I’ll be honest: when my Editor at IDJ Magazine, Russell Deeks, started talking excitedly in the office about a new style of dance music called bassline house, I was a little sceptical. When he then played some mix CDs in the office, I snobbishly dismissed it as “pitched-up handbag house mixed with old speed garage”. So, when he decided in early 2004 that the time was right for the magazine to shine a light on this North and Midlands-based club scene and sound, I was a bit cynical. Exactly what I said in the editorial meeting has been lost to the mists of time, but it was likely something about how old-fashioned and cheesy the sound was.
In hindsight, I feel more than a little ashamed of the dismissiveness of my attitude back then. What I couldn’t see at the time was how embedded bassline was within the club culture of my home city, Sheffield, other Yorkshire towns and cities, and England’s second city, Birmingham. I didn’t know, either, that bassline house – as it was then called, or sometimes ‘Niche’ in honour of the now infamous venue that initially incubated the style – had been developing out of sight of the dance music press since the late 1990s.
Looking back, Russ’s decision to shine a light on the sound and scene was inspired. The article he penned, which you can read in full below, remains a vital insight into a genuine grassroots musical movement on the cusp of a breakthrough. Neither of us knew it at the time, but the timing was impeccable; in the months following the article’s publication in the spring of 2004, bassline house notched up its first chart hit – Big Ang’s ‘It’s Over Now’ – and Radio 1Xtra took the bold decision to commission a weekly show dedicated to “northern garage”, presented by a man now synonymous with bassline: DJ Q.
The Huddersfield-born producer’s radio show, combined with the popularity of Internet forums such as Basscuts, had an immediate impact on bassline’s popularity as well as the sound of the scene he championed. Although he did play the organ-heavy “trad” bassline house tunes that borrowed extensively from speed garage, US garage and handbag house, DJ Q’s own productions – and those from the unsigned producers he championed on the show – were a little darker, drawing more influence from London style 4/4 garage and grime. In the end, it would be this end of the bassline spectrum that would dominate in years to come and now forms a huge part of the style’s sonic blueprint.
Reading Russ’s article again all these years on, it’s fascinating on a number of levels. For starters, the reportage elements, based on his experiences attending bassline clubs in Birmingham with his friend Dave Hayes, present a snapshot of the happy excitability at the heart of the scene. It also tackles the criticisms of myself and others head on, clearly explains the exact musical make-up of the sound, and makes a strong case as to why bassline house should be celebrated.
Reading between the lines, it’s also reflective of the relative health of UK dance music at the time. Most have forgotten, but in the early 2000s dance music was on the wane in the UK, with little coverage outside of specialist publications such as IDJ, turntable sales declining rapidly and next to no support from BBC Radio 1. Dubstep was still in its infancy (though Pinch, who worked part-time at IDJ for a period, had introduced us to the style and its predecessor break-step), dull big room house and techno dominated, and in general there wasn’t much to get excited about (unless you considered the horrors of electroclash to be exciting and cutting edge).
Bassline house was, as Russ points out in the feature, not particularly revolutionary musically, so of little interest to journalists who were constantly looking for something new and ‘cool’ to write about. The sound’s popular base lay within the mixed-race, working-class communities of Yorkshire and the Midlands – regions of the UK that most London-based dance music journalists rarely visited – so may as well have been invisible. That most of the dance music media missed bassline is hardly surprising, but still disappointing in hindsight – after all, popular musical movements, especially those which gestate away from the spotlight, are always worth writing about, even if the music is not to your liking (a lesson taught to me by Russ, funnily enough, who insisted I chronicle scenes based around music I didn’t like, such as hard house).
This is not to say that Russ’s article is perfect. The fact that Niche, the club whose resident DJs did more than any other to create and define the style in its early years, only gets a passing mention was something that Russ regrets, and arguably the feature’s sole failing.
“Let me say this categorically for the record: I’m very proud of that feature, and the fact that I was the first journalist talking about bassline at a national level, but I got it wrong,” Russ said during a recent interview for an article I was researching. “There’s not enough emphasis on Niche. [Niche resident DJ] Shaun Banger Scott called me when the article was published and told me that he thought Niche’s contribution had been overlooked. In hindsight I should have taken time to find out more. Bassline didn’t develop in isolation at Niche, but the club was the incubator that enabled it to spread the way it did. I don’t think the importance of Niche can be overstated: it was hugely important to the scene, it just wasn’t the only club that was important.”
In recent years, the history of Niche has been well documented (Daniel Dylan Wray’s RBMA piece from 2015 being a great example), but the wider story of the sound’s development not so much – and especially the Birmingham side of the scene, that gets discussed at length in Russ’s article. Hopefully that will change in time; for now, I hope you enjoy reading this historic snapshot of the bassline house scene at a crucial point in its’ development.
