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Minneapolis's budding haven for crate diggers, Vital Vinyl at 15th and Nicollet is usually a pretty calm place to max 'n' relax and hunt for wax, but not today. The Steppers Alliance, a local DJ crew, have turned the store's already cramped lounge area into a chaotic intermingling of wires, records, and bodies. A computer sits on the coffee table, hooked up to turntables behind one of the couches, where DJ Aaron Bliss (a.k.a. Aaron Hart) stands, ready to begin the inaugural installment of the crew's weekly 2step radio broadcast on the U.K. pirate station Strike FM.
"Minne-snow-ta's in the house!" DJ Easyrider (a.k.a. Paul Allen) belts out in his best MC voice, sharing a smirk with his crewmate, who drops a playful, drum 'n' bass-inspired record on the decks.
For a moment I expect Allen to bust out some MC rhymes to go with the music, but then I realize I've just been genre-whipped to think this way. This is 2step (also called U.K. Garage), the U.K.'s latest contribution to electronica's arsenal, which gets away with a mash-up of house, drum 'n' bass, R 'n' B, this 'n' that. Despite the fact that 2step has saturated the trend-setting U.K. scene since the early Nineties, so many of us single-genre-minded statesiders think it's still just about Artful Dodger and the "Re-e-wind."
The seven members of the Steppers Alliance, men and women who range in age from 19 to 30, have acted as 2step's Midwest allies, and, in a sense, they are reporting to the mothership today with their three-hour broadcast. The crew, who've recently been featured in Time and Urb magazines, agreed to an e-mail interview with me about this new craze. I hope they will reprogram my own tastes with their genre trail mix.
CITY PAGES: What is attractive about 2step to you?
EASYRIDER: I spent about six years DJing and promoting jungle in Minneapolis [before] I recognized that 2step was definitely going to be the London underground's soundtrack for the new millennium. It had all the elements I love about British dance music: the stop/start breakbeat continuum, the body-killing basslines, the nutty rave chords and raga influences reformulated once again.
JOHN DOVE: It's not confined to four-on-the-floor structure. The vocals can be on the soulful-diva side, or firing MC rhymes, or on the raga tip. The vibe is happy, adult, and British.
SIGNORE VELOCE: This genre is truly breaking down barriers. It's easier to name the types of music that haven't influenced 2step than to name its countless influences.
CP: What are the advantages and disadvantages of pushing a new style of music to Midwestern house- and techno-heads?
CODE BLUE: The disadvantage is that Minneapolis is a house city. You can draw people's attention away from house for a minute, but you have to be really spectacular to keep it. I started mixing jungle, so this constant fight to bring a genre up to the same caliber of house music in the Cities is like second nature to me. Some might say I'm an optimist, but I really do believe our crew is capable of shaking things up.
EASYRIDER: Generations of Midwestern kids have grown up with a pounding 4/4 kickdrum as the soundtrack to their lives, which is hard to change. There's something about the funkiness and soulfulness of 2step, along with a sprinkling of Eighties nostalgia that really reminds me of the sort of dance music that originated here a few decades ago.
JOHN DOVE: It's new, you know? We don't have to worry about respecting/disrespecting DJs who have more experience with this music. We're the first wave of stateside 2step DJs. We have the early adopters, but we also have even more people who see 2step as the "R&B Top 40" crap. Unfortunately, this view is further perpetuated by a slew of bad remixes of the tunes that bombard the airwaves of pop radio. But 2step is more than just Destiny's Child remixes...it's so multifaceted that confining it to one type of sound would be inequitable.
AARON BLISS: [In the past] no one would let us spin tunes! Some promoters had known us for some time but did not want some "fad" at their show.
SIGNORE VELOCE: When you go to a Steppers Alliance show, you'll hear a wide variety [of things]--from the rough breakbeat Easyrider sounds to the thumping 4/4 Neko sounds, to the smooth, adult, R&B NatOsha sounds. It's about eclecticism and versatility.
NATOSHA: I don't think I'm alone in saying 2step is a return to the soulful side of electronica. People definitely know who is bucking the house and techno system, so exposure is the advantage. The disadvantage is that crowds don't know what to do with 2step. They make requests for R&B tracks not knowing what we're playing. Sometimes the lack of interest wears us down, but we keep going because we really love this music.
NEKO:It's easy for [people] to say we could be bandwagon hoppers, but, truly, all of us had been pushing the sound independently before we knew each other. Who can call you a follower when you helped begin the trend?
CP: Have you found it difficult to maintain the kind of down-to-earth sensibility that local dance-music fans tend to demand from their DJs, while being recognized on a national level? How have you achieved balance?
JOHN DOVE: I have quite the opposite problem. I wish I was a rock star, but everyone thinks I'm down to earth. Dammit!
SIGNORE VELOCE:I'll be the first to tell you that after that Time article, my head started to grow. I don't have the experience and maturity that my fellow Steppers have, which is why I'm "Baby Stepper," I suppose. If I fail to keep myself in line, they are my first line of defense, and a line I trust immensely.
EASYRIDER: I've been a raver since the first parties around here in the early Nineties, and what I've seen is enough to keep me grounded for life. Pimping yourself out to look bigger than you are just isn't worth it if you plan on staying around for the long term.
NATOSHA: With seven people working together, we don't have room for egos.