The chance encounter as the fifth element of Hip Hop
The chance encounter in Hip Hop can happen any time, anywhere. Bumping into strangers in the breakin’ world is more like meeting extended family. I have grown to understand these encounters as the fifth element of Hip Hop. I say fifth, it’s more like eighth (the other seven being DJing, breakin’, rapping, graffiti, knowledge, conspiracy theories and unnecessarily long handshakes). I decided that by collecting stories and analysing these encounters I might be able to get to the bottom of why they keep happening. Sure enough, some common threads started to emerge that tie these weird experiences together. I am sharing these with you here, though feel free to imagine we are stood together at some afterparty sharing a bottle of rum that one of the crews have snuck past the bouncers.
Summer 2002. We walked into this shop called ‘Central Floors’ or something. Filled with carpet sample swatches and adverts about interest free payments. We were intimidated but we wanted this badly. We had craved it, after some taster breakdance lessons and a school variety show. Now school was out, there was nowhere to practice. We were fifteen years old, with twelve quid between us. Me and Porter. We didn’t know much but we knew we needed a lino. We had stumbled upon this dusty carpet shop in the arse end of Edinburgh. It's safe to say we were out of our depth buying domestic flooring products. Our leftover dishwashing earnings didn't compare to the credit cards and bank accounts of the Scottish nuclear family these adverts were targeting. We argued about who would ask the shop assistant. Then, just as we were about to leave, he approached us. Mid-thirties, black staff polo shirt three sizes too big and navy blue cargo pants that were scuffed at the knees. I nudged my friend Porter because he was better at talking.
Scuse me, how much is your cheapest lino - just your the cheapest one?
Cheapest. Uhmm. We've got three metres left of that one - its fifty nine ninety nine.
Oh shit! I mean right I see aye...nothing else...even if it's no a nice one
What do yous want it for? Kitchen, Bathroom, dining….
We're going use it to breakdance on, I yelped. Sounding way less cool than I intended.
There was a pause. Porter puffed out his chest. I blushed and fidgeted and looked down at my Huaraches. Why did I blurt that out? We were ready to get told to bounce.
And just then, a coincidence occurred. Actually, as it turned out, it would be the first in a continuing series of mad coincidences. Cue my first Hip Hop chance encounter.
When he responded, the words danced off his tongue.
Yous are bboys aye? Holy shit I used tae break back in the day – I wiz down at Bristo Square wi’ all the crews every Sunday. Here how much do yous have I’ll get you a gud piece to practice on. One wi’ the checkerboard pattern. Trust me you wannae have the checkerboard…I tell you what, yous can have it for a tenner.
How could the shopkeeper being an ex-breaker not be destiny?
How could a sixty quid piece of lino for a tenner not be a sign from the cosmos?
How could this not be the checkerboard path of our future laid out before us?
I think about this moment and I am overwhelmed at the odds. But then I remember all the other moments that followed. And then I re-remember that when you are a part of this scene you are destined for these types of encounters.
A few years back in London I bought a bike on gumtree and the dude I bought it from turned out to be a breaker and popper from a crew in Warsaw. When he told me what kind of dance he did I said he was bullshitting (I thought he had seen my Facebook profile pic freeze and was winding me up). After he showed me videos on his phone, I pretended to uprock him and he replied and we giggled like we were old friends. Turned out he was selling his bike to do street shows around Europe, I’d even jammed with a couple of his crew mates when I had been interrailing in Krakow. He knocked a tenner off the price for me. ‘Bboy/bgirl discount’ strikes again. Yeh that’s a thing...first the lino aged 15, the bike age 25 and most recently, in the pre-pandemic glory days of 2019, exercised at Kid Nasty’s Vintage clothes shop in Hanoi. Nasty being a bboy and rock dancer who I’d never met but was introduced to online. Thanks for the bboy discounts all the linos, the bikes, the trainers, the tracksuits.
