When Rap, Grime and a Heatwave Collide in the Countryside
Everything I saw while trying to stay hydrated at Cambridge's Strawberries & Creem festival.
All photos by the author
Strawberries & Creem might be the lord's favourite festival. While the optimistically dressed twenty-somethings at most UK festivals pray to get through the day without rain, the annual Cambridge event once again aligned perfectly with the hottest day of the year in the UK for the third time in its four-year history. Call it sorcery or the luck of the moneyed countryside, idk.
Set up by a team of Cambridge Uni students and residents who were sick of the dead nightlife on offer in the city, the team behind the event boasts an average age of 23. Billed as an event "mixing regal rural settings with urban music" with a twee countryside title that evokes summer fairs more than it does mad parties, there is a tongue-in-cheek disconnect between the name and the line-up. It's very "look lads, isn't it funny and ~subversive~ how we're booking grime acts and then dropping them into some of the whitest parts of the country? How mad!!"
"That's kind of the vibe we were going for – having this cutesy English festival set in Cambridge and just having completely raggo music", Chris Jammer, one of the founders tells me when we meet before the event. Not known for its party scene, Cambridge might seem a risky place to launch a venture of this kind, but the festival's success so far has proven naysayers wrong. "I think there was a niche for it in Cambridge because everyone has May Week to look forward to" – a week of parties in June at the end of the Cambridge Uni year in which the streets of the usually picturesque city literally run with champagne and vomit – "but the weekend before is always dead. We were trying to cement something different in Cambridge in May Week that wasn't a ball". And so, out of one of the poshest institutions in the UK, a resolutely non-"lush" festival was born.
It might seem like Strawberries & Creem is the latest event to hop on the grime bandwagon during the genre's long-deserved mainstream come-up, though the team behind the festival insist they've been consistently championing the music that they love since their event's conception. Skepta, Kano, Big Narstie and Nelly have all already graced the stage, and this year the elusive Godfather of grime, Wiley, and the nation's sweetheart J Hus, were added to the impressive (if almost entirely male) repertoire.
As I waited in the heat outside Cambridge Station for the shuttle bus to actual Haggis Farm two for £4 mojitos-in-a-can from M&S clutched in my sweaty hands, it felt like the sun could be the same one from the Teletubbies: a big happy smiling baby in the sky with the ability to melt our faces off. A perfect day for a festival! All aboard the party bus! Unfortunately the party bus nearly killed me – stuck in traffic and the hottest I had ever been in the UK until it literally got hotter three days later. Four minutes in and surrounded by sweating sentient pots of glitter doing balloons, I began to genuinely fear for my life. As the roadman in a puffa jacket (are there Thermos cooler packs stitched into the insides? How do they do it?) sitting at the back rolled a joint, the girl behind us handed out tins of a Smirnoff-based drink from a seemingly endless supply stored in a bag for life on her lap.
Once I'd arrived and spent three hours under a tent recovering from heat stroke and deliriously wondering if my backstage pass meant I would be sitting with Shaggy at some point in the day, I was ready to go. Inspired by the reckless man who was live on Instagram while trying to chirpse someone, I decided to make some friends. I have to come clean here: I am not a huge fan of festivals, and that's mostly because of the bindi-wearing masses that seem to make up most of the crowd. Also I went to Cambridge University and hated everyone, and the thought of watching a bunch of posh twats awkwardly gun-fingering to AJ Tracey lowkey made me want to die.
But Dear Reader, you will be pleased to know that there was none of that on Haggis Farm. The crowd was the more diverse than any festival I've ever been to – there were people who had come up from the day from London, Cambridge locals, Cambridge university students and people from the surrounding areas like Hertfordshire and Hitchin all having a great time (some, yes, were still wearing bindis in a whole 2017 but nothing in this world besides Baby Asahd's arm rolls is perfect, is it). "The Cambridge lifestyle is amazing, I would definitely recommend it," one shirtless punter told me. And what is the Cambridge lifestyle? "Get messy, get fucked, get ketted, and done!" He walked off before I could ask him for any more detail. Two girls from London had a slightly more sober take: "It's a sick line-up and we like the fact that we're supporting an independent festival. To see how much it's grown in three years is inspiring, it's sick".
Based on my conversations, it seemed people had come from all over to see J Hus, who – obviously – absolutely smashed it. His game-changing blend of grime, road rap and afrobeats went off in the sunshine; I'm gonna say your summer isn't complete until you've heard "I like my Fanta with no ice" shouted by 5,000 sweaty, grinning people using Boohoo 20 percent off flyers as fans. The pure and friendly vibes during his set made the ban on him performing in London (recently lifted) seem even more ridiculous than it did before.
The other big name of the past year – AJ Tracey – came through like the absolute patron saint of west London: three hours late, dressed in Barcelona FC's official tracksuit and clutching a bottle of Courvoisier. I was so in awe of this behaviour that I missed his whole set. Another artist who was late was Shaggy, but I can only assume that this is because the private helicopter he used to get to the festival direct from Jamaica was having trouble finding parking in a nearby field.
Listen, I don't want to sound dramatic but seeing Shaggy live was the happiest moment of my life. Taking to the stage in bright orange Clarks and a floral shirt, shouting out weed, peace and love, demonstrating wine lessons, he came through like your favourite uncle at the family function who has maybe had one too many caipirinhas and is bordering on being an embarrassing drunk but not quite because he is an absolute legend. As he called for world peace and broke into "Angel", I had never been so sure that Shaggy could become a UN ambassador and create peace in a way Malala Yousafzai never could. As he introduced "It Wasn't Me" to a screaming sunset crowd that had been waiting for this moment for maybe their entire lives – "Men? Men always get caught. Women? Women never get caught!" – I was sure I would never have my brain flooded with this much serotonin without drugs ever again. This was it, the best moment of my life since Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister.
Even after all this, the crew's biggest achievement was undoubtedly securing Wiley. I can't lie: when I first saw the line-up I was like 'well, Shaggy will be fun!' But then this happened:
And there he was! The Godfather arrived from early, hanging backstage with his mates, taking pictures with fans, having a generally great time. For his headline set he appeared in a full white tracksuit and opened with commercial 2009 hit "Wearing My Rolex" (this song bangs don't @ me) and followed up with "Heatwave" before moving on to the Eskimo-dance side of his iconic career and new album Godfather. Any festival population worth it's salt in 2017 has done its grime research, so there wasn't as big a disconnect between the reactions to his mainstream output versus earlier offerings as I was expecting. I think everyone was just happy that they were actually seeing Wiley live, an experience that for many years has had a mythical status akin to sightings of the Loch Ness monster.
It's pretty surreal – and a damning indicator of the bullshit legislation that still stops mostly black and brown MCs from playing in London – that a field in sleepy Cambridge hosted one of the year's biggest urban music line-ups, and gave some of our biggest underground stars a platform to perform. If Strawberries & Creem continue booking acts with this much insight, I have only one piece of advice: book your tickets for 2018. It will probably land on the hottest day of the year.
You can find Nilu on Twitter.