A brief history of UK garage

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A lot of the UK’s vibrant culture is currently on hold, so naturally, a lot of us are indulging in some nostalgia. Luckily, Nike is helping us do just that, their latest Air Max 90 Garage/Grime pack celebrates two defining cultural sensations that changed UK music indefinitely.

In line with this release and our partnership with Rinse, we thought we might as well delve into the rich history of these intertwining music scenes. Now, we could have written multiple theses on the evolution of UK garage and the plethora of music that mushroomed in its follow up, but we thought we’d keep it a little bit shorter – so here’s a brief history.

During the ‘90s, the UK was a hotbed for progressive underground dance scenes; from the acid house revolution after the summer of love, to the likes of hardcore, D&B, progressive house, trip-hop and jungle; it was a time of true innovation.

UK Garage was another spectacle that was developing in the early ‘90s when loyal hardcore and jungle fans started getting garage house records from the US. The term ‘garage’ originated with an NYC discotheque called Paradise Garage, a pioneering SoHo club that was mainly known for its DJ Larry Levan residency and its iconic LGBT nights which saw dancing in clubs evolve. 

It was when producers in London started experimenting with these imports that UK garage started to evolve; this was inspired by the high BPMs of music like jungle plus more soulful elements from R’n’B and reggae. The imports from the USA were expensive too, so this inspired UK producers and musicians to start doing their own thing.

The music produced became a hit across pirate radio stations such as Rinse.FM, London Underground FM, Deja Vu and Freak FM; also, it was originally played in the second room of clubs, as a more relaxing alternative to the likes of hardcore and jungle nights. It wasn’t long till iconic UK garage nights formed though; iconic events like Garage Nation, La Cosa Nostra and Sun City rose in popularity in iconic UK venues to the shores of Ibiza.

By the mid-’90s, artists such as MJ Cole, Double 99, Oxide & Neutrino and Tuff Jam started entering the charts after garage started gaining attention from huge promoters like Fantasia and Obsession. As well as receiving regular playtime across pirate radios, garage tunes started getting attention from radios like Kiss FM, helping it receive a mainstream audience too.

Later in the decade, UK garage was a mainstream hit while still an underground sensation in the clubs; in an iconic article for The Face in 2000, Kevin Braddock quoted:

“It struts around the upper reaches of the charts like it was born to do so, yet continues to rule dance music’s underground through a pirate economy run on pure essence of rude…no less credible than trip-hop, UK hip-hop, nu disco, trance, drum and bass, big beat, epic, progressive and tech house put together.”

From Artful Dodger’s “Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)” (1999) to DJ Luck & MC Neat “With A Little Bit Of Luck” (2001), UK garage could never be contained as just an underground scene, its appeal was boundless.

With soundwaves spread over the mainstream and underground, it was inevitable that UK garage would evolve and inspire music for decades to come. One of the main scenes which evolved from it was grime; garage beats were simplified and underproduced for a new generation of young MCs in London – we’ve written a history article here if you want to find out more.

The Streets’ iconic Original Pirate Material (2002) saw UK hip hop merged with garage-inspired beats and Mike Skinner’s unpretentious wit; this record stood as a pivotal voice for British youth culture at the time. UK Garage also morphed into darker, more intense music called Dubstep which was less about the image and more focused on experimenting with the sound. Its influence on the UK was irrefutably vast, bassline emerged in Sheffield with a more bass orientated sound which mirrored 2-step garage, representing a more northern distinctiveness.

Today, UK garage remains relevant and celebrated globally, with a resurgence over the past decade seeing artists like Flava D, Swindle and Conducta keeping it real while The Streets’ sixth record None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive (2020) was released last year, showing that Skinner is still representing old school UK dance sounds. The hit UK sitcom People Just Do Nothing also explores the lives of MCs running a pirate radio station in London, offering a unique comedic insight into the UK’s grime and garage scene.

Nike’s latest Air Max 90 ‘Garage/Grime’ pack is a celebration of UK underground sounds; for this release, we’re teaming up with Rinse for an exclusive size? sessions set – out soon!

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