Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Get Up To Get Down: A note on breakdance culture.

Get up to get down:

It was 1970's New York, the rubble of a failed socio-political experiment dubbed the Bronx had become and no go zone for police and politicians. Huge blocks of high rise buildings had been thrown together like Lego and the suburbanites watched in horror as the feedback loop of poverty and poor education destroyed communities and spawned huge gangs who marked out their territories with blood.

That however is only half the story. Due to the social vacuum created in this seven mile stretch of American soil, Hip hop was miraculously born. Hop, taking the latter part of the term, was mostly the first thing people did to the grooves and beats pounded out by DJ Kool Herc, originally a Jamaican born and Reggae spinning DJ.

He began putting together funky records for the demanding tastes of his new American clients. What was distinct about him was his choice of music, picking obscure titbits off LPs and daring to cut out the break or fillet of the song and throw the rest away to rot. This fervent energy resonated with so many disenfranchised but highly culturally sophisticated movers and shakers. This melting pot had a unique factor, a new world ethic that allowed for unprecedented multiculturalism that spawned a music, that would re-write musical history. So many times it could have simply disappeared. Yet it conquered music and dance and appeared just in time to do this via television, and now the Internet.

Hip hop is extremely accessible at any level, that's why it works. It is something that binds together many diverse strains of urban culture, although some practitioners of graffiti for example still point out that they listen to punk and rock and have no interest in hip hop or rap culture. Regardless Hip hop has become a catalyst for transmission. All the elements owe their popularity and survival to Hip hop, it gave people a context to write graffiti, to rap, to mix breaks, or to break to mixes. It was a means for Afrika Bambaata, formerly a Black Spades gang member, to create truces amongst warring gangs at parties and later in many cases to provide an alternative economy to drug trafficking. Despite being reviled by Jazz musicians, it has built a bridge for many tenacious teenagers to dig deeper and find Jazz through a sampling culture that pays homage to great Jazz artists.

The previously mentioned tools such as radio, television and the Internet were used to boast and brag about style as protest and display a joyous party attitude, a lighter side to dark tale, a crucial balance.

Although not a solution, Hip hop was a welcome alternative to so much gang and drug violence in the Bronx and all others areas it spread to. It became a curiosity to Blondie and other white mainstream artists who helped slingshot it to the far reaches of the globe.

Hip hop is the language of globalization, the bastard child of American culture, given form by enslaved and exploited peoples and bankrolled by white suburban kids with a mass identity crisis. Interestingly, with the breakers, there seems to be less of a racial divide than with rappers. There is a bravado that many use to build confidence and have fun in darker times, but in rap many have taken this too far and become a parody of their former selves. They have trivialised a culture that was built on the shoulders of great DJ's who both knew the musical and cultural context in which to be creative enough to change world music forever, and yet be light hearted enough to laugh at themselves.

This balance has made Hip hop the new cool kid of music.

However, it is the dance which concerns us here, for there is quite a an interesting dance culture in Ireland. Thanks to the lively spirit of the dancing Irish and a wave of immigration over the past decade or two, we have some fantastically athletic breakers who have raised the bar to gymnastic proportions.

But as breakers move to a world level in terms of aspiring standards, there is a crucial issue.

When does it stop being enjoyable and start being a gymnastic circus event?

How can endless head-spins, windmills or hand hops hope to reflect the energy or enthusiasm shown by poor Bronx kids, who tore up t-shirts to make fat laces and express their style at every chance?

To protest the dullness produced by materialists and worshippers of the clock.

The problem may lie in the type or the quality of recognition. When people see breakers here in Ireland it is a disconnected event, usually a disco or a rave or a street that doesn't breathe hip hop culture really. People make a circle out of shock and awe at the amazing moves they see but eventually become happy clappers or jeerer's of what can become a nuisance in their dancing endeavours.

Breakers can appear as narcissistic vermin who block peoples pathways to fun. The context is rarely set and like with rap the DJ panders to the spectacles and spectators, there is simply no progression. Thus a ground hog day experience ensues where the same moves, combos, and even gestures surface again and again. This is reflected in the world championships where so called B-boys seem to forget where their energy comes from. Hanging with punks and rockers and being exposed to new sounds and mixtures of movement, literally mixing it up.The inspiration sometimes leaves the scene and B-boys appear a bit unsure as where to go next, as there will always be stronger and more flexible athletes, but what defines a B-boy?

Style? Power? Attitude? Personality? Unity?

In truth all these and more, but really being even a little less conservative, and not just breaking to 70's American Funk or pre-prepared mixes of the same old shite would help. Moving to Brazilian funk, now that would be a flavour filled challenge and perhaps acknowledge the usually under emphasised Latin contribution to hip hop. The fact that Black culture tends to de-value its own creations once it passes on to outsiders, this post-colonial mindset we share in Ireland. What is lacking here is an Irish identity and unity in the scene. People walk like gangsters whose parents are late late show watching farmers.

Europeans swagger and parade without knowing the context of the attitudes they sample and loop.

A mythology is spun and dogmatic restriction ensues, everybody has their own version of the true way.

In a globalized world, the ones that survive are the ones that combine.

There are many talented people around, but gigs and events tend to be chaotic and sporadic.

This can be due to the underground ideals people cling to nostalgically, when in reality they never would have known these styles and ideas unless New York gave up some of its beautiful secrets and styled its own tag on the pop scene, changing it forever.

Piece by our very own B-boy Ian Lysaght

B-boy Ireland

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