Some thoughts on the Red Bull 3 Style Canadian Finals
This past Thursday, I was fortunate to watch the Red Bull 3 Style Canadian Finals in person at the Fortune Sound Club here in Vancouver. It was an eye-opening experience for someone who, up until this point, had only watched edited clips and videos from various championships.
I'm a little notorious for arriving early and staying late at venues. This time I showed up within 30 mins of the doors opening. Only a handful of people were wandering the venue. Mostly bar and event staff, but a few audience members were relaxing in the seated area. Former Canadian champion DJ Trapment was playing a few tunes, but it seemed more for the purposes of soundcheck.
A couple of people from Pioneer DJ came around an told us that there were equipment demos in a side room if anyone wanted to try out a DJ setup. I wasn't expecting this to be part of the event and was quite pleased to try out a DJM-S9. Admittedly, it was odd picking through a music library of tracks I wasn't familiar with - but I managed to find a Drum 'n' Bass song and some scratch tools to play with a couple of minutes. In retrospect, I probably should have spent some time messing around with the DDJ-XP1 since I hadn't seen one on demo before.
DJs Hedspin and Shintaro played a very entertaining back-to-back warm-up set. There was a great diversity of tracks between the two of them, and it seemed like they were focusing on following the crowd's vibe rather than cherry-picking routines from their past performances. I particularly enjoyed Shintaro dropping a track from the most recent Soulwax album.
I wasn't expecting half of the competitors to hail from BC. Both Nick Bike and Floetic are from Vancouver, while Dahly Llama is from Golden. AC and Cam B represented Ontario by way of Toronto and Hamilton, respectively. Rounding it out was Flavours from Edmonton, Alberta.
Nick Bike kicked off the competition with a solid set. He was the only DJ I recognized from the billing, and since I've had the chance to meet him I find it difficult to reflect on his performance objectively. That said, I enjoyed a lot of his mashups - particularly the Justice-style remix of Metalica's "Master of Puppets" with Diplo's "Express Yourself". He ended up getting second place. He probably would have been a bigger threat for the title if his set was a little bit tighter. Some of the scratch and turntablism routines were a little bit loose compared to Cam B. Nick's body language would have benefitted from being a bit more dynamic. Lip syncing the lyrics to songs/audio skits, or pointing/gesturing your arms to communicate with the crowd, requires a bit of exaggeration to be effective. Otherwise, you risk betraying the energy you're trying to convey. Considering the challenges of going on first in this kind of competition, I'd say Nick did a pretty incredible job overall.
One of the biggest lessons I learned from this event came from AC's set: If you're going to start off with a custom diss track toward the other DJs, you better have the chops to back that up. AC played a custom recording of what sounded like a comedian mocking the other competitors. Now, this isn't unusual. Many DJs use this tactic to get a rise out of the audience and demonstrate their confidence. Take a look at Miles Medina's performances from the Goldie awards. It's not just about being cheeky/cocky when dissing other DJs, it's about displaying your skills as you do it. Miles splices and cut in the word "DJ" and well as the other DJ's names into existing song lyrics in order to dismiss them as worthy challengers. AC's bit included a misogynistic joke about menstruation among other things. The thing is, the key to this DJ-dissing trick is nuance, and that was part of AC's fatal mistake. With half the competition being from BC, as someone repping Toronto there's a sports/territory factor that he failed to navigate. Outnumbered an in enemy territory, his hubris was met with booing. Let me be clear, it wasn't the kind of shocked "I can't believe you just did that" cries coming from the audience. It was straight-up booing. It's hard to know if this got under his skin, but his situation worsened with an unfortunate number of mixing and transition flubs early in his set. Things turned around a little bit as he played more crowd-pleasing tunes, but at the end of his 15 minutes, I heard a swell of booing rise back up from what seemed like half the crowd. It was difficult to watch, but a very valuable demonstration nonetheless.
