Thursday, 12 January 2012

From the Bronx to Scunthorpe: breakin' in back gardens

I attempted breakdancin’ in my garden – I was on my own – except I guess the neighbours could witness the spectacle of a skinny youth slowly slamming his body onto lino and cardboard in a hasty representation of the Bronx created in a Scunthorpe yard. When I say on my own – I mean I was not in a ‘crew’ – my parents, brother and sister were all home. They could look out and see me too – if they had  wanted.

Practicing the ‘caterpillar’ to show to nobody. Although I had perfected the ‘the robot’ and used it to good effect at school discos as Blue Monday was slipped on the decks. Those moments when a crowd gathers round – circular and sinister – watching. Invariably a teacher would join in and credibility would seep out and embarrassment creep in.

Thinking back to those faintly ridiculous times it pains me to say that I didn’t even have a ‘ghetto blaster’. I was simply lockin’, poppin’ and breakin’ to my own internal beats and scratches. Replaying Rock it and Bambataa’s electro groove. That’s not to say I didn’t hear those tunes on a regular basis – at staged shows, meets and battles– whilst we all had fun [family] weekends or watched by the clock or the leisure centre paved car parks. As crews from various parts of town came to get down – came to get down. And then up rolled the Hull crews, the Donny ones – it was a touch of the spray paint fuelled NY times – right here in the industrial landscape of northern Britain – it was a culture shift really – a separation and recognition of futures both scuppered and starting. Which I guess the whole NY scene was to. Futility, fury and freedom. Rock a funky beat and dance. We’ve always danced to forget.

There was even an all female crew – Break Three – geddit – ratcheting up the rights of women’s liberation through synchronized windmills and headspins [okay- so I probably made up the political angle – but it was liberating in a way] You could say the ‘elements’ were in place – hip hop had arrived in the North East. As I’ve said before – I kind of got lost in the mix – that indie blender of jangles and jeans and missed out on the hip hop scene to some extent – my education coming from Lou Reed not Marley Marl in 1984. But luckily I had school friends who did. And they would eventually play me those ‘lost gems’ on 1210s in smoke filled bedrooms as beats bounced off walls. You don’t lose your passion for those breaks – even if you do stop listening. There’s a wonderful book called Can’t Stop Won’t Stop that documents those breaking days of the breakin’ craze and the emergence of hip hop in New York. You should read it if you like hip hop – you probably have done.

I should read it again.

There is never enough time though. I just picked up Rotten again – a seminal book about a John – suddenly lost in ten pages as Lydon explains just how wrong everybody got it and Jones with his wonderful insight to those college students who at the time ‘were so fucking snobby’. You know the ones who became ‘ the upwardly mobile yuppies’ and as Jones’ puts it –‘they were so damned self-righteous at their hippy festivals, never connecting with the general population’. You can imagine their [the hippies not the Pistols] reaction to the birth of hip hop – class, race and poverty all rolled into one –ready to exploit - it’s a shame it fell for the glittering jewels of banal capitalist gifts – you need to be looking back at the ghetto to change it – not forgetting why it was made as you race off in tha Benz from your endz.

As I type in a London home.

Not that my attempts at breakin’ would free the North and therefore working class Britain from the tyranny of the greed and systematic erosion of any identity worth fighting for. But the ways we set about creating sub-cultures were full with politics. I was talking last night – between the Great Bake Off and Midsomer Murders about the depoliticised nature of popular culture – we do that in our house – it’s all highbrow you know. Now clearly I am most likely wrong about this – but as the independent ‘spirit’ crossed over to mainstream acceptance and all looks became up for grabs – the ideology behind the putting on was lost.

Again don’t misinterpret the naivety of youth and the willingness to belong. But as those scraps of sub-culture were amassed we discussed why we looked like we did – be it the appropriation of a Kangol hat or the wearing of a studded belt – things like this mattered. Didn’t they – and do they now? Maybe I was just more neurotic and uptight [everything is [not] alright] Which brings right back to the music.

Music has and always will matter – I now accept it doesn’t change the world. But it can offer alternatives and through those clumsy attempts at b-popping and crazy legs rockin’ I have amassed a knowledge of the political infrastructure of New York during the 70s and how Bambataa and his Zulu Nation tried to fix a corrupt system amidst the Reaganomics of the 1980s - that shaped choices about purchases and listens in northern towns and Scunthorpe record shops – why KRS One mattered more than MC Hammer or 2 Live Crew. Don’t get me wrong KRS One was a misogynist too – but Sound of da Police could soundtrack last Summer and the next one. That relentless beat and as cars with sirens pull you up and stop and search you – it’s always about the wider power struggle with the state. I wasn’t expecting to arrive at the ways the brutality of the police can ultimately empower the masses from attempting a headspin in my garden – but somehow I have arrived here – questioning modern police methods.

Hip hop can do that – well it used to.

And it’s all trapped in the anger and hostility of this tune.