The Streets, Kurupt FM, and the Return of UK Garage

by Liam Heatherson

The twenty-year cycle of popular culture states that trends; often in music or fashion, tend to reappear twenty years after they rise to popularity. Whilst a renewed interest in the alternative genres of the mid-nineties has peaked in interest; such as with the Stone Roses touring again in 2016 and releases from Liam and Noel Gallagher last year, it seems attention lately has been fast-forwarding to late nineties and early 2000s with nostalgia for the UK Garage scene. Arguably, this started with Craig David’s single When The Bassline Drops, featuring the much-loved Big Narstie and many a nod to David’s original garage hit Re-Rewind. Another contributing factor could be grime’s sudden exposure in the mainstream – after all, the infamous spoof-single Man’s Not Hot has to be a sure sign that the genre is starting to fade. Whilst grime originally frequented the use of 140bpm beats taken from garage samples, it’s increased commercialisation has seen it favour American trap hip hop beats in recent times. Young people are starting to strip away the rap and take a look back at where grime came from; not from American hip hop, but from UK Garage dance music; for me, this was something I only ever heard as a child on the radio of my parents’ car rather than over pirate airwaves.

Grime and garage have always been connected, and this seems to be responsible for this partial revival. One of the biggest artists to cause a splash on this scene is the legendary Kurupt FM; who strangely enough are the focal point of the BBC mockumentary People Just Do Nothing. The comedy series follows the lives of the members of a fictional pirate radio station set in a shed in Brentford, London. The show was created by the four main actors with a vision to realise something they had fantasised about as friends during their youth. Last September, Kurupt FM signed a record deal with XL Recordings who have worked with the likes of Adele and Radiohead. When listening to Kurupt FM’s recent debut; The Lost Tape, it is hard to know whether to laugh at their satirical in-character emceeing over classic garage tracks, or to stop and think that maybe there is a heartfelt authenticity seeping from behind their exaggerated satirical façade.

Following the success of Kurupt FM, garage-cum-spoken word artists The Streets are returning to the airwaves. Led by should-be poet laureate Mike Skinner, the makers of Has It Come to This? (2001) and Fit But You Know It (2004) are seizing their chance to make a return. Last October, The Streets announced a UK reunion tour for April 2018. Entitled The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light; a title which follows in a similar vein to Skinner’s profound yet mundane lyrical content, the tour sold out fast and furious. It is clear that The Streets have not been forgotten since their prime over a decade ago, and final release Computers and Blues in 2011. In December 2017, The Streets finally released some original pirate material for their fans; a double A-side. The first track Burn Bridges continues unimpeded with Skinner’s sombre rhetoric as if he never left the studio. The beat is slow and menacing; like something I’d expect to find on a YouTube parkour montage. Despite its moody trap beat, the track successfully conveys Skinner’s tense and restless monologue through its updated back-beat and authentic lyrics. The second track Sometimes I Hate My Friends More Than My Enemies continues Skinner’s bitter-sweet paranoia, this time bursting into a thrilling and energetic old-school garage rhythm. His lyrics tackle the same challenges as his original material; of fame-following parasites and mundane everyday betrayal alike. On January 31st this year, The Streets followed up this release with a further track; If You Ever Need to Talk I’m Here. This track is less dark and anxious than their December release. Its accepting and calm manner perfectly primes Skinner to lay down his poetic vocals voicing common concerns over a contemplative backing track. The Streets are simultaneously sophisticated yet unpretentious; it’s this ability to create melodrama out of otherwise-unnoticed familiarity in an artistic way which has been the vehicle to their well-deserved success. Are these tracks simply a handful of experiments released to accompany the reunion tour, or will we see them culminate in a new album later this year?

Whether they will or not, it’s worth saying that UK Garage is coming back – at least to an extent. The underground club scene too has been returning to UKG following its recent rediscovery by the younger generations; a number of London venues are now hosting fresh new garage events. Will this be a short-lived fad just like mainstream comedisation of grime, or will it continue to influence further artists in years to come?