20/20 Vision: MJ Cole — Sincere

Son Raw's retrospective review series returns with a UK Garage classic.
By    July 14, 2020


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Son Raw wants you to know.

It wasn’t always this like. 

For younger readers, forged in the great recession, the collapse of neo-liberal order and the omnipresent threat of climate change, it may seem impossibly naïve, but by the end of the 90s, a significant part of the population was genuinely hopeful for the future. The Cold War was over, the Internet promised to make us all rich, and even the rappers on TV had gone from roughneck militarism to jiggy materialism. Times were good, and with the End of History, we were told they’d last forever, bar an Asian financial crisis or two. As the millennium approached, the consumer economy went into hyper-drive and everyone just wanted to party, and in the UK, the soundtrack to this capitalist bacchanalia was Garage, much it engineered or produced by MJ Cole.

Few musical lineages have taken as many hairpin turns as Garage. At its genesis, Garage (pronounced Guh-raw-ge) wasn’t a genre, it was the music played by DJ Larry Levan at New York’s Paradise Garage, a Gay/mixed Manhattan nightclub running from 1977 to 1987. Resisting the backlash against disco but also that genre’s clichés and excesses, Levan’s personal style was eclectic, soulful, and forward thinking, drawing from countless styles and records to create moments of joy and spiritual ecstasy on the dance floor. Long after the club had closed and Chicago’s House music template had taken over Black and Queer clubland, the vibe Levan created continued to inspire awe among dancers and producers, particularly at Newark New Jersey’s Club Zanzibar, where resident Levan-student Tony Humphries further combined soulful Black music to the more mechanistic sounds of Chicago House. This is the Garage House that would cross the Atlantic to the UK, and eventually undergo startling mutations.

London was hardly Garage-central in the early 90s, at least according to the media. With the first wave of Rave having crested and splintered into a half dozen scenes and subgenres, soulful US House music was a niche interest at best compared to Progressive House’s crowd pleasing breakdowns, Techno’s nonstop drive, Trance’s psychedelic overload and Jungle’s Black militant innovation. Nevertheless, Garage’s soulful take on House developed a fervent following among Londoners, particularly as a “second room” or “Sunday scene” sound for ravers who wanted to keep the party going into the week, but who needed a more euphoric, and uplifting sound after a night or two of (increasingly dark and technoid) Jungle.

The rest is history: catering to the tastes of Junglist ravers, “Guh-rawge” gradually morphed into South and East London accented “Ga-ridge”, as DJs sped up the records, favored instrumental B-sides, and developed their own anthems and favorites, independently from what was going on in New York.  Though purists bemoaned Garage’s “corruption”, by the time UK producers began releasing their own records, UK Garage (briefly known as Speed Garage) was its own beast, intensifying the skippy beats and clipped vocal samples of US producers like Todd Edwards and merging the sound to Junglist time-stretching, sound effects, spinbacks and vocal samples. Yet for all of these new sonic signifiers, UK Garage, at the turn of the millennium, was hardly the grimy, dubby mutant it would transform into within a few short years.

This was still a scene full Moschino ravers dressed to the nines, guzzling champagne and dancing to music that took inspiration from Jungle’s rudeness but also Black American dance music’s uplift and contemporary R&B’s shiny futurism. This is the musical intersection that would define MJ Cole’s Sincere.

While Cole’s peers like Wookie and Zed Bias had deeper basslines or knottier drum patterns, Cole was the undisputed master of UK Garage at its most sophisticated and seductive. His star making hit single and an undisputed top 5 Garage anthem, “Sincere,” is a microcosm of everything that allowed the genre to take London by storm. For one, the drums are easier to dance to than Jungle’s polyrhythmic complexity, but are also far more swung and shifty than House’s straight 4×4 groove. Meanwhile, the vocal is alluring without falling prey to the miasmic excesses of Diva House. Finally the bass, while hardly as rude as other scene hits, is nevertheless pushed up to the forefront, rumbling and churning where a steady kick drum would usually drive the proceedings. It’s a perfect piece of music, and it became the launching point for an album of the same name that would come to define the sexy, urbane swing of millennial London.

Before we even touch the music, let’s talk cover art. Taking its cues from high fashion and advertising, Sincere’s cover is a masterwork of subversion, imitating a high-end brand’s minimalist fonts, design and lighting. At first glance, distracted by the shiny surfaces and stylish vibe, you might not even notice that the MJ Cole shopping bag is literally on fire, the heat scorching a hole through the plastic. It’s the perfect metaphor for the music: a trendy capitalist product on the outside, with roaring underground heat burning just beneath the surface. This push and pull between bump and swing, class and rudeness, and aspiration and roots, is never resolved, and it’s a joy to listen to Cole balance these contradictions across an entire album.

