Last Friday at London’s O2 Arena, Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang entered the Red Bull Culture Clash and came out with their heads held high, reversing the sorry trend for US hip-hop crews to crash and burn at the huge annual soundclash. Andrew Friedman spoke to Taylor Gang’s DJ Bonics to find out how he got stuck into dubplate culture, raided his little black book and bagged an appearance from a great lost grime MC.
Assuming one does not already exist in Chinese or German, we need a word for the feeling of revelatory perspective you get from seeing the big picture and fully understanding how little you knew. Usage cases include a) when internet got fast enough that you no longer had to watch scrambled porn on the Spice channel, b) when you’re finally hooked up with a delivery service and suddenly have access to all the ways to get high that rappers talk about and c) Red Bull Culture Clash 2016.
What went down on Friday in London was a masterclass in the interconnectivity of two decades of popular music. The three-hour soundclash between four teams – with dancehall represented by Dre Skull’s Mixpak, grime by Wiley’s Eskimo Dance, garage by the ambiguously named UKG All-Stars and hip-hop by Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang – contextualized all those genres and also demonstrated the important overlaps between them. It also answered questions like “why doesn’t Drake rap anymore?” and “why don’t Americans get grime?” better than any thinkpiece could.
For the uninitiated, a soundclash is like the opposite of a turntablist DJ battle. Battles focus on technical mastery of cuts and juggles, and finding innovative ways to diss your opponents by digging up obscure records that happen to mention their names. Clashes, on the other hand, have little or nothing to do with “traditional” DJ abilities. The sound systems in a clash compete by finding elaborate ways to talk shit and flex their respective power. Every round is a carefully orchestrated mini-concert fronted by the system’s MC, and might feature anything from props to surprise guests to video footage of celebrities dissing their opponents. The most important weapon in a sound system’s arsenal is the war dub, which sees an artist re-record their song specifically for that sound system, mentioning them by name and maybe even dissing another sound. The team with the best dubs is usually on course to take the win, and Mixpak more or less secured their victory on Friday with a ‘One Dance’ dub from Drake himself.
“Every time we asked an artist if they would do a dub for us they were like, ‘What the fuck is that?'”
What really elevated Culture Clash 2016 was the prominent and credible involvement of Americans. I know that’s a bold fucking statement coming from a Yankee like me, but usually we don’t even acknowledge international competitions until we start dominating them. Mixpak may have won on Friday, but they were bona fide underdogs going in (“WHAT THE FUCK IS A MIXPAK?” was a frequent question on social media). But the real surprise was Wiz Khalifa and Taylor Gang. In previous Red Bull Culture Clashes, hip-hop’s representatives have not exactly given the impression that they understand the concept. In New York in 2013 and in London in 2014, Just Blaze and A$AP Mob respectively put on great shows but failed to bring the confrontational theatrics that actually win soundclashes. Expectations were generally low for Wiz and friends.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Taylor Gang came out guns blazing: Joey Bada$$ emerged on stage, Amber Rose showed up via video to tell everyone to suck her dick, and all-stars like Fat Joe, Rae Sremmurd and Travis Scott all contributed dubs. When the moment came to invade other sounds’ territory, they were prepared. Bringing out dancehall sensation Stylo G was a strong look, but Stylo in turn brought out Ice Kid, the grime MC once considered Wiley’s chosen protege who went AWOL years ago. Taylor Gang showed up to play, and did so with a refreshingly un-American attentiveness to the rules of a largely unfamiliar game. In turn, they demonstrated hip-hop’s position in today’s modern music landscape in a way few artists have been able or willing to do.
The mastermind behind Taylor Gang’s performance at Culture Clash was Wiz’s long-time tour DJ, DJ Bonics. He spoke to me about the unique challenges of getting dubs from American artists, what Culture Clash meant to him and the rest of Taylor Gang, and how the hell they found Ice Kid.
What was your reaction to finding out Red Bull wanted Taylor Gang in the Clash?
