The new spin-doctors of cool
After years of being ridiculed, breakdancing is big news again. And everyone wants a piece of the action, says Cayte Williams
Sunday 31 May 1998
Breakdancing, that heady combination of gymnastics, balletics and dare- devil antics, is making a comeback. The Prodigy, always the boys for a decent beat, took break dancers with them on their last tour. In April, veteran rappers Run DMC and Jason Nevins topped the charts with "That's It". In the video, 12 boys and 12 girls had a break dancing battle. It did something that hasn't happened for a long time. It made a dance video look interesting.
No sooner do we blink, than break dancers are popping up all over the place: in Janet Jackson's latest video "Go Deep", in Madonna's "Ray of Light". As if to confirm renewed interest, Wildstyle, the definitive hip hop movie made 16 years ago, is re-released next month.
Break dancing grew out of the New York hip hop scene in the late Seventies, which was the springboard for scratching, rap and graffiti art. By the early Eighties it reached Britain with Malcolm Maclaren's "Buffalo Girls", but by the late Eighties it had burnt itself out. All that was left were break dancers busking in Covent Garden and a few cheesy records by the Rock Steady Crew.
But now, 10 years on, even fashion has spotted the trend. When break dancers stood up after a hefty spin, their jeans would settle half way down their hips, and it's a look that's coming back. In fashion, designers like Aura Dimon, responsible for Phat Pants, is planning a breakdance range. Helmet Lang's dropped-crotch jeans were inspired by breakers, and Stephen Sprouse's Summer collection is a heady mix of hip hop and Andy Warhol.
Break dancing and hip hop is taking off in London, only after the ground work was done by The Scratch in London's King's Cross where break dancers have worked the floor for two years (as Matt says, "you can't become a break dancer overnight"). The club has now expanded to Glasgow and Brighton, while in London Wisdom and Rocker's Revenge at The Blue Note and Hop at The End have kept the scene going strong. Next month Bronx II Brixton opens at the Brixton Academy, a monthly club whose resident DJs are hip- hop legends Afrika Bambaata and Jazzy Jay.
But the new hip hop scene is a renaissance rather than a revival. "The last thing we want to be known as," says Scratch co-founder Matt Smooth, "is as a retro night." For anyone who remembers hip hop when it was on its last legs (and before gangsta rap killed it off for good), it was all moody, crossed-arms-and-pissed-off posturing. Scratch wants to capture the positive energy of the early days while fusing it with the Nineties ethic.
The club is packed with a male, female, black, white, gay, straight crowd. Clubbers can either watch the break dancers spin on special lino flooring or dance less energetically on the rest of the floor. Fresh graffiti by London artists Etch, Req 1 and Robbie Bears cover the walls and new DJs like The Scratch Perverts let loose on the turntables.
"People have realised that music is not all about popping an E and going crazy," says Hooch, promoter for Bronx II Brixton. It's also probably a reaction to what The Face calls "slick-willie Puffymania", where the rap scene has become so dominated by a small number of celebrity producers.
"Puff Daddy is practically a cartoon persona, doing mixes like The Police," says Rachel Newsome, Assistant Editor of Dazed & Confused. "Jason Nevins and Run DMC was very commercial, very diluted and this whole commercial cartoon dominance of hip hop has paved the way for a resurgence in old skool hip hop."
There's also a new skool at work. New cuts like "The Party Platter" by DJ Smash, DJ Shadow's "The Number Song" and Dilated Peoples' "Work The Angles" are picking up where Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five left off.
"The whole hip hop scene is about educating yourself," continues Newsome, "it's about being disciplined and escaping from the ghetto. Break dancing, scratching and graffiti art are acquired skills. It's about gaining self- respect, whether you grow up in the Bronx or on a British council estate."
But break dancing second time around is not just a male preserve. Matt Smooth reckons there are over 50 "break girls" in Britain and the number is growing. "The guys are happy to see all the girl breakers," says Michelle Williams, one of the all-female Sureshot Crew in West London. "They love it. There's no macho atmosphere in the clubs. Everyone helps and encourages each other. It's a family thing."
There's even a female break dancing teacher, called Gee Wizz, who'll be showing the ropes at the Break Dancing Workshops which start on June 28 at the Levi's Regent Street store in London. The more advanced players hang out at the Scratch studio in Camden where DJs, graffiti artists and break dancers practice. Dave, Warren and Coza, who took the floor at the Godzilla MTV party at Cannes last week (stirring even Lennox Lewis to do a bit of body popping) prefer to be known as freestylers. Their dance incorporates jazz dancing, break dancing and capoiera (an African martial art) that would put Michael Clarke to shame.
"You're using your body and your mind," says Coza, taking a break after a particularly acrobatic move. "It's not just break dancing anymore. It's down to the individual and it's a lot more spiritual. It's all about wanting to be someone, not in how much money you've got, but in yourself."
Scratch's second birthday party is at The Cross Bar, London NW1 on 4 June. For details of Scratch nights in Glasgow and Brighton, call 0171 209 4990. For information on the Break Dance Workshops at the Levi's store, Regent Street, London W1, call 0171 733 7666 (tickets cost pounds 1 in advance). Wisdom is next at The Blue Note on 17 July. Bronx II Brixton is at Brixton Academy on June 8, tickets cost pounds 8 in advance.
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