And the pizza! If you have been to Newcastle for a jam in the last 15 years. You may or may not know about Pizzaholic. Walk in there, say anything remotely Hip Hop related, I dare you. If you are a dancer, they already know. Just like you always know. The trainers, the hat, the walk, the oddly shaped bald spot, the intricate finger breakin’ on the counter, these guys will detect it. And once they do, before you can say ’12-inch-margharita’, the Battle Of The Year ‘98 soundtrack is playing and the war cry of ‘BATTLE!!’ is bellowed from behind the counter. There’s no escape. It is on my friend. Pizza can wait.
Bless the hammered but patient woman in a tiara on a hen do waiting for her Hawaiian while the staff were doing hand-hop routines. I told her that I think her pizza will be a while when I snuck outside for some air.
Whys that? she asked.
Look inside - you see that guy spinning on his head - that’s the chef!
Many people have their own Pizzaholic story, it’s almost a rite of passage for a breaker in the North East. There’s always mixed emotions afterwards. You are confused, exhausted, buzzed on adrenaline, a bit embarrassed, maybe annoyed you scuffed your good trainers, you weren’t prepared, could’ve done better, forgot to do that move you like. You sit down until the pizza is finally ready and you get up to go to pay at the counter. No no no. For breakers, it’s on the house.
A lot of breakin’ stories have the essence of the bgirl/bboy discount at their core. So, let’s explore this phenomenon. Dancers hook each other up in many ways: places to crash, clothes and records, discounts or freebies at any opportunity. Friends outside the scene who saw it in action made me aware that this was something special, but until now I had never thought too hard about why.
Hop into the way-back machine with me for a minute. We know about the New York block parties of the early seventies; where Hip Hop was born and nurtured and the first bboys and bgirls ‘went down and stayed down.’ These were tight communities. There was little money, just neighbourhoods of resourceful people who had learned how to make something from nothing. From the DJ set up to the outfits, everything was begged, borrowed or stolen. You know this story well I imagine. Hip Hop is all about a DIY ethos, and for that to work you need people that are down to chip in and help each other out.
I have been lucky enough to experience how little you can get by on thanks to the closeness and kindness of our community. The hook up and help out ethos we have inherited in breakin’ has come from economic necessity both then and now. This dance requires obsessive levels of dedication with very little financial payoff. No one compensates you for the blood sweat and years: the many training hours, the injuries or the trauma of a loved one smelling your kneepads. This is a ten-thousand-hour artform where every single hour is tough and where the artform itself has sub-disciplines like footwork and power that realistically require their own ten thousand hours. Objectively breakin’ is hard, that is universally accepted (if you ignore the knuckle draggers in the Daily Mail comments section ‘breakdancing in the Olympics’ articles). Regardless, capitalism doesn’t reward you for being good at difficult things, it rewards you for packaging and selling them. And so here we are, despite the rise of Hip Hop in the mainstream outlets and institutions over the last twenty years, breakin’ has had to rely on that same old resourcefulness it was born with.
Usually when travelling, it can be hard to dive in beneath the surface of a culture due to language and cultural differences. Breakin’ allows a shortcut in. Hip Hop slang (in English) can allow some key communications to start. Mainly though, it is gesture and bodily communication in the cyphers that breaks down barriers. Jheez I might as well just go ahead and say it ‘the language of dance.’ So what is shared in the circle? What can be deciphered from the cypher?
First off I can learn what music you like from how you react. Then I can suss out a few things about your personality from your approach, like if you are socially outgoing or introverted. I gain an insight into whether you are cerebral or physical, organised or spontaneous, someone who thinks big or zooms in on details. Not always but often, we connect with something primal and something quite fundamental to the dancer that is difficult to describe in words. One dancer described it as seeing where joy lives in the body. Eyes are windows to the soul, but hips can be doors, knees can form staircases and shoulders can frame its corridors. Gestures, shapes and quality communicate values and information. There are schools of movement and schools of thought that live within a breaker’s body and that information can be read during a good cypher if you pay attention. Presentation, creativity, ambition, expression, precision; how you use these tools and prioritise them is telling. Since there are few examples of the perfect bgirl/bboy, it becomes clear how a dancer has spent their time (throwing themselves around gyms, dancing in clubs, refining in their bedroom, improvising everywhere they go or militantly drilling to perfection). From all this shared information, you can start to build a picture of the sort of person dancing in front of you.
