In grime, you should never bring your weakest bars to a clash.
Clashing and war dubs are central to grime’s essence. From Dizzee’s infamous bout with Crazy Titch to Yungen and Chip sparring on YouTube, if you want to claim the genre, eventually you have to answer the clash’s call. Last week, Stormzy – after years of criticism for not clashing, despite calling himself the ‘king of grime’ – did just that, exchanging bars with Wiley in the most high profile lyrical battle grime has seen in a decade.
However, the history of the war dub goes back far beyond grime to sound clashes between reggae and dancehall artists. That boastful, competitive energy gave birth to garage and eventually grime – and it’s that spirit that Stormzy and Wiley have both channelled with their 2020 spat. Whose bars are better? Whose crew is better? Who can bring the most energy? These are the questions every good grime war aims to settle.
Throughout sound system culture’s history in the UK, platforms such as Deja Vu FM, Rhythm Division, Myspace, Rinse FM, The War Report, Choice FM, SoundCloud, YouTube, and more recently Spotify and Apple Music, have all been pivotal, but what they collectively represent is the evolving way in which clashes have been presented to audiences over the years.
Few things in the history of sound system culture are constant, yet war dubs and clashes have consistently incorporated new technology and reshaped how audiences interact and engage with the MCs and DJs involved. Here, we break down some of the most pivotal moments in the history of the war dub.
Saxon Studio vs Sir Coxsone (1985)
In the 1980s, if a sound clash wasn’t happening in one of the few nightclubs that would play reggae and allow black people in, they were happening at carnivals and community centres. Before YouTube or the explosion of pirate radio, you let your war dubs fly face to face. Taking place at People’s Club in Paddington, the clash between Saxon Studio and Sir Coxsone was a heated one, with Coxsone infamously rushing Saxon’s control tower, but at the end of the day, it was all a part of the spirit of the dance. Recordings of the clash can be found online and via CD for those wanting to relive the moment, but ask anyone who was there and they’ll tell you that recordings don’t come close to being in the room.
Shabba Ranks Vs Ninjaman (1990)
Taking it back to the roots, it would do this list a major disservice if the 1990 clash between Ninjaman and Shabba Ranks at Sting Festival wasn’t included. A definitive moment in dancehall’s history, many believe Ninjaman walked away victorious but regardless of who won, it was the live element of Sting that proved crucial to it staying in fans’ collective memory. To this day, the two MCs aren’t on good terms, with Ninja stating as recently as 2016 that he helped build Shabba’s career.
Kenny Ken - Jungle Soundclash Champion (1994)
If there’s one thing to learn when reading this list, it’s that the history of black underground music survives through memory and embracing technology. Back in 1994, on Lea Valley Trading Estate in Edmonton, a roller skating rink called Roller Express was home to some of London’s most well-known jungle nights.
On 16 July 1994, the venue hosted the Jungle Soundclash Grand Final with Mickey Finn, Kenny Ken, DJ Rap and Devious Dee all going head to head. Kenny Ken walked away as champion but back then, if you weren’t part of an underground network of jungle heads who knew where to be and when, your only chance of seeing an event like this was on VHS. You can thank the 1994 Public Order Act for making such networks and unofficial historical records a necessity, Form 696’s degenerate father.
Heartless Crew vs Pay As You Go Cartel (2001)
In the early 00s, both Heartless and Pay As You Go were leading crews in garage. This famed clash between the two crews took place at Destiny in Watford in 2001, a regular destination for garage and grime crews throughout the decade. A key characteristic of dubs back then was that they were all live or broadcast on pirate radio and if you wanted to listen back, more often that not you had to find a bootlegged cassette. The two crews faced off again for a clash in 2004, which ended up on the now-iconic Sidewinder tapes.
Roll Deep vs Nasty Crew (2002)
The 2002 clash between Roll Deep and Nasty Crew is a classic moment in Deja Vu FM and pirate radio history. Broadcast live and often later distributed on white label records, clashes like this one marked the height of the physical distribution of war dubs. Of course, many of the record shops – such as Rhythm Division on Roman Road – that sold them no longer exist, but at the time self-funded vinyl dubs were a pivotal distribution channel for a scene that had been cut off from traditional music industry avenues.