The author of Energy Flash, Rip It Up And Start Again, Retromania and more counts down some of his favourite UK Garage remixes of R&B hits.
In the late 1990s, the London pirate radio sound called UK garage, aka 2step, was a paradox: an underground with pop ambition. Eventually it would cross over big time, dominating the UK charts in 2000, and for a moment even looked like it might break America thanks to performers like Craig David and Daniel Bedingfield. But in its early pirate days, the UKG scene aspired to make pop but mostly had a hard time finding singers and songs to match the standards of the American R&B artists they admired. Having coming up through the rough-hewn DIY aesthetic of hardcore rave and jungle, these producers knew little of the studio craft of recording quality vocals. So what they did do? They nicked tunes and vocals wholesale from R&B singles, using the a capella versions that typically appeared on the 12" flipside, or resorting to various production techniques to shave away frequencies and isolate the vocal part they wanted. Some of these bootleg versions got so big in London and its surrounding counties, major labels started to come calling. Not with cease-and-desist writs, but with commissions to do officially sanctioned remixes, in the hope that club play and pirate support would help to boost their R&B starlets into the UK charts. Here is a baker’s dozen selection of some of the best UKG-meets-R&B tunes — some strictly illegal, some solicited and sanctioned — from the 1998-2000 era.
Brandy & Monica “The Boy Is Mine (Architechs remix)” (white label)
Probably the most famous UK garage bootleg of all, “B&M Remix” was played incessantly on the pirates in 1999-2000. Architechs were themselves veterans of the UK’s own homegrown R&B scene, which struggled because fans of the music preferred the American stuff. Like so many similarly blocked figures in UK urban music — not just R&B but UK rap and UK dancehall — they found a way through via the garage sector. Speeding up the vocals to make them fit the faster tempo of 2step garage had the deliriously sensual effect of turning the duetting divas into ghosts of themselves, wavery and mirage-like. They also added crowd noises “to make it feel like a contest between Brandy and Monica,” one of Architechs told me at the time. “Like a real soundclash with the crowd dividing its support between the two girls.” They tried to get Brandy’s UK record company EastWest interested in putting it out officially, then slipped it out illicitly as a white label boot. It sold 20 thousand copies and resulted in Architechs getting signed as a recording artist in their own right. One of their tracks, “Body Groove” became a huge hit in 2000.
Whitney Houston “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay (X Men remix)” (white label)
Until this, my ears would have crossed the road to avoid hearing anything emanating from the throat of Whitney. After this, I had to concede that even the untampered-with original was pretty incontestable. The creation of X-Men (once-highly-touted garage auteur-producer Wookie, plus a DJ pal), this was just one of a dozen or so UKG refixes of Houston’s big comeback hit. To be honest, I’m not even sure this take was my favourite — I seem to remember a version that was blurrier and huger-sounding, along the lines of the Brandy & Monica remix. But the X-Men job is generally considered the best of the bunch. Here’s another, perpetrator unknown. And there was also at least one legit 2step mix commissioned by Arista: Marvel & Eily’s G3 Mix.
Groove Chronicles “Stone Cold” (Groove Chronicles 001)
Where does the bootleg end and the sample-based track begin? How do we grade the different levels of theft, debt, derivation? Perhaps it is simply a question of titling. If the track bears the same title as the song it’s based around, then the producer clearly conceives of it as a bootleg and seeks to achieve sales off the back off the original’s popularity. “Stone Cold” is right on the borderline: true, it is not titled “One In A Million”, but it is so defined by the Aaliyah vocal it’s wrested from – that 1996 song (one of Timbaland’s earliest hit productions) – that I’m going to include it here. Dubstep scholars venerate this tune for its moody bassline and because cult producer El B was one half of Groove Chronicles (along with Noodles). But it’s the baleful languor of Aaliyah’s vocal, as re-edited by Groove Chronicles, that really grabs me. That and the supremely artful way the duo mood-shift the original song’s almost-virginal devotion into something darker and more needy: a ballad of abject sexual dependency. Not forgetting the awesomely sultry saxophone solo that takes up the first half of the track.
N-Tyce “Telefunkin’ (First Steps remix)” (Telstar/Columbia)
The groan-worthily named N-Tyce were a short-lived UK R&B girl group. First Steps, itself a painful pun on the 2step rhythm, was actually a cover for Groove Chronicles, who here are operating fully at the behest of the record company. As with “Stone Cold”, the slinky, noir sensuality of the new track they build around the vocals brings out the love-junkie thread in the lyric (“I’m addicted to you baby/Tied to a telephone line”, “I’ve got the fever for your flava”, etc). The result is an almost comically overstated vibe of erotic menace. There was also another official remix by the great garage duo Ramsey & Fen.
Aftershock “Slave to the Vibe (Dem 2 Remix)” (Locked On)
Even less information than with N-Tyce can be found on this group apart from the fact that they were a vaguely new jack swing duo with (on the 1993 original “Slave to the Vibe”) some rap elements. As well as bootlegging current R&B and rap tunes, UK garage producers — like jungle producers before them — would sometimes dig in the crates for earlier urban-music tracks that had enjoyed semi-hit status in British R&B clubs. “Slave To The Vibe” underwent a bunch of house and garage treatments over the years. But this Dem 2 version — a reproduction much more than a remix — is a monster that makes the original track and vocal performance seem like pale shadows. Beats and voice are phased and folded to an almost psychedelic degree, while the elastic bass and quivery synth-vamps are coming from the same twisted future-funk zone as Dem 2’s other killer tunes of this era such as “Grunge Dub”.