Sometimes a story is more of an image. My Swedish friend Love (pronounced Loo-veh) was working in Bolivia, based in La Paz where the poorer neighbourhoods are perched up high on a ridge while the city lies in the valley. The barrios are connected by teleférico; a cable car system famously introduced by socialist president Evo Morales to connect these neighbourhoods. Love was travelling on the highest line on his way to an appointment when something caught his eye below that seemed like a mirage. A chess patterned floor in a basketball court. An old black and white friend beckoning him down and the silhouettes moving in a way that could only mean one thing. He jumped off the cable car and scrambled down the hills to reach them. Without hesitation, he joined in for an intense jam session. He finds out that they are young and very new to breakin’. They are not connected with the wider Bolivian scene or any skilled breakers and look to him in awe. After asking him to do all the moves they knew the names of, he obliged in rattling out some windmills and swipes to their amazement before running back to the clouds for his appointment which he was now late for.
There’s something about this image I keep coming back to. His vantage point from the sky, Hip Hop from a hawks eye view, is moving. How small we are but how we are never alone in this thing we do. His excited descent towards something familiar but new; the lino as sanctuary. Maybe I am reaching, but even the cable car, something so purposefully built with interconnection at its core feels symbolic.
It is more fun still to flip this image, imagining it from the Bolivian kids’ points of view. This white Swedish guy with holes in his shoes and a big grin coming down - quite literally - from the sky. The otherworldliness of him, faster windmills, bigger swipes and cleaner footwork than they’d ever seen before. He brings the secrets of the craft, techniques to be sharper and smoother before leaving without a trace. Fleeting moments and making impressions are important in this world. The people we share these moments with will always have a special significance to us even if we never see them again.
I am in Ghana on holiday and to visit a friend. Breakin’ is not on the agenda, in fact I’d planned to have a break from breakin’. Yet somehow, in the small town of Cape Coast I found myself in a cypher in the least likely of circumstances. All I had done was follow the music. Some highlife being blared somewhere in the distance and a buzz in the air. I had asked a local woman what was going on and she told me it was a funeral. Instantly I felt uncomfortable. It is not my intention to gate-crash a funeral. She chuckled and told me it’s not like that. It’s a later stage funeral; a long time after the death, a celebration of life.
I follow the music deeper until I arrived at the epicentre, a dance circle in the middle of the street party which was completely popping off! Breakin’ feels out of context and completely inappropriate. This is bigger than me; a celebration of life itself as the local woman had described it. I wasn’t here to show off, I just want to low key immerse myself and have a boogie. I dance at the edge of the circle and absorb it. People of all ages are shouting and dancing with each other, the air is hot and humid and smells of barbequed tilapia, beer and people. Everyone is dressed brightly in the spirit of the occasion. In the circle there’s a guy, maybe in his forties in white traditional clothing. He has a strong build and thick tribal scarring on his face that is the full length of one of his cheeks. He never smiles and keeps a serious game face at all times that is a contrast to the way he is moving, smooth, contained, fluid. He keeps angling towards me, I am smiling and angling away awkwardly, he’s a good dancer though I couldn’t be sure of what style this was. He does jazz splits on occasion in my direction which really throws me off. I don’t quite know what his deal is but I’m thinking what have I done…how does HE KNOW I break??? I’ve been very careful not to let on.
I can’t be bothered, it’s 35 degrees with 90% humidity and well, it’s a funeral. I am not being that guy! I chose to cover up in long sleeves and trousers because I’m a fresh off the plane tourist with a fear of West African mosquitoes, so I’m soaked with sweat. The man in white gets more direct and more in my face and I decide mirroring him might neutralise the situation. I make an effort not to stare at his scars: deep canyons on his cheeks that make an interesting pattern. I do whatever he does right back at him and smile awkwardly, unsure how best to unlock the situation. Out of the crowd, some seventeen year old lad pulls him out of the way, and I am grateful for it. I’m about to take a break and grab a beer when the kid that rescued me from the awkwardness reveals himself. He is wearing a t-shirt saying ‘B-BOY’ in graffiti font. He points at me and then to his t-shirt mischievously.
