For all its hype, pageantry and pyrotechnics worthy of a joint Rammstein and One Direction tour, the Red Bull Culture Clash has a genuine sense of ceremony. For a start, the competing teams appear to take it both seriously and personally, as though the level of pride at stake equals that of playing in the World Cup Final or competing for the gold at the Winter Olympics. It’s also streamed live, like an awards show with more shouting, and incessantly debated over on social media. Plus, it takes place at London’s clandestine and beastly O2 Arena. Yet despite the commercial sheen, there’s something about the event that’s genuinely compelling: it’s a pop concert pushed to its logical extreme, an event that can give us pride in our music scene when ceremonies like The Brits do the opposite. Or as Red Bull have billed it, it’s “the world's biggest musical battle”.
So how does it work? If you’re a Yank who's accidentally stumbled across this page between procrastinating and looking at fighting compilations on World Star Hip Hop, Culture Clash is basically what would happen if Rich Gang, Odd Future, Top Dawg Entertainment and Cash Money took to Madison Square Garden to compete across four or five rounds for the title of best rap group, by performing songs, cussing each other out, and securing exclusively re-recorded versions of popular hits (known as dubs). The crowd then decides the winner via the ancient medium of making as much damn noise as possible for their chosen team. Kinda like the clap-o-meter, but for grime fans who have run themselves hoarse screaming along to Fekky.
This year’s event featured Wiley’s Eskimo Dance Crew and a UK Garage all-stars team against Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang and Mixpak. In a sentence: it went off. While the £7 hotdogs and all-branded-everything aesthetic of London’s O2 may be a world away from traditional Jamaican sound clashes, the spirit remains. In the same week Wiley finally went on the record about the So Solid beef that led to Dizzee’s stabbing and their resulting fall out, it’s mad seeing Roll Deep OG’s on the same stage as Lisa Maffia and a very shirtless Harvey. The urge to win, and thus perform, feels genuine. When Taylor Gang pluck Ice Kid out of the same dimension as Frank Ocean’s second album, Chip looks genuinely shook, and you get the sense that however hard he works, Wiley’s promise that Ice Kid was the superior MC will haunt him forever. That's not to say everything ran to plan though, as there were moments where things started to fall apart. Not just for the Eskimo Dance crew, who somehow didn’t realise that an Ed Sheeran dubplate would fail to get even the most tepid grime fan gassed, but through the way the event played out too.
At points on Friday night, the show often felt a little frenetic and hard to follow, like it would make more sense watched back in chunks on Instagram and Twitter (there was a different Snapchat filter for each crew obv). Although certain segments seemed to be pre-planned with social media in mind (more than once Wiz Khalifa warned the crowd to get their phones out in advance) you could easily miss something if you spent more than a second looking down at your phone. I didn’t even know Joey Badass was in the building until the next day. Unlike 2014’s ‘four crews four corners’ layout at Earls Court, tonight’s multi-levelled parallel layout is a little shonky and West End at times. There haven’t been this many people on stage at the O2 since Ben Hur Live, which, especially in Eskimo’s case, can make things a little disorganised. Tim Westwood’s surprise appearance is diluted when he’s spotted on the big screen checking his phone behind Logan Sama, mics are in the wrong place at the wrong time (when “On A Level” drops Prez T spits his “Side By Side” bars) and time mismanagement means round two’s cut ten seconds into Kano’s “P’s and Q’s”.
Just like an awards show, celebrity and fame also seemed to play a bigger part in the evening than ever before. Would Wiz have been anywhere near the top of the organisers’ lists without the recent headline-grabbing Kanye beef? Or if he couldn’t help organise the DJ Khaled and Amber Rose videos that go down better than any of his songs? Indeed, it’s Amber Rose who makes the modern, albeit slightly unsettling promise that “Wiz is gonna fuck all your bitches tonight!”. It’s a shame, really, because the B-list panto sometimes makes a bigger splash than the deepest darkest knowledge. UKG drop a Flirta D dub after pointing out that he got the most rewinds of all time at Eskimo Dance, but it doesn’t get half the reaction of their video of Danny Dyer as Mick Carter calling Wiley “about as scary as Ian Beale.” Steroid-grime flavour of the month Solo 45 gets a heroes welcome, but there are dons on every side who just don’t get their dues. My heart bleeds when someone running the GrmDaily Twitter account has no idea who Scratchy is in a post now deleted to save face.