Pink “There You Go (Sovereign Remix)” (All Good)
Pink, back when she was marketed as a white R&B diva rather than a sort of quasi-punk rock star, was a natural fit for the 2step remake. Sovereign’s boot is tough and taut. And about twice the speed of the original.
Brandy vs X-Men “Angel” (white label)
Tasteful treatment from Wookie and his deejay mate. The gaseous ghostified quality of the vocals was a hallmark of the UK garage R&B relick. Along with the speeding-up needed to make them fit the brisker bpm, it may have something to do with the frequency-filtration required to extract vocals from tracks where an a cappella version was unavailable. But in the case of this yearning, awestruck Brandy ballad, the etherealising effect perfectly suits the song.
Jodeci vs Club Asylum “Freek Me Up (Dub)” and “Freek Me Up (Steppers Vocal Mix)” (Club Asylum)
A pumping speed garage version and a bumping 2step version of Jodeci’s electrifying lechery: “Every time I close my eyes/ I wake up feeling so horny/Can’t get you out of my mind/Sexing you is all I need”.
Amira “My Desire (Dreem Teem Remix)” (VC Recordings)
Okay, this stretches the concept to the limit, as it’s neither a bootleg (it was done for hire) nor really R&B (Amira’s talents featured in songful house and US garage tracks). But I couldn’t not include this sublime example of the re-producer’s art. I have never heard the original and am determined to avoid doing so if possible. This is perfection, this is how the song was meant to be heard, as reframed by top UKG production outfit the Dreem Teem. That darting, agile B-line. The tingly tinkle of the marimba-like melody. The push-me/pull-you groove tugging at your hips. And ooh, the breakdown at just past 3.20. Lover’s jungle.
Soul II Soul “Pleasuredome (Booker T Dub)” (on Booker T’s The Prize Collection, Solid State Records)
Another case of zero interest in ever hearing the original. What could it possibly sound like? When this sublime slice of four-to-the-floor garage glides out like a panorama on rollerskates, it’s hard to believe that an original even exists. From the serene propulsion of the cruise-control beats, to the glisteningly insistent bassline and synth-pulses, to those levitating male harmony vocals, Booker T’s treatment makes the UKG scene’s horny hedonism sound almost saintly. “Searching for the One...” The roving, randy eye never sounded so righteous.
Gabrielle “Sunshine (Wookie Dub Mix)” (white label)
That man Wookie again, with a wonderfully fluttery, sprite-like take on Brit-diva Gabrielle’s big garage anthem. An example of UKG’s obsession with the transformative powers of that infrequent British occurrence, sunshine (see also Sunship, “Spirit of the Sun”, etc etc).
Dave H & Cisko “How Good (Dave H & Tommy J V.I.P. Dub Plate mix)” (All Good Records)
Not quite a full-blown bootleg, but the vocals are all from KP & Envyi’s “Shorty Swing My Way”. This Dave H & Cisko & Tommy J track is a classic example of 2step’s four-way collision of rave, reggae, R&B and house. The plinky xylo-bass pattern is straight out of Unique 3’s Northern bleep classic “7-AM”. The bassline reaches back to Jamaica via jungle and Jah Shaka; the beats reach across to New Jersey and Todd Edwards. And the sexy-ghostly vocals come from the aforementioned KP & Envyi’s minor classic of late 90s R&B. Which was often versioned by UKG producers, but Dave H & Cisko & Tommy J here cunningly avoid the main hook of the title/chorus and work with other, equally delicious, vocal phrases from the song. For a more straightforward boot of “Shorty Swing My Way” check out DKNY’s Vol 1.
Rip N Culver “Behind The Wall (Stealth Men Vocal Mix)” (white label)
Stretching the definition of R&B here, but this is a Black American singer and the song is a sort of blues (with the Stealth Men providing the rhythm). And true to bootleg form, the song’s original title is retained. The source is Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall”, an anguished a cappela ballad about listening, powerless, to recurrent incidents of wife-beating in the apartment next door. The Stealth Men retain all the dread and anomie of the original, but add the jittery, nervous rhythms of 2step to result in a song that could be considered a form of oblique social comment on life in London’s council estates and high-rise flat blocks.
For the UK garage geeks out there, there’s some back story. One of the absolute foundational songs for 2step is Dem 2’s “Destiny (Sleepless)”, a nubile, effervescent-with-euphoria tune with barely-decipherable sampled vocals. As it happens, at least one of them, “another sleepless night”, is sourced in Chapman’s “Behind the Wall”. And it may well be that the ecstatic-seeming title phrase is a sampler-mangled phrase from the same song. Could it be that discovering this unlikely fact is what inspired Rip N Culver, or the Stealth Men, to make this chilling minor classic of darkside garage?