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The history of war dubs: How technology has changed the art of clashing

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.

Crazy Titch vs Dizzee Rascal (2003)

On the rooftop of Deja Vu FM in East London, two teenagers with the future of grime in the palm of their hands battled it out. It was one of the most high profile clashes to happen early on in grime’s history, shot by Practice Hours producer Troy Miller. The “I’m not a moot” line by Dizzee is one of those unforgettable moments in grime history and the tension between the two typified the raw energy grime possessed at the time.

Skepta vs Devilman (2006)

It’s hard to name the most iconic Lord of the Mics clash but there’s a strong case to be made for Skepta vs Devilman. In 2006, Skepta was still finding his voice as an MC and LOTM was the perfect environment for him to hone his craft. Birmingham’s Devilman, on the other hand was determined to put grime on the map outside of London and since this battle, he’s been considered one of the first non-London champions of the scene.

Lord of the Mics itself became an institution thanks in large part to the official nature of the event and its release on DVD. Still hosting clashes today, early battles like these allowed LOTM to become a sustainable business venture for Jammer. It’s wild to think that distributing grime DVDs without any backing was a full-time job 14 years ago.

Bashy vs Ghetts (2007)

This clash provided moments etched into our collective memories for eternity, just ask Carlos. However one of the defining elements of the clash wasn’t necessarily the tension between Bashy and Ghetts, but the technology used to record it. YouTube had barely been in existence for two years before MCs and fans alike started uploading clips. For those that weren’t able to their hands on street DVDs like Risky Roadz, Practice Hours or Lord of the Mics, YouTube was the next best thing and was instrumental in taking grime nationwide.

P Money vs Ghetts (2009-10)

The narrative that grime was dead between 2008 and 2013 doesn’t really hold up when you consider the mixtape and live elements of the culture. The same could be said for clashes during this period and few kept the competitive nature of grime alive quite like P Money vs Ghetts. To this day, many still can’t decide who won the clash. Both MCs are arguably at their best when taking someone apart on wax and for many fans, it came down to nothing but preference. Some like Ryu, others prefer Ken.

As recently as 2016, P Money told GRM Daily that, “I don’t think it’s over.” This clash held both a cultural and technological significance at a time when grime was widely considered to be in a rut. With record shops and club venues across London closing on mass, audiences were forced to transition from physical consumption to digital listening to keep up with the battle. If the dubs weren’t being aired on the radio then they were featured on early incarnations of GRM Daily and distributed via a booming online mixtape economy.

Chip vs Yungen (2015)

This was a full-scale war, plain and simple. None of this stoking the fires with warning shots here and there, but full on airstrikes, with bystanders catching strays. However above all, this was a modern clash, carried out largely online, in real-time and with a committed audience that commentated as each dub was sent. Fans of both Chip and Yungen alike would stay up all hours waiting for the next dub to drop, debating from the opening bars whether they’d one-uped the competition. This clash was also the first high profile YouTube-centric battle in grime, with each MC sharing not just war dubs, but slickly produced videos targeting one another as well, laying the foundation for the battle royale of grime’s modern era.

Wiley vs Stormzy (2020)

Stormzy’s victory in this clash is the clearest example yet of how technology has impacted not only the history of the war dub but audience’s expectations of a clash as well. While many of his fans won’t be old enough to remember the days of Titch vs Dizzee or even Bashy and Ghetts, Big Mike’s superior digital agility and slickly produced videos, shot by longtime collaborator Kaylum Dennis, won him this battle as much as his bars.

No-one could fault Wiley’s embrace of streaming platforms or his lyrical skill, but his staggered dub and video uploads, as well as his erratic Twitter presence have clearly cost him in the eyes of the grime-listening public. What’s more, with Stormzy’s second dub Still Disappointed now officially streaming, this clash could see a war dub chart for the first time.

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