Break Stuff

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."

Fortunately, the ESPN event doesn't characterize the b-boy scene in general, especially here in Phoenix. To really glimpse the heart and soul of the Valley's thriving culture, you have to visit Hayden Park, off of Seventh Avenue and Broadway, for one of the monthly King of Kings battles. The first installment, organized by House (who's employed by Phoenix Parks and Rec) with the support of his crew members, kicked off in mid-January.

Staged in the park's recreation building, a room resembling a school gymnasium, the space was jammed with kids there either to watch or to do battle. The average age of those present was about 17, with participants (including girls) from 8 and up. The contests staged at King of Kings were not crew oriented, but rather individual battles, something which increases the intensity and level of competition. There's both poppin' (c'mon, you've seen the movie Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo -- it's those robot moves), and breakin', and the participants' wins and losses are recorded in order to establish a ranking system by which to compete.

If you're curious about what the future of urban Phoenix is, you'd be encouraged by looking at these kids -- Chicano, white, African-American, Asian, all gathered in a bare-bones gym in a neglected corner of the city showing off their dancing skills, striving for a modest level of fame within their community, the closest star they have to reach for. At the event, adults walk around handing out snacks, preteens connect with breakers twice their age, and the only conflicts are the good-natured, though still fierce, dance battles.

But this isn't the only form of community involvement that breakin' plays a role in. Denote, House's younger brother and fellow Styles member, teaches breakdancing at a Sunnyslope community center. At the King of Kings battle, several Sunnyslope b-boys are present, a couple in tee shirts reading "BABY STYLES." In previous years, House has taught breaking at a Phoenix YMCA. Nourishing hip-hop's next generation is a phenomenon that goes largely unseen by the general public. And while hip-hop is constantly scrutinized and much-derided, the positive effect it has had on this group of inner-city youths is unquestionable.

Reflecting on what it takes to come up in the b-boy scene, House says, "It's learning to listen to the music; you gotta have the rhythm, gotta have the style, gotta have the foundation. The b-boy scene is definitely elevated as far as people learning the foundation."

And, it seems, that elevation is thanks in great measure to the efforts of those like House and the Furious Styles Crew.