‘We did Top of the Pops with a track made in our kitchen’: how speed garage revved up club culture

·10-min read

In the early 90s, Omar Adimora had a curious Saturday night routine. A teetotal aspirant dance producer and devoted fan of US house music whose day job was in computing, he would cycle from his home in Islington to Ministry of Sound. “I would go in my cycling shorts,” he laughs, “and stand on a speaker for nine hours, watching David Morales do a marathon set, thinking: ‘I want some of this.’”

One week, someone mentioned an afterparty on the Old Kent Road that started when London’s most celebrated superclub kicked people out at 9am. “It was a pub, the Frog and Nightgown, but they had blacked out all the windows so it was eternal night. It was full of characters, people with all sorts of elaborate and exotic clothing, just ready to party. The music was US house – Masters at Work, MK, Smack, Roger Sanchez – but the DJs would pitch it up, so if people had been dancing to 125bpm most of the night, these guys were playing it at 130, 132. That became my addiction, it started to take over the thrill of Ministry of Sound. You’d get to Ministry later and later, so you’d have enough energy to last at the Frog and Nightgown.”

This was the bedrock for speed garage: an utterly thrilling strain of British dance music that led to the blockbusting success of UK garage – still a feature of pop today – which is enjoying a resurgence as a young generation of dance fans crave something headier or faster than techno or house.

The Frog and Nightgown wasn’t the only place in London you could hear house music played the way Adimora heard it: pitched up, with a particular predilection for the work of then relatively minor New York producer Todd Edwards, whose signature style of vocal samples, cut up into tiny fragments, sounded good played fast. It was a style that had incubated in the second rooms at jungle raves, while DJ Spoony was doing something similar while warming up at London’s long-running US house night Garage City. “I come from a background of [reggae] sound systems, where DJing was about your individual style, your selection, what tunes you played. Not mixing, because a lot of the sounds only used one turntable,” Spoony says. “So I would play [instrumental] dub mixes, that made my set a little different from the other residents. What I played might have been inspired by the US but it would have a little more UK bump to it.”

Nevertheless, the pub felt like a flashpoint, an underground scene, perhaps because of the hours it kept, perhaps because it attracted a different audience to other, ritzier London house clubs: “It was appealing to this grittier, London, working-class culture, that had come through that heavier, weightier backdrop of jungle,” says Sarah Lockhart, former MD of Rinse FM and another Frog and Nightgown habitué.

Stories began circulating about what was happening on the Old Kent Road on a Sunday morning, some of them quite lurid. Tim Liken, who was then a record shop’s teenage Saturday boy and too young to attend, remembers being told that ex-gangster Dave Courtney was a regular. Other Sunday clubs began springing up, catering to the same sound and crowd: Club Koo, Gass Club, Twice As Nice, which boasted Spoony as a resident. People started talking about the “Sunday scene”.

Perhaps inevitably, British producers started making tracks specifically for it, Adimora and Liken among them. They renamed themselves DJ Omar and Tim Deluxe, started recording in Adimora’s kitchen – reading the manuals for their new equipment as they went – and set up their own label, Ice Cream Records, one of a sudden plethora of imprints catering to a sound that was labelled as speed garage. No one on the scene seems to have been terribly keen on the name – DJ Spoony thinks “it was almost used disrespectfully” by house music snobs – but it stuck. “I was 17,” says Liken. “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”

It’s a refrain you hear over and over again from speed garage producers: we didn’t know what we were doing. Accordingly, the next few years sound like barely controlled mayhem, producers hurriedly making tracks to fit titles they’d come up with because record sleeves needed to be printed before the records were actually made, or hiding crouched behind the decks at Twice As Nice, convinced that their music would cause the crowd to start throwing bottles in disgust. Zed Bias, a Milton Keynes-based producer, who started making garage without ever visiting one of the clubs – a producer friend had shown him how to programme the drums – tells me he only made his track Neighbourhood so that a local DJ would have something unique to play. He then watched in amazement as it sold 12,000 copies in a week – such was the disparity between its success and his experience that he found himself performing one of his first DJ gigs live on BBC Radio 1, inadvertently blowing out the speakers with his first record.

Sarah Lockhart.
‘It was appealing to this grittier, London, working-class culture’ … Sarah Lockhart. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

But Lockhart thinks that was part of the early speed garage records’ appeal: they captured the anything goes, DIY atmosphere of a nascent scene, the same atmosphere that enabled her to shift from raver to a role within the music industry – first at a vinyl distributors, later in A&R and Rinse FM. “US house producers such as Masters at Work were working with high-end jazz musicians. This was not that. People were fumbling their way through … people who were really stuck on that US sound could be snobby about it: ‘What the fuck – this is out of key!’ But if you heard it on a dancefloor at 3am, there was a magic in the evolution of it: they were making errors, but that was creating a source,” she says.

