Hip hop, don't stop

Krumping, popping, breaking, boogalooing... They're all part of the underground dance movement that's determined to burst into the mainstream. Charlotte Cripps gets down
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The Independent Culture

"The essence of hip-hop culture has been obscured by bling bling monotony and designer gangsta rap. What happened to the skills? What happened to the originality? What happened to the unbridled creativity that shouted freedom? It's underground and it's alive," says Jonzi D, the man behind Breakin' Convention, the UK's first international festival of hip-hop dance theatre at Sadler's Wells.

"The essence of hip-hop culture has been obscured by bling bling monotony and designer gangsta rap. What happened to the skills? What happened to the originality? What happened to the unbridled creativity that shouted freedom? It's underground and it's alive," says Jonzi D, the man behind Breakin' Convention, the UK's first international festival of hip-hop dance theatre at Sadler's Wells.

The name Jonzi D shouts respect in circles of hip-hop dance theatre. He graduated from the London School of Contemporary Dance in 1992 and has been involved in British hip hop-culture, in clubs and on the street, since it began in the early Eighties. As the festival's curator (he has previously staged club nights for Bustin Moves and The Apricot Jam), Jonzi D has now gathered together a mean group of hip hop's movers and shakers, from early pioneers to the latest innovators.

Also a poet and MC, Jonzi D was inspired to embark on his dance career as a street performer 20 years ago, partly by an early pioneer of hip-hop dance moves, Popin Pete, who, with his brother Boogaloo Sam, is a member of The Electric Booglaoos (formed in 1975). The brothers are billed to "bust some hot moves" as the most famous "poppers" in the world when they arrive from Los Angeles, next week. But despite the fact that Boogaloo Sam is responsible for the creation of the styles known as "popping" and "boogaloo", Popin Pete tells me that they are "ghetto celebrities".

"That is when you have a famous name, but you don't have the money," he tells me. "We big up the moves for the love of it. Now I must spread the styles and help people learn how to do it."

We are not talking moonwalking here: popping involves snapping the legs back and flexing muscles continuously to the beat to give a jerky, snappy effect. "It is trying to make your body look as weird or robotic as possible, but in a free-flowing way. I can turn my head to the left, but my bottom half can go right," says Popin Pete.

Is it very hard to train in popping?

"No, anybody can do it," he says.

Another artist who will be arriving next week is Tommy the Clown, one of the stars of the current underground movement in Los Angeles, "krumping", which is taking over inner-city neighbourhoods. The scene began in 2001 when hip-hop clown dancing got intense round at Tommy the Clown's former clowning dance academy in Inglewood, California (it's now closed because it was too noisy for the neighbours). "I started saying "He's getting krump" when a dancer was getting really busy with the dance moves," he says about his hyper version of clown dancing (a blend of hip-hop dancing and traditional party clowning) "but it is more athletic, more adult."

"It all kicked off when we started to get all krumpy at weekends," explains Tommy the Clown, who has been up all night at a party. "We would set up a boxing ring - I would be ringmaster and we would battle it out," he says with extreme passion. Some of Tommy's dancers were krumping in Christina Aguilera's video for "Dirty".

But why a hip-hop dance theatre festival? Jonzi D explains: "I am trying to look at the b-boy and the b-girl [hip hop names for break dancers] and how they cannot just "battle" [take other dancers out with better dance moves], but see how they can create pieces of dance theatre. How theatre can serve as a voice for us to articulate the experiences of the hip-hop community."

He cites The Vagabond Crew, an award-winning Parisian break crew founded by Mohamed Berlabi as a good example. They are used to battling all the time (the troupe are regulars at the UK break dancing championships held at the Brixton Academy every October), but what they have developed for the festival is a theatre show that explores homelessness.

As we speak, Jonzi D is rushing around Sadler's Wells organising the festival's weekend of performances, demonstrations, debates, workshops, battles and free-style sessions. He is jolly busy giving Sadler's Wells - more widely known for Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker than Benji Reid's body-poppin' (Reid accompanied Soul II Soul on a world tour as their principal dancer) - a "hip-hop makeover".

"I am turning it into more of a club environment, removing seats and allowing the audience the freedom to come and go from one auditorium to another." Hip-hop action will take place simultaneously and short films will be screened, including Jonzi D's solo piece, Aeroplane Man.

Hip-hop culture found Jonzi D and gave his life meaning after a youth spent on east-London housing estates. "For once I heard a culture that actually celebrated this environment and used it creatively. I enjoy the fact that we use walls and pavements as our arenas of expression. That's cool. That makes a bit more sense to me than going to dance school and wearing tights," he says, which he did for a while when he trained in classical dance. "Can you imagine how embarrassing it is when you tell your friends what you are up to? As far as I am concerned, classical ballet was a bit camp for me, and hip-hop culture is a truer way of expressing myself."

