#cultureclash

Last Wednesday was a momentous day. Obama was re-elected. Celtic won against Barcelona. And grime collective Boy Better Know beat Annie Mac, Major Lazer and reigning champs Channel One at the Red Bull Music Academy Culture Clash.

I jest, slightly.

Culture Clash was more than just an awesome night of sound entertainment, and I’ll tell you why. First, it’s the full and final confirmation that the British iteration of the Jamaican dancehall soundclash has been fully revived and revitalised. Secondly, it tells you a lot about the power and forward motion of grime. And thirdly, much like in the ‘90s when rave music was all over the charts, it means our current crop of teens are getting schooled in UK street-up music, which bodes well for the next generation of British musical hybrids – and indeed for British culture and society in general. Mainstream society might not recognise it as such but this is art.

The original Jamaican soundclash was a development of the way liquor store owners set up speakers outside their shops to bring in more custom. This turned into dances as we understand them: outdoor musical events where American R&B, and then new Jamaican music was played to appreciative crowds at loud volume. Rivalries ensued between competing sounds, which eventually turned into the soundclash, where two systems would be placed facing each other with the crowd inbetween and would take turns to play sets, with the people deciding the winner through the volume of their appreciation.

In the UK, it shifted and changed. It wasn’t possible to hold dances outside and most of the year it’d be too cold anyway. So the dance moved into community centres and the clash moved with it. Two sounds at either end of places like Pountley Hall, showing off their selections and their ‘specials’, big songs that had been re-vocaled by the artist to ‘big up the sound’ or diss a rival. I don’t know exactly when the soundclash died out in this form but it must have been at the point that single sound dances run by dons like Aba-Shanti-I or Jah Shaka took over, so perhaps the late ‘80s.

In the interim, there was silence. Well, that’s not exactly true. Soundsystem culture swung into the DNA of every new hybrid of UK street music since Lovers Rock, coursing through our version of house music, jungle, garage, grime and dubstep. But there was no clash apart from the grime MC battles so memorably recorded on the Lords of The Mic DVDs or perhaps in the shadows of the MCs waiting to get on stage at grime raves like Sidewinder determined to outdo the previous performer, or perhaps even in the idea of the b2b where two DJs would play together, five tunes on, five tunes off.

In November 2010 as part of the London Red Bull Music Academy (of which I was part – I’ve hosted interviews at the Academy since 2002) the clash was revived. DMZ, Metalheadz, Trojan, Soul II Soul went head to head in a supersized four-way clash at The Roundhouse. I’m easily pleased by this kind of thing but this was a night to convert even doubters. This was high-octane musical collaboration and abrasion at it’s finest. Metalheadz had Goldie dashing about on stage, DMZ frontman Sgt Pokes insulted everyone, Trojan drew for the original style dub reggae and Soul Jazz mixed up the selection. Metalheadz won. The following year four different sounds (reigning champions Metalheadz, dub specialists Channel One, Soul II Soul and Skream and Benga) stepped up with similarly energetic effects – and Channel One reigned supreme. This week, the whole thing moved up a notch or two. It was at Wembley, there were 7,000 people there including a swathe of 16-18s allowed by the lowering of the entrance age and the participants came from Radio One (Annie Mac’s AMP stage), from LA, with hitmaker to the stars Diplo aka Major Lazer, reigning champions Channel One and grime dons Boy Better Know. I hate to sound smug, but my money was on BBK right from the start because who knows better about battle styles than London’s grime MCs?

I’ll post some footage when it’s up.

BBK’s powerful, hilarious, no-holds-barred final round and eventual win says a lot about the healthy state of grime. Wiley is all over the charts and is packing out his Eskidance raves. Elijah and Skilliam’s Butterz empire has shifted instrumental grime into hyper-loaded jump-up rave territory but with brilliant tunes that nod to early grime instrumentals like Musical Mobb’s Pulse X and multiply them. JME’s ‘chatty policeman’ series on YouTube, where he films himself being (repeatedly) stopped and searched has many thousands of views. Grime is national, multi-ethnic and as open to ladies with the right flow as it is to the thousands of boys who step up their literacy by writing and practising bars every lunchtime. If the government wants to explain recent rises in literacy (according to NASUWT, not Michael Wilshaw) it might want to thank grime rather than the counterproductive literacy curriculum which gets results despite of rather than because of its impact.

So who’s for next time? There are some big names who have not yet entered the arena: David Rodigan; Jamaica’s multi-winning Stone Love team; the aforementioned Butterz; Lemon D and Dillinjah’s Valve Sound; a UK garage sound headed perhaps by revivalist DJ Oneman… this thing could run and run. And hopefully, it will.

