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August 18, 2009

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Breakin' 2

Electric Boogaloo sold separately.

Who Can Roast The Most?: Lessons Learned

On Sunday, the "Who Can Roast The Most?" b-boy competition came to DC for the first time ever, and my dance teacher encouraged us to go. "You'll learn a lot," she said, and I did--not the least of which is how much I've got to learn. There were some seriously skilled dancers there.

My favorite part was seeing really smooth top-rockers. Floorwork, spins, and power moves may get the biggest reactions from the crowd, but they don't always match up with the beat. The really good top-rockers, being less worried about keeping their momentum up for acrobatics, could react to the music and play with the crowd. They had more stage presence, so to speak, and as a musician I thought their performances were a lot more fun to watch. The music was great, too--a mix of funk (James Brown, in particular) and old-school hip-hop (they opened, of course, with Black Star's "B Boys Will B Boys").

I only stayed through the end of the second round, but it was enough to get me excited about learning breakdancing all over again. I'm heading to an open class in DC tonight, and will try to be better about practicing at home from now on.

Something From Nothing: Youtube As Cultural Transmitter

One thing that's been really helpful for me has been the wealth of video tutorials available online for the basic steps. Some of them suffer from Sudden Jump In Difficulty Syndrome, where they go directly from doing basic steps to a mile-a-minute routine, but there's also some really good amateur lessons online. At the very least, it's good to be able to look up how things are supposed to look, or to refresh my memory of the steps involved, when my memory starts to fade a few days after Friday's class.

I'm curious how--or indeed, if--it changes the process of cultural propagation, when it's mediated this way. And that's not just for breakdancing, obviously: I learned to play bass at least partially via online communities and resources. I learned harmonica in much the same way (thanks, HARP-L!) in high school. Eventually, I found communities both on- and offline for playing music, but it was certainly a modern twist on "self-taught" skills.

One of the interesting tidbits from my classes so far has been the way that a lot of breakdancing moves have multiple names, depending on which part of the country (or world) you're in. They're often named after the crew that invented them, or at least got the credit for introducing them in an area. Will that kind of idiosyncracy survive a transition from geographic identification to something more nebulous?

There's a paragraph from Jeff Chang's collection Total Chaos, in the section written by South African hip-hop students Shaheen Ariefdien and Nazli Abrahams, where they compare hip-hop to alchemy:

We don't mean this only in the old-school mystical chemistry way. We see hip-hop as the resilience of the human spirit, that process of transforming yourself and your environment, kinda like Common's observation that under the FUBU is a guru untapped. Imagine the oppressive conditions caused by the barbarism of Ronald Reagan's neoliberal economic strategies. The youth of South and West Bronx had little resources, were systematically marginalized and alienated, but filled with an audacity and inner capacity to want to rock the planet. No musical equipment? Well, then beatbox! We've heard many heads equate hip-hop with producing something out of nothing. We disagree. Hip-hop is about seeing the something in what we are often told is nothing.

It is, no doubt, lazy tech-utopian thinking to say something like "YouTube could influence hip-hop"--or to act like a bunch of largely middle-class kids uploading videos means anything about the direction of a culture I'm largely unqualified to comment on (like, I read a couple of books and took a class, so I'm an expert now, right?). It might be more accurate to say that the reverse is true--that YouTube's untidy mix of professional content, cultural detritus, and amateur-authored mementos sounds very much like the spirit that Ariefdien and Abrahams identified for hip-hop (even down to the critics who dismiss said content as nothing but valueless narcissism). Something to think about.

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