Break the mould
Dance - Gervase de Wilde finds that global hip-hop culture has more to offer than bling
The line-up for this year's Breakin' Convention, the annual showcase of breakdancing, demonstrates the extent to which hip-hop has become a global political and cultural force. Crews of dancers from Switzerland, France, Germany and even as far afield as Brazil and Korea will perform on stage at Sadler's Wells in London during the mini-season.
Hip-hop culture, with its four consti-tuent elements - rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti - is thriving in countless forms all over the developing world, as well as dominating pop culture in the west. "These different crews from around the world have taken on breakdancing as a means of self-expression," says Jonzi D, the breakdancer who is also curator of Breakin' Convention.
Yet the origins of this global movement lie in a specific time and place - the South Bronx at the end of the 1970s - and in a unique set of circumstances. Like Brazilian capoeira, which it often closely resembles, breakdancing evolved as a form of ritualised violence or competition, and was based on rivalries between dance crews from different areas of the Bronx. In Britain, it initially had similar associations. "There was a lot of tension and violence in the estates in east London where I grew up," Jonzi D says. "Dancing was a way of dealing with that frustration."
The history of hip-hop and breakdancing is traced in Dick Fontaine's documentary Beat This, which will be screened as part of the festival. Shown originally on television in BBC2's Arena series in 1984, Beat This captures the nascent hip-hop culture at a crucial stage of its development.
The figures who appear in the film include Kool Herc, the first ever hip-hop DJ, whose legendary block parties were the source of early innovations in music and dance, and Afrika Bambaataa, the charismatic gang leader who sought to unite the warring factions of the Bronx street gangs under the banner of his social movement, the Zulu Nation. Bambaataa gives an extended performance of his form-breaking single "Planet Rock" and is portrayed as a central catalyst to the rise of hip-hop, spreading his Afro-futurist ideals through music, dance, progressive politics and some truly outrageous costumes.
The film also contains mesmerising footage of the pioneer breakdancers. Malcolm McLaren, the roguish, fast-talking pop impresario who claims to have been the only white guy at one early outdoor block party, describes what he observed there: "People would move to the side and a group of kids would start freaking out in the middle and doing all this incredible gymnastic dancing."
The explosion of social and creative energy that launched hip-hop into the world assumed a differ- ent form as the style was appropriated by mainstream culture. According to Jonzi D, "The essence of what hip-hop originally had to offer has changed. It came from being denied the American dream and was based in unity, but now it's a part of that dream and it's based in individualism."
Another film in the Breakin' Convention programme, Bling: consequences and repercussions, highlights this transformation. Narrated by Chuck D, the original hip-hop polemicist and rapper from Public Enemy, Bling makes provocative connections between the fallout of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the "lust for diamonds" associated with contemporary hip-hoppers such as 50 Cent or Lil Jon. The contrast between the bejewelled excesses of today's stars and the scruffy teenagers who dance on street corners in Beat This could not be more pronounced.
But while hip-hop in America is now dominated by conspicuous consumption, in other areas of the world it has remained truer to its traditional values. The Puerto Rican rapper Tego Calderón turned down a modelling contract from P Diddy's Sean John label because the clothes in question were made in central American sweatshops. In Africa, groups such as the Senegalese trio Daara J fuse roots rhythms and melodies with hip-hop beats, bringing new meaning to Bambaataa's Afro-futurism.
"There are some pioneers who are critical of people from the other side of the world doing it differently - but criticise people for biting [imitating] their style," says Jonzi D. "It's important to do your own thing, to have an original approach."
As the diverse, international line-up of Breakin' Convention indicates, hip-hop is far more than just a form of American pop culture that peddles materialistic individualism. It is a global art form that continues to provide a means of expression to disenfranchised people.
Breakin' Convention and the Fresh Styles film festival run at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 from 27 April to 1 May.