The Hard Yardsby Andy Davis / Images by Luke Daniel / 20.08.2012
Rewind one week. London is in the grip of an Olympian climax. Team GB is amassing gold medals like a hoody in a riot. They’re literally looting them like flatscreen TVs. The usually grouchy London commuters are smiling at strangers and in the heat of the summer moment, women are dressing recklessly. Everywhere there’s a buzz of excitement. As a South African, all we’ve got left to look forward to is Caster Semenya. And when it finally comes down to it, she only scoops the silver, despite smoking the whole field from the back except the skinny white chick from Russia, Savinova, who ran the final hundred like she was being chased by wolves. If this had been an 850 meter race, Caster would have had her. But I guess the weight of the world’s interest in what you’re packing in your leotard caused the Limpopo express some consternation. It definitely seemed like she wanted to come second. And that was the final act of the South African Olympics. There was nothing left to do but wait for the 4 x 100m finals, the final celebrations and the fireworks display.
Across town at the Puma Yard, the Jamaican supporters club was in full effect, sipping on Marley Coffees (stir it up) by day, or dopping Red Stripes and rum cocktails in the sun, on the astroturf in front of the big screens. Hell the Marley family franchise even have an anti-energy drink called Mellow Mood, that chills you out as opposed to gets you hyper, and yes it was available at the Yard along with the spicy Jerk chicken and those thick island basslines. Outside in Brick Lane, the street is doing brisk trade, from the clubs and vintage hipster shops to the off-license and Balti curry houses. It’s London on the penultimate day of the Olympics and the whole place is heaving… having spent the day in Brixton interviewing Jamaican economic refugees, we make the rookie error of planning to catch the 4 x 100 meter relay at the main Hyde Park fan park. What we don’t work into our schedule is the 30 minutes it’s going to take us to make our way through the infrastructure and into the park. Working our way through the crowd, the barriers, the crowd control, the cycle lanes full of punters on Boris Bikes we eventually get to the entrance in time to hear the crowd scream as team Jamaica breaks the world record, each one of their runners doing their race in under 10 seconds. It’s patently obvious we’re in the wrong place. The whole fanpark starts emptying out and it’s a mix of European tourists and drunk, preppy-looking Poms. The Marshalls are trying to keep the belligerents out of the cycle lane and a drunk bergie type stops to direct traffic, give a quick interview, then a dance for the camera before having a chat with a policeman. It’s pretty obvious we should be in Shoreditch, or much further South.
By the time we trawl ourselves back up Brick Lane, dodging the curry touts and groups of London hipsters sitting on the pavement twirling their moustaches and handrolling cigarettes, the whole street is pretty much closed to cars because of the sheer number of punters spilling over from the clubs and bars. And yet the cars are still trying to navigate their way through the crowd. By now the Yard is pumping, there’s a massive queue out front and it’s kind of uncertain whether our media accreditation counts for much at the back of all this humanity. Finally inside, we get in just in time to watch Clement Marfo and the Frontline. Tonight, the yard’s penultimate rush, is hip hop night, headlined by a dude called Professor Green. We’ve never really heard of either of the acts but Green was signed by Mike Skinner’s label The Beats, so he can’t be that bad. Right now Marfo and Frontline are ripping up the stage though. And the crowd seems to know all the lyrics and are giving them back to Marfo with equal volume and conviction. The bass is roaring, the Red Stripe is flowing (even at 4 quid a pop) and you just know this is one of the best gigs in London tonight.
Over the course of the Olympics the Puma Yard has delivered some of the freshest and finest UK based Jamaican culture on offer. A veritable masterclass of the island’s effect on the heart of British culture. From Groove Armada to Natty Congo aka The Rebel MC through all kinds like Stylo G, The Heatwave, Sincere and Benji B. Tomorrow night we’re capping things off with the heavyweight DJs Norman Jay and Dave Rodigan, both of them have MBEs, for their contributions to British Culture. This has been a 3 week long A-grade jol. Slowly the rumours start circulating that Usain Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican relay team are scheduled for a little visit. I personally don’t believe it. And don’t want to spend my time manning the paparazzi barrier to get a photograph of the man posing. It’s full on celebrity-ville at the entrance but the dancefloor is heaving. There’s no chance of getting a game in on either the pool table or the ping pong. So it’s best just to shake it at the back.
Headliner Professor Green is a bit of a let down after the heavy grooves of Marfo and Frontline. He comes across as a kind of British version of Eminem with a bit more pop R&B cheese. The crowd seems well up for it, so maybe I’m on my own with too many Red Stripes to my name. The evening culminates with Trevor “the Lick” Nelson, that dude from MTV who does the booty music show, and a number of other DJs having a spin. The crowd is not thinning out and there’s even a bit of daggering going on at the back, by the checkers boards. In fact, everyone seems to be hanging out just waiting for the main event.
Finally Usain Bolt arrives, in his party whites and the place turns into paparazzi mayhem. He’s rolling with teammate Michael Frater, but Yohan Blake is nowhere to be found. Maybe it’s true what they say about the rivalry getting in the way of their friendship. In the morning, reading other people’s newspapers on the Tube, I get the full picture of Usain’s festivities. The backpages are literally filled with images of his guest appearances in nightclubs all over London. At the Yard, everywhere you look phones are being held above heads, videoing. Red eyes flashing. Usain is a media professional. He grabs the mic and makes a little impromptu speech bigging up yardie culture and thanking everyone for “the show of support!” Then he comes down to the front, climbs in the bus and drops a few tunes, toasting over some reggae and dancehall tunes, alongside DJ Manny Norte. The showmanship just seems to come naturally, and it’s kind of funny moving along to a set being played by the fastest man alive.
Image © Paul Hampartsoumian / Puma
Finally Usain slips back into the VIP and from there to another half dozen, or so, club appearances alongside the London a-list: retired boxers, Chelsea football players and Jason Statham. It’s good to be the king. Thankfully the paps will shoot it all and make it available for us in the morning. Thereby eradicating any sense of FOMO. For the rest of us, the dancehall slowly morphs back into commercial R&B and hip hop. The crowd is starting to thin but the diehards are not ready to fade, rooted to the dancefloor, determined to make the most of it. Out on the street, we sit and nurse a lap curry on the steps of a mosque and wash it down with a Crabbies from the last off-license, that thankfully stayed open illegally to make the most of the early Sunday traffic. It’s a muggy tropical night in London. Nothing out of the ordinary.
**All images and video © Luke Daniel.