Something is stirring in the North of England – and in the Midlands, too. iDJ investigates the phenomenon that is ‘bassline house
Originally published in International DJ Magazine, May 2004. Words: Russell Deeks. Pictures: Russell Deeks and David Baker
Okay, we all know the history of ‘speed garage’, don’t we> The bastard offspring of a bizarre love triangle between US garage, jungle basslines and the +6 setting on a Technics deck, it was a sound that first emerged in London in the mid-‘90s (though it drew heavily on US producers like Todd Edwards and MK for inspiration) and rose to dominate the airwaves and clubs for a brief period in 1997/98. Then two-step engulfed the UK garage scene like a tidal wave and ‘speed garage’ disappeared, right?
Wrong. Anyone who knows the garage scene will tell you that the 4/4 never really died off, DJs like EZ and DBX have championed the sound through thick and thin, and London is currently undergoing a massive 4/4 revival, with old-school nights some of the biggest on the UKG scene. But never mind the old school. And forget London. Cos up in Birmingham and Sheffield in particular, and to an extent places like Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield, the 4/4 never went away in the first place. And now there’s a new breed of producers and DJs coming through who couldn’t just keep on playing old Tuff Jam remixes and who are making new speed garage records for a new generation of clubbers.
This ain’t no mere revival, though. Because those speed garage beats and basslines are now getting mixed with big organ lines that were first used in traditional New Jersey garage and then became a feature of mid-‘90s handbag, giving us a fresh new hybrid. And they’re calling it ‘bassline house’.
STEEL CITY SUPREMOS
Spearheading this new movement are Sheffield’s Reflective Records. The label was founded in 2002 by Martin Leverton, owner of Northern Music Distribution and the Reflex record shop, “just because speed garage was huge up here, but it was getting like groundhog day hearing the same tunes over and over again, It became clear someone needed to start putting out new records with that sound.” Partner-in-crime David Baker joined the team in summer 2003 and the label now has a back catalogue of some 41 releases across the Reflective Records, Heavy Records, Rhythm Traxx and Reflex Recordings imprints.
The label’s earliest releases came from local artists Jon Buccieri and Big Ang, and these two continue o be the label’s most prolific producers. The pair serve as the perfect microcosm for the variety of sounds coming under the ‘bassline house’ umbrella. Buccieri’s tracks are dark and menacing – when asked to describe the style he says, “hard, heavy basslines! It’s speed garage, but modernised. The scene’s really healthy at the moment, because it’s got a commercial side and it’s got that underground element as well.”
Big Ang’s work, on the other hand, is characterised by sweet female vocals and lots and lots of organs: it’s a much bouncier, housier sound and, yes, a lot more commercial. So commercial, in fact, that Big Ang’s take on the Deborah Cox classic ‘It’s Over Now’ has been picked up by All Around The World, the universal imprint best-known for championing the trance-lite ‘scouse house’ sound. Are Reflective not worried that they face the risk of having the bassline house scene written off as ‘cheesy’ before it’s really got going?
“We do have to be careful,” David Baker says. “Since All Around The World picked up on ‘It’s Over Now’ they’ve offered us a load of remixes, like ‘Cha Cha Slide’, but there’s no way we want to get into that. But for the profile of Ang, and the profile of the scene in general, it’s great to get that exposure. Really you’ve got all these different genres kind of spreading out like different tendrils from that speed garage core, and I don’t think it would be a bad thing for some of those tendrils to be a bit more commercially successful and draw in those people that at the moment are missing out.”
Other key Reflective artists include DJ Booda and DJ Veteran. Then there’s the vocalists, like Simone (whose next single, a Big Ang-produced homage to Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King’s ‘I’m In Love’, is quite frankly the dog’s bollocks, and looks a dead cert for scene anthem status) and Micha, the 18-year-old voice of another scene anthem, ‘Sexy Eyes’.
When we hook up with the crew at Reflective HQ, the one thig that is immediately apparent is the family vibe: it’s clear that here’s a grpup of young producers (only Ang and Booda top 25) who enjoy working together and who are hugely excited about the way their scene’s rapidly picking up steam. “It’s definitely growing at the minute,” enthuses Jon, “in fact I’d say this is the biggest it’s ever been. It’s cos it’s like a mixture of house and speed garage, so it appeals to lots of different people.”
If the packed house we found at Zero (where Reflective hold their club night every Friday, and with nearby after-hours venue Niche also rammed to capacity and also rocking the bassline sound, it’s clear this new musical mutation is here to stay, at least in Sheffield.
