "oink" sound from "Re-rewind", or those first few dark, creeping lines of DJ Luck and MC Neat's "Little Bit of Luck".
That said, when I listen back to the Pure Garage series these days, I'm not filled with overwhelming nostalgia but energy. While it's music that defined three years of London life, its power lies in its purity – like Madchester, it never had time to grow old, but unlike Madchester, through definitive compilations like this, new generations grew up with it like it was their own. Now, garage truly embodies a quality too often bestowed but rarely earned: timelessness.
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(Lead image by Mlange_b via Flickr)