Under The Westway, London, Monday 29th August
Three weeks ago London was beaten. The very idea of having a good time, let alone having it on the streets of London with shit-scary volumes of drunk people, seemed so very far away. Well, balls to that. The capital brushed itself down, coughed up a wad of stringy blood and got on with it. This is the Notting Hill Carnival that almost didn’t happen. Thank God it did: it needed to.
Walking past the familiar enterprising sorts on the steps of Georgian townhouses, flogging beer and toilet facilities for the price of your firstborn, it’s hard to ignore the voice that tells you everything’s going to be OK. It’s in a graffiti-daubed underpass, directly under the Westway, though, that the unbowed, renewed party spirit is at its most undiluted.
When we arrive at [a]Major Lazer[/a]’s shindig, Montreal producer [b]Lunice[/b] is blasting [a]Lil Wayne[/a]’s ‘[b]Grove St Party’[/b] while a vat of rice and peas comes to the boil. The crowd is energised, primed for more. [b]Lunice[/b] facilitates, zipping through a refresher course on rap 2011: [a]Drake[/a], [a]Wiz Khalifa[/a], [a]Gucci Mane[/a], the speakers almost implode under the swag. The world is divided into those who can dance to rap and look cool, and those who look like dicks – [b]Lunice[/b] abandons his laptop and runs out to the lip of the stage to sexy-dance to [a]Beyonce[/a]’s ‘[b]Diva[/b]’. So that’s how it should be done.
Maybe if we were laying prone on a beach we’d be getting funny feelings for Brodinski and Dillon Francis’ set of sun-bleached moombahton. In a chill urban space, punctuated by the sight of the Hammersmith & City line rushing past, the priapic energy is rendered limp. Jessie Ware salvages the vibe, “[i]Major Lazer, I feel nervous[/i],” she coos silkily if worryingly, before launching into – thank goodness – [a]SBTRKT[/a]’s ‘[b]Nervous[/b]’. ‘[b]Hurricane[/b]’ feels humid as hell, the dappled synth and yearning vocals ensuring the blood pumps to all the right places. When she thanks [b]Oneman[/b] and [b]Jackmaster[/b] for letting her sing on her stage, you feel that such humility is not long for this world. Like [a]Katy B[/a], she’s set to transcend the gulf between jobbing vocalist and Real Life Star.
Afterwards, the two ringmasters of the underground deploy their swung beats and torso-busting bass with an eye to maim. [b]Joy O[/b] and [b]Boddika[/b]’s stomping ‘[b]Swims[/b]’ rampages, while [a]Lethal Bizzle[/a]’s ‘[b]Pow[/b]’ makes even the most innocuous chaps all steroidy. Florida’s [b]Black Chiney[/b] are quick to exploit our tenderised limbs, pulling up [a]Beenie Man[/a]’s ‘[b]I’m Drinking/Rum & Red Bull[/b]’. As in previous years at the carnival, [a]Major Lazer[/a] have laid on a surprise guest. “[i]We are about to witness one of the real legends[/i],” the MC cries as [b]Toots And The Maytals[/b] are ushered onstage. In wraparound Oakleys, leather trousers and wide grin ,Toots looks like he is having the time of his life, particularly when he’s framed by two girls resplendent in pluming headdresses. “[i]One more time with the girls?[/i]” he implores desperately when their time is up. Hearing ‘[b]Bam Bam[/b]’ in this celebratory environment, the drawn-out groove seems suspended in time. At the back a wizened guitarist looks on with his seen-it-all-before face, two baseball caps propped on his head – but that’s OK, ’cos he’s old and in the Maytals and hey, what have you done with your life? Sartorial statements aside, ‘[b]54-46 (That’s My Number)[/b]’ enfolds the densely packed revellers in its butter-smooth dubbed-out embrace. Police helicopters may circle overhead, but it seems jarring when the wisp of spliff smoke is that much closer.
It’s in this Zen state that we’re flung headfirst into the headline act. [a]Diplo[/a] and [a]Switch[/a], looking suave in three-piece suits, settle behind the decks like thwarted rockstars. There’s little businesslike about their show: the stage swarms with dancers doing unspeakable things to monitors; MC Skerrit Bwoy, jeans well below the buttock shelf, waves a bottle of Morgan’s Spiced around like a talisman while bothering a hula girl; Switch looks kinda, well, spangled. It’s all part of the charm as they knit together a show that’s less DJ set, more a string of sonic spasms. Like most truly good things, it’s difficult to know if it’s amazing or a bit disgusting. A gang of shirtless lads pile into one another during [a]Skrillex[/a]’s thugstep haemorrhage ‘[b]Ruffneck Bass[/b]’, while a girl with matted hair appears to be crowdsurfing against her will during [a]Beyoncé[/a]’s ‘[b]Run The World (Girls)[/b]’: take that, patriarchy! There’s even one excruciating moment when Skerrit holds the mic to a girl, cupping her face, only to discover she doesn’t know the words to ‘[b]Katy On A Mission[/b]’. [a]Major Lazer[/a]’s new track ‘[b]Original Don[/b]’ papers over the cracks, whipping us up in its vein-bulging military zeal.
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It’s pointless to argue that there’s a better place to see out the Carnival day. As people find themselves hugging strangers, Skerrit recites the Carnival mantra, “[i]We need love, peace and unity.[/i]” It may be cheesy, but the message shouldn’t be lost. “[i]Make some noise for your city,[/i]” screams [a]Diplo[/a] as the fray begins, at last, to settle. It’s heartening that the deafening roar of response is the loudest of the day.