With the ad spend alone ensuring that Culture Clash is now one of Red Bull’s flagship music events on the calendar, the weight of expectancy — and the bragging rights for the eventual winners — seems to grow with every passing year.
2016’s edition saw Eskimo Dance, Brookyln collective Mixpak, the UKG Allstars and Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang go at it over four rounds at The 02, with the winner of each decided purely by the crowd’s reaction — giving every crew the incentive to exchange blows hard enough to send the thousands watching into frenzy.
The atmosphere was palpably electric, with people able to pile into the arena a full two hours before the Clash was scheduled to start, empty cups and bottles of champagne lining the route into the ticket gates. Entering the arena for the first time, the noise was deafening. People were dancing in the aisles, drinks were flying, phones were waving, a sea of hands stretched as far as you could see, right over to the opposite side of the arena. Some people threw up gun fingers, others jumped and screamed, some were shaking their heads in disbelief — everybody was smiling.
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Eskimo Dance were first to come out to a roar from the crowd, spearheaded by Wiley — back on home soil and clearly proud to be the focal point — although it was Stormzy who drew the biggest props from those watching. As the rounds progressed though, Eskimo Dance seemed to lose momentum, with everything getting a little messy and disjointed. A few killer verses from D Double E and a fully amped Fekky aside, their fate was sealed with a trio of bizarre dubs from Adele, Jess Glyne and Ed Sheeran — names you certainly wouldn’t forecast winning any soundclash.
The UKG Allstars gave a valiant showing and were close to winning in my book, particularly with their ‘Grime’s Greatest Hits’ video interlude that saw them take aim at disastrous records by Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder and Skepta. With an impressive Majestic on hosting duties, they also goaded dancehall mob Mixpak for a perceived lack of authenticity — Mixpak label head Dre Skull is from Brooklyn — playing the classic ‘Sleng Teng’ riddim to shouts of "This is how you play dubs properly in London". As with Eskimo Dance, questionable dubs of their own, including a fake Major Lazer drill, were to ruin their chances of taking home the crown however.
Taylor Gang were a surprise package, with many on the night predicting they’d suffer the same demise as fellow US rap crew, A$AP Mob, the year before. Although far removed from original clash culture, Wiz Khalifa had clearly done his research — as aloof grime MC Ice Kid’s surprise appearance testified, much to the bewilderment of former sparring-partner Chipmunk. There were also notable onstage appearances form Joey Bada$$ and Ty Dolla $ign, but on UK soil, winning over a crowd was always going to be an uphill struggle.
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Eventual winners Mixpak on the other hand — by far the crew with the smallest reach before coming into Culture Clash — took to the stage as if they owned it. They played their aces at the right time; Big Narstie’s appearance drew the loudest reaction on the night in the third round, while their final KO blow — a Drake flip of worldwide smash, ‘One Dance’ — served as one final nail in the coffin for the rest. Modest in size but bound by an unshakeable spirit on the night, Dre Skull, Serocee, Jubilee, Popcaan (who also made his UK debut at Culture Clash) et al were deserved winners.
Purists will argue that true soundclash culture wasn’t fully represented, and critics will pick at the garish marketing strategy — and rightly so to a point — but, once I’d made my peace with the concept, my first experience of Culture Clash was wholly positive. For the underground, it continues to prove a vital opportunity too.
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Words: Tomas Fraser