Last Friday, I went to Atlanta to cover the Red Bull Culture Clash. As of this writing, I'm still in Atlanta waiting word on when it's safe to come back home due to the excessive flooding from Harvey. Thankfully, the team at Red Bull has helped out by keeping me in Atlanta until the flooding subsides and the airports open, but I would be remiss if I didn't have fears and concerns while not being back home. Given everything that's happened in Houston, I delayed writing my recap of last Friday's events and instead focused my energy on writing about what Houston is doing for Houston.
I'm thankful and so is my family for Red Bull assisting me during this difficult time, but Lord knows I want to be home with my family and friends helping on the ground. So, before the storm got terribly bad on Friday back in Houston, I found a bit of relief some 800 miles away in the current epicenter of hip-hop.
Atlanta is the perfect home for a culture battle. America’s fastest growing non-Houston melting pot is a city of transplants. Large swaths of Jamaicans are tucked in with Nigerians and Ethiopians, a fluid blend of those who proudly rep the Braves and those who willingly accept the ATL as their version of Oz. The joy of Atlanta is that people rep Atlanta brazenly; hometown pride is about as big a talking point as how hard did you go inside of Magic City or Onyx. A Culture Clash, riffing off the Jamaican tradition of sound clashing, where Atlanta pride was hailed as the main talking point? There may be no better location in America to have one.
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The Sound Clash is as close to a musical sporting event as there is. There’s a trash-talk level that matches what you’d hear on any soccer pitch, basketball court or football field. There is strategy around using dubs: short, specific remixes of popular records that either insult your opponent or sing your own praises. Popcaan used a “One Dance” dub last year to defeat all comers. It didn’t hurt that Popcaan actually is on the best “Controlla” remix out, but I digress. Needless to say, it is one of a few events that mix a Friday-night club atmosphere with crew battling. You will sweat from dancing, you will probably leave with new friends and maybe a late-night acquaintance. And you will yell until your lungs get sore.
Last Friday, Red Bull hosted the fifth Culture Clash to be held in the United States, following Los Angeles (2012), New York (2013), Miami (2013) and San Francisco (2014). Considering that Atlanta as a city is now nearly synonymous with hip-hop, it felt like an easy layup to have an Atlanta-based team compete with the rest of the world. Again, victors are based on crowd approval. Staging this in a warehouse where fans could venture to each of the four different stages when any crew happened to play was a genius move. It also allowed for some amazing banter.
Atlanta had the hometown advantage, led by superproducer Mike Will Made-It and his EarDrummers team. They had to contend against Toronto’s EnjoyLife contingent helmed by producer Wondagurl, London’s Disturbing London camp led by Tinie Tempah and Unruly, whose leader Popcaan couldn’t make it to Atlanta due to visa issues in his native Jamaica. Hometown advantage meant Mike Will could flex and show the beauty and unity of Atlanta hip-hop. National pride, however, meant that Jamaica — inventors of the Sound Clash — weren’t going to back down, even if they were a man short.
Walking into the venue, you could feel the change in vibe. To get to the warehouse a few miles beyond the sprawl of downtown, you had to traverse through neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods proudly played Jamaican music, draped their front yards and porches in the Jamaican flag. Children played in the street as cars aligned themselves to the curb as best as possible. It felt like Atlanta but it didn’t feel like Atlanta. Trap music faintly blared from cars nearby but the island sounds drowned it out with ease. It wasn’t the best omen for EarDrummers. Or the other two crews.
Once the event kicked off and all four teams took their respective stages, the crowd got worked up. Having a large throng of Jamaicans enter and be receptive to their music was key, especially considering how rare it is to hear Jamaican music of the pure variety (sorry, no elevator music/Abercrombie-style dubs here). Atlanta’s sound, as rich and varied as it is, can be heard everywhere. Toronto, a giant melting pot which predominantly includes Jamaica, almost felt like the lesser brother to what Unruly was accomplishing. Energy was the key to all of this. How could each crew keep their fan base as engaged as possible?
Unruly knew what they had up their sleeves in later rounds so maneuvering by simply playing the hits was their strategy. The same worked for EarDrummers who came out not in Adidas tracksuits like Toronto’s EnjoyLife, but mock versions of the Atlanta Braves baseball jersey with barbed-wire baseball bats. It was an intimidation ploy, one where the clash’s most accomplished producer could play around. The Braves, good or bad, are the most cherished team in Atlanta. The iconography of the Braves logo is global. Playing Rae Sremmurd records with Rae Sremmurd in the building felt like a cheat code.
Then Disturbing London turned it into a battle. Unruly had already commandeered the early lead by playing “Swag Surf,” the unofficial black college national anthem by Fast Life Yungstaz. DJ Charlie Sloth took the mike and made it perfectly clear that London respects London — and nobody else. “Popcaan, where is Popcaan?!” he shouted into the microphone. “He ain’t even here! Wondagurl, I don’t even know you so you don’t even matter! Rae Sremmurd, I bought your first house! Mike Will doesn't even pay his producers!”
