#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.

Classic Clubs Vol 1

Way back in Spring I got my first radio commission. Well, actually, I got three: a short feature about tattoos and piercings which I made for The Surgery and went out in August; a documentary about why people make music which transmits next year; and a two-parter on Classic Clubs.

The first part of the latter goes out tonight on 1Xtra, with the second part going out next week. As the name suggests, it’s about nightclubs. Part one is about the clubs that laid the foundations for the powerful and self-regenerating underground music scene we’ve got in the this country, and part two looks at three clubs that invented a new genre. I chased down MCs (got some, lost some), DJs (ditto) and club regulars to try and tell the story of what those places were really like, and to show what they created. I honestly believe that clubs are a massive motor of creativity, and a place where social boundaries can be explored and extended, and I wanted to find a way to communicate that. Clubs (and those that know, will know) can be more than places to show off, more than places to pull, more than places to experiment with drink and drugs. At their best, clubs become a focal point for creativity, for flow, for good times, and for building things that didn’t exist before. Alright, so I’m sounding excitable, but I can’t help it. I’m just not a cynic.

I interviewed Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark for the documentary and he summed it up: “to see a scene develop in front of your eyes is the ultimate thing for any music fan.” There are tonnes of clubs I never went to that I know had major impact: daytime1970s club Crackers, the clubs Norman Jay and Gilles Peterson ran at Dingwalls in the ‘80s; AWOL, Roast, Labyrinth and the hardcore clubs that helped invent jungle; Speed; Eski Dance; Club 69 in Paisley where Detroit techno dons would come and play in a basement under an Indian restaurant on an industrial estate and many others. When people make music together their biochemical signals synchronise: a group’s heart rates, blood pressure and breathing step into collective line and I’d bet a large amount of money that the same thing happens to people who are on a dancefloor, lost in a musical zone.

I took my friend Graham Styles to Deviation a year or so ago, when it was still at Gramophone. Deviation sums up everything I really rate about London clubs: amazing music, a solid sound system, a cool, mixed crowd and that interplay between DJ and crowd that you only get at proper clubs. Graham was one of my original club buddies and we drove in his car from Orpington up town on numerous occasions to numerous clubs. When I took him to Deviation he completely understood and totally loved it. He found his spot at the back by the speakers, and it was like he’d never left. On the way home, he summed it up “I’m just glad the stuff we built is still alive” he said. And that’s why this country is so good at nightclubs, at proper clubs. We keep building on the foundations like a city, pulling down derelict buildings and building new ones, layer upon layer, sound upon sound, memory upon memory. We build, we destroy, we build and that’s why (along with pirate radio) our music is picked up all around the world.

Anyway, the documentaries are what they are. I interviewed DJs in my car in Beckenham Marks and Spencer’s carpark. I caught up with grime promoters on a Northampton roof. I went round to the delightful Jazzie B’s house. I went down to Heartless Crew’s subterranean studio. I finally managed to grab Goldie for ten minutes before he went to DJ at the Red Bull Revolutions in Sound event on the London Eye. It’s not perfect, it’s not definitive, but it was made with love and respect for all the people everywhere who’ve ever had the balls and the energy to put on a club so they can hear the music they love.

Right then, I’m off.

Lulu Levan And The WI


Shouts to my pal Lulu Le Vay who sent me a super-fly mix from Sophie Lloyd in advance of her regular WI Club. Lulu is rebranding herself Lulu Levan for the night (you should see her in the disco mix… would make the original Levan reach for the airhorn) and she’s joined by the aforementioned Sophie Lloyd, Eeek Empire aka Emma Sutton and Eleanor Scott as well as my favourite allotment-tending goodtime girl, Claire Hughes, Serena Wilson, Zena and Julianna and special guest Captain Magic.

9pm – 3am Friday November 26th, XOYO,
32-37 Cowper Street, London, EC2A 4AP
Free before 10pm, £6
Xoyo.co.uk

The Return Of Plastic People

I saw this week that FWD>> is restarting at Plastic People on Thursdays. It’s a welcome return, seeing as it’s probably the venue that I’ve had most good times in, barring probably the Hacienda and possibly Heaven. But it’s Sgt Pokes’ night tomorrow that I’m most likely to attend first, seeing as I’m still smarting from not making Benji B’s Deviation this month. Pokes’ Pop Up Party has Kode9, Loefah, whose Swamp81 label is doing quite a lot at the moment, Oneman (you only need one Oneman, garagistas), Bok Bok (another one with an on-fire label, in his case Night Slugs: little boomkat shaped clip of the new Jam City release here) Braiden and Pokes providing running commentary and good jokes. I’ve heard that the DJ booth has changed location (either to the centre of the back room, or at the back of the room, depending on who you listen to) but there’s no word on if Winston will be on the door. Any idea if Plastic’s Winston is the same Winston named in various Soul II Soul recordings as the doorman at the Africa Centre?

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