Originating in the Bronx in the Seventies, hip hop is today the most popular youth culture in the world. It is responsible for a lifestyle - and has its own techniques such as turntablism, breakdancing, aerosol art (or graffiti writing) and MC-ing. "But these days," Jonzi D continues, as a hip-hop politician might, "hip hop sells a lifestyle that is less about the struggle of hip hop, but more about diamonds, gold and cars."

He is urging us all to look beneath the veneer of hip hop that is being presented in the media at the moment. "The pop star 50 Cent is a good rap artist, but I think what sold him to the public more [than his music] was the fact that he has been shot nine times." Indeed, some of the world's greatest rap artists - including Notorious BIG (aka Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur have been victims of "gangsta-ism" and became celebrated after their deaths. "But that's a small part of hip-hop culture," insists Jonzi D. "There is a lot of peace and love in the ghetto."

Certainly, talking to Popin Pete doesn't ring any gangsta alarm bells. "My brother, Boogaloo Sam, would go 'pop', 'pop', 'pop', because when he was dancing that is what he thought the sound would be if he put a microphone to his muscles," he recalls. Popin Pete was taught everything by his big brother, and founder of the group. Sam named his group after the James Brown song "Do the Boogaloo", which, roughly paraphrased, means "get down". The name emphasises the funk roots of popping, locking and boogaloo and their difference from the b-boying style of the East Coast-born hip hop.

Both brothers will be teaching masterclasses at Sadler's Wells over the weekend. Popin Pete explains the dance style of boogaloo to me. "If popping is the rigid angles, boogaloo is more liquid-like. We roll with our legs. We make our legs look boneless. It is like a ripple or a wave. I can start off with my head and roll all the way down to the ankles. But you can also combine popping and boogaloo together," he says. "You can pop a selection of muscles and go right into a roll of the knees."

In another part of Sadler's Wells, Jonzi D's is to perform his own classic hip hop, "Safe". "It is a study of control and self-censorship, created in the mid-Nineties," says Jonzi D. The piece begins with him in the throes of out-of-control expressive moves (combining break dancing and popping), to music scratched by DJ Pogo.

"Basically, there is a surge of energy travelling thorough my body. Something in me is trying to get out, and I try to control it. At first, I don't know what it is. But it is emotion that is held in my body. Then I begin three monologues - about a hip-hop concert, a friend's girlfriend, and racist violence in east London. I talk calmly, and then I lose it and start ranting angrily. It is all about negotiating what we let out or keep in. Sometimes we should let things out, because it may make us feel better."

But for Popin Pete and The Electric Boogaloos, who are bringing a dance show that includes comedy skids, popping and booglaoo set to R&B funk and hip hop, life as a "world famous popper" is not all glitz, he says. "Well, I've been doing this for 26 years. It is still shocking to us because we didn't know that both the dances Sam created would become this big. So it is weird. We are humble about it and grateful about it when people want us to perform."

Although it will be Boogaloo Sam's first trip to London, Popin Pete first came here in 1982, in search of a record deal. "I was in a group called Eclipse with Skeeter Rabbit and Sugapop. We were singing, and popping and boogalooing. We never got the record deal. But we did the opening act at a couple of Wham! concerts."

Other artists at the festival include the French-Algerian group Comapignie Käfig, an experimental dance group from Lyon. Rubberdance Group, a Canadian company led by Victor Quijada (a former dancer with Twyla Tharp's company), which is known for its fusion of ballet, contemporary, hip-hop and breakdance styles.

Breakin' Convention also showcases the work of British-based artists such as Robert Hylton, with his abstract contemporary street dance company Urban Classicism. Rennie Harris, the artistic director of the hip-hop dance theatre collective Rennie Harris Puremovemnet, is coming over from America. At 39, he is hip hop's leading ambassador in dance theatre. There is also Twitch Dance Company, a high-energy, all-girl hip-hop and contemporary dance group who will explore women's issues.

Tommy and the Hip Hop Clowns' krump dancing and hip-hop clowning demonstrations over the weekend are set to shake up the normally measured conservatism of Sadler's Wells. "It will be explosive," promises Tommy, the Clown who is bringing over 11 krump practitioners. Perhaps Jonzi D is right when he says: "We haven't even begun to see what hip hop can offer contemporary dance theatre."

Breakin' Convention, Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737), 15-16 May