"Soundclash Is Like The Spine Of Dancehall": Jamaican Lessons In The Art Of Clashing
Back in 2016 Mixpak took home the trophy at Red Bull's Culture Clash.
In London and up against the likes of Eskimo Dance and UKG Allstars, it was the soundclash equivalent of winning an away game. But they'd done their homework and respected the culture - Spice showed up to tell Wiz Khalifa to 'eat mi pum pum'; Popcaan worked the crowd; and they dropped dub after dub, sealing the deal with an exclusive 'for one night only' edit of Drake's One Dance.
For the first time since the event's inception back in 2010 it felt like the trophy was back in its spiritual home. Raised in Earls Court but belonging to Jamaica.
And so it was only fitting that Kingston play host to its first ever Culture Clash this November. A massive show in Jamaica’s national arena, it was part- modern approach part- Jamaican tradition; and all with the deep-set cultural nouse that lies at the roots of the culture.
I spent time with the teams in the run-up to the show to get lessons from true veterans and in-their-blood new-schoolers on the legacy, rules and skills required for sound clash. “You may have experienced sound clashes in London or Atlanta, but you have never experienced sound clash Kingston!” exclaims the jewel in Romeich Entertainment’s crown, twinkle-toed dancehall star Ding Dong. “Some places they try to tone it down a bit. But soundclash in Jamaica is raw, uncut and unedited.”
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Soundclash culture in Jamaica dates right back to the 1950s, when systems like Trojan, Sir Coxsone, Duke Reid and Tom the Great Sebastian would go to war in Kingston’s Tivoli Gardens. By the seventies, superstar Djs were slowly becoming a thing and selectors like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry introduced the concept of one-off special tracks to the showdown.
With the dawn of dancehall and its decidedly less one-love outlook, the art of vocally destroying rival teams became central to the show. Emigration saw sound clash culture go global, from Jah Shaka and Channel One in the UK to Tony Screw and DJ Kool Herc in America.
For the uninitiated, the nitty gritty of soundclash: rival soundsystems compete in rounds. What started out purely as sparring DJs has now evolved into whole crews of selectors, MCs and live vocalists. Each round has different rules and criteria, but all involve a heady riot of lovingly selected tunes, lyrical dynamism, special guest one-upmanship and, of course, one-off dubs. The winning team is decided based on crowd reaction.
The day before the Kingston Culture Clash each team is scheduled to sound check at the national arena. Timings have been planned meticulously to ensure no crossover between teams. “Jamaica per square mile - in addition to having many churches and many bars - is a land where you have a lot of competitive creative persons,” says Sparks, seasoned clasher, MC for Govana’s Strike Force team and perhaps the most animated person on the planet.
“Whether we’re doing it in sports, crime or music. We’re highly competitive people. And that will all be on display at Culture Clash.”
Ask a soundclasher for a simple explanation of the crux of clashing and the metaphors fly. “Imagine two neighbours and them have an argument. Who can trim the edges of them lawn properly,” says Badda Bling, a selector from Portmore’s Di-Unit soundsytem, drafted in for his seasoned expertise to team Romeich. “This man try to make sure him lawn cut good. And then you try and make sure your lawn cut good. It’s about competitive nature."
Some cite lyrical dexterity, others psychological warfare, the ability to read your crowd or team synchronicity. But all agree that sound clash is about the culture. “Soundclash is like the spine of dancehall,” says Romeich Entertainment’s Bloodline Franco.
In the world of sound clash there’s no kudos for not doing your homework. As ‘corporate away day’ as it might sound, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ could be the mantra. Each team I speak to boasts proudly about the days and hours of preparation that have gone in since the show was announced. “It’s like a man train the whole year to run a hundred metre,” says Badda Bling.
Rumours in the lead-up to clash day are that Romeich Entertainment are bringing a mobile dub-cutting unit to sit outside the venue, allowing them to react to their clash rivals in real time. But clash battlers keep their cards close to their chests. When I ask them about this, the feigned shock is Academy Award worthy. Either way, each team will be cutting dubs, packing and re-packing record bags and perfecting their putdowns right up to showtime.
“There’s no way we’re coming here unprepared.’ says Sparks. “It's all about being so prepared that it seems as though we did not have to prepare at all.”
As we chat, Do It For the Culture arrive to soundcheck. Sparks instructs one of the crew to note down each track they play during practice. I ask for spoilers on what dubs they might have lined up themselves for the night.
“No magician tells their tricks,” says Sparks.
Pre-clash gossip and bravado often focuses on the dubs, but a seasoned selector would be remiss not to draw on the power of a regular track dropped at a crucial moment.
“You have to play a whole range of sounds,” says Sparks. "Show respect to the forefathers. But then bring in fresh tracks.”
And even killer dubs must be dropped with caution. On the night of the show Do It For the Culture wait for the final round to drop their big-spend showstopper. Koffee’s 'Toast' is hands-down Jamaica’s track of the year - heard on repeat from cars and bars across the city - and they’ve bagged her dub exclusive. But by the time they play it the crowd are tired and in need of energy injection. It’s not the right moment for breezy reggae and the tumbleweed reaction is heartbreaking.
