While most of us were busy unwrapping gifts this Christmas and getting level 10 waved, a war was brewing. No, we’re not referring to the unfortunate slide towards global conflict, but instead of a far more entertaining, and thankfully less destructive war: the volley of dubs exchanged between Dot Rotten, Wiley, Jaykae and Stormzy. What began as a shot at Coventry artist JAY1 over a debt has rapidly expanded into a multi-directional spate of one-liners and chest puffing, as some of grime’s biggest names took to Twitter and the studio to air out grievances and claim supremacy. For fans of the genre, it’s an opportunity to see our heroes showcase their skills and to debate who really is the best. For outsiders however, it’s downright confusing.
The passion for verbal sparring in grime has always been among the culture’s most confounding aspects for non-initiates, right up there with reloads. For some, the sights and sounds of young, black and (usually) male artists aggressively cussing each other out in a series of boasts, threats and punchlines represent everything frightening and menacing about grime. While undoubtedly xenophobic and ignorant, let’s be extremely generous for a moment and admit that out of context, a grime clash can sound like the run-up to physical confrontations. But, as any true grime fan will tell you, clashing is so much more than that. Grime without war dubs would just be… well, boring, and verbal clashes are a fundamental component of the genre, one with a long and distinguished musical history.
grime just wouldn’t be grime without clashing.
First, forget the notion that heated competition in black music is a new idea: Harlem’s jazz musicians took part in “cutting contests” to prove their chops against rival players as early as the 1920s.
More famously, reggae and dancehall sound systems, from the ‘60s through today, have long engaged in heated duels for supremacy, competing in terms of loudness, selection and live verbal jousting—with the format even being appropriated by Red Bull for their branded Culture Clash series. In many ways, these dancehall clashes served as the foundation for grime’s own verbal competition, with just a bit of US battle rap (celebrated in the Hollywood film 8 Mile) thrown into the mix.
Unlike its predecessors however, grime’s competitive spirit has proven resistant to being boxed into a single format. Perhaps because the scene came of age from 2000-2010, a time of rapid change in the music industry, the parameters for a clash have shifted every couple of years. Before grime had even landed a genre tag, UK garage collectives like Pay As U Go and Heartless Crew were dueling live on stage at raves like Destiny in Watford. At this early stage, the format was closest to dancehall clashes at events like Jamaica’s Sting or Sunsplash, with patois-heavy bars over a DJ’s selection and hype mattering more than disses. This was the template for clashes at later events such as Eskimo Dance, which often turned into impromptu competitions when rival emcees began trading bars on stage.
By the time venues were pressured to blacklist grime in the mid-to-late 2000s, the genre had expanded from a variant of garage to a full-fledged musical revolution, leveraging pirate radio’s local broadcasting as an alternate venue to spread the music (and war) to the masses. Every week, stations like Déjà vu FM and Rinse FM hosted shows by rival emcees and crews, which would turn into (occasionally impromptu) clashes. Wiley vs Lethal B and Dizzee Rascal vs Crazy Titch at Deja are all legendary clashes, and excellent examples of the form.
Unfortunately, illegal radio stations turned out to be risky venues for clashing, given their illegal nature, with both Deja and Rinse eventually instituting temporary bans on ALL live emceeing, after a few, shall we say, unfortunate incidents. And I point out the conflict and confrontation that arose out of grime’s pirate radio clashes not to provide ammunition to grime’s detractors, but instead to show just how energetic, engaging and real clashes could be—and that fans absolutely loved them.
As such, it’s unsurprising that as grime evolved from a youth-led subculture to an entrepreneurship-minded music scene, savvy emcees and DJs would look towards clashes to launch their own brands. As emcees began focusing their bars on studio tracks rather than live clashes circa 2006, then-Kiss FM DJ Logan Sama compiled the week’s best in his War Report segment—and later a best-of CD. Jammer, meanwhile, launched his extremely successful line of Lord Of The Mics DVDs, taking live clashing from radio studios to his basement. At this point, between radio bans, weekly retorts and DVD clashes, the scene became more than a bit saturated with clashes and that enthusiasm for the practice died down with the hype around grime as a whole. And yet, grime just wouldn’t be grime without clashing.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, we saw Skepta and Wiley go at it; Dot Rotten vs Wiley; Dot vs P Money; and Trim vs the world. By 2010, sending had became a part of the art of grime. Even if there was no real-life beef to back it up, emcees used these sparring sessions as a chance to sharpen their own skills.
I’ve always found clashes to be the moment where our favorite MCs stop caring about mainstream success and focus their attention on the TRUE essence.
When the genre found its second wind in the mid-2010s thanks to social media and streaming, it was a war in September 2013—between producers like Rapid, Preditah, Kahn & Neek, Slackk and more—that captured the attention of underground music media, reminding trendhoppers of grime’s energy and even serving as an introduction for newer producers like Inkke and Visionist. Crucially, this war omitted the verbal side of things entirely, as producers traded instrumentals in the style of dub soundsytem operators instead. Even producers who opted out of the clashes benefited from the attention: the experimental-minded Mr. Mitch released a series of “Peace” dubs covering grime classics in a wistful, romantic fashion—an approach that later freed him to explore a more personal approach to music.
What is it about clashing that intrigues us so much as a subculture? Maybe it’s just a natural, competitive spirit. After all, no one asks why football supporters want to see their lads claim a win over a hated adversary. Or, maybe clashing fits right into our era of social media drama and conflict? I’ve always found clashes to be the moment where our favorite emcees stop caring about mainstream success and focus their attention on the true essence: making music for truly dedicated fans who know the ins and outs of each conflict while not giving a fig about a crossover video.
Whatever the case may be, I wouldn’t expect this most recent series of clashes to be grime’s last. It’s just too much fun to stop.