The album’s “Introduction” starts with a high pitched, heavily swung piano arpeggio and a sensual, processed vocal, and you’d be forgiven for expecting the smoothest of rides until the bass drops with all the power of nuclear bomb, instantly framing the song as a much rougher, street level journey. The track, and the album as a whole, become tributes to London’s multicultural rave scene, embracing elements of US Garage’s upfront Blackness, Jungle’s Jamaican musical heritage, and Rave’s wildchild electronic drive. From there, the listener is constantly shifted between darkness and light with dance music vocalist (and all time underrated great) Elizabeth Troy tackling the jazzy “Tired Games” and the dubby “Attitude” with equal aplomb. 

With vocals on six of the album’s 16 tracks, Troy is the album’s secret weapon, a virtuoso singer who somehow never released an album of her own despite delivering countless dance classics alongside Jungle and Garage producers. “Crazy Love,” the album’s first peak, might be her finest moment: over synthesized, plucked strings that sound ripped from a late SNES era JRPG soundtrack, Cole and Troy are in perfect sync, reinventing the love song by drawing on dance floor memories. It’s ecstatic yet mournful, happy yet sad, and incredibly refined while unabashedly foregrounding Troy’s powerhouse vocals. While the album’s title track will forever be the bigger hit, “Crazy Love” might just be Cole’s finest hour.

Yet Cole is just as adept at coaxing the perfect performance out of his other vocalists. Guy S’Mone adds a masculine touch to “You’re Mine,” complete with soaring chorus, while the uplifting album ender “Free Your Mind,” takes things back full circle to US Garage’s purist take on Black dance music. MC Danny Vicious meanwhile, adds a roughneck flair to “Desperado” and “Slum King,” as well as some pirate radio attitude to the “MJ FM” interlude, and it’s this later guest that dates the album as an unmistakable product of the millennium. The concept of live emceeing in UK Garage was imported from Jamaican toasting via Jungle, rather than through Hip Hop, with emcees’ rhymes aiming to liven up a party and add a local flavor, rather than detailed street narratives. Yet already, there was change afoot: even before UK Garage took over London’s clubs, it had begun developing a massive presence on pirate radio, where younger emcees began to push the limits and take a larger role in the scene.

Fearful of the rudeboy element (and the associated, racist, police scrutiny), clubs and DJs doubled down on dress codes and emcee bans to uphold Garage’s grown and sexy vibe. Ironically for a scene birthed from a “corruption” of New York’s Garage sound, by the end of 2000 UKG found itself battening down the hatches when faced with a new generation seeking to make their mark on the genre. Yet there’s no stopping progress, and within the year crews such as Pay as U Go Cartel and the So Solid Crew would leverage pirate radio to become stars in their own right, setting in motion UK Garage’s transformation into Grime, a musical mode that would flip Garage’s soulfulness inside out and use it as a vehicle to express the anger and frustration bubbling just below its surface.

From there, the story takes several more twists and turns that are beyond this piece’s purview, but suffice to say I doubt Larry Levan ever considered that his DJing would indirectly lead to Skrillex. For artists and DJs such as MJ Cole however, Garage’s further transformation and the shifting socio-political winds would prove to be disastrous. By 2002, the world was no longer basking in capitalism’s bounty but instead reeling from the shock of 9/11 and an associated recession, putting a severe damper on clubbing’s bacchanalian excess. “Serious” electronic trendsetters reacted by shifting towards more ‘minimalist’ styles, while mainstream music rags often abandoned dance music altogether, choosing the safety and aesthetic conservatism of guitar rock. These headwinds meant that even though Sincere’s follow up Cut to the Chase was a perfectly palatable Garage album, it just couldn’t find the label or fan support it needed. The world had changed, and Garage’s dream had died with it.

Or had it? Though UK Garage never caught on globally like Drum & Bass nor took Europe by storm like Berlin’s take on Techno, it remains a beloved, cherished institution in UK club land, experiencing a revival almost as soon as it was declared dead, with practically every major DJ and producer the scene had elevated finding steady gigs, remix work and opportunities to release music in the underground. Further afield, Hyperdub enigma Burial reinterpreted the genre’s penchant for joy and excess as melancholy, drawing in the type of music nerds who couldn’t get into a Garage nightclub if their life depended on it. Today, almost every form of Garage is thriving, with labels like Kiwi Crush leading the charge for a form of the music foregrounding both its Blackness and its Englishness.  MJ Cole himself has kept particularly busy – he just released a record of contemporary classical piano pieces, and though it’s about as far as possible from the twitchy Garage he’s known for, it’s also pretty damn good.

So perhaps it’s not Garage that died, but simply its era. Writing from social isolation with the global economy in tatters at the hands of a virus spread through humanity’s carbon-fueld interconnectedness, it’s hard to imagine an era where people bought in to a genre of music that was so unabashedly about good times, flashy clothes and spending a week’s salary on champagne and Armani. And yet for all of the information economy’s shadowy mega corporations, surveillance services and populo-fascistic governments… at its genesis, it was ground zero for a genre of music that celebrated life, good times and living for the weekend. It’s a beautiful contradiction, and a sincere one.

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