On Friday 10th May, four titans of UK Garage rolled up to London's The Pickle Factory to celebrate two decades of the genre's most influential label.
Founded by old-school garage dignitary El-B, Ghost Recordings is a highly influential label that pioneered a style known as dark garage, a gnarly, nebulous variant of UKG that paired ultra-swung rhythms and punchy, rolling percussion with a murky atmosphere of gloom and obscurity. A marked contrast with the technicolour buoyancy of conventional, radio-friendly UKG, dark garage went on to influence revered producers such as Burial and Horsepower Productions while laying the foundations for the formation and evolution of dubstep throughout the early '00s. The 20 Years of Ghost tour celebrates two decades of this seminal label by bringing together El-B, Horsepower Productions mastermind Benny Ill, and vinyl-only UKG specialist Perception: for this sold-out edition, El-B invited UKG stalwart and MN2S DJ Jeremy Sylvester to perform as a special guest.
The night kicked off with a suitably downcast hour of dark and twisted 2-step rhythms, as revellers gradually populated the Pickle Factory's main room. Deep and gloomy classics from the Ghost catalogue were threaded together with obscure rollers and little-known gems, giving listeners a glimpse into the label's sonic history and a rare taste of a genre that's not often heard on dancefloors in 2019. For the wider populace, the term 'garage' might bring to mind Artful Dodger, Sweet Female Attitude and MJ Cole - classics that sit at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum to the fractured rhythms and brooding atmosphere of dark garage - and though the vocal-led, mainstream UKG sound undoubtedly has it's own value and a broad appeal, it's reassuring to know that such raw, dark and introspective variations on the garage template are still tearing up dancefloors and selling out clubs, 20 years on.
As the room grew more packed and a live MC jumped on the mic, the vibe shifted from smoked-out electronics to a more upbeat, energetic atmosphere that saw old-school UKG belters blended with tracks reminiscent of filthy bassline and pumped-up speed garage, somewhat maximalist styles that were tempered by the acute artistic sensibilities of the DJs present. Benny Ill brought some of the inimitable rhythmic flair of Horsepower Productions to the proceedings, laying down heavily swung, rough-cut beats that spoke to his legendary status in the wider dance music community.
A kindred spirit and close collaborator with Ghost Records bossman El-B, he's a similarly influential figure, equally adept at piecing together seamless sets that satisfy the heads while bringing the crowd together and the vibrations rising. The night culminated in a peak-time set from special guest, veteran DJ/producer and MN2S affiliate Jeremy Sylvester. Producing under a variety of aliases, Sylvester has become a mainstay of the UKG scene for 20+ years. His style as a DJ is as refined and eclectic as his studio output, but his selections at The Pickle Factory leaned towards an archetypal UK garage sound, balancing euphoric vocal hooks with unexpected sonic subversions while maintaining a continuous momentum that pushed the energy in the crowd to peak levels. These four selectors may have been faithfully disseminating the sounds of UKG for over two decades, but judging by the electric atmosphere present in the room at last week's event, their fire won't be burning out anytime soon.
Pictures: Matt Mullen