Floetic and Flavours tied for 3rd place. I think Floetic may have had the strongest set of the night. At least in terms of crowd reaction. As the 3rd act (especially after Nick's solid intro and AC's disappointing follow-up) he was in a prime position to rock a hungry crowd. The audience certainly seemed the most responsive during his set. He had a couple of cheesy gimmicks such as throwing out paper money into the audience. However, he also had an NI Mashine plugged in so he could layer live drums and percussion over his tracks.
Fourth on the docket was Dahly Llama. Regardless of his skill as a DJ, I have to take issue with his DJ handle. A white dude using a spiritual leader's title like this in 2017 is not cool to say the least. You don't have to dig very far into the history books to appreciate the struggles of the Tibetan people. Plenty of DJs & Producers co-opt and flip celebrities' names, but I cannot abide this kind of cultural appropriation. Dahly had a large (or at least, very vocal) fan following in the audience. They frequently chanted his name throughout the night. Even with context, It's a little surreal to hear what sounds like "Dalai Lama" being chanted by white dudes in a nightclub. As for his performance, Dahly's was serviceable. His fan's seemed to enjoy the more glitch flavors of his sound, and he did an impressive job chopping and flipping tracks on his APC. However, even with a passionate fanbase, it wasn't enough to earn him a placement in the top 3.
Flavours was arguably the boldest set of the night. He performed all original productions (some of which featured samples of other songs) and played keyboard solos on top of it all. His scratching was decent but didn't come across as the primary focus of his set. he technically played out tracks across a variety of different genres. I was impressed to hear everything from swing and jazz to Drum 'n' Bass. However, his production style was very present across them all. This throughline would work very well for a concert, but I'm not sure if it worked completely in his favor for this competition. I applaud him for taking this risk - he certainly left an impression on me.
The winner, Cam B, was arguably the most technically skilled, and certainly had the cleanest set of the lot. Most the crowd had left by his performance, so it was difficult to gauge how well he was rocking the crowd. Although I didn't feel there were any big crowd moments, the audience was pretty consistently dancing and vibing along. Of all of the performances, Cam B had some of the most memorable routines. I enjoyed the tone/sample play he cut from one record into "Blister in the Sun" by the Violent Femmes. He also had a novel transition using Clipse's "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)" into Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade" complete with a scratch cover of Tom Morello's guitar solo.
Over the course of the night, I noticed there was an interesting intersection of people in the audience. There were those who knew what this DJ competition was all about. They came to see the DJs execute their scratching and mixing skills and take note of their song selection. Others seemed to be present to cheer on and support one particular DJ. I was a bit surprised at what seemed like a large number of clubbers in attendance who didn't appear aware of how this night was going to be organized. One patron kept yelling out for a DJ to play a song during the equipment reset between competitors. I saw lots of people dancing that suddenly looked confused when the music style changed or stopped as part of the performance. They weren't interested in the beat-juggling or scratching or anything that wasn't ideal to dance to. This spread of attendees made the vibe of the event uneven throughout the night. However, I thought this was a fascinating challenge for the competitors. Different genres of tracks would spark reactions from different pockets of the crowd, and it was an impressive feat when one of the DJs found the right track to get almost everyone moving at once.
Kudos to DJ Flipout for MCing the whole event. I can't imagine how challenging that must be when there's so much downtime and dead air between competitors - especially when there's no interstitial music. I appreciated some of the nerdier music references he made throughout the night - spotting samples and the like. He stood firmly by the intent of the event, pushing back on the few odd audience members or Livestream viewers who were talking mess.
I probably would have had a little more fun if I hadn't been up since 6:00 AM for an 8-hour work shift. Going out to late night events (especially during the workweek) requires a kind stamina I don't know if I have anymore. Attending shows by myself always feels weird until I can lose myself in the music. On top of that, I always seem to spend a great deal of my time watching the show through an academic lens. Not only do I watch the performers, I pay attention to the crowd. The systems and dynamics at play on a dancefloor continue to fascinate me. Hopefully, I can get myself back on stage more regularly to develop my skills and maybe one day enter the Three Style competition myself.