Garage, one of the hottest forms of contemporary dance music, is also music that can often contain inspiring, life affirming lyrics and sometimes in-your-face Gospel messages. From the underground of British nightclubs, club deejay The Drum Pharaoh, aka Michael Morley, takes us through a scene where 'inspirational garage' is becoming an increasingly powerful anecdote to the quick-fix hedonism which once dominated the dance floor speakers. From America's Gloworm and Michael Powell through to Britain's Paul Johnson and Spirits, this is his report.
For many casual music listeners the whole area of dance music is a bemusing and bewildering field. The scene is so productive and with so many sub-genres that many non-devotees subscribe to the lazy observation that "it all sounds the same". But whether an old guitar rocker or a young dance buff all observers now agree that the computer-engineered upbeat 'house' music has soared from its mid-80s Chicago warehouse birthplace to become mainstay of both the thousands of dance clubs and the pop charts.
So what is this dance music thing? Without musical examples to demonstrate, the various divisions of contemporary dance music are difficult to get to grips with. I suppose that it is simply music with a rhythm to move you; but that is certainly a very fluid concept. And sub-genre name tags change with startling rapidity. Take, for example, a record you may remember by Inner City called "Big Fun". In 1988 it was labelled 'Detroit techno' largely because of its technologically synthesised keyboard riffs. Today buffs would describe the track as 'pop house' or alternatively it might be drawn under the wing of 'garage'. New styles of dance are continually emerging. Today, some like their dance music hard, heavy and 'bangin" (current popular terminology), maybe indulging themselves in some of the more recently developed genres such as 'gabba' - very, very fast techno. Other dance devotees like the softer side of techno which is now more like the recent Toyota car advert that was based on Moby's "Go" anthem (Moby incidentally is a committed Christian). "Go" itself is based on music from film icon David Lynch's cult drama "Twin Peaks".
Another more recent genre with its circle of enthusiasts is 'progressive house', not as fast as gabba but with the emphasis on varied drum patterns not vocals, and sometimes with cheesy guitar samples. Currently popular is 'jungle', a home-grown urban music that you could have noticed chartwise with M-Beat And General Levy, a music that most of its originators now like to refer to as 'drum 'n' bass' - sparse and very fast drum and bass 'breakbeat' loops (ie, recorded sound fragments taken or 'sampled' from older recordings). Jungle predominantly has a 'ragga' (modern dancehall reggae) chat included. Jungle bears a remarkable resemblance to breakbeat-based music that was previously often termed 'hardcore'. I could go on but I can already see your heads preparing to explode so I'll stop and return to matters more important to me, and matters that should encourage every believer keen to see Christian messages getting through to pop culture. I'm talking about the growing underground buzz that has come from club deejays playing 'inspirational' dance music in which practising Christians have made a significant contribution. Some of the deejays playing and mixing garage are themselves Christians such as the increasingly influential US West Coast American DJ Disciple, whom you will see mentioned later in this article.
To the pop culture historian, garage music's origins seem far from Christian. It evolved from the mid-80s New York City gay scene, and was particularly associated with the club Paradise Garage (hence the name), and especially also with the DJ (now deceased) Larry Levan. So what does garage sound like? In one sentence garage is a fusion of the old (R&B/soul music) and the new (heavy house beats). Despite the computer-driven rhythm, its vocals ensure that it contains a connection with the vocal styles of R&B/soul that originated out of the black church experience. Garage features songs, not simply simple vocal riffs, indeed it is considered by many as up tempo soul. Lyrically many of today's garage songs speak of subjects like God, prayer, human respect, and a world of trouble that once would have seemed alien messages in the hedonistic nightclub scene.
Not surprisingly garage still predominantly emanates from the USA. But today's hot garage tunes aren't exclusively American. As we go to press a record topping both the Record Mirror Cool Cuts and the Mixmag Update Buzz charts (both renowned specialist dance music magazine charts) is "Don't Bring Me Down" by Spirits. Spirits are Osmond 'Junior' Wright, a Jamaican-born singer formerly with the UK's gospel act The Channels (featured recently in Cross Rhythms Reggae Gospel feature), and gospel singer Beverley Thomas. With the record as yet scarcely promoted by MCA is an excellently delivered organ-led groove of singalong proportions and a fine Fire Island mix. Maybe Spirits will recall the pop house-cum-garage pop hits by Gloworm the first of which "I Lift My Cup" was adapted from the Mississippi Mass Choir conductor Milton Biggham's "Fill Us, Lift Us". Maybe Spirits will cross over to pop. Certainly garage is a thriving underground able to throw up hits to the over ground.
