If only these crews could rule the worldImagine the world’s leaders getting together to resolve their differences by spinning on their heads ― literally. They would truly be following the example of the world’s youth, who regularly gather to do battle in bloodless pleasure. These meetings are explosive with intricate maneuvers and hand-to-hand fighting. Bodies fly but no one dies. And in the end everyone is heralded as a winner. Obviously, such encounters require imagination. Lots of it. The world’s leaders with their fusty demeanors seem ill-armed for such contests. First, duties would have to be changed. President George W. Bush would be the leader of the b-boys crew; Prime Minister Tony Blair would head Infinite Flow; President Vladimir Putin, Gambler; President Hu Jintao, Obowang. President Jacques Chirac would be at the helm of Rivers. Oh yeah, we need music, like a mighty chorus from the lovers of peace. This calls for the United Nations’ secretary-general, Kofi Anan, as a sharp needle, DJ Needle, that is. Battle lines drawn . . . let’s rock.
Screaming shakes the auditorium. Hoarse voices chant, “Needle! Needle!” Slowing his pace to pull out another LP, Needle rams one of his headphone cans between his ear and shoulder while synchronizing the beats. The result is an incredible blend of two instrumental tracks. Needle gets back on his wheels of steel, scratching an intro, and all of the anxious crews begin to assume their bravado. One of Bush’s b-boys tries to pull off a pose in which he folds his back all the way over his head while standing on his hands, but he tumbles to the floor. Suddenly, a member of Blair’s Infinite Flow jumps into the fray and easily holds the same stance for 16 seconds. This pushes the breakers into a frenzy, with rival crews mocking other squads with imitations of moves and crude body movements. The roaring crowd appears ready to storm the stage as Needle heightens the velocity of his hybrid creation in swift rotation.
Blair’s Infinite Flow, clutching microphones, wave their hands in the air, asking the audience in screaming voices if they’re ready to rock. Yelling back at the top of their lungs, the audience responds in equally rowdy tones. Yeah, it’s definitely on.
Welcome to the preliminary rounds of the Battle of the Year, the annual break-dancing event that determines which crew is the freshest of the fresh, ready to engage the best teams worldwide.
The moves are unbelievable. (World leaders take note: Believability is better.) Bending his body diagonally, one of Bush’s b-boys spins like a windmill in the air, landing on his hands for a split second and pushing himself off again. His feet never touch the ground as he goes through 14 rotations. One of Chirac’s guys wearing a black skateboard helmet spins in a one-handed handstand until his head touches the ground, he continues to rotate, becoming a whirl of colors. Hu’s “secret weapon” completes a 20-second routine on one arm, with no other body part making contact with the stage. When they make a mistake, the break-dancers go into backflips and one-handed contortions to cover their errors and to keep the beat. (World leaders take note: Sounds familiar?)
To end each set, each of the crews goes into a synchronized routine in which all of the members (anywhere from 8 to 12) execute identical moves in complete coordination, breaking off into different groups at certain intervals and reconvening again on the appropriate beat. (World leaders take note: Breaking off and reconvening later on beat, this means in harmony.)
DJ Needle has a solo set during the intermission to tally the judges’ votes, mangling records with vicious scratching. Blair and Infinite Flow take the stage again, mics in hand and ripping it up as they enter, spitting incredible lyrics. Things get wild when two members of Chirac’s Rivers crew starts busting a cheesy emulation of Hu’s Obowang’s duo routine.
With the Battle of the Year’s intricate, lengthy voting procedure and only a calculator (the technicians lost their computer while moving their equipment over to the auditorium), it is no wonder the tallying took so long ― 40 minutes. (World leaders take note: Computers were lost, but the judges needed only 40 minutes to complete their vote. How long does it take the United Nations to complete a vote on anything?)
As the crowd waits patiently, Needle spins a rapid, minimalist break-beat. Bush and the b-boys form a semicircle, and their leader goes into a diagonal handstand, slowly pedaling his legs in the air, jackknifing into a corkscrew flip, front-rolling and landing in a hand-stand. After busting a few seconds of intense floor-rocking, he pulls the move we have all been waiting to see. His tied-back hair touches the ground, and he yanks out his trademark dead-man move: He goes into rigor mortis for a few seconds before falling like a board.
The crew leaders seem to be truly sincere and deep thinkers. They even seem to mean it when they say, “I wish each and every one of you could win, but we can only choose one. So instead, I have to tell you guys that none of you, none of you, should stop here,” encouraging each crew to continue with their endeavors.
It seems like Putin’s Gamblers, last year’s third place crew, is the unofficial favorite this year. Hu’s Obowang also makes the finals as does a small newly emerging crew, Morning Owl. (World leaders take note: Even small nations have something to contribute.)
