Missing their crew leader Popcaan, the Jamaican Unruly crew still took home the 2017 Red Bull Culture Clash title, ensuring that bragging rights returned to the origin of the soundclash. I got the opportunity to be on the ground and in the (ware)house in Atlanta where it all went down, courtesy of Red Bull. It was my first ever clash, and I had that in common with many of the participating crews, like Ear Drummers and Enjoylife.
Despite their novice status, it was actually Ear Drummers, led by Mike Will Made-It, who almost took the lead from the Jamaican crew in the third round, but Unruly unleashed a surprise guest that absolutely blew the hometown team right out of the water (more on that later). If you missed out, no worries: Red Bull Radio will be streaming the show again live on Wednesday night at 7PM EST (4PM PST).
Here’s how it worked: There were four stages, each positioned in a corner of the warehouse where the Culture Clash took place, and four rounds, during which each crew got a certain amount of time to play dub plates and hype up the crowd with onstage antics and gimmickry to win over enough supporters to make the most noise. Mike Will excelled in this department; nearly every performer that touched the stage held a wire-wrapped baseball bat, and they even brought a hilarious giant ear mascot who waved a toilet plunger-sized Q-tip. At one point they marched down from their stage to visit the others, standing in the front row to heckle and brandish their outlandish bats to intimidate the competition.
The deejays — that’s West Indian lingo for “hype men” — try to excited the audience while insulting their rivals, which can get quite personal and out-of-hand, such as when Disturbing London’s Charlie Sloth advised the crowd that Mike Will doesn’t pay producers, or when Unruly declared that Ear Drummers came dressed for a baseball game instead of a clash due to the fact that their uniform consisted of jerseys and ball caps.
The first round was relatively straightforward, with each crew playing dubs (or remixes) to try and win the crowd over and establishing who they are. While Ear Drummers got in a great Lil Jon dub, it was Unruly that took an early lead with a mix of “Swag Surfing” that had audience members wrapping their arms around each other and swaying in perfect rhythm with absolute strangers. It was obvious early on that the Canadian crew featuring Wondagurl was at a supreme disadvantage; despite their earlier protestations of the mischaracterization of Canadians as “nice,” their upbeat positivity and mediocre dub selection wasn’t enough to overcome the vicious disses from the Jamaican and British corners, with Disturbing London pointing out, “They didn’t play no Drake!” The veteran Unruly crew took the round handily, setting the stage for their eventual win.
In the second round, the temperature turned up, with the crews playing any style and their best songs. By this time I actually felt sorry for Enjoylife, who barely even got the crowd to shift to their corner. Disturbing London came strong in this round generating more noise than almost any other crew. At that point I started to wonder if the hometown Ear Drummers could actually lose, but then they came back swinging. They enjoyed the generous benefit that practically everything currently dominating the US charts is coming out of Atlanta, so they managed to come out on top this time around partially due to familiarity.
It was in the third round that the Drummers truly shined, though. Although the round was titled “Sleeping With The Enemy,” and the crews had to play one another’s chosen style to prove their versatility, it was here that they genuinely took it to Disturbing London by keeping it all the way ATL, declaring, “You may be Disturbing London, but there’s only one Disturbing The Peace!” A veritable “who’s who” of talent blessed the stage, from Rae Sremmurd to Pusha T to Atlanta legend Ludacris came out to perform their hits, specifically re-written to nail their Culture Clash opponents. Charlie Sloth had been throwing shots all night (to be honest, some of which were very disrespectful — he told Rae Sremmurd he bought them their first house! Ouch!), but Mike Will got the last laugh — until Unruly went last.
They commended Ear Drummers on bringing out an Atlanta legend in Ludacris, then played their trump card, as Jermaine Dupri popped up from behind their stage to perform a massive rendition of “Money Ain’t A Thang” that absolutely brought the house down. The fourth round was almost a formality, but every crew, even the beleaguered Enjoylife, brought out some truly impressive dubs. While I’m not as tuned into reggae and Caribbean music as perhaps I should be, the crowd reactions were more than enough to recognize that everybody in the room knew many of the songs being played. It was also Ear Drummers’ last ditch effort to win over crowd, bringing out Junior Reed to perform “One Blood” for the West Indians in the room, and Crime Mob to rock “Knuck If You Buck,” but it was too little, too late.
All in all, I had a blast, somehow ending up with not one, but two replica airhorns after mine broke early in the evening. Although my crew didn’t win (I was rooting for Wondagurl, whose crew had won me over with infectious good humor and underdog mentality), I gained a newfound appreciation for an underground culture that turned out to be as entertaining as any sporting event I’d ever been to. Location permitting, I would definitely recommend making your way to the next one. I’ll see you there.