I was excited, I know a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to be in a competition like that. I did [DJ contest] Red Bull Thre3Style twice and I got to the US finals – when you put yourself out there on those sort of things, it shows enthusiasm for what you do versus playing it safe, you know? But my first thought was, so how are we gonna do this? It was only like five weeks until it was time, and also we were preparing for a European tour which we leave for this week, and a summer tour with Snoop. It fell in a weird place. It was a bit overwhelming to be honest.
How much did you know about clashes coming in? How much did Wiz and the rest of the team know?
Not even putting him out there like that but he didn’t really… nobody knew anything about it. In London and Jamaica, those guys are very familiar with the soundclash. Americans… to be honest every time we would ask an artist, “would you do a dub for us?” they were like, “what the fuck is that?” We would explain it like, “yeah, you need to diss these teams,” and they would be like, “who are these people we’re dissing?”
Rappers aren’t generally the type to ask other rappers for shit like that. At first there was a little bit of frustration. I thought it would be easier if Wiz would reach out to the artist himself, and he did reach out to a couple but it really wasn’t in his cards to just call a rapper and be like, “hey, Rick Ross, will you do this for me?” So a lot of it went through me and the management, reaching out to different artists. Including Black Chiney [in the process] really helped us on the soundsystem [and] reggae front. Atlantic Records helped but I gotta give it up to Wiz’s management and Black Chiney. It would come down to Wiz’s manager emailing someone like, “hey, we’re doing Culture Clash, will so-and-so do a dub for us? Here’s Bonics on the line, he’s gonna explain it.” I probably wrote a whole album of lyrics for different artists.
We didn’t always get the return or the response, but it was last minute and for a rapper to say, “will you do a Taylor Gang version of your song?” I could see how other people would be like, “I don’t know if I want to make time for this.” Not that they don’t respect us, they just don’t know what it is and it’s an odd request. I understand – I rarely ask DJs for gigs because I don’t want to. It’s the same mentality.
Right, a lot of it is politics and ego, and the fact that you guys had to sell everyone on the concept made it an uphill battle and put Wiz in an awkward position.
Also, in reggae culture – this is shit that I learned from the process – some of these dudes eat off that shit. So they’re not excited about doing a drop for Wiz, they’re excited about the money they’re gonna get from doing a drop. There’s a thing called a counteraction, it’s like a response. So for example, Beenie Man might do a dub for Mixpak, then we would call Beenie Man and be like, “we’ll pay you more money if you do the counteraction.” Depending on the loyalty, Beenie might be like, “nah, I’m cool,” but most of the time these reggae artists are like, “fuck that – I’ll take the money and do the counteraction.”
We had a couple counteractions thanks to Black Chiney on the reggae front, but we also did our own version of the counteraction where I did my research on grime and garage and [UK] funky house, and I had our artists – Ty Dolla and Wiz mainly – record verses over their shit. If you listen to the third round, a lot of it was that. That shit is dope because some of these grime artists would dream of Wiz or Ty doing a verse for them. And UK fans, they think that’s interesting and no one ever did it.
Everyone was comparing us to A$AP. They said this, I didn’t say this – but they said A$AP didn’t know the competition, they just performed like it was a concert. If we didn’t get to see A$AP, maybe we wouldn’t have done as well. That kind of helped motivate us to do it right. No disrespect, they’re the homies and Ferg did a dub for us. If they were in next year’s and watched us this year, maybe they would be better than us. But look, they didn’t even expect us to get rappers to do dubs.
The bar had been set pretty low for Americans but you really held your own.
We definitely did. We didn’t win any rounds and I don’t think anyone was gonna think we were. If we did the first round again and people knew that we were gonna do a good job, we may have won the first round. They were already saying, “they’re novelty,” but here’s the reality – if a grime crew came to the US they’re not gonna get a reaction. If a garage and UK funky crew came to the US they might – there’s a little culture of garage and drum and bass and all that, but still we’re really a novelty. So it was like, here’s an opportunity for American artists to shit the bed, not because we want them to but because they did the last time, so fuck, why would they do anything better this time around?