Needle pumps ’em up again. The crews prepare to clash in the final round. Each battle is 15 minutes long, so they have to maximize the quality of their performance. Backflipping into the other crews and forcing them to scatter, one of the b-boys begins to rotate his legs in the air while his arms support his body. In response, two breakers from Putin’s team spin on their elbows while the rest of their bodies remain in the air. Needle works the decks fanatically.
Finally, the battle comes to a close and the judges confer heatedly. After a speech expressing his awe at how the crews performed, the MC declares, “The winner of the preliminary Puma rounds for Battle of the Year . . . is Gambler!” A wave of people deluges the front of the stage, hands and bodies in perpetual motion. Screams cease only when voices are worn from use. Putin and his crew have won without firing a shot. Heads spun, but none rolled. If only life were that simple.
Around the globe, hip-hop culture is centered on five basic elements, each essentially being an art form in its own right. In no particular order, the elements are: beatboxing, lyricism, break-dancing, graffiti and turntablism.
A major pillar of hip-hop culture, beatboxing, is vocal percussion. Popularized by Biz Markie, beatboxers have garnered enormous followings, and for good reason. It is the least publicized of the hip-hop elements, but audiences at live performances go berserk when an artist grabs a microphone and starts to mimic drum patterns, turntables and sing at the same time. While it was explosively brought to the front of mainstream music culture by Rahzel and DJ Scratch (both of the Roots), beatboxing is still the most under-appreciated aspect of hip-hop.
It is also the least widely practiced, which is probably why there is only one Korean performer, Jun the Beatbox, of note.
Lyricism is possibly the most prolific, lucrative and diverse realm of hip-hop. Like turntablism, lyricism, or rap, traces its roots back to New York City, where founding MCs like Melle Mel, Raheim, Grandmaster Caz and Sha Rock took off with the microphone and put rapping on the map. Lyricism today ranges from everything commercial ― 50 Cent, Eminem, DMX, Nas ― to the deepest underground hip-hop like Ugly Duckling, Latyrx, Jedi Mind Tricks and the 7 Heads crew. The content of an infinitely expanding range of music spans the breadth of materialistic immorality and personal struggle to tongue-twisting verbal acrobatics and impromptu freestyling (thinking up rhymes on the spot). The innovation and spontaneity of lyricism has made it one of the most vibrant and expansive areas of hip-hop culture.
Korean rappers to check out include Drunken Tiger, The Movement Camp and Master Plan. Korean-Americans worth a listen are Snacky Chan, Organic Thoughts, Jupitersciples and Likwifakshun.
Break-dancing was also conceived in New York, during an era when disco was still the rage and hip-hop was a culture in its most inceptive form. Dancers like B-boy Kujo and Crazy Legs, of the Wild Style crew, pushed human movements to the limit, creating routines with crazy rotations, gyrations and flips in which their feet hardly ever touched the ground. Today, break-dancing has been repopularized and is evolving by leaps and bounds. Asian break-dancers are especially notorious around the globe for their proficiency and creativity.
Korean break-dance crews worth watching include TIP, Gambler, Gorilla, Expression and Rivers.
Graffiti, or spray-paint art, was originally a byproduct of the spray-painted tags, or symbols, that street gangs used to mark their territory. Innovators such as Keith Haring, Futura and Zephyr began to expand what many considered vandalism into a respected art form ― though still largely illegal. Currently, graffiti art has grown to include intricate visual images as well as increasingly complex text, ultimately allowing for murals of astounding quality and size. Graffiti can be found anywhere from hangouts like clubs or stores to the sides of subway cars, tunnels and everywhere in between.
Korean graffiti artists of note include the appropriately named Vandal, Nin and Mr. Santa.
Turntablism was pioneered in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the original deejays of New York, including Grandmaster Flash, Grandwizard Theodore, Afrika Bambaata and Kool DJ Herc. Also known as deejaying, turntablism typically means using two turntables and a mixer to meld sounds from different vinyl records nonstop. Another brand of deejaying distorts the music as the DJ moves his hand back and forth across the record while manipulating the cross-fader on the mixer. This technique is commonly referred to as scratching, and produces the harsh, scratchy noises that listeners take for granted on so many songs. The last common technique that DJs employ is known as beat juggling. Here, the DJ matches the beats on two different songs and uses the crossfader in synchronization with the turntables to rearrange the beats, essentially creating a new sound from an existing one.
Korean DJs to watch include DJ Wreckx, DJ Murf, DJ Needle, DJ James Jhig and DJ Soulscape.
by Phil Chang
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