We have an exchange, a battle on this dusty road in the middle of a street party. After a few rounds I am disgustingly sweaty. I get handed a packet of water and can’t even open it (I’m used to bottles with lids and I’m too knackered to think of what to do). By something like round five, I am on empty. Him, on the other hand, his energy is building. He’s used to the heat and the dust and is more hype each round. I’m just trying to keep it together by this point. After the eighth round he smiles and shakes my hand.
‘You are tired aren’t you?’ I was slightly gutted I hadn’t hidden it better
‘We can stop’ he says.
I nod with what strength I have. I am too wiped to feel like a failure at this point.
‘But what should I say to those guys? Should I tell them you are too tired?’
He points over to an orderly queue of bboys standing waiting for their turn to battle me. This is mental, where did they come from. I shrug in their direction and wipe my soaking face. I shake all of their hands many times. Then we don’t cypher any more, they take me out on the town.
Time accelerates, I am swept away from the funeral and into dive bars with courtyards packed with people dancing. We drink Star beer and dodge a bar brawl before using the moment to push back enough space to dance. The group watch out for me as we groove, the serious guy in white with the scars is there too, he gives me a stern nod and the faintest hint of a smile. By the third beer we’ve all exchanged numbers and the following day I am in their neighbourhood on the edge of town. The houses here are concrete cubes with zinc roofs and communal courtyards where people hang out. I get introduced to siblings and parents, cousins and grandparents who ask me questions I don’t get a chance to answer. I am ushered on to the next concrete family until I have made my way through the entire village. Soon we are training in the floor in the back of someone’s house. Things are different but they are the same. We throw down some basics, try some moves, share our goals and tricks we want to master. A goat comes in halfway through the session and they shoo it out, we clap for each other and make noises and get a feel for the styles and abilities of each dancer in the room. There is something grounding about sessions like these, one of those reminders that we are all pretty much the same. We chat a little before I bounce back into town, I give them a couple of my crew t-shirts I had with me as a thank you gesture. Turns out none of the boys knew what the deal was with the guy in white with the scars, who went by the name Banyo, they had never seen him before. He remains the most mysterious character to all of us, the one who got this encounter started. I make my excuses and jump back in a cab, before being spat back out at our hostel like this never happened.
Lucas Marie points out in his paper Our Lives are Lived in Freestyle: Social and Dynamic Productions of Breaking and Hip Hop Culture that breakin’ culture, if we can call it that, is not governed by social structures or power dynamics, although it must navigate them, that it is an ever-changing entity affected by individuals within it. That is not to say we don’t share many of the same problems of the so-called real world (perpetrators of sexual harassment in the highest of places, misogyny, the base-level homophobia in the comments of that B.O.T.Y Instagram post and more racism than we like to admit) but in many places, these lines are blurred and our differences are suspended. The divides we are used to in the UK: class, wealth, religion, race, ability, age are less clear in the breakin’ world. You’d have a better idea of how things work by looking at the way people dance than the usual criteria.
The mix of people found in breakin’ is greater than most areas of society. That can lead to all kinds of extreme scenarios from dancing for the pope - as it did for some Polish friends of mine - or being drawn into other underground elements of society as the next two encounters describe.
Hip Hop held hostage
Hip Hop is both seen as both a threat and a joke at the same time by the general public. At this point, these old connotations and stereotypes feel unshakable. Isn’t it fascinating that despite this, the dance still carries a certain amount of street cred. This can open some doors and lead to some weird and shady circumstances you wouldn’t expect to find yourself in. It’s worth keeping in mind that sometimes getting out isn’t as easy as it was to get in.
