Originally posted in 2013.
With more than 40 soundsystems, over 20 miles of roads and one million party-hungry visitors, Notting Hill Carnival can be as daunting as it is thrilling.
Whether you’re an old pro or a first-timer, the clogged streets of west London don’t always make for a relaxing party atmosphere – between trying to find your mates, trying to find a toilet, trying not to get crushed by the bovine crowds and trying, finally, to find some decent music, the two-day onslaught can push even the most Zen-like customer over the edge. Yes, many swear by Carnival, but we all know those who’ve been once, hated it and never come back. If you’re going in blind, it’s understandable.
With this year’s blowout almost upon us, taking place on Sunday and Monday over the Bank Holiday weekend, we’ve asked six pros to divulge their advice on how to make the most of Carnival, from what to do if you’re a first-timer to which sound systems are best avoided. Femi Adeyemi of Dalston’s NTS Radio, Zainab Jama from London club night Deviation, Boiler Room founder Blaise Bellville, Gabriel from dancehall crew The Heatwave, Commandments resident Unknown Soulja and Wrongtom, veteran DJ and boss of reggae and dancehall label Rongorock, all share their experiences of London’s biggest party.
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WHAT TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE TO PEOPLE ATTENDING CARNIVAL FOR THE FIRST TIME?
Zainab Jama (Deviation): To all first timers I would recommend several things. 1) Do not go with more than three people and don’t be cheap. Save yourself the arguments and waiting time – paying £1 for the toilet is all part of Carnival. 2) Go on both days. You’ll have a completely different experience on each day. 3) Go further than Aba Shanti-I and Channel One (which you have to go to!). The backstreets have some of the best sound systems. I’ve had some amazing moments where it’s just been some guy with two speakers on a stick and a turntable outside his house. So special!
Gabriel Heatwave (The Heatwave): Leave your phone at home and don’t try and meet up with anyone. Just go with a couple of friends, you’re bound to bump into your mates anyway and you don’t want to spend half the day shouting into a phone that isn’t working or waiting in a crowd for people who have got distracted elsewhere by beers and basslines.
Unknown Soulja (Commandments): Don’t try and do too much, moving around can be a mission as it fills up so aim for an area which you like the look of and stay around there, otherwise you risk spending the whole day fighting the crowds to get to a specific soundsystem.
Go early – Carnival wraps up at 7pm so I like to get down early to make the most of the day. There’s more scope to move around when it’s emptier, plus you get a cool otherwordly feeling with all the roads locked off and empty and speakers on every corner.
Take a bottle of rum and something already mixed to save buying expensive stuff there. Otherwise drink your rum straight and save on toilet trips. And take Tuesday off work to recover.
Wrongtom (DJ and Rongorock label boss): Go with open ears and an open mind (yes, I am that corny). I hear all sorts of rubbish surrounding Carnival, from over-the-top tales of violence to nonsense about the “right” places to be. It’s just a very big street party so act accordingly. If you see big groups of kids pushing around or steaming into crowds, don’t forget they’re just kids mucking about so no need to worry.
Avoid anything exclusive – ticketed events inside the Carnival route defeat the purpose of the whole event and it’s actually pretty insulting for the folks who work hard putting their sounds, floats or whatever together for your free entertainment.
Blaise Bellville (Boiler Room): Make sure you are versed on the biggest dancehall and hip-hop hits of the year – Carnival is 1000 times better when you know a few choruses.
WHAT’S THE SMART WAY TO APPROACH CARNIVAL – DIVING IN WITHOUT EXPECTATIONS, OR PLANNING YOUR ROUTE AND STICKING TO IT?
BB [pictured]: Don’t bother planning to walk around the whole thing. Stick to a few key streets, drink only the essentials (Hennessy) as toilets are a rarity, and don’t be one of those pricks that dances on a balcony – everyone hates you guys!
ZJ: Get on a bus to Harrow Road – it runs all the way outside and is easy to slip in without too much stress. Heading anywhere near Westbourne Park tube or Notting Hill is for amateurs. I tend to go to Carnival on my own and if I find anyone at the sound systems, great – if not, it’s one of the only times in London where you’re guaranteed to make a friend within 15 minutes.
FA: Plan your spots to visit – walking around and getting stepped on and shoved around for hours can get very tedious.
US: If you’re a music head and want to see something specific then look at the map, decide on a sound you think you’ll enjoy and set up shop there. If you’re happy to see whatever and just soak up the vibe, then just get down and stop when you like the music.
GH: It’s all about going with the flow. Any plan you have will go out the window as soon as you step inside the Carnival area. It’s good to have a couple sound systems that you’re aiming for, but nothing more specific than that. The main thing about Carnival is to let go and see what happens.
