Break the Mould: Gervase De Wilde Finds That Global Hip-Hop Culture Has More to Offer Than Bling
de Wilde, Gervase, New Statesman (1996)
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 constituent elements--rapping, DJing, break-dancing 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. …