English of subcultures

2 steps to knowing your house from your garage

Subcultural English month finishes with a guest post by Raf Rundell on the topic of the language of musical subcultures. Raf has been in the music business for over ten years and has worked for several record companies in a variety of roles. He also makes music, as one half of The 2 Bears, whose first album, Be Strong, comes out in January 2012.


Asked to write a post on the language of musical subcultures, I was stumped. The subject is so vast and fast-moving it’s a bit dizzying. Dictionaries include entries for the big ones like jazz and reggae but they don’t give the reader much idea of what the music sounds like or feels like. The Macmillan Dictionary has this definition of house music:

a type of modern electronic music that developed in the 1980s, replacing disco as the most popular form of dance music. It combines deep bass sounds with parts that are sung or played on a synthesizer

but you get a much better idea from listening to something like this … and a better idea still by going to a nightclub and hearing it loud in a dark crowded room. But we don’t all have the inclination for that kind of thing so I’ll try and throw some light on some of the endless variety of terms.

In a lot of ways, the names applied to genres of music are pretty useless – one person’s dubstep is another’s garage. To someone else garage means a kind of rock or raw r&b … and so on. Every scene or sound or subculture has its own peculiar names.

How can one crack the code? As in any area of language, knowing the basic building blocks will provide some signposts when you’re confronted with a new term. Sometimes production techniques are referenced (filtered house). Sometimes it’s regionally-specific, and to do with a particular club scene (Baltimore, Northern soul), or a particular sound (Detroit techno, Chicago house, UK garage). Sometimes older genres are referenced or amalgamated to produce new ones (speed garage, dubstep). All the ones I’m referring to here are related to dance music, but this clip from the brilliant film Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, shows how specific things can get under a big umbrella term like Metal or Rock or Jazz.

I’ll stick with dance music though, because that’s what I know. We’ll start with house. There are several different claims on the origin of this term. The most plausible is that it referred to the music played by DJ Frankie Knuckles at the Warehouse Club in Chicago (1977-1982) which was a mixture of Disco and European electronic music. Around the same time, there was a DJ in New York named Larry Levan playing a similar but more vocal-led sound at a club called the Paradise Garage.

So House and Garage. Those are the origins but from those starting points they’ve grown and evolved and mutated over time. Garage is an interesting one because it was absorbed and amended to suit the sounds of the clubs in the UK and became the jumping-off point for speed garage, 2 step, and dubstep – all distinctly British, but with their roots in the sounds of the African-American underground. Something British musicians have been doing for decades… I’ll explain.

From the Paradise Garage came US garage, stripped-back vocal house music. These records became popular in the UK and a certain kind of garage record became especially popular, specifically ones with very heavy basslines. Demand for this sound was big but there weren’t enough of these records to keep London clubbers satisfied. As so often in music, necessity is the mother of invention and British producers started making fast-bass, heavy garage records. This music became known as UK garage or speed garage, a variant of which, niche (which takes its name from a club in Sheffield), is still hugely popular up north. From UK garage came 2 Step, less bass-heavy, often with a soulful vocal line and characterised by an accented beat on the 2 and 4. The ‘step’ in 2 Step also carries over into the term dubstep

Dubstep is now a world-beating, chart-topping, many-headed beast, but it began in two or three small clubs in London. Joe Muggs, to my mind the authority on the subject, wrote this piece a year or so ago about how endless categorisation isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s often pointless and downright annoying.

I do feel all of this is a little daft. The old adage rings true that there are only two types of music: the good and the bad. And everybody likes the good stuff. Don’t they? Just don’t ask me to put a name on it.

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Raf Rundell


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