Garage is a sound where a SERIOUS R&B/soul voice is essential. Michael Watford, who has had praise heaped on him previously in this magazine, is, to many, one of the greatest R&B singers currently recording. Listen also to India, wife of one of garage's finest producers and writers, "Little" Louie Vega. British garage sports some serious talents as well. The UK's own Juliet Roberts, a major soul session singer, or one time Paradise gospel man Paul Johnson, now back with a superb garage anthem "If We Lose Our Way". Lyrics too are important and are often Christian or at least morally concerned and far more than the 'woo' and 'yeah' of some other forms of current dance music. Garage is a music that can really unite people. Take for instance a message like "Take A Stand For Love" (current anthem from the now much touted Mississippi-born and gospel-raised vocalist, Theo Gerideau) which looks at the problems of the world. You may think you've heard it all before. But such visions of universal love are feelings more than words, providing messages that the club goer needs to hear.
Now let's take a look at some of the current hot garage cuts. First, looking at the records already suffering from wear and tear I would recommend the quite superb "Trouble" performed by Joi Cardwell on New York's 8-Ball Records, now with Satoshi Tomiie, Junior Vasquez, and UBQ remixes (amongst others). Spread across three slabs of 12" vinyl, it is most essential in former disco record 70s disco remix king Tom Moulton's new edit which clocks in at 10 minutes and 43 seconds! "Trouble" features the most soulful and jazzy organ groove with the sweetest refrain I'll guarantee you'll be singing along to. It makes you forget "the world is full of trouble!!"
Other releases out for a while, but still slammin' include 1) Members
Of The House's "Party Of The Year", now on KMS UK release, but most
effective in its original US mixes. As the title suggests it is a
definite good time groove complete with Ten City style falsetto vocals
and funky wah wan guitar. 2) On a US Vibe Records double 12" release
(Double-pack) Meechie's "Bring Me Joy" - my record of the summer -
very uplifting in its UBQ and Maurice Joshua mixes. 3) Janet
Rushmore's "Joy", now released on London's new Released For Pleasure
label, coming from the London club Release The Pressure (yes - it
makes sense!), and with an excellent Tee Harris dub for sure.
Carole Sylvan has an impressive release "Closer" out now on US import King Street with Mood II Swing on production, while Ministry Of Sound offer a compelling (if somewhat spiritually confused) "Voices In My Mind". Then there's a superb new track by Michael Watford, "I'll Love You Forever". A superb passionate delivery typical of Michael, and with the drum track phasing, and mutating just a little every now and then, teasing and holding the listener. You'll believe every word Michael sings. The only trouble with the track is that, unless you're part of the elite DJ set, you have to hold on for its release.
And talking of "Hold(ing) On", Sabrynnah Pope has an excellent song out on US King Street. Like so many contemporary releases this is currently spread across a remix double pack with particularly fresh mixes from DJ Disciple and Masters At Work (and that's not mentioning the original release!). Too much studio tinkering is certainly a current problem. With so much material around it really is a drain on the customers' resources. In this case I recommend having the double pack of mixes and be done with it.
Other tunes hot from my box include Dave Morales' rubs of E.V.E.'s "Groove Of Love" which is a singalong "handbag" (lingo for populist) garage track and Joey Negro's reworkings of Act Of Faith's "Lite Up Your Life" (the Rodox mix, only available on promo is the one you want). Both are part of a recent move to bump up what are now called R'n'B sounds for the clubs, and if these are the kind of grooves that are gonna result, I'm all for it.
I'm not entirely full of praise for the house sound of the moment. I refrain from enthusing, as many have, about the return of early Chicago house man Mike Dunn on a project called "MD X-spress" with "God Made Me Phunky" - an insistent, hypnotic jazz piano break with Mike proudly proclaiming that "God made me that way." Sure, the groove's jagged, and comes out at ya, but Mike's claim is one I can't go with. Methinks it walks along, and crosses over that fine line between hypnotism and sheer boredom!
If it's funk that you're after there is plenty around at the moment, although you'll have to hunt for very limited copies of the Masters At Work's remix of Mondo Grosso's "Souffle" - Japanese jazz-funk for the 90s. Try also Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez' (from the Masters) "I Wanna Know", under his Bucketheads pseudonym, like a housed up theme from "Hawaii Five-O"!! Believe me, it works. As well, there's Damien Ramirez saving the day for Gloria Estefan's "Turn The Beat Around" in his Super Jazz Mix -retaining just the right amout of vocal, ie, not very much, and spicing it up with some fluid flute work. Damien was the man recently responsible for the bootleg versions of Sade's "Pearls" which caused such a storm in New York. He seems to work well with the major league women!
