In 2012, on their home turf of London’s Wembley Arena, grime collective Boy Better Know won the Red Bull Culture Clash, an event that draws together a range of musical styles and approaches them in a cutthroat atmosphere. The group, helmed by MCs Skepta, Wiley, JME and Jammer among others, killed legendary U.K. reggae soundsystem Channel One, BBC radio DJ Annie Mac’s all-star team, and Diplo’s globe-trotting Major Lazer collective — the favorites. BBK used the soundclash-inspired competition to their advantage; they didn’t hold back and cut Major Lazer off at the knees by disarming their biggest secret weapon — Usher.
Though music-fueled sound system battles have been around in Jamaica for decades, with the advent of the region-spanning World Clash circuit beginning the 1990s, hard and fast rules have been the expectation for each match-up. Rounds are strictly regulated: The first normally consists of juggling, where sound systems play whatever style they want for a set amount of time. Subsequent rounds might require the playing of only dubplates (special versions of songs recorded specifically for the occasion), specific artists or specific styles of music. A big no-no, and eliminating offense, is playing a song that’s already been dropped in the clash.
BBK knew how to play by these rules. Not only did they announce that Usher was in the building, ruining Major Lazer’s surprise tactic, but they also played Usher tunes knowing that the group would be disqualified if they repeated a track. (They did, and it cost them the competition.) This meant that Major Lazer had to swallow defeat — they were, in soundclash-parlance, “buried.” BBK now stands as reigning champion leading up to this year’s Clash, which is due to take place this October at the same time and venue. And while these battles are certainly rooted in fun, they’re not necessarily a friendly fight and instead a fierce contest. Jamaican clash champions like Ricky Trooper (formally of Kilamanjaro sound system, and now of his own Sound Trooper), receive trophies and the acclaim of athletes. And those who follow clash are able to provide a rundown of the runnings that sounds more like a sabermetric baseball discussion than a musical account.
Grime is rooted in the sporting nature of sound system culture, so it is not much of a surprise that the boys knew the ins-and-outs of the game. As part of a training regime for their upcoming battle in defense of the championship, Boy Better Know took a trip to Jamaica — ground zero for the stacks of speakers and spirited competition emblematic of sound system culture. It was imperative for them to learn from the best.
Encountering everything from the 1970s deejay stylings of U-Roy to the present-day dance-running Popcaan while in Jamaica, BBK’s Skepta, Shorty, Solo 45, Jammer, Frisco, Lazy and DJ Maximum were thorough in their preparation. Boy Better Know’s Jammer, whose roots lead right back to Jamaica, spoke to Wondering Sound about his experiences in Jamrock, sticking to the rules, grime’s connections with sound system culture and the nature of the clash.
Let’s start with your experience in Jamaica. You guys connected with Ricky Trooper — he’s a legendary figure in soundclash culture. Can you tell me a little bit about meeting him and what you gained from that experience?
Ricky Trooper is an amazing person. He reminds me of myself. He is full of energy and he loves the music, but he is always ready for it. I remember seeing goosebumps on his arm when he was playing tunes; he is very expressive when he is speaking to you about the music. He speaks a lot with his hands. You really feel that he lives this thing. We went to his house and he showed us all of his trophies. He gave us some good suggestions for this clash as well.
Some say that Trooper talks too much — too much talk, not enough tune.
He’s an entertainer. He is not just a selector, he’s an entertainer. And that’s why he’s got to brag — he’s not just pushed to the back. People have to listen to him, they have to hear him. He’s too loud to not hear!
And you connected with other artists in Jamaica.
We went to [Popcaan’s] Unruly Clash Wednesdays, and we found a youth from Portmore. We have done a tune with him, and it was so exciting to see the energy. People were going back and forth — throwing bars out there — just a natural love for the music.
How would you compare sessions in the U.K. with Jamaica?
You can’t really compare with Jamaica. The environment is so different. Bashment sessions in the U.K. will never be a carbon copy of the original. You are never really going to get that. If you are bringing it into an arena where you are going to do a clash, however, you are going to get the energy.
Can you talk a little about the last Red Bull Culture Clash, given that you won, and won in a way that recognizes how soundclashes function?
[Laughs] How they function, yes.