Reclaim The Streets… through Carnival

I’ve just been up to The Guardian to take part in the Carnival special on the Music Weekly Podcast. I did the same thing last year, with Dan Hancox, but this was different for obvious reasons, not least because at the time of recording we didn’t know if Carnival would even be happening.

Carnival will go ahead. The organisers have released a statement saying they are not contemplating cancellation, and The Met haven’t asked for it. The press release includes a statement from The Met saying that they “continue to work in close liason with Notting Hill Carnival ltd and the other partner agencies… our plans will be under constant review and this will continue right up to and during the event itself. The MPS have currently made no recommendations to cancel Notting Hill Carnival and we will continue to plan for the event.” There are lots of discussions for the organisers and police to have about creative, sensible responses to the civil unrest, and plenty to do before bank holiday weekend, but Carnival will go on.

This is fantastic decision from both the police and the organisers. Why? Because Carnival is a positive, energetic, powerful way for people to reclaim London’s streets for dancing and socialising, not for rioting and looting. Dancing in the streets to ragga or drum ‘n’ bass or soca isn’t for everyone, but neither is Glastonbury, or the London Marathon, or Glyndebourne. London is many different things, but London is a street city. A city of urban culture. A city that has benefited economically, culturally, globally, from our powerful street culture and the creative industries that have spun out of our strong, funny, clever, future-facing inner city culture.

I was talking to Guardian writer Kieran Yates, who was also on the Carnival podcast with me. She made a good point. The heart of carnival isn’t the soundsystems, it’s the Mas Parade. There are children who’ve spent the whole year sewing feathers on to head-dresses and groups who’ve worked incredibly hard, doing brilliant social work in the true sense of the word, to bring families and friends and communities together to create costumes and parades. The steel pan players and the samba bands are rehearsed and ready, and the small businesses that provide food, whistles and drinks for revellers have stocked up. We can’t collectively punish people for the madness that descended on the country this week. We shouldn’t deny people the chance to celebrate London and to boost their businesses or their self-esteem.

There is a dangerous assumption at the moment that the people who go to carnival are the people who were rioting and looting. Carnival is for anyone who likes to hear loud music in the open air, who wants to connect with like-minded people and who wants to celebrate the immeasurable benefit Caribbean culture has added to English culture over the last half decade. It’s also worth noting that the event wasn’t cancelled in 1981, or after the bombs in 2005 and hasn’t been cancelled since it started in 1964. The madness has abated, the problems remain, but we need to rebuilt and avoid giving in to fear and scaremongering. We need to be strong, and work hard to make Carnival work.

There’s another dangerous assumption in the air: that this week’s chaos is entirely different to 1981. I have lost count of the number of sensible people who believe the line that the riots were entirely about looting trainers. They weren’t, not in essence. The people who got caught up in the contagious madness of Monday and Tuesday were part of a group insanity where they weren’t able to make good moral decisions – and they’re paying for it, heavily. Go inside a little further, and you’ll find a sector of society who have a very different experience of the police than people living in mainstream society. This experience, shocking and unpalatable as it seems, is overwhelmingly negative. I speak from a position of authority on this: I’ve been a mentor for five years at the very brilliant Live Magazine in Brixton, which is run by under 21 year olds, and this is what they have told me. The police face a huge challenge in terms of their interactions with London’s youth, and everyone needs to step up to address it.

But that’s a bigger picture point. This morning, on the Music Weekly podcast, I was faced with a more pedestrian problem today. How, in the current climate, could I choose a big carnival tune to talk about on the podcast? A brilliant jungle reworking of an Africa Hi Tech track with the Ini Kamoze ‘out in the streets’ refrain didn’t seem sensible. Nor did the wildly brilliant Terror Danjah remix of 1985 dancehall dude Admiral Bailey which starts with a judge berating a defendant for being found guilty of disturbing the peace. I self-censored, which is a pity because they’re amazing tunes. We don’t expect art, or opera or ballet to shy away from strong emotions or from declarations of power and oppression, but somehow, today, things felt different.

Now the disorder has abated, right-minded people are asking themselves: what can I do? Maybe there’s a way to bring that to Carnival. Go and talk to people. Smile at the screw-facing kids and the police and say hello to everyone. Kill any negativity with kindness and a little skank to some deep, conscious reggae at Aba Shanti or a massive jump-up at Metro Glory. Volunteer to help next year. The good people that organise Notting Hill understand the power of Carnival. We should too.

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