#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.

Enter The Positive Hustle

So, Generation Next, presented by Gemma Cairney went out on on Sunday and it’s on iPlayer til the end of the week. The idea was to shine a light on the young people coming up with creative responses to the recession but it also required some historical digging. This was a highly enjoyable part of the process.

It was clear to me that grime had a big part to play in this story. I remember seeing what my friend Kevin Braddock once called ‘crews with a business plan’ right back at the point where UK Garage turned into grime. Acts like So Solid Crew might have seemed like a raggle-taggle bunch of talented MCs but from their perspective, they were an early incarnation of band as brand. They were a business, with a record label, promotions arm, radio station and huge fanbase. They were a Wu Tang Clan, born from a Battersea estate rather than Staten Island projects. To the front and centre of Wu Tang were crews like Ruff Sqwad, More Fire, Pay As U Go, Musical Mobb who were channelling music and business without the former polluting the latter. The old idea that art and money shouldn’t mix was being broken down by a new generation of artists with an eye on the future.

I didn’t actually cover So Solid in the documentary but that’s because you have to make fairly brutal decisions about what to include and what to leave to the side. I did catch up with JME though, who provided a perfect Year Zero for the new generation of grimepreneurs. He was the first person to monetise the impulse sent out by the UKG Wu Tangs in a way that resonated outside of the margins. Boy Better Know became famous within and outside of grime for selling thousands of T Shirts, and built a solid base primarily by being one of the funniest and smartest MCs on the block, but also by making sure his business was on point.

You can’t look at grime without looking at hip hop. Dan Charnas wrote The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip Hop and provided the expert American voice for this section. I read the last part of his book before we spoke but hadn’t read the whole thing til afterwards. It’s an incredible read and one of the best music books I’ve ever read. He has a lovely style that fuses a minute attention to the detail of what happened with dialogue that reads like fiction. You don’t have artists telling you the boring stuff about what they did, you just hear them talking amongst themselves, as if you’re in 1984, hearing Rick Rubin motormouthing across a table somewhere, or as if you’re earwigging Damon Dash and Jay-Z shooting the breeze somewhere in the mid ’90s.

He placed hip hop firmly at the centre of this trend for a new wave of enterprise that sits comfortably with art: rap, he says, changed everything.

There was one more historical corner to examine. You couldn’t normally justify talking about punk on 1Xtra but it’s a jubilee year and the parallels were just too compelling to ignore. So I went along and interviewed Pete Donne from Rough Trade East who spelled out the links between the new wave of creatively-inspired entrepreneurs in 2012 and the kids inspired by punk to start record labels, make fanzines and start bands.

It’s up til Sunday, if you want a listen.

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