The 2014 Red Bull Culture Clash witnessed 20,000 bass-hungry music fans descend on Earls Court. They were here to see four crews battle through four rounds to win this contest of slick bitching and reimagined anthems. The winner is voted for by the screams, whistles and cheers of fans as a televised decibel meter serves its clinical justice.
The 2012 champions were Boy Better Know, a London grime collective of an angry and direct nature. Each crew this year had their own themed stage in one of the four corners of Earls Court, and squaring up to BBK were Jamaican sound clash specialists Stone Love, Harlem’s rap consortium A$AP Mob and a new bass super group, Rebel Sound. The latter was formed of drum ‘n’ bass duo Chase & Status, jungle pioneer Shy FX alongside MC Rage, and our man Rodigan – without a doubt now the most dangerous man in sound clashing.
So, how do you win over the fans? It’s a recipe that requires you to bridge the old with the new. Anthems from the last 50 years are expected. Then you’ll need to unleash some global superstars as secret guests. Seasoning your performance with presence and personality is utterly mandatory. You’ll require a thick skin to weather the very harsh and unbridled opinions on your shortcomings from the three rivals. A game plan will be vital; you’ll need to think long and hard about what your rivals might play and how you can humiliate them with a better response.
That’s the easy bit. Sound clash culture is dominated by ‘specials’, or new versions of legendary records where you persuade the original artist to sing new vocals directly supporting you, or slagging off your rivals. You can’t play a song twice but you can play a ‘counteraction’ that brings something new to that tune. Ready? Some were. Some certainly weren’t.
Boy Better Know came hammering out of the blocks as the first system to spin. Their opening 15-minute mix was a heavy journey through grime with JME, Skepta, Wiley, Jammer, Frisco and Shorty all bringing their rage to the stage. It was slightly mind blowing.
Stone Love, up next, struggled to find their feet after such a performance. This Jamaican sound-system were pioneers in the field of making dubplate ‘specials’ in the 1990s, dragging in favours from the likes of Whitney Houston and Billy Ocean to win their sonic wars.
However, after 10 minutes you got the sense that their bountiful and rich Kingston history of cutting obsessively honed dubplates from Jamaican stars like Johnny Osbourne and Shabba Ranks wasn’t going to win over the young London audience. Stone Love, despite their pedigree, sounded muffled and lost under the heels the razor sharp snares of their rivals.
Rebel Sound chose to open their account with a spoof. Newsreader Trevor McDonald burst onto the screens in an emergency news flash broadcasting that there had been a massacre at Earls Court by Rebel Sound. A$AP Ferg and BBK’s Skepta “had been seen running for their lives towards the tube”.
This mischief had Rodigan scrawled over it. He did something similar in 1991 when he thrashed King Waggy Tee in a Miami sound clash using a near identical spoof newsreel narrative. Furthermore, mirroring his Miami manoeuvre, he even dropped a custom version of the Cutty Ranks banger ‘Limb By Limb’. Rebel Sound also smashed in the biggest jungle tracks like ‘Ska Nuttah’ and ‘Incredible’ by General Levy before a guest dub pointed out that ‘BBK’ is best interpreted as “Best Batty Kisser”. Bitchy!
The final team to open their account was A$AP Mob. Here was a 20-strong throng of some of the hottest rappers in the world today. They had with them a very vocal contingent of fans, clearly in adoration of their lyrical talents. However, A$AP Mob brought nothing to protect themselves except some exhausted pleas to “put ya hands in the air” as well as two lonely female twerkers lost amidst a sea of masculinity. Were A$AP Mob always deemed to be the sacrificial lambs? You could smell the mint sauce on Rodigan’s breath from 200 metres away.
In fact, in Round Two, Rodigan instantly chided the Americans for their severe lack of preparation. The ignominy continued as he played a humiliating pre-recorded special that reiterated their woeful preparation, fully ramming home the fact that Rebel Sound always knew A$AP Mob would be weak. The group then set their sights on BBK as special guest Tempa T called out the London grime squad with a Prodigy re-rub while dressed like a champion boxer, snarling hatred across the hall in every verse.
“Tempa T, you are a prick!” screamed BBK, three times in retaliation before responding in music by re-versioning ‘No Problem’, the Chase & Status smash, but flipping daggered lyrics at their rivals. This squad was angry. It was obvious they were riled and channelled this into making their London sounds of grime even more thick with vitality.
As Round Three unfolded, BBK delivered authenticity for the heads and with so many great lyricists on stage had little problem delivering taut thoughts of their peers over huge beats. Meanwhile, Rebel Sound served up a great UK garage selection with a Gorillaz exclusive following the anthem of ‘Little Bit Of Luck’, with MC Neat rubbing Rebel Sound in modern glory.
And so it unfolded: Rebel Sound and BBK traded heavy punches repeatedly as Stone Love, like smooth and rounded antiques in the corner, soaked up the respect of the others but never really troubled with anything new.
To gather breath and morale between this tit-for-tat war both dominant systems hammered A$AP Mob repeatedly. They slagged them both for their pathetic presentation and any consequent response. The rappers had no chat, barely any specials, they unveiled an anonymous Danny Brown as a surprise guest before simply playing out their songs like an A$AP concert. Rodigan at one point flatly informed the crowd A$AP were, in fact, playing the exact same set as they had in Manchester the night before. They were sitting ducks. Even their ‘go-go’ dancers were a humiliation to the format.
BBK and Rebel Sound however were intent on inflicting a mortal blow on one another. Wiley mocked Rodigan for wittering on about “Jamaica” before reminding the fans we were all in London and their vital and viral grime was the soundtrack to this particular ’hood. Rodigan reacted by belittling BBK for their slum myopia and shone a light on the rich heritage of clash culture he almost invented. A BBK retort pointed out that Rebel Sound doesn’t actually exist; that they were a fictional group. The London grime stars spent the rest of the evening referring to their rivals over their hunched shoulders just as “Rodigan”.
The killer blows were numerous and clearly presented. BBK dropped a dubplate singing Rodigan’s praises pitched as a ‘respect plate’ that was innovative if blunt. Then the final songs by Rebel Sound did exactly what a special should: unify a dance floor while dazzling minds with fresh lyrics. Their Rihanna and Sigma specials were pop smashes that delivered the lethal stab to BBK. As Round Four concluded it was clear that Rebel Sound were the fans’ favourites, knocking the decibel meter up to 108db compared the A$AP’s feeble showings of around 99db.
Host Annie Mac dispensed with the pleasantries and announced Rebel Sounds as champs. They deserved it. They had obviously spent months assembling symbolic records to be re-voiced specifically to slay their quarries. The winner of the night wasn’t just Rebel Sound but mainly Rodigan: the 63-year-old former actor is a man in the prime of his life and a joy to be entertained by.
Red Bull Culture Clash is now a beast that has shed its chains. Traversing all genres of music, it’s one of the most entertaining musical formats to have evolved for decades. The question really now is who can put together a crew to rival what Rebel Sound just achieved in London. Any future combatants will need to conjure just the right mix of knowledge, personality, incredible production and a pedigree almost lost to the modern world. Someone better phone Goldie.
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Words: Matthew Bennett