You’re about to go on a European tour, so obviously Wiz has fans overseas. Do you think that’s a different crowd than who shows up to Culture Clash?
Nah, there definitely were Wiz fans there and they would come to see that ‘cos they know about that culture, and they want to see their favorite artist represent. [Same way] they wanna see Wiz play soccer! His fans saw another side of us. They’re used to seeing Wiz on stage, but they saw us literally putting our respect on the line. Not that it would affect anything — his fans would still come out afterwards, but I also know [if we bombed] people would always be like, “you guys were shit.”
It was heated right beforehand, people were exchanging words backstage, but also a lot of the artists wanted to take pics with Wiz. For some of those artists that might be one of the biggest stages they’ll get on. This is an MC’s opportunity to rhyme next to Wiz Khalifa. They knew everything about us going in, but for us, a crash course in UK garage and grime is not always fun. It was a really amazing experience [but] I’m glad it’s over. We’re touring the rest of the summer leaving this Friday so it was a good way to go into the summer as far as a team building thing.
At the end of it all man, it was a great night. We didn’t win, we didn’t win a round, but I couldn’t help but read the tweets and people had so much respect for us. Wiz put it the best on his Twitter – he said we may not have won but we definitely won respect in the UK. And I think that’s the most important thing. There were folks stopping me and Raven on the street the next day to big us up. He just got on the cover of NME this month, so Culture Clash really was timed super nice.
What was your success rate with asking for dubs? One in 10? five in 10?
Well, a lot of it was, “he’s busy this week and we’ll try, blah blah.” Knowing how things are brought up to Wiz or not [by Wiz’s management], I could see how a manager may not even ask. I could see how a manager would be like, “I don’t know if this is a priority that I want to talk to Future about before he goes on this tour,” or maybe they have certain feelings about Wiz we don’t know about. So we tried everyone, from like Ed Sheeran, we actually tried to get Charlie Puth to do that ‘See You Again’ that we played at the beginning, but we had to get another artist to do it because Charlie didn’t want to change the lyrics to the song because it was a tribute song. That’s what I mean — asking artists to change the lyrics of their song regardless of what it is, they might not want to do it. It’s their music! But I would say the success rate was like 30%. It was tough. A lot of them came through at the end. Fat Joe came through, Waka Flocka came through, Krept & Konan came through, Tove Lo was amazing through the process. All of this was put together within the last week, which was crazy.
When did you realize Fat Joe said UGK instead of UKG?
You know what, I didn’t even realize until someone said it on Twitter. We’re putting a mixtape out of all the dubs and I tried to scramble it so it says UKG but… it is what it is.
How did you guys link up with Ice Kid?
To be honest, I know nothing about Ice Kid. We had Stylo G come out, and maybe I’m telling too much but it really wasn’t a planned thing. It was like a moment’s decision. The problem was at first when we were putting it together I was like, “damn, we don’t have enough.” By the time we got to the clash it was like, “I have too much!” There was a Juicy J dub I didn’t play, a Waka Flocka dub that I never played. So I basically had to cut some of our program to fit Stylo G in. And so Will, Wiz’s manager, he was like, “Stylo brought out this dude Ice Kid, they said it’s a big deal,” and me and Wiz were standing there like, “what’s better right now – knowing I can play these dubs or bringing out this dude?”
When did this happen?
On the night.
Stylo G just showed up with Ice Kid?
Yes. He showed up with Ice Kid. And at first I was like, “I don’t know, I can’t cut out the music that people recorded for this.” But Stylo G, we agreed to have him come out so I made sure there was enough time. I played the Stylo G track and they brought Ice Kid out. I didn’t realize the reaction until after the clash on the internet when everyone was like, “look at Chipmunk’s face when Ice Kid came out.” Seeing that be one of the highlights of the night was great – and big respect to Stylo and Ice Kid.