Red Bull Culture Clash: Fans descend on Earls Court

Bespoke dub plate recordings are one of a kind

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The Independent Culture

At the end of this month, just before it stages the annual Ideal Home Show and the canine extravaganza that is Discover Dogs, London’s Earls Court exhibition centre will play host to a remarkable night of unique music.

The 20,000 fans assembling for Red Bull Culture Clash will have come to hear “specials” – bespoke dub plate recordings that are one of a kind. Many of these plates will have been cut for this one night only, using lyrical references designed to damage the reputation of the other performers in the hall.

Locked in competition will be four combatants, representing various genres of bass-heavy music from Grime to Drum & Bass and Reggae.

The Grime collective Boy Better Know (BBK) will compete against three other crews; the New York Hip Hop collective A$AP, the veteran Jamaican sound system Stone Love, and a specially-formed crew Rebel Sound, comprising Drum& Bass stalwarts Shy FX and Chase & Status, alongside MC Rage and BBC Radio 1Xtra’s inimitable reggae DJ David Rodigan.

Culture Clash, billed as “the world’s biggest musical battle” is in its fourth year.

Since winning the title last year, BBK have been flown to Jamaica by the energy drink sponsors, to investigate the roots of “clash” culture. But after more than a decade at the forefront of the Grime scene, BBK rapper Skepta knew the score already. “I’ve lived it for my whole life,” he says. BBK attended the fiercely competitive Jamaican MC battle that is “Clash Wednesdays”, they visited the famous King Jammy’s recording studios and hung out with leading dancehall artists, such as Popcaan.

Skepta argues that the competitive element which is the essence of Grime means BBK are “lyrically equipped for the clash already”, with an inbuilt advantage over their opponents. Some of his rivals are less battle-hardened, he claims. “They are performers. They make music about their clothes or about girls. This is a different job for them.” For a Grime artist, clashing is “like a day at the office for us”.

Saul Milton, Chase from Chase & Status, would hotly dispute any notion that the clash environment is alien territory for a veteran in D&B. He has wanted to compete in the Red Bull event “for a long, long time” and with “the original father” Rodigan and “the inspiration to my career” Shy FX, has assembled a dream team of “three generations of sound”.

The key to Rebel Sound’s performance will be its innovation in customised tunes made especially for this event and laced with disparaging references to their opponents. “We are all cutting dubs for this like there’s no tomorrow because sound clash is all about dub plates,” he says, emphasising the long tradition in D&B of making one-off recordings, exclusive to a single DJ, at dub plate “cutting houses”.

The Culture Clash competition will follow strict rules, inspired by a Jamaican sound system tradition dating back more than half a century. The four crews will each have an individual stage and will battle for the crowd’s approval over four rounds, culminating in a “dub for dub” finale. During one round, the crews will have to venture outside their comfort zones to play music from an opponent’s specialist genre.

Saul stressed that, despite the aggressive lyrics in many of the dub plates, there was underlying harmony and sense of shared purpose at the event. “On the night it’s a sonic war of music but after that it’s fist bumps and handshakes and hugs.”

Rodigan is Rebel Sound’s not-so-secret weapon. A seasoned warrior of the clash arena, he made his reputation competing with the legendary Jamaican radio broadcaster Barry G in a series of contests in America and Jamaica in the 1980s. More recently, in 2012, he was crowned World Clash champion at a premium competition in New York.

He was attracted to the Red Bull event by its reputation for taking music forms beyond their siloes. “It is bringing people together,” he says. “One of the exciting things in recent years is the lack of division between genres, with young selectors being creative and breaking down barriers in what they are prepared to play.” He said he was impressed by the “level of energy” at last year’s event, which featured Major Lazer (aka Diplo), reggae sound system Channel One and the BBC’s Annie Mac, alongside BBK.

Rodigan’s dub plate collection dates back to a time when some of his Culture Clash rivals were in nappies. He has unique recordings by artists such as Dennis Brown and Tenor Saw, who long since passed away. But his tastes are varied and his record box also contains hard-to-match exclusives from the likes of Wyclef, Ms Dynamite and Newham Generals.

Stone Love, meanwhile, will fly in from Jamaica to compete. With four decades of history, they are widely regarded as the finest reggae sound system in the world. But they are not known for clashing, preferring to play in a less adversarial environment.

Founder Winston “Wee Pow” Powell said he was making an exception for this event. “Normally I don’t do clash or get in confrontation with the music but for this one the name of it, Culture Clash, makes it different.”

Having played before several hundred thousand people in Ethiopia in 2006, he is undaunted by the crowd, and Stone Love’s reputation among reggae artists is such that it has an inexhaustible supply of dub plates to draw on. “We are not really customising anything new for this one, we just come and do our t’ing,” he says. “We can’t play out [all] the amount of dubs we have anyway.”

It should be a close-run contest. For Skepta, the winner on the night will be the crew who best judge the mood of the crowd and deploy the right tactics. “It’s like a game of chess,” he says.

* Tickets are now sold out but watch the action unfold and support your crew at from 6.30pm on Thursday 30 October 2014