Alex, a bboy I know from Dagenham, is in Saitama in the outskirts of Tokyo at a jam at a night club. Jams in Japan run late because everyone works crazy hours in their regular jobs, even training is often on until 5am. He has been cyphering all night with some of the breakers he met in Tokyo. At about 1 o’clock a rap crew comes to the stage and does their thing. After their set, they spot Alex and ask who he is before bringing him to the backstage area where they start drinking heavily from a comically large magnum of sake. He’s told by a Japanese bboy these rappers are important Yakuza members who run the club. They sport full back tattoos and smoke and drink a lot. They like having someone from abroad, a black guy no less, in their club and take pride in taking him under their wing. They drink continuously and by 3 o’clock they are obliterated. One of them is passed out on the floor and the other is throwing up in the corner. Alex tries to wriggle out of the situation but is hyper aware that at 6ft 3, he isn’t going to sneak away anywhere easily, plus the trains have stopped. He’s got to ride this out. The rappers are adamant he stays and drinks more with them. The magnum is passed around, a vomiting Yakuza man puts his lips on the bottle, slurps in slow motion then passes it to Alex. He politely declines and passes it on around the circle. ‘Noooooooo! Must drink. Very disrespectful.’ The main rapper growls. A dancer sat beside him whispers something encouraging in his ear. He scans the room— no escape. Then he does what he has to do in that moment; holds his nose and swigs as quickly as his body allows, gives the Yakuza man a solid fist bump and mouths the word Kanpai. That’s Hip Hop.
A sort of similar story from Melbourne I heard a long time ago is of a dancer who is at a train station and is approached by a gang who start to mug him. As they take his stuff, they ask him what the helmet hanging from his bag is for (potentially looking for a bike). He shyly explains that while it was in fact a bmx helmet, he used it for head-spinning practice. ‘Whoooa you’re a breakdancer. Y’should’ve said mate. You’re hanging with us today, here’s your shit back.’ And there it was, a double edged sword, like a vommed on bottle of sake. He had inadvertently joined a gang on his way back from training, becoming a reluctant accomplice over the next day while they robbed people indiscriminately and went through the loot in their weird lair in an abandoned building. How does this happen? The criminal underworld respects dancers even when this far removed from the origins. After the day was over and he’d managed to excuse himself finally, he probably questioned if it was worth it.
It’s mental and it’s magical this culture of ours. It is both what we do and where it comes from that contributes to the closeness of this tiny world we built. The success and survival began with resourcefulness and community and, despite the odds (look at how rap’s values became more nihilistic as it grew bigger), we have maintained the essence and stayed unified. Before the road to the Olympics gets started, before theatres treat breakin’ as an artform on a par with other dances, before ‘professional breaker’ might become a realistic title, we should appreciate this tightness and warmth of our glocal community. As we mature as individuals in a wider society and as a scene, we should ask ourselves how we can make sure this is something that is enhanced and never lost. We should strive to make this something we can apply to other communities we may be part of, that we can put on display so it may rub off on others. It was not sponsors but bboy/bgirl discounts and Hip Hop hospitality which have enabled this culture to thrive over the decades, the spirit of getting there at all costs, looking out for each other and hooking each other up.
Being unified is the ethos that never failed us, so whatever the future brings, let our interconnectedness be at the front and centre. The fact we even made it this far, we deserve to give ourselves a pat on the back, or a very long handshake.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Iain Bru is a bboy and organiser among other things creative. He started his hip-hop life in Edinburgh where he honed his craft battling and performing, and has been active on the breakin scene around the UK and Europe since the early 2000s. In 2010 he moved to East London, where he fell in with the #Unity collective: a group of likeminded dancers, DJs and artists with the aim of making cool shit happen while bridging the gap between the music and dance scenes. He cofounded their breakin chapter LMNade Associates before cocreating JAMuary: a dance jam inspired by house and pub parties, London club culture and their favourite dance jams. While remaining relatively underground, JAMuary has gained a reputation as one of the best nights around from music lovers and dancers alike, attracting a following from across the globe over the past eight years.
Credit, Raw Logik Clothing