The Garage Door Opens

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It's a sunny Thursday afternoon, and Craig David is adding a little garage to the penthouse of midtown Manhattan's hip Hudson Hotel. David, 19, is a star of U.K. Garage, a dance-music genre that is even more popular in Britain than trading gossipy stories about the Countess of Wessex. The genre is looking for a U.S. breakthrough. Americans, however, have long had mixed emotions when it comes to British imports: the Beatles were great, of course, but we're understandably concerned right now about foot-and-mouth disease and Weakest Link host Anne Robinson. And don't get us started on the Spice Girls.

To combat any stateside skepticism, David's record label, Atlantic, has set up a special showcase at the Hudson to woo U.S. radio programmers and TV bookers. David usually plays arenas in Europe but, dressed in a hip-hoppy Adidas track suit and accompanied only by an acoustic guitarist, he performs in front of this small gaggle of a few dozen people with an endearing, show-bizzy eagerness. He croons tenderly, hits high notes authoritatively, even throws in a few smooth rap interludes. It's a winning mix of the urban and urbane: R. Kelly meets Hugh Grant.

U.K. Garage--sometimes called 2-Step--was born in British clubs in the early '90s when DJs heard the groove-driven sounds of house and drum 'n' bass music echoing out of places like Chicago and New York City. The British softened the beats a bit, added soulful singing and a pinch of Jamaican-style toasting and came up with U.K. Garage. The name's roots go back to the Paradise Garage, a popular downtown Manhattan nightclub that helped nurture the house-music scene in the '80s. Clubland music sometimes has an Artoo Detoo rhythmic thud-thud sameness; U.K. Garage, sweetened with vocals, has a suppleness that makes it personable.

Last summer interest in U.K. Garage reached Harry Potterish levels in Britain (David's debut CD alone went six times platinum); this year the biggest stars of the genre are releasing albums in America. David's U.S. debut, Born to Do It, is due in July, and the first video from the album is already getting play on MTV, VH1 and BET. Fellow Briton MJ Cole's U.S. debut, Sincere (Talkin Loud/Island), was just released. A wave of U.K. Garage acts, including Artful Dodger and Zed Bias, are waiting in the wings.

David developed a love of music early on, inspired by Michael Jackson and Terence Trent D'Arby; he became a DJ at age 14, won a national songwriting contest at age 15, and embarked on a singing career soon after. Last summer's CD--a fluid, flirty collection of R. and B.-kissed ballads--went to No. 1 on the U.K. charts. David says his DJ training is key to his performing skills. "I understand how a crowd works," says David. "I understand a set needs highs and lows. When I'm in a studio, I understand what grooves people feel."

MJ Cole, 27, found his groove a little later in life. Born Matthew Coleman, he grew up in London and studied piano, oboe and music theory at the Royal College of Music. But the nightlife beckoned. "With the clubs, suddenly there was all this rhythm, all this energy and a bit of naughtiness about it as well," says Cole, now concentrating on keyboards while employing others to sing on his songs. "I'd go to raves and clubs, but at the same time, I'd always get in my two hours of piano practice." Sincere echoes his background: there is brainy calculation in the song structures; there's also clubland abandon in the rhythms and vocals.

U.K. Garage has already won fans in the U.S. musical underground. In Minneapolis, Minn., half a dozen Garage lovers banded together last summer to form Steppers Alliance, a DJ collective that has a website, garageand2step.com, and hosts parties at First Avenue, an area club. In New York City, the nightclub Centro-Fly recently held a 2-Step night featuring Artful Dodger. There were hundreds of twentysomethings waiting outside the club clamoring to get in. "It's about shut up and dance," says Tom Sisk, co-owner of Centro-Fly. U.K. Garage doesn't quite make up for the Brits' sending us Ginger Spice, but it's two steps in the right direction.