Early last November, in a vacant area of the Glendale swap mart, the most important underground hip-hop event of the year kicked off, and chances are you heard nothing about it.
The fourth annual Styles Crew Anniversary Show didn't attract crowds of Power 92 listeners, DMX fans, club kids or curious bystanders; this b-boy battle/concert/educational forum was created by and for the undecorated soldiers of hip-hop, the kids who break on the weekends in community centers, the MCs and DJs recording their own beats and rhymes in bedrooms and garages, the graf writers who hit the train yards only when the stars are shining. The musical underground was represented by the Shape Shifters, Of Mexican Descent, Morse Code, DJ Z-Trip and DJ Element. Alongside the beats and dancing, the program featured a panel discussion with national and local hip-hop luminaries.
The Furious Styles Upon Styles Crew, host of the event, is Arizona's premier b-boy (that's breaker to you) outfit, a team that's much-traveled and recognized among the national circuit of dance competitors. Currently composed of 11 members -- House, Denote, Anywhere, Wonder, Spy, Idea, Miracles, LR, Ugly, Cricket and Rehab -- Furious Styles and its members are quietly nurturing the most overlooked element of hip-hop. While MCs and DJs go multiplatinum and graffiti writers earn acclaim in the art establishment, b-boys remain at a street level, where they strive for fame within the confines of their own tiny environs. Though this may change in the not-as-distant-as-they'd-like future (witness Britney Spears' and Christina Aguilera's onstage dancers), an examination of current b-boy culture provides the best example of hip-hop's much-needed dedication to its roots.
The anniversary event, which spanned three days and two locations, brought together b-boys and b-girls from across the Southwest to dance and battle amongst each other. Like MCing and DJing, battling is integral to breaking culture, deeply rooted in the art's nearly three-decade history. A good b-boy battle is like watching two floor gymnasts attempting to outdo one another technically, while mocking each other's style in the process. Battlers dance in close proximity, nearly touching each other as their legs bounce and cross feverishly. When they hit the floor, it's all balance and revolution: windmills, flares, backspins, headspins and the pivotal freeze -- a move which finds the breaker stopped and balancing in a gravity-defying pose. The best seem boneless, flexing to positions that appear nearly impossible.
However, the comparison to a gymnast only spotlights the technical/physical side of breaking. "There's gymnasts who can break, but they ain't b-boys," explains House, de facto spokesperson for Styles Crew. "Not to take anything away from dynamics and power -- I admire that -- but it's only one aspect of it; you gotta be able to dance. There's kids with moves, but you put 'em in a circle with kids who are feeling it and there's no competition."
There's an entire foundation of elements that all b-boys recognize, specifically the roots of the art and its place in hip-hop culture. "Anybody can do moves," b-boy Anywhere elaborates. "Anybody can teach you a move. But to do your own moves, have your own style, attitude -- that comes from the culture. Understanding what that's about builds your character as a dancer. I'm sure a gymnast could do flares and all that, but that's forgetting the whole essence of it."
"Breakin's an art form like any other art form," adds House. "Whatever's inside of you, you're putting it out . . . it has to mean something beyond doing a flare and getting the applause. The shit that people need to know isn't the exciting shit. The real meat of it, the foundation thing, your average person doesn't care about that -- they wanna see gymnastics. They don't care where it's coming from."
Breaking is still very much a ghetto-centric activity, but isn't completely immune to the forces of commercialization. Shortly after the anniversary event, the Furious Styles crew traveled to Los Angeles to compete in a b-boy battle among West Coast crews (they finished fourth out of 17) that was filmed for ESPN. If the program -- and a similar East Coast contest -- is successful (it's tentatively slated to air in the coming months), the producers hope to get b-boy battles included at the next ESPN X-Games.
"The ESPN shit was weird . . . different," House muses. "We had conversations beforehand about how everyone was too excited about it -- nobody was thinking about the big picture. It would be cool to see it in the X-Games, but it might become athletes instead of dancers . . . kids taking steroids so they can be on TV or something."
Besides raising concerns about the mainstreaming of the art, the sheer bureaucracy of what is typically a street-level event seemed a strange anomaly. Entrants were charged between $50 and $75 to compete, while audience members paid $15 to see the auditions and $20 to see the competition. "We had to sign a contract and fill out this application -- TV stuff -- but it asked stupid questions," House says. "Like, 'How do you practice?' -- 'I roll furiously.' 'How do your mom and dad feel about you breaking?' Weird shit."