Down in Birmingham, meanwhile, the easiest way to get up to speed on the scene is to turn your dial to 106.8 FM, where pirate station Silk City FM has been broadcasting since 1995. They have R&B and other shows as well, but bassline house is the predominant sound of the station. One recent Saturday afternoon, IDJ was driven – blindfolded! – to the Silk City studio, to watch Silk DJ Joe Hunt do his Recovery Sessions show with guest Dean Curtis DJ. With Joe MCing, Dean spinning the tunes and the station mobile beeping constantly with requests for shout-outs, the atmosphere in the studio was electric, demonstrating perfectly the real buzz that’s around the scene at the moment.
Along with partners Carl and Mark, Joe Hunt recently co-founded the new Jump Records label and its sister imprint B1, showcasing the best in bassline house production talent from both the Midlands and the North. They’ve got releases forthcoming from Sheffield’s DJ Richard (with ‘Good Love’, which will be the label’s debut single), as well as local heroes like Twin Town, Ste Savage, Macca and the Boy, and Hunt himself (‘Hold on to Your Head’, as JH).
“It took us a while to get it together but we wanted to show people how we do it in Birmingham,” says Joe. “The sound’s definitely a bit different down here than it is in Sheffield. It’s grimier up there, more like your traditional speed garage; in Birmingham there’s more of the house influence, and to me, that makes for a friendlier, smilier vibe in the clubs. I’ve been to some clubs in Sheffield where it’s all hoodies and attitude; in Birmingham you get a dressier crowd and a nice vibe. We’ve never had any trouble at any of our nights.”
Indeed, when IDJ attended the recent launch party for Jump (held at Hidden along with established bassline promoters Space), a happier club atmosphere you could not have wished for. Disco dollies in Versace and Donna Karen mingled happily with lads in jeans and trainers, accidental bumps into strangers or toe-stepping incidents resulted only in mutual apologies followed by grins and handshakes, and the floor was rammed by midnight – by 2am they were dancing on tables in the furthest corners of the room. Wicked night.
It was the same story when we headed down to Radius for new Thursday nighter Bliss, and the same again when we got down to the launch of Saturday night bassline session Bounce. Anyone who reckons the UK club scene is dead in the water should check out some of these nights – they’ll find a scene that’s very much alive and definitely kicking!
Even as this article was about to go to press, in fact, we got an email from another new bassline label starting up in Birmingham, Reconstruction Records. The label’s been set up by two former hard house DJs, Smiler and Andre, who are also resident DJs at Bassline Heaven at Subway City. “We just started out doing some funky mash-ups,” says Smiler, “which gradually turned into remixes, and we were revamping many classics in a bassline style. After a few white label releases we’d generated quite a lot of interest so we decided to set up the label and do it properly.”
ON THE UP
So is 2004 going to be the year of bassline house? Stranger things have happened, though full-on commercial crossover/chart success will probably elude the music as long as Radio 1 continues its current anti-dance music policy. But there’s no doubt the scene’s getting bigger all the time, and it’s spreading geographically too, with bassline nights starting to spring up in cities like Nottingham and Leicester.
Not everyone’s going to be feeling bassline house, admittedly. Some would argue that it’s simply a rehash of the old speed garage sound – and it’s true some tracks are in the derivative side. There’s also the allegations of cheesiness to consider. Well, it’s true that, quite apart from the poppy, ‘handbag’ connotations of some of the big organ tracks, many big bassline tunes to date have been simple reworks of club standards like ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’, ‘Pleasure Principle’ and ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’. Even ‘Good Times’, chrissakes! But this has largely been due to the artists involved being bedroom producers without access to vocal studios – not to mention the fact that every new genre that emerges always brings with it a string if reversionings (we haven’t had a bassline mix of ‘Your Love’ yet but you can bet that one’s on the way!).
All the artists, DJs and labels we spoke to did, however, acknowledge a need for less sample-reliant productions and songs if this music is to progress. Big Ang is now working purely on original tracks, for instance; DJ Veteran agreed that “we need to start doing a lot more original material”, while Reflective boss Martin said, “we’re concentrating on putting out original productions and developing our artists as songwriters. But initially, to get the kids into it, you had to ‘borrow’ vocals they know, just to get into their brain.”
It looks like the era of the obvious vocal could be drawing to a close, then. And once the songs are there, it’s hard to see what’s really going to stand in bassline house’s way. It’s accessible, it’s uplifting, it’s up-tempo, and it’s good to dance to. Simple as that. Or as another Birmingham bassline DJ, Dave Hayes, puts it: “The chin-strokers and head-nodders won’t like bassline house: it’s not deep, it’s not clever and it doesn’t have any jazzy bits in it. But what it does do is get people on the dancefloor and put a big fucking grin on their faces, and that’s what counts isn’t it?”
Thanks to Russell Deeks for granting permission to republish this article.