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Roots to the Future – UK Garage, with Music Producer and Founder of Jazz Step FM, Phonetix

The world of electronic dance music (EDM) is vast and far reaching. On the surface, we can find popular genres at our local night clubs like house, dubstep, and techno. We can hear EDM influences in our pop music on the radio, and for those of us who attend the occasional music festival, we can count on hearing the harder, high energy, bass-heavy genres like Drum and Bass (DnB), Glitch Hop, Trap, Drumstep, Hardcore, and Riddim. Below the surface, there are even more genres, each with their own family of subgenres, that often completely elude the public ear. One such genre, known as UK Garage or UKG, is seldom talked about or played here in the United States, but has actually been with us and on our radio waves since the late 90’s, imported here from across the pond by artists who were too sensational and impressive to be confined to one country such as Daniel Bedingfield and Craig David. Remember these guys?

The genre of UKG is reaching a special point in its life, and over the past 25 years a sort of renaissance has been brewing, bubbling, and spilling over back into the mainstream, and it has culminated into a full resurgence at present. EDM producers all over the world, including France, Russia, Japan, Germany, and even here in the United States are trying their hand at this style, with its unmistakable cadence, skippy fun beat, and reminiscent, nostalgic R&B melodies and samples. My prediction is that, much like the rebirth of synthwave and disco, we are going to be hearing lots more UKG in the coming years.

I sat down with Phonetix; a master of his craft, a classically trained jazz musician turned UKG producer, podcast DJ and host, and pioneer of his own style of garage which he dubbed “Jazz Step”, to hear his thoughts about this intriguing, awesome genre that has captivated young and old hearts over the past 3 decades.

James: What were your early years as a garage fan like? Was there a balance between jazz and edm in your youth?

Phonetix:

My first memories of consciously hearing Garage, date back to 1999 – when a 15 year old me started attending under-18s raves around London with a couple of friends. The first night I went to was at a club in Kingston, then known as Options. I walked in whilst Krunch’s mix of ‘It’s The Way’ by F.U.N. was playing, followed by TJR & Xaviers’s ‘Just Gets Better’, shortly after which came DeeKline’s ‘I Don’t Smoke’. I was immediately blown away by the variety of sounds the genre offered, & fell in love at once.

In contrast, I had been playing the piano since the age of 4 &, in that time, had gradually switched from Classical to Jazz – having been exposed to the latter by my late Grandfather. I don’t think I even made a link between Garage & Jazz though really until hearing some of MJ Cole’s seminal stuff, & even then I was too young to appreciate it properly – as I was too caught up in Garage’s attempt to “go back underground” & was supporting grittier bass-led sounds.

But over the years as I matured personally, so too did my musical tastes. & I observed that the Garage tracks I would keep going back to time-after-time tended to be more musically intricate ones. I’d been longing to pick up where Mondo Grosso left off at the turn of the century for a long while before the release of Jazz Step FM, but couldn’t see the potential for such a sound to create any momentum – until lockdown hit, & I realized that hordes of people who were into Garage might now make time to listen to a more laid back, jazzy sound – on their sofa or in the car. So for me personally, lockdown was a blessing, as it helped me get to where I always wanted to be, artistically.

James: Some of your promotional videos depict you playing piano, trumpet, and even guitar in the studio, a choice that sets you apart from most of your peers in this industry and demonstrates your caliber as an artist. Is your decision to record your own samples a matter of purity and originality, or just a matter of saving time and energy by avoiding hours of searching for the right samples elsewhere?

Phonetix:

Sampling has long been a staple in Dance & electronic music, & I think that’ll continue to be the case going forward – especially with the plethora of inspiring sounds available via services like Splice & Loopcloud. Creatively flipping audio or interpolating elements of it into a track is an underappreciated art form, so I’m not at all opposed to doing so. That said, if you’re in the zone & have an idea you want to lay down quickly – it definitely makes sense to just pull out an instrument & record it (if you’re able to do so!). There’s no right or wrong approach, you have to do what works best for your workflow. With me I find a combination of the two gets me to where I need to be.

 

James: I would be remiss if I didn’t congratulate you on the launch of your podcast, Phonetix’s Garage Essentials, available on Amazon Music, Apple Music, Mixcloud, Soundcloud, Audius, and YouTube. My question for you and probably many other podcast DJ/hosts out there is this; do you do everything at once; i.e mic work, mixing, and the inserting of blurbs, or is it a gradual process?

Phonetix:

Thanks very much! It’s a fair question to ask, as there’s a lot going on simultaneously. Whilst I’m pretty adept in the studio, the ability to mix a show, layer jingles AND introduce / recap tracks played at the same time is something I’m yet to master. So in order to make the show as fluid as possible I record the mix first & then go back & dub with my “hosting” retrospectively. I then drop the jingles in around these spoken parts.