Another project I've just got to mention is Best Beat Dance Limited's brave move to give New Jersey's SMACK productions a UK outlet with three simultaneous deep and soulful garage vocal tracks currently on promo, and due out early November. They are DM Cook's female sung swinger "Losing My Mind", Butch Quick's "Always", and pick of the bunch, a pumpin' keyboard driven, male gospel flavoured vocal complete with a sweet vibes solo (not many of them around these days!). The project title "Pseudo" doesn't give much away and I've been asked not to mention the true names of those involved, suffice to say that you should recognise this voice from the 80s, currently trapped between different contractual commitments, but still comin' on strong! Wonderful, with that typical effortless but insistent Smack groove!
For a man of my eclectic tastes and with a host of great sounds around it is difficult to confine myself to simply the up tempo grooves that make up the typical garage release. Slippin' into other genres, for those more mellow moments I recommend checking out Portishead's moody and very cleverly produced dummy LP - not a duff track, although don't use it as a pick-me-up, or Jacksoul's bare boned and gritty jazz soul 12" "I Got Your Soul" available on a small independent label bearing little information. There's also Massive Attack's "Protection" LP, carrying on from where the hugely successful "Blue Lines" left off. My favourite is the boogie basslined "Weather Storm". Ethereal! The whole LP is itself a very evocative experience.
Check out also Buckshot Lefonque's self-title LP. A very varied down tempo collaboration between saxophonist Brandford Marsalis and Gang Starr's DJ Premier, both of whom, you may remember, contributing to Spike Lee's "Mo Better Blues" soundtrack. This LP includes the brilliant "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" with Maya Angelou reading from her poem of the same title over an inspiring fusion of Latin and African rhythms, and hip hop beats. Absolutely spine tingling! And don't forget to join those lovers of soul welcoming the return, after four years absence, of major British voice Paul Johnson whose "If We Lose Our Way" provides a determined and encouraging voice of faith and hope in today's often cold and confusing world. There are three great down tempo mixes, and a boogietastic Soul City Mix which fits snugly into the more soulful garage sets. Another hot one is Alexander Hope whose "Dancin"' track is produced by Blaze, who gave the dance world the all-time garage classic "Reaching"' by Phase II. This track has been long overdue, but is now as I write available on a very expensive (import!) soundtrack double LP, 'Brazen'. Watch out also for a newie from Loni Clark, following up her excellent "U" single with more vocal sweetness, telling us "Love So High". Talking of follow-ups the new single from Colourblind is now out with a slightly cheesey remix of their last club smash "Nothing Better". It is a cover of The Jones Girls' "You're Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else" with the lead being taken by the currently very in demand Ms Joi Cardwell, and is excellent crossover material. A track receiving a lot of promotional push is the gospel-tinged track "I Get Lifted" by Barbara Tucker. This is sweet soul music of epic proportions. As she sings "I get lifted every time, when the music's on my mind."
Reading this article I hope you don't expect to experience a Toronto blessing every time you go to a club playing inspiritual garage. But unblock your ears and you might be surprised at the spiritually fulfilling content, and the instant uplift present in many of the DJ's garage grooves.
Finally, the next time I'm at the decks I'll dedicate a track to Cross Rhythms for supporting underground dance music -"Glory Be To God", with one of my favourites Kerri Chandler producing. At the moment it's in limited supply on his "Ionosphere" EP due soon on the Subwoofer label. Bangin' in the best sense of the word.
The Drum Pharaoh's current inspirational
1. Alexander Hope - "Dancin" (Epic (US))
2. Barbara Tucker - "I Get Lifted" (Positiva promo)
3. Pseudo - "What Are You Gonna D (Smack club mix) (Smack (UK) promo)
4. Karen Pollack - "Reach Out For Me" (Emotive (US))
5. Spirits - "Don't Bring Me Down" (M promo)
6. Loni Clark - "Love So High" (A promo)
7. Mondo Grosso - "Souffle" (Masters At Work remix) (Japanese Bootleg)
8. Romanthony - "Da Change" (remix) (Black Male (US))
9. Colourblind - "You're Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else" (Ore (UK)
10. Arnold Jarvis And Kerri Chandler -"Inspiration" (Freetown (UK) promo)