Twenty-five years on from the Sex Pistols' royal jubilee party, the musical folk-devils likely to dominate this year's tabloid covers are the UK garage crews - not rampaging gangs of oil-covered Kwik-Fit fitters, but the stars and fans of the "UK garage" music scene. For the unenlightened, UK garage is one of the many British variations on electronic dance music, and is associated, in the public mind at least, with BMW-driving, Cristal-drinking, Armani-suited young men who may or may not be gangsters or professional football players - but who, in any case, are unlikely to be discussing Peps or Isas as they wheel and deal on their mobiles. While UK garage reflects an aspirational culture, its adherents don't expect to escape their decaying housing estates through the accepted routes of slow toil. UK garage is the sound of young male alienation - but for your stereotype of choice, don't think Ali G, think classy James Bond villain. For this is a culture where style, linguistic dexterity, wit, irony and bravery are all highly valued commodities.
Last month, two events took place that will push UK garage's profile even higher, taking it far beyond the urban housing estates of its origins, beyond even the pop charts of its aspirations, and further into both tabloid demonology and the record collections of "serious" music fans. On a dreary Monday in March, Ashley Walters, a 19-year-old father of two and one of the 25-plus members of south London's number-one-selling So Solid Crew, was sentenced to 18 months in a young offenders' institute for possession of a loaded firearm. On the same day, The Streets, a newcomer on the UK garage scene, released the genre-busting album Original Pirate Material. With timing worthy of the finest DJ, the jailing of one young talent came precisely as another was unleashed. The Streets's album gives us the sharpest and truest evocation of decaying England that our culture has spat out for a good few years. Just as happened with punk rock at the end of the 1970s, there will be voices expressing surprise that a musical genre associated with mindless hedonism and dead-end violence is capable of producing such a gem, but it really should come as no surprise that the closest vision is once again the clearest.
The high-profile case of Walters, aka MC Asher D, was merely the latest in a series of lurid news stories that has surrounded So Solid Crew since their single "21 Seconds" went straight to number one in the charts last August - and the culmination of shootings and beatings, hit singles and cancelled tours, all in the face of a storm of parental concern about the group's image, lyrics and extra-curricular activities.
Just as punk was a British twist on a fledgling American movement, so UK garage has emerged as part of the British evolution of US electronic dance music. The sound that is now called UK garage is the bastard offspring of drum'n'bass and soul, pitting sweet string sweeps and what we musicologists call "those girlie vocals with too many notes in" against sparse drum-machine convulsions and bowel-shaking bass filters. But where drum'n'bass is mainly moody instrumental music for boys to shuffle anonymously to in the dark, UK garage has always been associated with conspicuous consumption and gangster chic, while consciously appealing to the women as well as the men in the audience - despite the apparent misogyny of much of the associated culture.
Like the ultra-sharp mods of the 1960s, UK garage is a working-class style that is not only proud of its aspirations to wealth and success, but also believes that it can outsmart (in every sense) the establishment. Perhaps because of its open attachment to individual wealth, the hugely successful UK garage scene (drug of choice: champagne) has mostly been ignored by the left and the "serious" rock/indie crowd that had fawned over hip-hop (drug of choice: cannabis). While the best US hip-hop often functions, like punk once did, as an alternative news channel, the rapping of UK garage has, until very recently, largely consisted of the braggadocio of less engaged rhymers. It comes as a particular surprise, then, that a record produced within this reviled genre gives the state of the nation address that music culture in the UK throws up every ten years or so.
Original Pirate Material - performed, written, produced, arranged and mixed by 22-year-old Mike Skinner, aka The Streets - tells 14 vivid tales of urban life as witty, profound and memorable as anything in recent British film or literature. The delivery is in the tradition of American rappers, but Skinner more obviously recalls the darkly humorous storytelling styles of British and Jamaican poets such as John Cooper Clarke, Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Despite these forebears, he has a style and language that are firmly rooted in his own time and place. Dedicated to "all the geezers who beat me up or taxed me - you drove me to be so focused", this is the story of what is happening to a generation of urban kids growing up knowing they'll be taxed (that's "mugged", for those readers over 30) of anything of value at least every six months during their school years. It is the sound of a thousand very small and very illegal radio stations, the sound of overheard pub talk about deals "for a few dodgy PlayStations", where the only drug to be avoided is the angry alcohol in someone else's bloodstream, where geezers live empty lives of "football and smut", and where salvation is provided only by those first few, never-to-be-repeated, Ecstasy nights.