I know other podcasters will probably label me a fraud for doing things this way; but I would counter by pointing out how important I think it is to properly identify what tracks people are listening to, & where they can get them from – whilst they’re listening. Inevitably multitasking would result in some of these details being inadvertently miss out. The main purpose of me putting the Garage Essentials show out there is to highlight the tracks I feel need more attention, & so naming all of them & the labels responsible for releasing them is of paramount importance to me. In my humble opinion, this is where a lot of other Garage podcasts & radio shows fall short.

Dubbing the show this way also aids me in achieving the best audio fidelity, as I can record myself talking using my vocal booth & sidechain this signal to automatically dip the volume of the music. As a complete audiophile myself, delivering as clean sound as possible is a vital part of the product I want to deliver for my listeners.

 

James: Predictions for garage music? Anything in particular from the past that you’d love to see refined, or just more of? Any artists out here now that you want our readers to check out?

Phonetix:

Garage is in an interesting place right now. It’s better accepted by the wider Dance community than it has been in days gone by (evidenced by the plethora of new Garage editorial playlists on streaming platforms, & features in good time slots on stations like BBC R1). I think that’s in large part due to the proliferation of younger artists affiliated with the genre – who are making moves outside of the typical club nights & shows we’ve come to expect (headlined by the same names who were doing so 20+ years ago). A lot of these younger artists seem to pop up at various festivals & I think that’s the reason their wobbly, bass-led 4×4, oftentimes “Techy” take on Garage (championed by labels like Night Bass, Wub Club, Cru Cast & Deep Rot) has been dominating the Beatport & Juno charts for a while, & will continue to do so for some time yet.

However, I personally don’t even regard a lot of that stuff as Garage (in the true sense of the genre’s roots anyway) – it’s only really tempo & the names of those recording it which dictates that it falls under the Garage bracket. & I don’t say that as a criticism at all – I love some of it! It’s just my own subjective take. It’s all eyes looking in the right direction so in one sense it’s a good thing, but it comes at the price of making the genre seem a bit disjointed & void of a “scene”, per se – as there are different artists trying to achieve radically different things with their art. I almost feel in one sense like Garage needs to fracture & splinter off into “official” sub-genres, much in the same way Drum & Bass has done. I think that would create safe spaces & support networks more in-line with your traditional scenes, for people making different types of Garage-inspired music in the 130-140bpm bracket – & avoid the situation where some artists who aren’t in one of the cliques become alienated & feel dejected when their music isn’t supported. Can you imagine what a travesty it would have been had Liquid Drum & Bass never become a thing? People might still now be listening to stuff inspired by Bad Company, Tech Itch & Dillinja; whilst the likes of High Contrast, Nu:Tone & Netsky could’ve gone unnoticed & either changed up their style or thrown in the towel altogether. There’s a crazy thought… but THAT is kind of what’s happening in Garage right now!

Anyhow I digress. Obviously I’d be remiss if I didn’t make the obvious statement that Speed Garage has been seeing a huge resurgence through the past year or two, whether that is (hopefully!) lasting or a short-lived fad (a la the 2008/9 “Bassline” thing) remains to be seen. Personally, I would love to hear more of the musical sound getting the attention it deserves. My Jazz Step & jazzy UK Garage playlist on Spotify is chocked full of spanking new soulful & jazz-twinged 2 Step, much of which seems to come & go without getting the praise of which it’s more than deserving (please show it more love!).

In terms of artists your readers need to check out, my favorite presently (who is managing to somehow smash both the heavier club sounds AND the more musical side simultaneously) is Oppidan, but I think near-enough everyone is aware of her already! I’ve been saying for the whole of 2022 that this is the year of the Goose, so be sure to scope out In4mous Goose if you haven’t done already. I also think the likes of Baker, DJ Swagger, Shunji Fujii & Laura Alice deserve more love – as their music is brimming with fantastically creative musical ideas & I think all of them will continue to make for compelling listening in the coming months & years. I personally really enjoy the more “wonky” Future Garage side of the coin as well & am surprised the likes of Pocket & poolsideconvo don’t get more love, as they create some awesome forward-thinking music which is rooted in Garage.

Little-known (& useless) tidbit on Phonetix… I wrote my university dissertation on the history of Garage!

 

James: I’ve been thinking of how one might make a case for the East India Trade Company, the Royal Navy, and pirates being some of the earliest causes for the existence of dnb and garage is it really a coincidence that DnB started in a port town like Bristol?

Phonetix: (laughs)

Bristol seems to be the new home of Garage (in the UK, anyway). It was typically considered a London thing, but the vast majority of people making moves are based in or affiliated with labels & club nights out of Bristol I’ve noticed.

 

James: I suppose a more legitimate source for the origins of garage would be American R&B?

 

Phonetix:

Arguably. Depends what you consider  “UK” Garage… 2 Step? or the early US-influenced 4×4 sound pioneered by the likes of 500 Rekords, $ki, Tuff Jam etc. I think you can trace it all back to what Larry Levan was doing in the 80s tbf… at least that’s what I wrote in my dissertation. But yeah, I hear what you’re saying – people like Grant Nelson, Steve Mac & Dem 2 were blatantly looking at what Timbaland, Jermaine Dupri, Darkchild etc were doing when they were shaping 2 Step.

