Mon July 29, Nation, $10.
MJ Cole is considered the king of 2-step/U.K. garage in much the same way that Goldie was considered the king of jungle. It's not that he initiated it or is the best at this recent strain of electronic dance music, but, like Goldie's CD Timeless, he was the first to organize all of its assorted parts into a neat package--his CD Sincere--for a wider audience outside of the club and 12" scenes. I'm not sure if London is still into 2-step garage; it's been around for about four years, which, in London terms, is double the average lifespan for a club trend. But it's hard to imagine what could follow 2-step, which blends all of the major dance genres of the past 20 years--house, drum 'n' bass, and R&B--into one intoxicating jam.
U.K. garage combines house music's dependable 4/4 beat with drum 'n' bass' unstable breakbeat. It uses either deep, groove-driven house bass lines or bubbly drum 'n' bass bass lines. The melodies use both funk and house ornaments, often enhanced with dub effects, and sleek R&B stylings dominate the vocals.
Despite all of the labels, mutations, and mixtures that 2-step has produced, it is ultimately disco music. In MJ Cole's case, it derives its aesthetics from what Nile Rodgers introduced to disco music in the mid '70s, which is black chic, or what I call black elegance. Black elegance was born on the disco floor in the '70s and was transferred to the R&B dance floor in the '80s by producers like James "Jimmy Jam" Harris III and Terry Lewis, and singers like Alexander O'Neal. Black elegance ruled the dance floor of my early teen years, at clubs with Italian-sounding names like Archipelagos and Dante's.
Before hiphop introduced sneakers and tracksuits to the dance floor, what one wore to a place like Archipelagos was a business suit with sharp leather shoes. And when dancing, you had to move to the syncopated funk rhythms without offending the squareness of the suit, which was designed for white businessmen and not black nightclubbers. The way you danced to black rhythms in a business suit was to keep things tight (fists clutched and close to the chest, shoulders bopping up and down, knees popping in and out, feet always on the ground); and the tightness of the dance moves matched the tightness of the jams, which were made by bands like the S.O.S. Band, Atlantic Starr, 52nd Street, and Loose Ends--whose song "Hangin' on a String" is a masterpiece of black elegance.
The vocals and the melodies of MJ Cole's 2-step are informed by black elegance. His vocalists, particularly Elisabeth Troy, who performed on his massive U.K. hit "Crazy Love," sing with that sense of expressive restraint that characterized the voice of black elegance. His melodies are tight, compact, and precise, and yet they're also funky--perfect for a square suit or graceful fedora.
Most reviewers are amazed at the fact that MJ Cole is classically trained, that he studied music at the Royal College of Art. But the subjects of string arrangements, classical piano, and French impressionism make sense within the context of black elegance. You can have strings and fragrant fragments of Debussy as long as they obey the law of the groove.
What is amazing about MJ Cole is not his classical training but the fact that he is white. Despite their commitment to white, upper-class aesthetics, very few white musicians have been able to reproduce the effects and funk of black elegance. For the most part, black elegance was made by black musicians for black consumption, which is why acts like the S.O.S. Band or Alexander O'Neal never had a Top 20 hit in the mainstream charts, but ruled the R&B charts. But somehow, some way, MJ Cole seems to have figured out the secret code of black elegance. Indeed, MJ Cole is so masterful with his command of the codes of black elegance that he received the Best Producer award from MOBO (Music of Black Origin).
But maybe that's not so amazing when one considers that British whites have for years been great interpreters and assimilators of black American music.