Sunday clubbers celebrate garage going overground
© Dave Swindells

10 underground UK garage classics that still sound fresh today

Get bubbly with some of the finest British dance records ever made.
Written by Ben Murphy
6 min readPublished on
For a brief period of five years, UK garage ruled the clubs, pirate radio and pop charts of Great Britain. Between the years 1997 and 2001, what started as a sped-up, ruder twist on a certain kind of soulful American house evolved into very much its own sound, drawing on the influence of UK soundsystem and rave. It didn't stop evolving, either, birthing sub-genres like speed garage and two-step, and spawning dark offshoots like grime and dubstep.
UK garage wasn't dark. Its signature drink was champagne, its biggest star was squeaky-clean MC Craig David, and at its commercial peak, David Beckham could be seen behind the decks at garage mecca Twice As Nice. But let's not forget that in its first flush of creativity, UK garage spawned some of the best British club tracks ever made. It remains impossibly influential, continuing to inspire beatmakers from Burial to Skrillex. And, of course, a certain Mr Craig David has found his back to the charts, leaving open the possibility of a fully-fledged UK garage revival.
Join us as we relive 10 stand-out tunes from UKG's heyday.

1. Tina Moore – Never Gonna Let You Go (Kelly G Bump-N-Go Vocal Mix) (1997)

A swung-out, syncopated rhythm heavily influenced by UK pirate radio and rave culture, two-step garage is thought to be a uniquely British mutation of an American sound. But what is arguably the first two-step tune was made by an American. This 1997 bolt from the blue was the innovation of US house producer Kelly G, who stumbled upon a new broken sound with this remix. The vocal was sampled quickly afterwards on Double 99’s speed garage anthem RIP Groove, acknowledging the scene’s debt to Kelly G and pushing it on in the process.

2. Dem 2 – Destiny (1997)

For many the tune that defines garage and its two-step variant, with its skippy, polyrhythmic percussion. On its release, Destiny sounded influenced by the history of the UK underground but somehow brand new: a mix of shuffling, layered two-step breakbeats, dancing hi-hats and subdued hardcore stabs. Perhaps its greatest innovation, though, were the sped-up, cut-up vocals – a trick that Burial and the like have repeated to great effect. Destiny is a pre-millennial hybrid that still smashes a dance today.

3. TJR feat Xavier – Just Gets Better (TJR Dub) (1996)

Tuff Jam, the duo of Matt “Jam” Lamont and Karl “Tuff Enuff” Brown, were an untouchable DJ/production crew when they first emerged, ushering in the UK garage scene with DJ sets at the Frog and Nightgown on London’s Old Kent Road and the Gas Club near Leicester Square. This killer 1996 cut perfectly illustrates the crossover between the soulful American house vibe and rougher, funkier UK flavour, with its breakbeat percussion and lingering pirate radio vibe.

4. Wookie – Scrappy (1999)

Sure, it could have been Battle, but the hard-edged funk and sample-led intricacy of Scrappy gets the vote on dancefloors. It begins with catchy keys, before dropping into a sparse zone of warping jungle sub-bass and tumbling breaks. An exhilarating cut that shows another side of the erstwhile Soul II Soul man.

5. 187 Lockdown – Gunman (1997)

Of the many tunes to draw connections between jungle and UK garage, Gunman is the most memorable. Built around an eerie sample from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to For A Few Dollars More, Gunman stood out a mile when it was released in ’97. Harnessing micro-chopped jungle beats and a naughty sub bassline, this 4/4 speed garage cut was the work of Danny Harrison and Julian Jonah, who among many other aliases, also minted another UKG classic, Anytime, as Nu-Birth.

6. MJ Cole – Sincere (1998)

A classically-trained musician, Cole worked as a sound engineer for key drum'n'bass imprint SOUR, later applying this musicality and love of low-end pressure to his garage productions. Signed to Talkin’ Loud, he was pegged as the artist to take garage to the coffee table crowd. Cole certainly made some pay more attention: this song is irresistible. Its wistful, gorgeous vocal, backwards warping chords and switch up between two-step wiggle and kinetic house beat are the ingredients of a classic.

7. Active Minds – Hobson’s Choice (Tune For Da Man Dem) (1997)

Odd title for an underground garage hit, perhaps, but everything about this track sums up the bolshy, lively flex of the scene at its height. Menacing pads hover with dark intent, drums are rough and cut-up, and constant heavy sub and raw female vox keep things sparse and hard. A precursor to dubstep, it's still somewhat obscure, but got some well-deserved love thanks to its inclusion on Four Tet’s Fabric mix.

8. Groove Chronicles – Stone Cold (1997)

The team of DJ Noodles and El-B minted many a UKG/two-step classic, but few are as influential or evergreen as Stone Cold. Considered by many to be one of the tracks that pushed garage towards what became dubstep, El-B is often acknowledged among the fathers of that genre. Stone Cold, though, is something else. With its soulful shuffle, languid vox and sampled jazz sax, its vibe is initially a laid-back bump'n'flex. But at the drop, the introduction of an evil, ominous Reese bassline switches the mood to one of paranoia and tension, harking back to the genre's hardcore roots.

9. Ramsey & Fen feat Lynsey Moore – Love Bug (1998)

These producers were key to two-step, and this is one of their biggest hits. As DJs on pirate station Freek FM, Ramsey & Fen (who had sprung from the hardcore and US garage scenes) were some of the first to rep the UK garage sound on their Saturday slot, mixing American beats with early UK tracks. But this number – a massive club and commercial hit – felt like a decisive break from the 4/4 roots, a genre of its own.

10. Smokin Beats feat Lyn Eden – Dreams

Operating since 1993, the duo of Neil Rumney and Paul Landon were producers very much in thrall to the rhythms of New York and New Jersey garage. But there was something different in the air in 1996, when the UK scene was beginning to coalesce. Dreams could have emanated from across the pond, due to its 4/4 pace and sultry vox, but its illusory synths and distinctive bassline had the faded feel of jungle at its most reflective. As such, it was claimed as a UK garage classic – and remains one.
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