 

James: We see a ton of important techniques and trends being incorporated into post punk UK music that have Caribbean influences. The Police, The Specials, and UB40 immediately come to mind. I maintain that the best thing to come from all that British colonization might have been that touch of Caribbean influence in music that you can see still thriving as an important element in current UK Garage and Drum and Bass.

 

Phonetix:

Ah man, there was a golden age of creativity which just exploded & went on for years. I don’t know if it makes me sound old to say it, but I just don’t see the boundaries being pushed the same way anymore, across the board. Could it be because a lot of the good ideas have already been done? Perhaps. More likely it’s because with the record industry being a shadow of what it was, people prefer to play it safe & follow tried-&-tested formulas. It’s mad to see people tailoring their stuff to the trends which shift each year & are largely dictated by management at Ministry & Spinnin… it’s like the polar opposite of what happened in the time period you’re talking about when people were actively trying to pave their own way. There just isn’t that same potential I don’t think… well, not for 99.9% of the 10million artists trying Hurts my heart thinking about it.

I really like this as a thinking point. You may very well be onto something there.

 

James: I’m telling you, it all started when they brought the sea shanties home. (laughs) I’m only slightly serious about that, but its food for thought.

Phonetix:

I think you’re onto something, the most creative regions in general appear to be those where there’s a convergence of different cultures. Bristol & London certainly both fit that bill.

James: Can you compare the experience of producing Garage with how it feels to produce drum and bass music? Are you enticed to release an EP? Does the larger market of DnB both being bought and produced translate to more listeners for you?

Phonetix:

Unless you’re an established artist with a big following or have a concept in mind, I question the validity of EP or LP releases in 2022. The shelf life of music is so short that releasing four tracks simultaneously is counterproductive as – chances are – one gets supported & the other three ignored. It means you’ve ended up putting out four tracks in one go & they’re all forgotten after a couple of weeks! For that reason, I don’t envisage an EP release any time soon.

But there’ll be more Drum & Bass releases in the future, for sure. Garage is my first love, but I’ve always produced other genres as well. As an artist, experimenting with different sounds is an exciting way to stay inspired – & gives scope to merge ideas from varying styles in a way that might not otherwise happen organically. For example, my track ‘Leaving’ (taken from 2021’s Shades Of Greats EP on Highly Swung Records) is a rolling bass-heavy slice of 4×4 Garage, which interpolates instrumental elements from one of my Beatshotters® Trap beats!…

 

I’ve always really enjoyed producing Drum & Bass. Those who followed me early on in my career when I was working as Robbie T might recall me having a few D&B bits up for download from Myspace (as far back as the mid-noughties!).

As a scene it’s thriving and, as you rightly say, has a much larger audience. I’ve been becoming increasingly frustrated at my limited reach within Garage circles, where tenure & commitment don’t appear to count for much; & being in the right clique, having a bit of hype to your name, social media presence and, frankly – just whether your face fits – all carry too much weight.

I don’t care how old you are, how you identify (in terms of gender or sexuality), where you’re from, what religion you are, what you look like… if you make music I want to hear, I’ll support it. I feel the Drum & Bass scene better embodies those values. I’m a wrinkly, married, middle-aged man from Surrey. Yet Dave Columbo Jenkins featured ‘Warning’ when I dropped it and, just this week, High Contrast supported ‘Spirit’ – both of which were pretty momentous events for me as an artist (the latter being one of my heroes & key inspirations!).

Those are cool feathers in my cap & good encouragement to keep experimenting with different sounds. I apply the same principles & techniques to making music, irrespective of genre. So (I like to) think that the back catalog I have sat there waiting to be discovered will appeal to people who find out about me – even if it’s through any of my releases outside of Garage.

James: Lastly, is there anyone you feel like acknowledging or thanking? any side projects or collaborations coming up that you’d like to plug?

 

Phonetix:

I’m always wary to start thanking individuals because there’s simply too many to name & I’m reticent to end up in the position where I inadvertently leave someone out! So I will instead simply say thank you to EVERYONE who’s ever been involved with or supported my music – in any way. You know who you are, & – if you didn’t already – please know that I love you! Music is the biggest part of me, I really do leave a little piece of my soul in everything I record – so I’m grateful beyond belief to anyone who listens.

In terms of upcoming stuff, I’ve got a lot in the works at the minute – including the launch of a new label & publishing company, plus a collaborative project under a new (yet to be determined) guise. People will just have to follow my socials or scope out phonetix.co.uk on the regs to stay in the loop!

 

 

About the Author:

James Ivan Xavier Forosisky is a Pittsburgh-based DJ and promoter who hosts a weekly UK Garage event called 2Step Tuesdays alongside event founder Miaa Rigby. He goes by the stage name Ninja Papes. If you liked this interview, you can find more music news, reviews and interviews on our website!