Up The Woods with Caught By The River

I’m very proud to be part of Caught By The River and very proud to be part of their summer festival events. Usually we’d all be heading down to Cornwall for Port Eliot but this year the good people of St Germans are taking a break. Instead, we’ll be at the new Open East festival at the Olympic Park and I’ll be hosting a panel on London’s influential pirate broadcasters.

I’ve also been writing a column for them on my mission to learn about trees. It’s called Up The Woods and you can read the first two here and here with lovely illustration from Matt Sewell. Column #3 coming next week.

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#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.

Exclusive: An Interview With Scientist

I was half way through Friday night’s Pick N Mix show when someone came to the studio door and said that two gentlemen were in reception and that they wanted to drop off a hard drive.

“Want to meet Scientist?” asked Brendon, the studio manager.

So we had a quick huddle, switched around the timings for the last hour of the show and went outside to meet Mr Hopeton Brown and his manager, and asked if he had a spare ten minutes to come on the show. He did.

Here’s what happened, though of course you can hear the whole thing here.

Welcome
Hello and thank you.

It’s our pleasure. In terms of dub reggae, you’re one of the guys that originated things back in Jamaica, influencing much of the music we’re all enjoying today.
Yes.

Hmmm. Short but sweet. Some people will have seen you last night at Fabric, playing with The Upsetters. They were on the stage and you were in the booth, controlling things. How was it for you?
I can’t complain. It was very good, one of the best gigs I’ve done in a long while.

Can you explain why you weren’t up on the stage with the band?
I am shy.

You must have had a problem, then, with all the eyes peering at you through the grid around the DJ booth…
I felt it, but I had to keep focused on the objective which was to make the band sound as good as possible.

It was a really nice evening. You spent all of the day before down here at the studios. Can you tell us what you were doing?
I recorded three tracks with The Upsetters. I shared some recording techniques. They captured some of it on tape: how to mic the drums, and after that I did a dub mix of one of the songs we recorded.

Are you usually a fast-working person?
Growing up in Jamaica you’re pushed to the max, just like they pushed that racing car outside. A lot of folks doesn’t have an unlimited budget. Some folks can only have a bit of studio time, and exactly what happened here happens there. You do four songs in four hours: mix, overdub, horns, percussion, the whole nine yards.

Another thing you’ve done recently is work on an album that’s forthcoming on Tectonic where you reversioned tracks created by dubstep artists. Can you tell us how that came together?
I played at Bloc Weekend and after that I came to Bristol. I was interested in doing some more dubstep after I saw what I saw that weekend. I’ve never seen anything like it before, a whole weekend with 20,000 people. Lee Perry was the only person there with vocals.

That was your first introduction to dubstep. It must have been interesting and strange: you must have seen the connection to what you guys did, but you must also have seen how it’s been switched up…
Yes, and I appreciate the switch. The guys doing dubstep, they’re onto something very good. I personally endorse it and want to see more of it.

What do you know about dubstep now that you didn’t know before you entered into the fray so to speak?
I am hooked on it.

Is that the addictive quality of bass culture?
Yes. Music is music. It’s like good food. Everybody appreciate good food.

What else have you got coming up?
When I get back to the States I have a Santigold mix I’m finishing up. But who knows what else. I might end up mixing the Fairy Godmother.

I’d like to hear that one. Scientist, thank you very much.

Thank you.

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