State of Hip Hop Pt. 3: Breaking

Hip Hop in the STL: The B-boys & Girls

To fully explain what breakdancing is or looks like is close to impossible. Having not seen it ever before, one might think it a bit strange, considering it shares hardly any ties to any other forms of modern dance. It is an art form which combines dance moves culled equally from the streets and from martial arts. Created to accompany hip hop music and deejaying, breakdancing-or, to use its less mainstream label, "breaking"-received its name from the breakbeats sought after and used by early hip hop DJs to sample and loop in order to create a consistent beat from funk, soul, and disco records. Though the term has many different meanings depending on the context, and previously had a different meaning than its current usage, those who break are called b-boys and b-girls.

Most urban dwellers in this country could probably say with ease that they hear, or at least overhear, plenty of hip hop music. Additionally, the same people have probably also seen, whether they appreciate it or not, at least some graffiti around their environment. However, most have probably never seen any real breakdancing outside of their drunken second cousin at a wedding reception full of 20-something white people. It is almost as if breaking-one of the traditional four elements of hip hop-became forgotten somewhere along the way. Why is breaking so different, in some ways, now?

"Back then, it was still really pure and really obvious to see what it was supposed to be or what people were intending it to be," said Ben Pierce, a St. Louis native and local b-boy. "Now there are a lot of misconceptions about what hip hop is or is supposed to be."

Now 24 years old, Pierce has been active in the St. Louis hip hop scene for about eight years. A b-boy in the truest sense of the word, Pierce also writes graffiti and makes beats for production work he does with hip hop artists in Chicago. His focus, though, is on getting the b-boy scene going here in the Lou. Since he claims there are around ten or so serious b-boys and girls, there is plenty of work to be done.

Nick Fury, 23 years old, has been breaking for about five or six years, and co-founded the Wash. U. Breakers a few years ago. Right out of high school, he joined with the well-established breaking crew, Gateway City Breakers, for around a year and a half. With support from his crewmates, Nick Fury founded his own breaking crew, Voltron, and later, the WU Breakers.

Nick estimates a much higher number of breakers in St. Louis, 50, but agrees with Pierce's analysis of breaking as a lost art, even among hip hop enthusiasts themselves. For many complicated reasons, breaking eventually became seen as almost quaint when placed alongside many other facets of hip hop expression. Even after becoming arguably the best breaker in the city, Gates still receives strange looks and snickers when he dances.

"The reason why people respond like that," Gates laments, "is because the history of breakdance, when it first hit, it exploded into pop culture. That's unfortunately what it has been trapped in for years." He went on to say later, "Breakdancing is one of the four elements of hip hop. You know what I'm sayin'? Even hip hop heads themselves have shunned breakdancing. And that's the hard thing about it. Breakdancing is the most beat-up element of hip hop, I would say. Once it went Hollywood, people didn't want to touch it."

In the 1980s, breakdancing indeed went Hollywood. The brothers on "Diff'rent Strokes" were breakdancing. Theo on "The Cosby Show" was breakdancing. Breaking, in its simplified, prime-time version, became almost a campy advertisement for refried hip hop. Your drunken second cousin figured out that doing "the worm" could make his friends laugh. Simultaneously, DJing and MCing took the mainstream limelight and used it to claim hip hop for those onstage making music. Breaking entered a dormant period.

During this time, breakers became MCs or DJs, somehow trying to express themselves within hip hop culture with more credibility than had they continued to only breakdance. Currently, though, breaking seems to be enjoying a mild renaissance, due in no small part to Gates, Pierce, and their cohorts. Breaking is popping up at weekly hip hop spins and occasional shows, but has yet to again make its mark on the larger hip hop scene. Ben Pierce puts it this way: "You'll never see a breaker at a Nelly show unless he's being paid well."

On MTV, BET, and other mainstream culture outlets, breakdancing is being reconfigured and repackaged for the younger generation in the form of moves which are specific to the artist who performs them frequently. To millions of pre-teen American girls, poppin' and lockin' never existed before the boy-band and teen pop diva wave of the second half of the 1990s.

"Dance is nothing but reproduced styles to different forms of music," explains Gates. "That's it. I mean…Usher, Ginuwine? They're doing old-school boogaloo moves. They're doing old-school poppin' moves. And they're doing it on their videos. And to the newer generation, that's all they see. So, hell, they invented that!"

Nonetheless, Gates persists with his art, immersing himself in the roots of the form, and indirectly making others try their hand, once again, at breaking. Gates' brother, James-a.k.a. DJ Needles-sees Nick's influence as nothing short of inspirational.

"It just takes someone like Nick," said Needles, "that's gonna do it enough that it triggers something in these b-boys to start doing it again, at least for that night."

As Lauryn Hill once put it on the Fugees seminal record, The Score, "Two MCs can't occupy the same space at the same time. It's against the laws of physics." The same could certainly be said of b-boys. Battling each other for supremacy and bragging rights has always been an integral part of breaking, as with the other three elements of hip hop. Usually, these battles remain good-natured and healthy competition. Sometimes, though, one contestant or other can cross the line into making the battle personal.

Nick Fury, who has experienced this unnecessary line-crossing many times, put it plainly: "The whole mentality of b-boying anyway is battle…beef. But when it gets personal, which it has on occasion, it's just ridiculous, and I just want to step away from it."

Despite this occasional negativity, battling is what makes breaking such a dynamic, viable element. It is also what helps separate the traditional four elements from other, more obscurely proposed elements-such as street entrepreneurialism and fashion-from such figures as hip hop sage, KRS-One. It is the reason why Ben Pierce thinks that the four elements remain fresh and legitimate.

"The thing I like about the original four is that there's always a definite way to resolve conflicts and that's to battle. Like if you think you're better than me, then let's battle and find out. Not with mix tapes and fashion…‘Wait till my fall line drops!'"

As is the case with the survival of the other three elements, breaking gains momentum from the ground up. Slowly but surely, more breakers are rearing their sleepy heads and taking to the floors again, now that people like Ben Pierce's and Nick Fury's dedication have made it cool again to break in front of other people. But with only 50 or so breakers in St. Louis, and everybody and their mama thinking they can rock the mic or the turntables, the hill to be climbed is undoubtedly steep. Do you think breaking is kind of "cute"? Even if you don't, your wasted second cousin still does. | Kenneth J. Pruitt

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