Breakdance: Breakdancing Breakdown
B-Boy crews received top billing at Hip-Hop jams and block parties, but that was long ago and far-away. The time was the very late 60's and early 70's. The place was New York. Between then and now a lot has happened to Hip-Hop, B-Boys and Breaking. All have wanned and waxed in popularity during the past quarter century, especially breaking. But now Breaking is back and it¹s time to remind ourselves of its roots in the United States and its chequered history in Britain.
Whether it began on the left or right side of America remains open to debate. Here in the U.K. we prefer to think both Los Angeles and New York contributed to its development. In New York, it was Kool DJ Herc, the very first Hip-Hop DJ, who coined the phrase B-Boy in 1969. The Jamaican-born performer had developed a technique of mixing records so that the dancing sounds never stopped. His particular skill, later copies by legions of others, was to meld the percussion breaks from two identical records, playing the break over and over, switching from one deck to the other. Kool Herc called these 'Cutting Breaks'.
When he performed to Breaks[?] at crowded venues, such as the Hervalo in the Bronx, he would shout loudly 'B-Boys go down!' and this was the cue for dancers to cut and jump their gymnastics. Even today nobody is quite clear what Kool Herc meant by his phrase. Some suggest B-Boys stands for 'Boogie Boy' while others insist it means 'Break Boy'. The later has become the favored choice. But who were the original B-Boys and where had they learned their skillz? Again the answer is fairly straight-forward. They had simply adapted what they had been doing on the ghetto streets.
The pioneers were members of New York and L.A. street gangs who had taught themselves martial arts - in particular a Brazilian style - to defend themselves from attacks by rivals. Because of this many dance moves appeared aggressive and extremely violent during the early years. For instance, 'Uprock', performed correctly, can look very much like a scene snatched from a old Kung-Fu movie.
'Uprock' was probably the first form of Breaking. From it springs many other moves to continue the dance on the floor as a single rhythmic activity. It was so convincing that many over-zealous night club managers and their bouncers interpreted the dance as a real fight in the making. The fact is that sometimes is was.
While many youngsters learned quickly that it was easier as B-Boys to receive approbation from their peers and often earn large amounts of money as well from their performances, others still preferred to risk their lives and limbs on the streets in the needless pursuit of becoming gangstas. As a consequence some dancers remained committed gang members, determined to settle old scores and so sometimes battles did erupt on the dance-floors. Understandably the media reported these incidents and very soon Hip-Hop came to mean violence, crime and general trouble-making in the public's eye, although these negative qualities were found in other entertainment areas as well.
Over on the West Coast, meanwhile, many L.A. gangs were dancing in the streets too, but each was trying to out-do the others by showing off more complex and dynamic performances, still influences by Kung-Fu. What 'Uprock' was to New Yorkers, 'Locking' had become to the Electro-Boogie-loving La-La youth. It had been started by Lockatron Jon and Shabba-Doo. Shabba was also responsible for introducing New Yorkers to 'Popping', which many claim to be the first, real hip-hop dance. They even go as far as to say they were performing it in 1969.
In New York local dancers added waves and smoother movements to the 'Popping', and that's the style which exists today. Soon it was very popular in discos and part of the 70's mainstream. At that time it was known as 'The Robot' and a early exponent was Charlie Robot who used to appear on American TV's 'Soul Train' program. He took his style and added the pops and lock we recognize today. 'Locking', too, became part of the broad disco culture and many dancers adopted Breaking moves to expand their dance-floor routines. We need to look no further than the movie musicals of the 70's to underline the point. Remember John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever, 'Roller Boogie' and even the anodyne Xanadu which starred the sweeter than sweet Olivia Newton John, an Australian export impossible to associate with Hip-Hop?
Everywhere new moves were being added to the form and to popularize them Broadway choreographers were sanding the raw edges and trying to format moves into a style which would not be out of place in 'Come Dancing'. Mainstream pop artists were blatantly stealing the B-Boy moves, claiming props for originality, and offering themselves to the suburban middle-classes as the ultimate in street cred. Sanitized and safe, of course. The ultimate 'lift' was probably used by Michael Jackson in the 80's when he did the 'Moonwalk', thrilling pre-teens and their parents, but the underground knew that the man owed a debt to veteran funksta James Brown. Brown had hatched the 'Goodfoot' dance-style which led to 'Floating' which led, yes, to the 'Moonwalk'.
'Popping', too, has been lost to its originator and become part of the credit list of Jeffrey Daniels, once with the hit-making group Shalamar, while countless others assume Tik & Tok invented 'Robotics'. Yet both moves had been performed brilliantly by street kids a decade earlier. Yet, without commerce kicking its resources into Breaking, would it have crossed the Atlantic and could it have survived? We'll never know the answer, but many underground crews earned a healthy crust from show-business during the early 80's. Record execs had found many of their artists incapable of mastering the B-Boys moves and decided instead to hire proper dance crews to front pop records, made by session singers and musicians to tease the public into believing it was receiving the Coke of Hip-Hop, the real thing. Rocksteady Crew, Breakmachine, Uprock and the Motor City Crew were some who sold their names and services for fronting these releases.
Britain's first real sample of B-Boys and Breaking came around 1982. It was handed out by the last person anybody would have expected, Malcolm Maclaren, who fathered Punk and gave birth to the Sex Pistols. It arrived as the full fourŠ DJing, MCing, B-Boying, and Graf-Writing. A former art student and today a shrewd money-maker, Maclaren had released The Buffalo Girls. The disc's video featured Breaking by none other than The Rocksteady Crew, comprising Crazy Legs and Frosty Freeze, a New York duo who worked out in Central Park throwing new shapes and often battling the likes of the Incredible Breakers and Magnificent Force.
A bit later, The Rocksteady Crew appeared in 'Flashdance', the smash-hit movie of '83. They also visited Britain and so impressed a bunch of kids in Manchester that those kids decided to become part of the Hip-Hop Culture and call themselves Kaliphz, All this, coupled with the label Street Sounds bringing out electro-compilations, nourished the underground and B-Boys began to pop their heads above the sewer-covers to test the climate. All seemed good. Crews like The Furious Five had made a hit with 'The Message' and Break Machine was reaching out to the public at large via 'Top of the Pops'. Jeff Daniels, dressed as his alter-ego Colonel Pop, exposed Breaking through the same show and his 'Popping' astonished the home audience. At clubs, his movements became the ones to copy if a man wanted to impress his partner. It wasn¹t easy, but in south London, there were enough devotees to fill a club whose members were only Hip-Hop dancers. The club called itself The Breakers Yard. 'Rap' and 'Breaking' became familiar terms, if not always used correctly - even by so-called Hip-Hop experts at record companies (note: So nothing changes?).
Young school kids - Black and White - throughout the country were taking Breaking to their hearts. Any chance to escape classes and perfect moves was taken. Truancy was the order of the day. For those who couldn¹t escape, school playgrounds were used to practice. On the way home or downtown, it was usual to see at least five other crews in action. Sometimes you¹d end up battling one of them in a shopping center, only to be chucked out for causing a disturbance if you were caught by security staff. Later you¹d chill with your new-found friends, chat topics of mutual interest and transcend the bull-shit barriers.
It all seemed so positive here in those days of the mid-80's. If you were young, everybody appeared to be involved in the Culture, either as a Breaker, a Writer, Rapper, Beatboxer or DJ. Perhaps you were a mixture of all. Hip-Hop brought out the best in us. We saw no reason why we could fail at anything if we had the commitment. We would be able to move our interest forward, improve them, overtake what the mainstream offered. We'd delve deep into Hip-Hop's history and give respect to its creators. British crews were receiving long overdue exposure on television. There was Broken Glass on 'Get Fresh' and The B-Boys on 'Saturday Superstore'. 'Blue Peter' featured The London All-Stars and, in 'Rock Around the Clock', Rock City were caught in the spotlight, breaking on chairs at the word-of-mouth jam held in the Town & Country Club.
Breaking was dictating the clothes people wore, with name-brands thriving on the craze. It began appearing on TV, not just in music shows, but in soaps as well. There it was in the 'Eastenders' and in 'Grange Hill', not to overlook the commercials for Carling Black Label. Movie-makers were in on the act, churning out their stuff, from 'Wild Style' through 'Beat Street' to 'Breakdance'. There were Electro Rock jams at London's Hippodrome, Free-style '85 in Covent Garden and UK Fresh '86 in the Wembley Arena. And yet... Even the Royals were getting into the act, although they may have misunderstood the term 'Breaking' as subsequent divorces suggest. The Buck House Band had commanded The Rocksteady Crew to entertain them at their annual hop, The Royal Variety Show held in the company of their friends, the enormously rich and famous.
Newspapers and magazines suddenly made Hip-Hop respectable and so did the advertising between the features. Everybody that thought themselves sociological commentators scratched and scribbed their thoughts, leading to many futile intellectual debates where experts circled themselves until they disappeared up their bum-holes. The whole thing had become blunted. There was no sharp cutting edge left to the form. There was no quicker way to kill an exciting street movement than to have the Establishment join. Using hindsight it's easy to see now that the whole thing became too big, too quickly, and, as a consequence, too loose. It became a source for making easy money and no golden goose can survive if it's force-fed to lay too many eggs, too fast. In less than five years the bubble had burst. Its mass appeal was lost. Once more it went underground, kept alive only by a hardcore minority. Before anything could happen again, Hip-Hop and the British B-Boys would have to get real.
A new generation took up the torch, Puma States and Kappa track-suits. They studied the culture and discovered groups like Brooklyn¹s Stetsasonic, Eric B. & Rakim, a duo from Queens who promoted a unity between Rap, Rock and Jazz. 'I hold the microphone like a grudge,' Rakim rapped, 'Eric B. hold the record so the needle don¹t budge.' They were out to put the Funk back in Hip-Hop.
And then there was Public Enemy. For the Brits, here was a breathtaking crew, who showed no mercy, took no prisoners. No wonder they were dubbed The Black Sex Pistols. Material by these groups was the kind of stuff that stirred the hearts of young rebels, but more was needed if the 90's were to see a return of the B-Boys in strength with their Breaking in the United Kingdom. Ironically it wasn't an explosion of Rap and Hip-Hop that was to do it.
It was sparked by the likes of Britain's Take That, Euro-Poppers, Dr. Alban and Germany's Snap who shot up the UK charts with 'The Power', a clear case of hijacking Chill Rob G¹s version. Snap¹s video though, along with those of the others, captured a lot of Breaking and so raised its appeal once again.
This 'new look' included new moves. 'The Wop' and '2-Hype' free-styles became part of the scene, popularized by the happy-go-luckly Kid-n-Play in their 'Getting Funky' video and the 'House Party' series of movies. True Hip-Hop headz, however, were still turning their backs on Breaking or, worse, abusing the dancers. At some jams they even poured beer on the floor to stop Breaking, claiming crews were taking up their space and looking ridiculous in their tracksuits. The breakers persevered.
Now, in the decaying 90's, B-Boys are back. There's massive interest in the dance form within the context of British Hip-Hop culture. The revival here is led by crews such as Born To Rock, U.K. Rocksteady, Second To None and others who have been featured regularly at Hip-Hop jams up and down the country. These days it's quite common to see B-Boys advertised on flyers promoting Rap and DJ acts.
Slowly the media has picked up these stories, asked the right questions and reminded readers, listeners and viewers how the scene used to be. Some of the original Breakers have been remembered and encouraged to re-emerge from the underground to resume their busting moves on Rap artists' videos.
Battles have resumed. The annual 'Battle of the Year', for example, is an international event held in Germany that is growing from strength to strength. Recent contests have had crews from several parts of Europe showing off their skills. Last years battle was videoed and there are two versions on sale. In the 1996 Battle of the Year to be held September 6&7, Born to Rock expect to find a place in the finals, supported by DJ First Rate who works with them at the jams. He rocks the house with his cutting and Blemmer leads the 'Popping' routines.
After the wilderness years, Breaking is back, again growing in respect as an integral part of the Hip-Hop scene. Rap is no longer the only representative of the culture upon which the whole is judged. In south London, for instance, the Ghetto Grammar Workshop has introduced Breaking and Writing to its study courses, alongside the existing Rap and DJing classes.
What's strange is that while the majority of the best jams are held in London, the elite Breakers come from outside the capital. For example, at a battle recently stage d at the Subterrania, both crews were from out of town. Born To Rock was one, the other, Second To None from Bournemouth. But it's B-Boys like them who are taking the dance to new levels and becoming more and more in demand to perform at shows and Hip-Hop jams. Once again they're the focus of attention, making Hip-Hop more exciting and complete. How long will the latest trend last? Nobody knows, but we¹re gonna enjoy it while it does.