Hip-hop festivals in Toronto are usually a time when MCs come together to celebrate love, unity and community, but Thursday night’s Red Bull Culture Clash at the Molson Amphitheatre was an opportunity to inject the annual Manifesto Festival with some old-fashioned antagonism.
“This isn’t a sit down and clap type of thing,” host Kardinal Offishall warned the crowd at the beginning of the night. “This is rowdiness!” The format: four teams of DJs battle in four 15-minute themed rounds and whoever inspires the loudest audience reaction wins. In the first round the DJs could play their favourite songs, the second required a ‘special surprise,’ the third would showcase versatility and the final “big banga” round was go-for-broke time.
After the first two rounds, each team had established a distinct style. LuckyMe’s Hudson Mohawke, Lunice and Rustie vibed out to a bass-heavy, druggy and introspective club sound and then brought out producer Just Blaze, who filled the hype man void. Mad Decent’s South Rakkas Crew and Philly party DJ Sega brought the glamour, matching varsity jackets, blog-ready remixes and dancehall jams as MC Skerrit Boy held down the front in a flashy white suit.
Toronto All-Stars DJs Mensa and Lissa Monet mixed straight-up hip-hop hits and Can-Con classics as MC Trix hyped the hometown, and Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation crew kept it old school with classic joints, break beats, electro-funk, drum n’ bass and a wall of big, imposing-looking dudes.
Up to this point the vibe at the foot of the Amphitheatre stage was ever tipsier, but largely civil. The format was working, the floor had filled up but the battle remained largely unspoken. Things got more interesting during the third round.
“You don’t have to be nice and decent to anybody,” Offishall reminded everyone – though the performers took this advice to heart more than the audience did. After two noisy, hard-edged club sets from LuckyMe and Mad Decent, the Toronto All-Stars owned the ‘mix-up round’ thanks to a scene-stealing performance by beat box champ Terry Im and a series of guest MCs including Lindo P, K-OS and Michie Mee. After that, Zulu Nation’s wall rappers had trouble sustaining the energy level. Their MCs were technically on-point but a lack of recognizable songs alienated the crowd and they never quite recovered.
For the final round, Just Blaze set the bar for rapid-fire skill, dropping hip-hop hits with extreme attention-deficit. Unfazed, Mad Decent’s Skerrit Boy commented, “I’ve never heard so much old school hip-hop played in my life” and proceeded to obliterate the nostalgia trip with booming Major Lazer beats, a laser-emitting glove and triumphant stage swagger straight out of Bono’s playbook. It worked. As the crowd chanted “Mad Decent! Mad Decent!” all eyes turned to the strangely blank faced Toronto All-Stars.
“This ain’t about gimmicks, it’s about music,” Trix said. “I don’t care where you coming from Sisqo.” In a rousing pep talk, he took shots at Mad Decent’s sartorial flare and “voguers” as the macho sounds of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “N****s in Paris” outro filled the arena. The All-Stars had one more surprise: DJ Skratch Bastid, whose speed and ability to crowd-please (hello Kriss Kross) rivalled Just Blaze’s earlier set and ultimately helped the T-dot team claim the champion mantle.
Kevin Ritchie is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He interviews pop stars, musicians, filmmakers, designers and other creative types for a living. Follow Kevin on Twitter here