WT: I’ve never planned anything aside from where to meet people. If there are specific sounds you want to catch and you know your way around the area very well then maybe this is a good idea, but there will always be a surprise road block or a street gridlocked with ravers, so I’ve always preferred to just go with the flow.
WHAT’S THE BEST DAY TO GO TO CARNIVAL?
GH [pictured]: Monday is best for getting rowdy, but the laidback vibe you get on Sunday is seriously underrated. Smaller crowds, bit more relaxed, but still the same amazing sounds, sights and smells.
ZJ: I like Sundays for being able to walk around from one sound system to the next without getting trapped in a one way system and also to follow the floats. People sometimes forget about the floats at Carnival but you cannot beat those soca and ragga floats. Pure energy.
WT: Depends what you’re looking for. Sunday’s family day and a little more laidback, by Carnival standards at least. If it’s your first time I’d veer towards Sunday to get your toes wet. I think everyone takes it up a notch on Monday, the parade especially, and you’ll rarely find a better set on any sound than you do in the last half hour before the police shut them all down.
US: I go Sunday and Monday and never see that much of a difference to be honest. Sunday tends to be a little quieter and maybe a bit less rowdy, but it’s still a great party.
FA: When I was a lot younger, Mondays were always my favourite days, I’d know summer holidays would be coming to an end so Mondays were almost like the last hurrah and my last chance to go in. These days they’re just as good as each other.
BB: Every day.
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR BEST AND WORST CARNIVAL EXPERIENCES?
WT [pictured]: I think the best have been ones where I manage to link up with loads of folks who I rarely get to see all year for whatever reason, which probably sounds a little dull but that’s really what Carnival is for me, a big noisy social.
Worst was definitely the time I missed my ride after playing an after-party and wound up carting a massive record box through the middle of an altercation between some posh folks and local kids who had managed to get their hands on a crate of Coke. I had to fight my way through, deflecting Coke cans with my records. Actually come to think of it, the after-party was probably the worst part of that particular carnival.
ZJ: Best and worst was seeing Ms Dynamite perform ‘Boo’ at Rampage. Incredible atmosphere when she started but by the end it went sour and we were running at top speed from the glass bottles being thrown. But I still love Rampage, it’s one of the best systems.
US: My best Carnival experience was being with a load of mates at Channel One at 6pm on what had been a grey Monday and the sun coming out for a last hour of dancing. Have never had a really bad Carnival, although my girlfriend’s phone got stolen last year which spoilt the Monday.
GH: I don’t have any bad memories actually! Best experience was 2012 when we played on a float. Turning the corner onto Ladbroke Grove at 6pm on the Monday and playing to a huge sea of people in the road was amazing.
FA: Best experience was seeing Busta Rhymes a while back – worst was seeing Busta Rhymes a few years later.
WHAT SOUND SYSTEMS AND FOOD STALLS WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
ZJ [pictured]: I do not know the name of my favourite food stall but I know exactly where it is on Golborne Road! Killerwatt, Saxon Sound and definitely 4 Play, which is a vastly underrated sound system if all you wanna hear is funky, soulful house, R&B and bashment. I always try to pass by every year and end up having the best time.
GH: I always go to Lord Gelly’s and King Tubby’s for the latest bashment. And all the floats for the soca.
WT: I seem to say this every year but don’t get too excited about the food, most of it is overpriced and pretty hit and miss. You can get good Caribbean food all year round across London, so unless you want to queue for ages before getting grief for complaining that there’s goat in your veggie dish (or something similar), I’d just grab a pattie or pack a sandwich.
Sound-wise there are almost too many to mention. Gladdy Wax is always amazing, very few folks involved have seen as many carnivals as Mr. Wax. I caught him at the London International Ska Festival earlier this year where he slayed the crowd by dropping Louis Jordan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens’. Aside Gladdy, Disya Generation on Powis Terrace, Sir Lloyd out on Tavistock Road and Virgo on Grove all play top notch selections. A stroll along Talbot Road gives you a good cross-section from soul and boogie business over at Funbunch to very messy ska-related shenanigans with Gaz’s Rockin Blues.
Lord Gelly’s is also good for current dancehall. Mikey Dread at Channel One is always a great vibe from early and Metro Glory just across the way is good for steppers.
BB: Volcano Sound on All Saints Road and that area in general. Avoid Gaz’s Rockin Blues unless you like posh drunk white girls dancing to Jimmy Cliff on loop.
FA: Obvious – NTS / Red Stripe / Rough But Sweet. The Death by Burrito guys are doing some food with us – I’d recommend that, it’s a slight change from rice and peas and jerk chicken (I can get that at home).