As London played records from Tinie Tempah and others, the race felt like it was being held up by two crews, EarDrummers and Unruly. Each of the four crews had distinct features and personalities: EnjoyLife polite and respectful, Unruly having the largest base to play with, EarDrummers with the largest swath of recent and more urgent music, Disturbing London flagrant and ready to scrap. Had this been a boxing match, you would have expected each of the crews to have ring girls between rounds. Actually, London did have beautiful women on their side and teased the other crews for not having any.
After Unruly took the feeler round, EarDrummers started with their strategy. Knowing how rich Atlanta hip-hop is and has been for the last two and a half decades, Mike Will began bringing crowd favorites out one by one. Pusha T begat K Camp, who begat a dub from Lil Jon dissing the three other crews. By the time Fabo took the mike to perform the D4L hit “Laffy Taffy,” the crowd was leaning, snapping and jerking their bodies as outrageously as possible. London and Toronto couldn’t compete, even as London teased Toronto, “We were supposed to play our music and you fools didn’t play ONE Drake record!”
They hadn’t. It was a move that made little sense but in the long run paid off. When it came time for Sleeping With the Enemy, a round dedicated to the other crews playing dubs or their interpolations of their opponent’s music, EarDrummers broke rank. “We don’t do no London shit,” Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee said. “Y’all disturbing London, but we know Disturbing the Peace!”
The elbow-ready drums of “Southern Hospitality” began playing and true to Swae Lee’s hints, Ludacris himself popped up to perform two of his rowdier records. The crowd became unglued, throwing their cellphones up and relieving that 2000 to 2002 peak of rapping Luda when he played a role on every film soundtrack before starring in one of the more bankable film franchises in Hollywood history. He kept it up with a rousing performance of "Move Bitch," from 2001's Word of Mouf. As he left, the sounds of “Hoe,” a Back For the First Time classic played underneath. The challenge had been set. And Unruly picked it up and ran with it.
“EarDrummers, that was real cute,” Unruly said with emphasis. “But how you rep Atlanta but didn’t bring out the Godfather of Atlanta?”
From out of the black and green and yellow crowd on stage emerged Jermaine Dupri, a secret weapon if there ever was one. EarDrummers’ “ATL HOE” chant had officially been rendered moot. Dupri, who’s been making hits for the city since 1992, predates at least two known generations of Atlanta rap. The Steve Arrington flip of “Weak at the Knees” began playing and the crowd immediately lost it. “In the Ferrari or Jaguar, switchin’ four lanes/ With the top down screamin out, money ain’t a thang!” There’s a surreal feeling about hearing particular records in particular venues. “Mo City Don” always rips in Houston. Kendrick Lamar records kill in Los Angeles. “Money Ain’t a Thang” in Atlanta felt biblical. Next thing you know, Unruly is up 2-1 on EarDrummers, the other two squads playing for consolation prizes.
London did attempt to have a final say in the last round. Big hits, bigger props. They brought out coffins marked with each of the other crews' names on it and played the Undertaker theme to boot. Then, just to tie the wrestling theme together, a dreadlocked Georgia boy who loved Ric Flair’s Big Gold Belt emerged from backstage. “Ain’t No Mo Play In G.A.,” Pastor Troy’s signature diss to No Limit Records, hit and the Dirty South Georgia Boy made sure where his allegiances lay. It didn’t matter if he was from Atlanta, it was a respect thing. London respected Pastor Troy and he showed it back. The same went for Ying Yang Twins, who rumbled through plenty of their crunk-era hits, right down to "The Whisper Song."
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EnjoyLife knew the battle was done but didn’t fret. Playing a dub of The Tokens' “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” their final round was their best one. Years ago, Wondagurl was on a Toronto-based squad that snatched a beat-battle title from Texas at SXSW. Even though she fell short on this night, her EnjoyLife crew made their presence known with their final ten minutes.
Unruly didn’t have to do much. In a way, the large battalion of Jamaicans who stayed in Atlanta and ventured out did most of the lifting for them in their last attempt to put the Culture Clash out of reach. There was nothing EarDrummers could do in order to topple them. That included Mike Will hopping off stage earlier in the night with his crew and walking up to the other crew’s stages as a sign of disrespect. Or Mike Will throws ones during a dub of “Rake It Up,” his latest Billboard Top 10 hit with Yo Gotti and Nicki Minaj. Not even an appearance from a reunited Crime Mob for “Knuck If You Buck” and Junior Reid to perform “One Blood” could win the crowd over. Unruly, despite being a man down, took home the 2017 Red Bull Culture Clash and proudly held their trophy high.
Atlanta learned a lesson: national pride trumps city pride. And Jamaica will root for Jamaica before anything else. As the crowd began filing out and heading towards the outside bars for one last drink, the sentiment was clear. Atlanta would always be a perfect venue for large cultural events, sporting or otherwise. It's geographical points dip South but involve bodies, minds and creatives from all over. The ultimate joy had from Culture Clash was simple: even in losing, everyone came out a winner.