The Infallible Groove: Critic-Proof Dance Music
How American Dance Music Classed Up Its Sound, Reawakened Its Soul, and Cribbed Its Charm From the U.K.’s Garage Revival
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. But music is exempt from this thanks to the tastemaking cratediggers whose diligent unearthing forever ensures that old becomes new again. And right now, the music world is, unsurprisingly, tipping its hat to Britain once more. This time, though, it’s for a bit of a dark horse: U.K. garage. The influence is revitalizing, and classing up, dance music on both sides of the Atlantic, from artists toiling in the underground to those basking in the mainstream.
If you missed it the first time, the ‘90s garage movement hybridized U.K. dance with American rap and R&B, but it splintered by the early ‘00s without making global impact. Not so this time. And if your ears haven’t recognized the sound, that’s because garage 2.0 is sleeker, smarter, more sophisticated, and highly refined—which is to say, all the more English. But the second wave has proven prolific, inspiring offshoots and artists far and wide, including a rapper who has done the same.
“To have one of the biggest artists in the world sample a U.K. funky track is crazy,” says Kye Gibbon of English dance-music duo Gorgon City. Gibbons is referring to Drake’s “One Dance” which samples 2008's “Do You Mind?” by Kyla and Crazy Cousinz, a DJ crew known for merging house music with big bass, tribal or tropical percussion, and R&B vocals. “That sound was niche and the tune wasn't that big,” he continues. “It's cool to hear people turn something underground in the U.K. into something so massive.”
He should know. His group Gorgon City are part of a movement of English artists with ties to the second coming of the U.K. garage sound (more broadly U.K. house) popularized by Disclosure. The aforementioned U.K. funky is a garage offshoot, and may have never been rediscovered if not for this second wave, whose members hold quite the credentials. To wit, Gorgon City have a single with Jennifer Hudson. Their tour pals Rudimental have two with Ed Sheeran. Clean Bandit scored a “Best Dance Recording” Grammy last year for “Rather Be.” Their buddy MNEK co-wrote for Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
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The London duo comprised of singer Aluna Francis and producer George Reid epitomize the new sophisticated dance-music sound. Their breakout album Body Music (2013) features “You Know You Like It.” It was remixed in 2016 by DJ Snake, making it an unexpected yet undeniable chart-topper and warming up U.S. audiences for their forthcoming album, I Remember, due out this fall.
Citing '90s U.K. garage music as being “in their DNA,” Gorgon City, London’s Kye Gibbon and Matt Robson-Scott, are proud unofficial spokesmen for the garage revival. They started making appearances on the charts in 2013 and followed suit in 2014 with “Ready for Your Love.” Their forthcoming 2016 album Kingdom is anticipated to produce another successful round of international hits.
The 21-year-old singer, songwriter and producer garnered his first Grammy nomination when he was just 19. He’s only been outdoing himself since. His 2015 single “Never Forget You” is certified Platinum in the U.S. and the U.K. He’s also been rubbing elbows with the right people, co-writing for Queen Bey’s Lemonade.
The influence of the U.K.’s garage revivalists on the U.S. Top 40 is undeniable—and shows no signs of slowing down. DJ and producer Todd Edwards points to the new sound’s strengths: “They’re bringing back old things, but now with a new twist,” he says. “You’re hearing a softer vibe [that’s] coming from a more chill place. … Everything is very polished. They’ve integrated more soulful, more mellow sounds.”
Their combined efforts and influence have created a Holy Grail of a sound which lets pop and dance be everything to everyone: tasteful, body-moving, catchy, soulful, even adventurous. At last, fans and critics can metaphorically groove as one.
“Since 2012, U.K. artists have been making significant music that actually influences the rest of the world again,” says BBC Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong, who introduced English listeners to Chicago house in the ‘80s. He's been a “preacher” for dance music since.
“All those guys are ‘musos,’” says MNEK, speaking to the musical chops of his garage-inspired brethren and why he thinks the second wave was the one to take root. “They’re fans of soul music, and it was a time when pop had such a clean, expensive vibe to it. This was something real.”
Gibbon elaborates: “We spend a lot of time making our music sound organic, whether bringing in real instruments or tweaking synths so they feel alive. With the garage revival, producers started thinking about songwriting and soul, rather than crazy heavy drops that sound like mad computers, sirens, and stuff exploding.” This new sound is not only emotive, but intelligent, simultaneously capable of pulling at the heartstrings, making you think, and making you move.
The technical hallmarks of this brand of U.K. dance-pop—and the music it’s come to influence stateside—vary from chiming piano hits and sub-bass wobble, to pillow-soft synths and steel drums, to ambient texture and pitched-up vocal samples. It’s ever evolving, but Aluna Francis, of London duo AlunaGeorge, pinpoints the most consistent bit: “The British love a wonky, off-kilter beat. We thought it was a great idea to weave a vocal within those weird rhythms.”
It’s cool to hear people turn something underground in the U.K. into something so massive.”
Francis’ voice makes a cameo on the 2016 Grammy-winning Best Dance Album, Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü. It’s significant to note that Skrillex and Diplo, the biggest names in U.S. dance music and never ones for stagnation, tapped Francis for that new U.K. magic. Indeed, it was the perfect counter to EDM, which had reached a benign zenith—good enough for the raving masses and an occasional radio hit, but widely maligned as garish or cheesy. The Brits changed all that and cracked the code. The Americans ran with the results.
“People love a good track in the club—but everyone remembers a hook,” says Todd Edwards, a U.S. DJ and producer who’s known for his own legendary take on U.K. garage during the first wave. He also owns a Grammy for his work on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. He cites “Lean On,” from Diplo’s Major Lazer project, as a prime example of the American hitmaker applying English values—to the tune of 1.5 billion YouTube views.
But that’s not even their biggest success story. That honor goes to their most famous collaborator, a former child star who, until recently, needed a bona fide miracle to win hearts, minds, and, maybe most importantly, discerning ears. Yet, his song with Jack Ü, and the stylistically similar album that followed ended up on several reputable best-of lists. Who is Critic-Proof Dance Music's greatest conquest?
“Justin Bieber,” says Edwards. “The cut-up vocals, the island-y sounds, it's all very U.K. and I'm happy about that. I mean, I don’t mind turning on pop radio anymore.”
To Edwards point, you can scan the radio and hear telltale signs of a more tasteful (again, more British) Top 40. It’s okay to linger over the wonky percussives of Jason Derulo’s “If It Ain’t Love,” Alicia Keys’ skittering, calypsofied masterstroke “In Common,” or Ariana Grande's bouncy, Brit-ish “Be Alright.”
“The music is almost merging together,” MNEK says. “It’s fun to be part of so many amazing points in history. Music is so transient. You've just got to move with it.”
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