But maybe that’s testament to a team that isn’t as down with the kids as it could be. Eskimo Dance promised ‘the biggest grime line-up of all time’, but despite filling the stage with first-wave legends (Newham Generals, Lethal B, Ghetts et al) there’s something missing. Stormzy’s appearance is huge, but comes early and sets a bar they don’t quite reach again. Finally making good on his threat to “go back to Culture Clash” you’re also left wondering whether he’s there for him or the team. After all the public love Skepta’s been showing Wiley recently, BBK’s absence is felt, especially as Jammer normally needs convincing not to turn up somewhere and perform “Merkle Man” unasked. Whether it came down to touring commitments (though JME spent most of the night tweeting about cars) or Wiley wanting to show that he can pull in a huge crowd of MC’s on his own terms, Eskimo occasionally look and act a little too much like Grime’s elder statesmen. Their youngest billed team mate, the promising AJ Tracey is also sadly a no-show.
Instead, the best appearances from British MC’s on Friday night actually come during non-UK teams rounds. Big Narstie ran out to join Mixpak in a huge dreadlock wig. Although it might seem like a stab in the back (like Tempa T with Champion Sound in 2014) he’s made his opinions on some of the rest of the scene clear before, even calling out Chipmunk and Tinie Tempah as “middle class” in grime’s realest interview of all time. When J Hus performed the legendary move of getting an Uber straight from prison to the O2 to join him for a PA-duppying “Dem Boy Paigon” even Stormzy puts up his hands and admits defeat.
Although neither Mixpak and Taylor Gang were initially big talking points, their success on Friday night proves how well the clash works on an international scale. Jamaica and America are still the biggest two cultural influences on black British music after all (“What d’you call it?” as pertinent a question tonight as ever). Jungle, garage and grime’s roots are undoubtedly Caribbean, and yet success still looks and sounds American. Tony Matterhorn himself sings “Dutty Wine” and the crowd lose it, yet more people leave talking about Wiz’s Travis Scott and Desiigner dub plates. As much as the British media now stands behind Skepta, you wonder whether it might’ve taken another ten years for the support to have come without the safety net of his famous US fans.
When Sneakbo opens Mixpak’s second round performing “The Wave”, it’s on the very stage where Drake shouted him out in 2012 after using his “How You Mean” hook on Take Care. Years later Drake’s got new favourites and Sneakbo’s star has waned. However much they deny it, UK MC’s seem to find so much validation in the co-signs of their American peers. Taylor Gang’s “Don’t Waste My Time” dub shows which side of the atlantic Krept and Konan’s bread is buttered. Drake’s presence is felt throughout the night, and Popcaan’s “One Dance” dubplate is all the more pertinent with all the flack he’s been getting from other teams for being taken off “Controlla”. Ultimately, it’s this moment that seals the evening and ensures Mixpak leave as champions.
When you bring out a dub of a song that’s now spent more weeks at number one than “I Will Always Love You” did in ‘92, you’re bound to win the clash. “One Dance” to rule them all, “One Dance” to find them, “One Dance” to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Yet despite the ubiquitous, show-stealing nature of the track, the win looks all the more easy when it’s up against fake Bieber and Adele dubs and a (more depressingly) real Jess Glynne “Rather Be” dub from Eskimo. Secret banger or not, it just feels wrong in 2016 aka one year PC (post-Cortana) and the song selections embarrassingly show the British team up. No doubt, Wiley could probably have been found near the back of the room checking the Easyjet app for the first flight back to Cyprus.
Despite the fact no British team really did enough to deserve the win over the international crews, this year’s Culture Clash proved that ultimately, music succeeds when different societies coalesce. It was also a reflection of the way we process art and entertainment in 2016, accessing and enjoying culture in hundreds of different ways simultaneously: hip-hop, house, dancehall, reggae, grime and garage, with a healthy dose of Eastenders and some recognisable Americans thrown in. Twenty tabs open. Always crashing in the same brower. As the gurning hoardes shuffle past Five Guys and Garfunkel’s not entirely sure what it is they’ve witnessed, one thing is for sure: right now UK music proudly stands toe to toe with the best the rest of the world has to offer. It’s been a show on a scale few could conceive of and even fewer afford to put on. Corporations and musicians don’t always make comfortable bedfellows but when the balance is right, everybody wins.
You can find Frederick on Twitter