Popcaan Misses Red Bull Culture Clash But Unruly Sound Still A Win
A victory for Jamaican sound system culture
This weekend Atlanta hosted what has become one of the year’s most anticipated music events, the Red Bull Culture Clash. When the good folks at Red Bull make you into a video game character and covers the city with advertisements featuring your face to promote their next event, you know it’s going to be serious. These are the moments when you release you’ve gone from “famous” to “sought after.”
On the heels of last year’s sold-out show at the 02 Arena in London—where Brooklyn dancehall crew Mixpak outdid Wiz Khalifa and the Taylor Gang, Wiley’s Eskimo Dance crew, and the UK Garage All-Stars featuring So Solid—this year’s Culture Clash was highly anticipated, to say the least.
The Ear Drummers squad, headed by super-producer Mike Will Made-It, were the home team headliners. Tinie Tempah & his Disturbing London crew represented for the UK. Wondergurl and her Enjoy Life squad came through repping Toronto while Popcaan—who played a decisive role in last year’s Mixpak victory—came through with his own Unruly crew, the all-Jamaican dancehall team.
Inspired by Kingston’s sound system culture the Red Bull Culture Clash follows the same rules as a “sound clash” as they are known in Jamaica, where sound system teams have a long tradition of battling each other. In the case of Jamaican clashes the sound systems competing against each other primarily specialize in reggae and dancehall music. Starting in 2010 Red Bull began putting their own spin on the clash “ting” by pitting DJ crews representing different genres against each other—but still using the Jamaican formula of multiple “rounds” (similar to a boxing match) all featuring plenty of slick mic talk, guest performances, and dubplates, which require a more in-depth discussion.
Dubplates are custom-made records produced by each respective sound system featuring well-known artists who re-record their most popular songs, sometimes with new instrumentals and always with clash-specific lyrics bigging up a particular sound system also putting down the opposition—sometimes downright dragging them through the dirt. For example, at last year’s Red Bull Culture Clash in London, the UK Garage All-Stars had the Jamaican singer Dawn Penn revise her Studio One classic “No No No” as a diss to one of their opponents. Instead of singing “No No No, you don’t love me and I know now” she sang “No No No… Mixpak nobody knows who you are.”
Of course this means that each sound system needs to prepare for the clash by approaching as many big name artists and bagging as many dubplates as possible in order to build up their musical ammunition. Having said that, one of the most overlooked aspects of sound clash science is that it’s not how many dubs you bring to the clash, it’s how hard each dub hits, and how and when a given sound introduces and plays each dub for maximum impact, in hopes of musically “killing” the rival sound.
It’s important to remember that the art of clashing is not about money. It’s about heart and respect. After all, the reason why sound systems first originated in Jamaica was to entertain poor people. Sound systems would string up their speakers and gear in open spaces like parking lots and street corners so the public could enjoy themselves for little or no money.
This is where the importance of the master of ceremonies on the microphone comes into play. A good MC can make even a normal record hit a sore nerve by playing on the public’s perception of a rival sound system. The effect is only amplified when introducing a well-crafted dubplate. The truer the message the bigger the “forward” from the crowd, which ultimately brings that particular sound closer to winning that particular round of that particular clash. According to half a century of Jamaican tradition, the crowd response decides which sound wins each round. Under the rules and precepts of dancehall democracy, it’s up to the people in the dance how loud of a “forward” (sound clash terminology for cheering and applause) they give each competitor, which ultimately leads to a given sound system staying in for the next round or being eliminated. This being Red Bull the forward is measured by a decibel meter, with the exact noise level averaged over a five second period and displayed on screens throughout the venue.
The Red Bull Culture Clash is divided into 4 rounds with very specific rules, as follows:
1. Red Bull Culture Clash is split into four rounds, each with its own format.
2. Crews can play dubplate specials and custom dubs, bring out special guests and do special performances throughout the whole night. However, in Round 4, ONLY dubs or special guest performances are allowed. Playing a regular record will lead to disqualification from that round.
3. Strictly no repeats! If a crew plays a record already played earlier in the night, they’re disqualified from winning that round. Only exception: the record is explicitly announced as a counteraction and somehow altered (dubplate, remix, live performance, et al.).
4. Each round is won by crowd reaction via a decibel reader (highest average during the first five seconds). There is no winner for Round One. Round Four counts double. If two crews are held to a draw after Round Four, the host calls for the crowd to choose between the two crews in a runoff. Since the last round counts double, all four crews still have a chance to win until the very end.
After winning last year’s Culture Clash by pulling out a Drake dub in the final round, Popcaan—who was a part of the MixPak team last year—was to represent dancehall at this weekend’s Culture Clash with his very own Unruly team. The sound consisted of Hand picked selectors, and MCs who have made a name in the dancehall industry, including Jabba the MC for New York’s Massive B sound, top dacnehall producer ZJ Liquid, Jazzy T of Renaissance Disco, and Creep Chromatic, Popcaan’s longtime sparring partner.
