Gone To A Rave: Culture Clash 2014
The scale and bombast Culture Clash was insane; 20,000 people rammed into Earls Court, and going nuts to 4 soundsystems for 4 hours. Between them Boy Better Know, A$AP Mob, Stone Love and Rebel Sound (a soundsystem created solely for the event, made up of Chase & Status, MC Rage, David Rodigan and Shy FX) played sets top heavy with bangers. It was a bludgeoning, hyped up format and by the end of the evening the place was awash with dazed, happy, bass shocked kids.
In terms of music played, and vibe generated, the night was a massive success. It showed the sheer passion people feel towards UK music – not the pop guff the MOBOs have been rightly castigated for supporting, but proper, innovative, timeless underground fire. In the first round, Shy FX tossed out a run of jungle hits, re-versioned as clash specific dubplates. Most of them he’d had a hand in writing, forwarding a strong case that he’s the most important English producer of a generation. Original Nuttah, Chopper, Bamabata, Gold Dust and Roni Size’s Trust Me had more bursting vitality than tunes created some 2 decades ago have a right to, and the response was suitably euphoric.
This set the tone for an evening where tracks that have never been supported by mainstream media drew the biggest response. When did Radio 1 ever play Tempa T’s Next Hype? And yet when Tempz came out to perform the track with Rebel Sound, the roof came off. Grown-ass men were cackling in delight, roaring SMASH back at the bounding, endlessly energetic figure. He was trending on twitter in seconds, and it’s hard to explain to a non-grime fan just how much love the scene has for the hollering lunacy Tempz generates. The answer is A LOT.
Elsewhere, BBK performed a set of gutter tracks and grime classics, and the response was huge to both – from slewing the stadium with Too Many Men in the opening round, to their host of impeccable guest spots playing like a lesson in grime’s greatest hits. D Double E came onstage to drop Bad to the Bone, Lethal Bizzle rocked up and smashed out Rari Workout and Pow, Krept & Konan destroyed the venue with Don’t Waste My Time, and new kid Stormzy jumped on Ruff Sqwad's peerless Pied Piper riddim – and all the way the crowd sang every word right back.
For Stone Love, this was a chance to get their name out there – they were never going to win against such a partisan crowd eager for UK hits. Unfortunately, their sound quality for the first half of the evening was terrible – all bottom end with no definition. Even a guest spot from Stylo G fell slightly flat, with Stylo seemingly still unable to decide which version of Call Me A Yardie he wants to perform – rather than dropping the classic original, or even the slightly wack (but at least recognisable) new Bob Marley sampling version, he toasted the track over a clattering beat that failed to convince. Stone Love only really came into their own in the third round, dedicated to playing other sound systems musical styles. Their skill as selectors shone through as they juggled through trap bangers, jungle classics and fresh afrobeats – inevitably Ace Hood’s Bugatti caused mayhem, but DJ Cndo’s Terminator was equally welcome – a respite from the testosterone heavy sounds the other systems pursued.
A$AP Mob seemed to have confused the clash with some sort of A$AP showcase. Rodigan accused them of playing the same set they’d played in Leeds earlier in the week, and it was hard to doubt him. They gave little concession to targeting their lyrics at the other sounds, and as a result, although their hits were undeniable – Fuckin’ Problem and Shabba were always going to sound incredible – they seemed like a bit of a side show. It’s the first (and possibly last) time I’ve been to an event in England and seen the big American names mocked and dismissed so roundly. More damningly, with the UK (and Jamaican) systems drawing on a widely textured palette of tempo and structure, A$AP’s hip hop was left seeming one dimensional. A Danny Brown guest spot was so-so. Later, apparently, they bought House of Pain onstage- I was at the bar and House of Pain will always be shit, so meh.
Was there ever any doubt that Rebel Sound would win the clash? I found myself uncomfortable with their victory – they are a manufactured, focus-grouped sound with no past and no future. Watching them win was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters win – enjoyable, entertaining, and meaningless. Yes, musically, they smashed it, with dubplate after dubplate. They had Eek-A-Mouse dubs, Max Romeo dubs, Luck & Neat, Lethal B, Emile Sande and Trevor McDonald dubs. I don’t think they played a single track that wasn’t a rework, and yeah, they were hype – but of course they would be. As individuals they are all big figures in the scene, and deserve respect – and although I find Chase & Status’s tendency towards saccharine formulaic pop hooks grating, they undeniably know how to craft a massive, crowd pummelling build and drop. But still, I feel BBK – a group who have fought long and hard for a grime culture that has been constantly hated on, repressed and misrepresented – were denied a chance at an important victory by a game played on an unbalanced playing field, and unfortunately that story has been repeated time and again in the UK’s music scene. For me the kicker came at the end – Rebel Sound closed their set with a moist dubplate of Rihanna’s We Found Love. BBK ended with a killer dubplate of Are You Really From The Endz? The chart pop won it, and BBK were robbed.
Regardless, the event was an EVENT. It felt special in a way that is all too rare – the atmosphere was nothing but love from start to finish, with a crowd drawn from wild kids to miserable aging ravers such as myself. Branding and culture aren’t necessarily happy bedfellows, but in this instance I’ll give it to Red Bull – they pulled it off. I’m happy to have attended a night that showed, time and again, how rich, how absolutely fucking tremendous the music from this strange, small island of immigrants and pioneers can truly be. Here's to next time.