Review of 25 years of garage – musical documentary falls prey to the same mistakes that killed the scene

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Promotional work for 25 years of garage. Platinum Pictures

A host of veterans from the heyday of the UK garage scene (including Heartless Crew, Dane Bowers and members of So Solid Crew) star in 25 Years of Garage, a new documentary co-directed by former promoter Terry Stone.

As an academic specializing in black music and a proponent of its serious intellectual study, I find it encouraging to see active members of the garage scene documenting the culture.

Terry Stone wears a navy blue polo shirt and sits on a green couch.

UK garage was a genre of electronic dance music, which peaked between the late 1990s and early 2000s. Incorporating elements of R&B, jungle and pop, its sound was marked by offbeat vocal samples and a distinctive percussive rhythm.

In 25 Years of Garage, the stars reminisce about the garage scene that emerged in the early 1990s, tracing its expansion from small Ministry of Sound venues to its own club nights. Much of the focus is on Stone’s former business, Garage Nation, which successfully hosted club nights and events in the UK and overseas.

A brief history of the garage

This trip down memory lane shines a light on the garage ideology of conspicuous consumption and “bling culture”.

There’s the champagne lifestyle – Moët as standard. Designer garms that were colorful and flamboyant, especially for men (think Moschino, Versace, Iceberg Jeans). And jet set to Ayia Napa (again with budget airlines) to club at infamous venues such as Pzazz and Insomnia, which in their heyday drew ravers from all over the UK.

Archival footage is included to showcase the ‘vibe’ at the height of the scene, at home and away. These are scattered with more recent recordings of a post-COVID restrictions event in South London.

The personal stories recall the scene’s transition from fun, luxurious and carefree to dangerous and messy. In London, police intervention through 696 risk assessment forms (event notices that required organizers to share the names, stage names, home addresses and phone numbers of all performers) decimated the stage.

Meanwhile, in Ayia Napa, Cypriot residents resented the dominance of tourists and their disorderly behavior in what was once a sleepy fishing village. Media coverage began labeling the garage as dangerous, with incidents of shootings and stabbings reported both inside and outside the home.

put the problems aside

Despite acknowledgment of the negative press surrounding guns, violence, and murder in the garage scene, the racialized element of press attitudes is not explored in 25 Years of Garage. Garage is presented as a multicultural scene – and in many ways it was. However, reflection on the impact of racism and the police in criminalizing the scene is lacking.

The way the documentary responds to racialized narratives of garage, race and violence, almost reinforces them through dog whistling (using words understood by a particular group of people) and the use of racial code words like ” grime” and “yardie” to imply that the perpetrators were black.

Throughout though, the documentary suggests that for promoters of diverse racial backgrounds, “a gangster game” was required, “a certain mentality and attitude” to be and survive in this industry. For Stone himself, who is white, that included the need to wear gun-protective vests.

There is also reference to the ever-present presence of cocaine presented in a factual, deracialized way. The challenges around violence, crime and drugs weren’t the result of “filth” or “yardies”, but a problem for the scene as a whole.

Gender issues also remain unanswered. In 25 Years of Garage, women are a footnote. Very few have the opportunity to share their stories, although the women are very visible in the historical and recent footage included in the documentary.

Ms. Dynamite wears her hair in a punky braid and holds one leg up on an amp as she performs.

Ms. Dynamite wears her hair in a punky braid and holds one leg up on an amp as she performs.

The women in the scene are almost considered mere entertainment in the lives of men. This despite clips of MC Bushkin noting that the girls left jungle and drum and bass scenes for the garage and MC CKP stating wherever the girls were, the guys would follow.

The documentary positions the women as passive and largely voiceless in the scene, which was not the case.

Women are essential to the survival of participatory musical cultures such as the garage (where anyone present at a musical event actively participates by playing an instrument, singing, singing, or dancing) in roles that are both visible ( MC, professional dancers, administrators) and invisible (Fans).

This lack of reflection inadvertently erases women from gender history.

Is there a future for the garage scene?

What caused the decline of the garage? In 25 Years of Garage, DJ Majestic (once one of London’s most popular garage MCs) offers insight.

He considers the then smaller role of the internet, which later did so much to cement the international success of grime. It also discusses the limiting insistence on the British element of the “British garage” and the consequences of access control. Not “passing the youth” meant musicians including Dizzee Rascal and Wiley said they didn’t garage or care when building their own sound.

Rapper Wiley performs on stage in a black t-shirt, rapping into a microphone.

Rapper Wiley performs on stage in a black t-shirt, rapping into a microphone.

Associations with crime and violence in the mainstream have also decimated the scene’s chances of longevity. His demise meanwhile opened up a plethora of other genres such as bassline and dubstep.

Without an overarching narrative that organizes this documentary, it becomes an echo chamber. While it is important to platform those essential to the garage, all of these personal accounts are just talking to other people inside the scene.

To advance the genre, it was necessary to establish the historical, sociological and cultural links that would make the garage accessible to outsiders.

In this way, 25 Years of Garage unwittingly demonstrates and reinforces the role of gatekeeping – originally intended to protect the scene – ultimately played to smother it.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Monique Charles does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.

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