“I studied classical piano, but when I was 10 years old my parents said I could stop, so I stopped,” says Adimora. “Tim couldn’t really play keyboards, so we didn’t have the ability to do those lush kind of chords. We had to do three-note chords, samples, little sounds. We had to do our own style, which was rough and ready.”

Rough and ready or not, it focused in on the scene’s roots and constituent elements. The beats were four-to-the-floor house, but the tracks played faster than any US house producer would have countenanced. From the reggae sound systems that Spoony mentions, it took heavy bass and what Liken calls “dub bleeps and sirens and stuff”. It either left space for the MCs who had begun chatting over the records at Sunday scene clubs or sampled their vocals. A lot of clubbers on the Sunday scene were refugees from jungle raves, turned off by an increasingly dark tone to the music and “basslines that sounded like a motorbike revving up” as Bias puts it. Accordingly, speed garage both borrowed from jungle – it was big on time-stretched voices, a signature jungle sound – and reacted against it. “The core of the sound was the bass,” Bias says, “and the bass was always very melodic.”

Zed Bias started making garage without ever visiting one of the clubs.
Zed Bias started making garage without ever visiting one of the clubs. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Speed garage spiralled out of the Sunday clubs and into the pop mainstream. Adimora and Liken found themselves on Top of the Pops, after a track they had made in “three to four hours” as a B-side, Ripgroove, unexpectedly took off, from the clubs to pirate radio stations to BBC Radio 1, where DJ Mark Goodier started using it as a jingle on his show. “It’s all out of key,” shrugs Liken. “Because we were completely naive, we came up with this dark unresolving texture, like putting an F minor key against C major pentatonic. The software today would steer you towards correcting that. Ripgroove is like a punk record to me.”

There is an argument that Ripgroove is the archetypal speed garage anthem: a cantering rhythm track, a monster bassline that carries the melody, samples brazenly ripped from US house tracks that were anthems on the Sunday scene and time-stretched voices. Other examples include Tina Moore’s Never Gonna Let You Go and Armand Van Helden’s remix of Sneaker Pimps’ Spin Spin Sugar.

Ripgroove was one of a string of speed garage crossover hits – 187 Lockdown’s Gunman, Somore’s I Refuse (What You Want), Scott Garcia’s A London Thing – before the sound was usurped on the garage scene by that of 2-step: lighter, skippier, more suited to pop or R&B remixes. It brought forth UK garage’s real moment in the commercial spotlight and a string of No 1 hits, an era when, as Spoony remembers, Twice As Nice went from underground phenomenon to a celebrity hangout (“I remember Wesley Snipes coming when he was off-the-charts A-list. Pre-social media days, he would just cruise in, smoking a spliff”) and his own career shifted dramatically into the mainstream. He and his cohorts in the Dreem Teem were given a BBC Radio 1 show: today, Spoony hosts a Saturday night show on BBC Radio 2, evidence of how thoroughly UK garage entered the mainstream.

Some producers rolled with the changes, DJ Omar and Bias among them. Others were less enamoured. “When it changed to 2-step, it lost something for me,” says Liken, who shifted to making house music. “Now, with hindsight and more time and space, I look back on those records fondly, but at the time, I wanted to expand and become more musical and do something else.”

2-step remains the music you automatically think of when someone says the words “UK garage”, but its predecessor is now just as vibrant. When I speak to Zach Bruce, better known as DJ and producer Interplanetary Criminal, he is in the middle of an Australian tour. His 2022 single with fellow DJ Eliza Rose, BOTA, had a distinct speed garage pulse to its beat and went to No 1 in the UK last September; a recently released mix album he did for veteran garage label Locked On, All Thru the Night, features as many four-four rhythms as 2-step beats.

He thinks the sound never went away, it was simply subsumed into other dance subgenres – “I’m from Bolton, and the niche sound there was donk, which is kind of similar in the groove and the tempo” – and that its appeal to an audience that, like him, aren’t old enough to remember the Sunday scene, comes from hearing its mainstream chart successes as very young children. Even the new garage tracks that cleave more to a 2-step template bear speed garage’s influence, he says: “It’s a lot darker, so British and gritty and the sub-bass is everything.”

Related: ‘We took the bassline from Mozart’: how Double 99 made Ripgroove

Liken has a different theory: speed garage might have fallen out of favour in the late 90s, but the sound was weirdly future-proofed. “Some records, such as 80s pop, sound really lightweight now. But speed garage was so heavy and bassy, it still cuts the mustard. It was almost like inadvertent forward thinking: we’ll make this so heavy and distorted it will be fine in the future. And I guess the other thing is … it really captured our soul, and the essence of being 19, all our struggles, our tensions.”

When you do that, he says, it something that doesn’t date: think of Teenage Kicks by the Undertones. “When that essence, that sentiment, that intention goes into a piece of art, it allows us to be time travellers. That’s incredible.”

And then he chuckles, presumably remembering that he’s talking about a track knocked up in a kitchen by people who didn’t know what they were doing. “I mean,” he says, “I don’t want to get too spiritual or metaphysical here.”

• All Thru the Night is out now on Locked On.