Hours before the clash was set to begin, rumors began spreading that something had gone wrong with Popcaan’s travel plans. The international dancehall star was supposed to be making his first ever trip to the United States for the Culture Clash. What could have been a career milestone turned into a bitter-sweet moment for The Unruly Boss, who was unable to attend due to last-minute visa delays. “Popcaan sends his blessings and love to his fans and the city of Atlanta, and hopes to see you soon,” he stated in an Instagram post. “We promise to give you a special performance in the near future.” But even without their leader on U.S. soil, the Unruly team of dancehall specialists—including MC Jabba, and ace selectors ZJ Liquid, Jazzy T, and Creep Chromatic—was even more determined to take home the trophy as Popcaan listened to the live stream in Jamaica. “We are fully aware without the presence of Unruly’s boss Popcaan things will be vastly different,” the team stated on Popcaan’s IG, “but we are UNRULY and are 100% dedicated to representing for our culture, our country, Popcaan, and Red Bull.”
Prior to the show Wondergurl’s hella-deep team asserted themselves as warriors. Having been annoyed by the Red Bull press release which stated that all Candians are “known for being nice,” the Enjoy Life gang came on strong when asked about their thoughts on the clash. Although Wondagurl maintained a cool demeanor before the clash her squad was rarin’ to go, stating “We’re just ready to murder everything.” Wondergurl responded to their words with subtle facial expressions. “Don’t believe this,” they warned about their top shotta’s ice grill—the only female participant in this year’s clash. “She makes killer beats.”
British rapper Tinie Tempah, participating in his first-ever sound clash, also chose to play it cool. “I’m definitely here to win and bring it home,” he said before the war popped off with classic British reserve. “We’re from London, we’re from a very diverse culture with loads of different sounds, loads of different influences. So we’ve got loads of tricks. And I feel like people from London are quite smart, so we’re going to bring the smarts into it… Let’s do this.”
But the proof was in the pudding as Mike Will Made-It pulled out the big guns for his opening round. Dressed in Atlanta Braves jerseys, the opened with a Lil Jon dubplate before bringout out Rae Sremmurd live onstage. “You ain’t got no life,” screamed Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi, whipping the A-Town crowd into a frenzy. “Cups with the ice and we don’t this every night.”
The Unruly crew clapped back strong in their first round, unloading a full clip of classic Sizzla selections and a vault of customised dubs by Beenie Man and Popcaan they were off to a great start with the crowd, which seemed to be thick with dancehall fans despite the Atlanta location. WondaGurl answered with Future’s “Wicked” while Disturbing London closed out with an Ed Sheeran “Shape of You” dubplate special. In the second round, WondaGurl brandished a Drake dubplate and Tinie Tempeh pulled out a video of T.I. bigging them up, but from the start it was clear that the night’s stiffest competition would be between Jamaica and Atlanta.
EarDrummers were the home team so everyone was expecting a lot from the ATL hitmakers. Mike Will Made-It went hard in the second round by bringing Brick Squad’s OJ Da Juiceman and Pusha T to the stage, sealing the victory and scoring the first point for the night.
By Round 3, known as “Sleeping with the Enemy” Wondergurl’s team were taking more insults then could they could have imagined with a realization that a clash is for the faint-hearted. “I don’t even remember her name” was the statement thrown out by one of the Disturbing London MC’s. In this most difficult of rounds, each crew had to choose an opposing team’s genre to play well enough to get a forward. WondaGurl team actually played a great dancehall segment with dubs by Alkaline and Shabba Ranks, but it was little too late. The bad-mouthing damage had been done on the mic and the crowd hesitated to give them a break.
Mike Will still had a few surprises up its sleeve, bringing out Ld Ludacris who stepped on as their secret special guest blowing up the place with “Move Bitch Get Out the Way.” But just when the Unruly team seemed to be outgunned, they pulled one more trick out of their sleeve. “How can you say you rep ATL?” Jabba asked them as he introduced Unruly’s only live performer of the night, Atlanta OG Jermaine Dupri, who performed “Money ain’t a thing,” which tore the house down.
The collective mood in the room at that moment could be summarized as “Holy crap!” there is no other way to describe this moment but to safely say that at this point they just shat on all their opponents leaving no possible path for recovery.
By the final round all bets were narrowed down to the home team and the Jamaican dancehall crew. With WondaGurl effectively out the game, Disturbing London stunted by bringing out Pastor Troy and the Ying Yang Twins—as well as few ATL strippers to “Whistle while you Twerk.” The UK set also showed their dancehall knowledge by recreating a moment from the famous Sting clash between Vybz Kartel and Mavado where Kartel brought a coffin onstage with Mavado’s name on it. Tinie’s crew managed to bring out 3 coffins with the names of all the opposing sounds but by this point the crowd seemed un impressed at their efforts.
In a final bid to win the title, Mike Will Made it upped the ante by bringing out dancehall legend Junior Reid who burned up the stage singing his international hit “One Blood” while a money gun squirted dollar bills into the crowd. But it seems that money can’t buy everything. When the Ear Drummers drew for their chart-topping Black Beatles, the rap duo Rae Sremmund, the artists were faced with a booing crowd.
“You can’t beat island people at doing island things,” said Theron from Rock City as he watched the crowd give the Unruly Crew a massive forward on every selection of their final round, sealing the victory. The decision was a fitting reminder that in a musical war it’s not the size of your wallet but the size of the heart that you bring to the battle.
It was a sweet victory for the Unruly Boss whose team brought it home to Jamaica even despite his absence, they reminded ATL (as the UK sounds learned last year) that home is not always a safe place, chanting “Mike Will Never Made It.”
After the official announcement of the Unruly crew’s victory, Jabba spoke to the crowd with obvious pride. “This is our culture,” he said, “and no one can take this from us.”
If you missed the Red Bull Culture Clash check the live stream link: