a considered opinion by Fluent-C, Suspense, Toze, and Zia
from The Bomb Hip-Hop Magazine Issue #46 (April/May 1996)
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 it`s 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 ds 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 ÔliftÕ
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
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 four: 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 ÔPoppingÕ astonished the home audience. At clubs, his movements
became the ones to copy if a man wanted to impress his partner. It
wasnÕt 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 couldn`t 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 you`d 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 you`d chill with your
new-found friends, chat topics of mutual interest and transcend the
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-HopÕs 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".
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
Brooklyn`s 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
don`t 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 G`s version.
Snap`s 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 itÕs
quite common to see B-Boys advertised on flyers promoting Rap and DJ
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 videod 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 staged 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
How long will the latest trend last? Nobody knows, but we`re
gonna enjoy it while it does.
This article originally appeared in Downlow Magazine issue #11.
Re-printed by permission from Downlow Magazine.