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.