Report by Dov Rudnick, Exclusive for LA Weekly
“Hip-hop is about a party, its not about a competition,” DJ Skeme Richards says over breakfast. We are sitting in the lobby of the Citadines hotel in Montpellier, France, on November 20, the morning of Battle of the Year's main event, surrounded by breakdancers from around the world taking their petit dejeuner. A black man of lithe frame and dark skin, Skeme retains a youthful appearance even as he speaks in the serious tone of an elder statesman intent on clearing up some misconceptions. “This is something that came out of a struggle, it came from kids who didn't have anything and created something.”
Skeme is in town to spin for the Battle of the Year (BOTY), the international championships for b-boy crews. Few have seen the development of breakdancing over the years like Skeme who began DJing in 1981 and soon joined the legendary Rock-steady Crew of New York City.
The antics of the Rock-steady crew, with names like Crazy Legs and Mr. Freeze, first lit the firestorm that was the breakdancing craze of the early '80s. Soon kids all over the U.S. and beyond were laying down cardboard and trying their moves to the sounds of Radio Shack boomboxes. With a power and momentum that few could explain, breakdancing embodied a new form of rebellion. On sidewalks and social spaces across the countries circles were formed, called ciphers, to practice and watch the dance craze. Then, almost as quickly as it appeared, breakdancing vanished from the streets and was summarily dismissed as a passing fad. Yet what had slipped underground in America had only just begun around the world.
Battle of the Year is, of course, a competition, the biggest of its kind. This year alone 35 countries as far-flung as Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe hosted BOTY qualifiers in their homelands with hopes of sending a representative to the main event in Montpellier. Founded in Germany in 1990, it was originally intended as an annual competition for German crews but by the mid-'90s it began attracting crews from other European countries. By 2001, BOTY participation blew up to include countries from all over the world.
Explaining this brief history was Thomas Hergenrother, a scruffy red-haired man in his early 40s, who founded the company twenty years ago. The evening's show was completely sold out for the first time in BOTY history. In a thick German accent he offered, “It is massive, of course I am pleased, but at the same time a little nervous because we are expecting maybe two thousand outside with no tickets and the French fans are… how can I say?.. a little more aggressive.”
The intense passion French youth have for all things hip-hop and the vibrancy of the b-boy scene in Montpellier in particular made the city attractive to Hergenrother as a possible site for BOTY. The city had always hosted the French qualifier and routinely attracted the largest crowds outside of Germany. Hergenrother had established a good relationship with the French organizer, Thomas Raymond, a Montpellier native who had been part of the birth of the hip-hop subculture in the region. While still a teenager he organized a collective of hip-hop inspired kids and sponsored events earning a good reputation for himself in the eyes of the city government. What started as a joke between the two Thomases about moving the BOTY main event to Montpellier became a real possibility with the building of an arena on the outskirts of the city. A 14,000 seat multi-use facility, it was completed only this last September.
At first glance the quaint old city of Montpellier may seem a strange place to host an international festival for break dancing. It certainly is a far-cry from the gritty streets of the South Bronx where the dance style was born. The city has one of the largest walking sections in Europe, an area of several square miles. One can easily get lost amid the entanglement of medieval streets and discover little boutiques, and gourmet restaurants. The city has renowned art museums and two opera houses. All the refinements of high culture which have made French society so famous can be found in Montpellier. And yet what do the youth of this little city adore above all else? American hip-hop.
Along one of the old cobblestone roads in the historic core you can find the offices of BOTY France where Thomas Raymond and company do their plotting. I found him here amid a busy and cluttered office where phones rang frequently and cigarettes were puffed freely. Between taking calls and answering urgent questions from colleagues Raymond answered my questions with a thoughtful deliberateness. Through his strong French accent, he explained how the high culture presented to the French youth lacked the humanity of hip-hop culture. It was the first I had heard the word in association with hip-hop. Raymond explained that the idea of a culture that was practiced on the streets and offered anyone the opportunity to participate excited French youth like nothing else in an age when more people were hiding out in their homes.
This year's lineup of BOTY events included workshops from master teachers, a lecture on the history of the dance style, an evening length performance showcase with hip-hop aesthetics as the common theme and side competitions. A b-girl battle at a local club featured female duos from around the world and was won by the defending champion Japanese team. Later that night, a battle of pop n' lockers took place at the same location. The dance style, which was pioneered in Los Angeles, involves surreal shape-shifting and Soul Train-esque funkin' out. It was undoubtedly the most friendly and good-natured of competitions. A young French prodigy named Spyder stole the show with a freakish ability to adapt and embody changing rhythms in the music.
The One vs. One battle featured 16 international all-star b-boys including four Americans competing for top prize. The event was held in an old baroque church with high ceilings designed for acoustics. Though intended for choral music it worked brilliantly for DJ Skeme's beats. A stage was set up in the spot normally reserved for a statue of Jesus, but this time the savior appeared in the form of Thesis, an 18-year-old Seattle-born b-boy who blew the competition away with eye-popping moves.
Breakdancing is a style pursued with uncommon devotion from both fans and practitioners. The sentiment never felt stronger than on the afternoon of November 20 at the Arena. Eager fans arrived hours early to get in and a steady nerve-racking anticipation could be felt as people pushed towards the gates.
The show began at 6:30 and the French MCs Saha and Nasty, celebrities in France's hip-hop scene, milked the enthusiasm for all it was worth, entertaining the crowd with raucous skits and one-liners whose exact meanings my limited French failed to perceive. The show itself lasted nearly six hours with a lineup that included original choreographies from 19 crews representing as many countries. Four finalists were then selected to compete in battles lasting 15 minutes each.
To witness these spectacles unfold gives one the sensation of seeing the precipice of human accomplishment. Who wouldn't be astonished by the flips, twirls, conversions and transformations of these incredibly human forms. The b-boy dance form conquers all dimensions; the floor, the air, vertical, horizontal and always, when its good, right on time with the music.
The surviving crews for the final battle were not entirely surprising; the Japanese crew, Mortal Combat, and the Korean crew, Jinjo. The fact is that for several years now the Koreans and Japanese have dominated the international scene. They have gained fame for breaking movements down scientifically and committing to eight-hours training days with results that are mind-blowing. Korea's Jinjo crew won the final battle while Japan's Mortal Combat was given the award for best show.
After a very long night the mood among performers was at best pure elation and at worst a weary pleasure at the show's conclusion. A few b-boy's wore ice packs but there were no major injuries to report. The crowd, tired but thoroughly entertained, huddled back out into the cold night and world they had left.