“I love that track,” says Alicai Harley when we chat for a post-mortem after the show. “But you have to always remember - the clash is all about crowd reaction”.
Let’s be real, everybody at soundclash is waiting on the dubs. A name-drop in record form, it’s a team’s way of proving their cultural clout. The bigger the name, the greater the coup.
“If you have a regular 9 to 5 job, then you go to school and you get a bachelors and then a masters and a pHD. For a DJ in a soundclash, the bigger dubs are like the pHD," says Romeich Entertainment’s wise selector, Bloodline Franco.
So who, I ask, would be the greatest dub at Culture Clash?
“If you had a Bob,” laughs Ding Dong. “We can’t get Bob Marley again. Rest in peace. So we have fi get the next best thing. We have fi get creative.”
Sometimes getting creative involves throwing money at the problem. “Going into a soundclash, I might do a dub for this man,” says Ding Dong. “And somebody pay me more money to do a better dub than what I gave you. It just the nature of the ting.”
On the night, heavy hitter dubs come from the likes of Burna Boy, Afro B, Chronixx and Miguel. But sometimes you also have to just work with what you’ve got. One of the biggest moments at Culture Clash came when soca team Riddimstream Platta played a spliced dub - a fake dub made with some technological cut and pasting - of Shenseea’s massive hit, Blessed.
When the ‘best best best’ of the chorus dropped and it became clear that they were brazenly parring Romeich’s darling, the crowd went nuts. Just like a fake designer from down the market, done brazenly enough, a spliced dub can be even better than the real thing.
If you know you have a track worth shouting about, you have to give it the fanfare it deserves. “Sometime, you might have a Bob Marley dub and I can still beat you,” says Ding Dong. “Depending on the charisma you have when you enter the song. It can downplay a man who is bigged up. It’s all about the delivery.”
This is officially known as the entry. “It’s like when you have a movie come out and there’s a preview,” says Badda Bling. “You’re excited fi the movie to come out. The entry is when the MC come out and tell you a lead-up story to the song that he’s gonna play. Because the story’s so intriguing, when you hear the song buss out its like POW.”
Clash is not for sensitive souls. Call it beefing, shit talking or bantz, MCs best come prepared for the giving and receiving of a verbal dressing down. Opinions differ on how dirty to fight.
“Two deejays can clash and tomorrow they’re friends,” says Govana, rising dancehall star and head of the Strike Force crew. "They don’t go talking about ones mum. It’s ‘you’re not a good deejay’ or 'your style is lame’. But that doesn’t mean that the fight and the words can’t get dirty”.
He’s right to an extent, but not all MCs are as honourable as him. Playground talk definitely veers towards tired tropes on who's gay, who gives head and maybe even mums. An undercurrent throughout Kingston’s Culture Clash is a long-running and panto-level theatrics beef between Shenseea and Jada Kindgom. When Shenseea makes a guest appearance for Romeich, she goads, “Jada betta yuh lef di music, try tun ah actress… Yuh lame.”
There’s no retort on the night from Jada, but Kingston's airwaves the following day are abuzz with the goss. Jada finally pulled her punch with a diss track, Shen Heng.
Of course a clash is not a clash without its crowd. And a proper Jamaican crowd - like all great judges - are harsh but fair. It’s central to the culture that fans may have their allegiances but credit’s given where credit's due.
So, at Culture Clash, Riddimstream Platta from Barbados were the only non-Jamaican team. But they held their own with big moments like cameos from dancehall royalty Beenie Man and Tony Matterhorn, a Burna Boy dub and Stylo G dressed as a pilot. And the crowd showed love for the underdogs.
“I can’t put into words how much the energy will run through you,” says Bloodline Franco, preparing me ahead of time for what might be in store. "You’ll be beside somebody who is with the whole sound clash movement. Watch how they rail and go on. It’s like black people watching a movie in a theatre. We so excited and dramatic about things!”
It’s all fun and games in soundclash until somebody breaks the rules. I ask DJ Jubilee, winner of Culture Clash UK 2016 who was there in Kingston, what future teams can learn from the night. “I guess the biggest mistake some of the teams made was replaying songs which led to disqualifications,” she says “So basically always follow the rules!”
In sound clash, if a selector plays a dubplate based on a riddim already played during the clash they’re automatically disqualified from that round. The only exception is if the track can legitimately be claimed as a “counteraction” - altered in some way from the original. And this has to be called out by the MC before it’s played.
For example, if one team play the regular record of Mr Vegas Head’s High, then the only other way that riddim can be played again that night is in dub or remix form. And trust, the rules will be adhered to.
Culture Clash Kingston ended on a tie-break between Do It For the Culture and Strike Force. Both teams were given five more minutes to work the crowd. Strike Force played a track that had already been played that night, so the crown went to Spragga. No arguments. It was a strange victory, but a victory nonetheless.
“We’re born and bred in Jamaica,” screams Sparks. “The whole of the yam, the ripe plantain, the coconut water, Irish moss and linseed. You got the real raw Jamaican energy.”
And she’s not wrong. Soundclash could only have been born here and it’s where the clashing spirit will be kept alive.
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Words: Clare Considine
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