Manchester hosts the semi-final of the nation’s most manic live music competition. The winner takes all—including a claim to best new act in the city. There can only be one
Way out in Old Granada Studios, Manchester’s maddest amass for one of the most anticipated nights out in modern Britain. Having had a few years to cultivate its reputation, there’s a sense the event is peaking in popularity amongst young music fans, the Fire-in-the-Booth generation, desperate to witness some hectic battle brutality whilst they wait for Game of Thrones to return.
The Clash features battles between four regional acts: local celebrities LEVELZ, the backbeat-loving Dub Smugglers, acid house hero A Guy Called Gerald and old school MC collective Made in Manchester. Upon four inward facing stages, each act has to prove their status as the best in the room, alternating every ten minutes within four ‘rounds’. The strongest sonic gladiator gathers the greatest crowd approval and wins according to decibels picked up during each cheer. Of course there can only be one winner, so if you’re bass doesn’t punch or your drops don’t hit, you’ll be hanging your headphones in shame.
LEVELZ aren’t even considering this an option. Dressed up in black balaclavas and pharaoh hats, they’re like some ironic, Manc Wu-Tang Clan. They smash the first round, using ‘LVL 07’ to raise the bar for everyone else. At this point, Made in Manchester’s drum ‘n’ bass melee seems the most likely to compete, whereas Basstronic – aka A Guy Called Gerald – are just too slow to get anyone kicking off. The first round acts like an exit poll, establishing LEVELZ as favourites with the loudest roar and rowdiest crowd.
It’s a noticeably young crowd. Your average individual likely went to Leeds festival for the first time last summer, saw some grime, loved it so much they decided to get into live music and made the natural next step to come here. There’s a festival-like feel in the way the audience shifts act after act, surrounding you with different faces each time. The sound systems, however, outstrip that of most festivals. The volume balance is so clean and the lighting is so tidy that each act fills up the whole room despite sharing it with three other stages. In terms of spectacle, this is utterly unique.
In spite of the apparent sound quality, Made in Manchester express frustration with the speakers as the second round gets under way. Although it’s meant to be a contest of song selection, this round is about personality. LEVELZ respond to Made in Manchester’s rant by accusing them of blaming their shitness on the technology. Once again, they’ve stepped it up, similarly mugging off Dub Smugglers, channelling Liam Gallagher, Morrissey and Mark E. Smith—their inner Manc basically.
Aside from struggling to pick up any speed, Basstronic are lacking in inter-stage banter, simply for the fact their MC, Navigator, speaks limited English. That and he lets out a homophobic slur at one point, which Dub Smugglers jump on and call him out for, to a strong wave of approval from the liberal young crowd. The playground war wages on but the real violence is coming from the beats, which are sending people subhumanly mad at every drop. Jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, and a bit of dub seem to be everyone’s weapons of choice so far, which raises the stakes even higher for round three: The “something different” round.
Each act imitates another’s signature style. Reggae proves popular, which will certainly be amongst everyone’s main influences but can be heard most distinctly in Dub Smugglers usually. Garage is also prominent, the traces of which can be found in our man Gerald over there who is, sadly, looking like the loser at this early stage. Dub Smugglers almost scupper their chances as well when the sound cuts out for half their time—luckily MC Soom-T brings out her fastest bars and retains the crowd’s attention with her tremoring flow. A bit more desperately, she explains to everyone that the group “love smoking ganj, and fuck the Tories!” as if running through some checklist of ways to a young northerner’s heart.
Made in Manchester and LEVELZ get more personal, but Made… have clearly upped their game, bringing on stage more people and bringing out harder tunes. One thing they do very well is ensure they don’t rush; there are simply too many reel-ups and restarts in the other acts’ sets for anyone to settle convincingly in a song. Made in Manchester let their tracks get a good run before they reign ‘em in and consequently come out on top in this round. Wrongly, LEVELZ win.
It’s now evident who has the home crowd advantage as we near the end; LEVELZ have maintained their energy, true, but they’ve also been buoyed by the fact a lot of people will be there for them and them only. To overcome these odds, all the other acts now have to recreate New Years Eve in a warzone if they want to take the win.
The Fourth and final Round, slightly cringe-inducingly named ‘Armageddon’, requires all acts to put one final sprint in to prove themselves. Winning this round equates to winning two normal rounds, so in theory it’s all to play for. Realistically, it’s between Made… and LEVELZ, though Basstronic noticeably put in their biggest shift so far. They whip the strobes and the confetti streamers out for added effect, but are utterly robbed once Dub Smugglers bring on General Levy for an incendiary rendition of ‘Incredible’. The twenty year legacy of this iconic track is hitting every single person in the room; for the first time, the place goes truly bonkers. Booyaka booyaka, indeed.
Just when you think the night’s peaked, Made in Manchester welcome Liam Bailey on stage as they play Chase and Status’ ‘Blind Faith’ in its entirety and nothing else. Somehow, the lighting and the “sweet sensation” chorus elevate the energy even more. This is partly testament to the influence of Chase and Status—having won the last Culture Clash with Rebel Sound, this moment in the night suggests they could well be the sound of modern Britain, the group that tapped into what the kids wanted at the right time in history; a General Levy, if you will.
LEVELZ aren’t the strongest, but still insist on crowd-surfing in a dinghy to end the round. It matters not. They were always going to win. This is by far the closest round but one still feels a pang of embarrassment for Basstronic when, in the final crowd reading determining a winner, 0% of people cheer. Unsurprisingly, the most noise is made for LEVELZ, who still make a point about Dub Smugglers deserving it in humble fashion, though in my view Made in Manchester had a stronger claim. As things wrap up, the compere annoyingly concludes that “music was victorious”. Wrong. If there was a clear winner of the night, it was the one thing that linked everyone more than music, the reason we could have that much fun, the reason we could even be there: Manchester.