ROCK / The harder they come

IT'S getting on for 11.30pm in the lobby of a medium-sized Bayswater hotel. The mood is one of mild consternation. Down the road in Hammersmith, trouble has flared outside Le Palais as demand for tickets to the Champions in Action ragga show has vastly exceeded supply. Upstairs Tiger, the night's main attraction, is without his stage clothes. The suit-man called round earlier in the evening but neglected to drop off the requisite finery. Tiger, left frantically ironing his own shirts, is said to be 'vexed'.

His fellow Champions - Sanchez, Daddy Screw and fresh- faced 18-year-old Terror Fabulous - have suffered no such sartorial mishap, and emerge in their full suited splendour. Two efficient women with mobile phones usher the four of them into a small convoy of cars, which are driven at high speed over a speed-bumpy back route to a Hammersmith Broadway that temporarily resembles the Gaza Strip. There, a dreadlocked figure guides them through police- lines and into the back of the venue through crowds of disgruntled would-be punters.

Inside, the steam hits; the show has been mightily oversold. The crowd is standing on tables and hanging off the walls. Everyone is dressed up well beyond the nines, but the atmosphere, given the conditions, is remarkably peaceable. If you had Tory MPs in these conditions, there would undoubtedly be a riot.

Daddy Screw is propelled on to the stage with indecent haste. A gentlemanly presence, for all his lascivious dancing, he appears slightly intimidated by the warmth of his reception. The front 10 or 15 rows is entirely composed of predatory females whose intentions towards Daddy are not what the Victorians would have called honourable. When a dancer emerges to bump and grind formulaically with him the music is all but drowned out by the loud sucking of teeth. Terror Fabulous follows, bouncing words and nursery rhyme chants around the light but taut rhythms of backing band Ruff Cut with some facility. The two come back together, hurling armfuls of roses into the seething front ranks.

The sounds are never as loud as the clothes. Ragga fashion does not end or even begin with intricately ripped jeans - taffeta, sequins, wedding dresses, and diaphonous body-suits are more the order of the night.

The violence for which the evening will unfortunately be remembered does not 'erupt'. By the time people notice it, it's over. Many don't even hear the shots which leave two people injured; they just see large spaces appear in the crowd where none seemed possible before. Sanchez, an old- fashioned crooner with a formidable MOR armoury, does a fine job of sweetening the atmosphere after the first of these incidents. And the promoter, who might have cut down on the crush by adding a second night, ticks off the troublemakers in a schoolmasterly fashion - 'I want to apologise on their behalf, because they're too stupid to do it themselves'. But Tiger's thunder has been stolen. Given his previous utterances on the subject of gun- play (his new single is called 'Nobody Move'), it is hard to feel too sorry for him.

When he does come on, smart but underdressed in an emergency plaid waistcoat, Tiger gives it his all - twisting and turning his tiny body with aplomb as he roughs up his larynx. Outside, police dogs and riot vans block off the Broadway. Everyone goes home grumbling but peaceful, and reporters get to work on their 'Is Ragga Evil?' stories. Hopefully, these will not be given too much credence. Violence is, sadly, a traditional feature of the British bank holiday, and it is partly the lack of venues willing and able to cope with this music's enormous popularity that gives ragga functions their growing reputation for ugliness.