Hip-hop and rapping have developed hugely in Britain in recent years, with a host of culturally confident voices bringing a truly British perspective and sensibility. The album Run Come Save Me, released by the Stockwell-born Roots Manuva last year, was perhaps the finest British hip-hop record yet. And that it was almost certainly the first hip-hop record ever to extol the virtues of a plate of cheese on toast is not entirely unrelated.
It is important to remember, however, that although Skinner is rapping, he's working not with hip-hop beats and sounds, but with a music of the UK's own making - which is perhaps why his defiantly English accent works so well telling these dissident English tales. Even the line "Around my way, we say 'birds', not 'bitches' " comes across as quaintly colloquial rather than misogynistic - and is, incidentally, the line that everyone listening to the ska-tinged single "Let's Push Things Forward" first seems to notice.
A white English rapper has to deal one way or another with the issue of race, and in the first verse of the first track on this, the first Streets album, Skinner declares himself to be "a 45th-generation Roman". This reflects the self-descriptions of his contemporaries who might relate themselves culturally to the names of the places where their grandfathers were born, but which they may never have seen - aware of proud heritage, but not in thrall to it. The record is no sociological treatise, however, and Skinner's stories drag your imagination quickly into his cold, hard world of geezers and birds, where life is all about avoidance: staring back hard at the gangs on the estate to avoid becoming their prey; avoiding going to the pub for as long as possible; your team trying to avoid relegation to the Third Division; and when planning "the remains of the day - stoned", trying to avoid forgetting to buy the Rizlas.
Although Original Pirate Material contains a lot to make you smile, tracks such as "The Irony of It All", "Same Old Thing" and "Geezers Need Excitement" are bleak reports from a world where choice seems restricted to KFC or McDonald's, but where there are deeper dilemmas facing Skinner's characters every day: alternatives with life-changing consequences such as addiction, imprisonment or broken bones. Listening to the whole album reminds you of how precariously balanced are the choices that young adults are forced to make, and how perilous the voyage to boring adulthood can be.
Just as the tabloids of merrie England once screamed about the "filth and the fury" that was punk rock while school discos in the Home Counties blasted out the sounds of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, so the CD collections of suburban Middle England are now filling with sounds from the decaying council estates of south London and Birmingham. The most obvious precursor to The Streets's record is not the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen", however, but that other haunted circus ride of despair, "Ghost Town" by the Specials. Just as "Ghost Town" brought the sounds of Midlands despair to Middle England at the beginning of the 1980s, so UK garage is bringing uncomfortable realities about young England to your airwaves today. Because even if you have financed yourself as far away as you can manage from the ghettos where the geezers roam, we all know, deep down, that we can never be totally insulated from their world, and that, one way or another, we may have to face their unpleasant truths. On five days of the week, my clock-radio rouses me with Radio 4's genteel rituals, but on weekend mornings in Hackney, frequency-squatting radio pirates take over the airwaves and I wake to news items totally inaudible behind a clatter of jerky beats, buzzing, hissing frequencies and DJs who have obviously been broadcasting for eight hours or more without a break. Through my dozing head, confusion runs wild: is this Humphrys giving a "massive shout-out" to naughty Naughtie and ghetto-fabulous Sue MacG? Is this DJ Lady Lawley bigging up the latest wrecked crew? And are these relentlessly twitching beats coming live from St Dunstan's Church somewhere - or just the stereo in the bedroom of the vicar's daughter?
Original Pirate Material is released by Locked On/679
Ross Diamond is a musician and manager of community involvement projects in south London