By taking advantage of the rules, of course.
Firstly, I am happy that you realized that. In watching the footage, you took that in and I’m glad you noticed something that is deeply embedded in the culture. It was amazing. It was a bit different because it was in Wembley, meaning that you had various different fans. Some coming in just for the artists specifically, maybe not knowing the whole history of soundclash culture, some part of maybe a more commercial crowd that didn’t know so much about the reggae side of clashes and things like that. But, at the same time, it was a great crowd. And what we done is that we just played to the rules.
We used [Major Lazer’s] weaknesses — they could have done the same thing to us, but they didn’t want to do the research. But we’d already done that research — we knew what they were going to do, what artists they had — things like that, and we just used it against them. But to go back to the traditional culture, my father was in a reggae band and I’ve grown up on reggae culture — watching Sting and Ninjaman and that whole type of thing. Even Killamanjaro, and King Addies and sound tapes and I’ve been following the culture all my life. And folks like me and [Boy Better Know’s] Frisco, we’re embedded in the soundclash culture, so we wanted to go in there and play a proper clash.
We wanted to hit them in the right places — hit them with music and use the rules to our advantage. I think that showed — and you noticed it because we are about the culture, we are about clashing. I run a DVD series called Lord of the Mics and that is deeply embedded in clashing, which [grime MCs] Wiley and Kano and all those people have battled in and come up through. In grime, the genre is competitive. It’s about competition. Full stop. The whole genre is about who is the best — who is the best on the mic, who’s the best on the decks, who’s the best dressed, who’s the most flamboyant in creativity, in general.
With grime, as with sound system culture, there really is that sports-like connection. It is more than a concert or a show or being about songs. There is this competitive aspect.
One-hundred percent. One-hundred-million percent. It all comes from the reload, the pull-up, the tune. That whole ethic comes from the soundclash. That feeling when the tune comes to a climax and you feel so good and energized, and you need to hear it coming back to the beginning. That builds up the hype and the energy and it makes you want to hear it again and it sounds better the second time. That all comes from reggae music. Picking up the mic and spitting whatever you feel at that present time and getting a reaction from the crowd — that whole thing comes from reggae.
And then there’s the technique of playing Usher tunes, knowing that Major Lazer is going to bring out Usher. As a clash fan, that’s fantastic and hilarious.
[Laughs] Yeah. I think even when Usher came out, he was like, “Oh man, I know you already played this song, but I am going to try and do a remake version that we just did.” And it was like, “Nah, no, that ain’t gonna work!” Now that is what you want to see in a clash. You want to see that moment.
If you don’t understand the rules, it may seem like bringing on Usher is a big deal, so therefore Major Lazer should get props — should win. But once you understand that it is actually sporting event, then you see where the real triumphs are and it becomes about that creativity. Did you learn a little more about what you learned about this from visiting Jamaica?
Oh man, coming to Jamaica was amazing. For me, somebody for whom [soundclash] is heavily in a culture I’ve grown up in — I’m more than a fan. It’s part of my life. Growing up and just being in tune with all the music from my Dad’s era like U-Roy, and to be able to meet people like Ninjaman. All these people are people that I watched and even kind of mimic some of the things that they do — I’m proud to say that. They are leaders. They showed us different ways to express ourselves. So to go over there and meet them and be embraced by them and be given tips…even being in the culture of sound and the whole natural habitat of vibes and energy of Jamaica. The whole thing was amazing. It’s given me a whole new life for this clash as well because we already know that we’ve got it in us, but to go there and feel the power itself. It made it ten times better.
Looking forward to the Red Bull Culture Clash, there’s Stone Love to compete with. There’s also Rebel Sound with Rodigan and Shy FX. What do you think these competitors will bring to the clash?
Well Rodigan, I’ve got my eye on him. I’ve got respect for Stone Love, but they’re coming to England so it’s a different ball game. They can come and think they’ll play like they play in their yard, but it’s a different thing, man. The thing about this clash is that it is not an everyday clash. There are so many different cultures involved and people playing music in different ways and different ways of deejaying. It’s not something where you could sit at home and just plan how it’s going to go exactly. You have to be stocked up, ready for them, and ready to pree what’s going on the day, make account of it, find out information, and kill a sound boy.