Growing up listening to hip hop, there was always one mystical place that the music came from. It was the faraway place in the ‘Once upon a time…’ stories and spawned heroes like Rakim, The Beastie Boys, Run DMC and KRS-One, before the secondary wave crashed in with Wu Tang, Nas, Biggie and Jay-Z.
These icons, who broke down barriers through the culture they were living in, threw their music out from the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Bed-Sty and all points inbetween, first started and then carried forward this brand new music called hip hop and, whilst the rest might be history, it came full circle on November 18th at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan.
The Red Bull BC One Championship is a breakdancing tournament which pits 16 of the best B-Boys in the world against each other, battling out to win the belt and declare themselves the best breaker in the world. BC One has been a globe-trotting entity taking in Switzerland, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Johannesberg and Paris since its inception in 2004, but this year’s event was all about the return to the home of hip hop, bringing one of the four elements to the place where it all began and pairing it up with MCs and DJs to show the world what the culture is all about.
Whilst the latest crop of B-Boys took centre stage, the city brought in it’s own favourite sons to impress upon the sold-out, baying crowd, just how big a deal it was to be in New York. With the legendary KRS-One taking host duties and Talib Kweli hitting centre stage before the semi-finals to give a mini-concert of his own as well as the Rock Steady Crew performing a showcase, it was hard not to be taken in by the power of what was happening.
Speaking about his hometown, KRS saw it as both a personal and culture triumph to have the event in Manhattan, “Doing this event in South Africa and other parts of the world is big too, I can’t get away from that but I’m glad it’s here now because I’ve become available now, I’ve been asked to do these in the past, but this time I’m in NY, they’re in NY it’s like a perfect marriage and the culture is winning!”
Talib Kweli was also forthcoming in his praise and despite claiming bias because of growing up in the city, said it was an easy choice to perform at the event as it brought all the elements together, describing it as a “collective experience“. Indeed arguably the biggest cheer early on at the battle was the introduction of Kid Glyde, who had New York inscribed on both his cap and jacket and, though he lost in the first round to Holland’s Menno, the home support was definitely not dampened.
One of the B-Boys who had won the tournament previously and was a veteran of these events, Las Vegas’ Ronnie, was a judge for this year’s tournament and it was this that allowed him to sit back and take in what a big deal it was to have the 2009 edition in what KRS described as the “culture capital of America“.
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Instead of having to worry about what moves he was going to pull out and the nerves he felt when competing, Ronnie took in his surroundings, saying it was “an honour to be invited to the mecca of B-Boying and the mecca of hip hop“. Getting this first hand from a very successful breaker showed the importance of the dance element being born here, home to Crazy Legs and Mr Wiggles and not just the more mainstream musical element.
The overpowering emotion inside the venue though, was unity. Whilst the 16 B-Boys were doing their utmost to bring out the best move they possibly could to beat down their opponent, as soon as the judges had made their decision, there were hugs, pounds, high-fives and smiles and with so much riding on each victory, seeing that was truly something special. As Mr Wiggles of Rock Steady said, hip hop made the concept of “one universal family, peace, love and having fun” a reality.
It only took one look at the nationalities of the B-Boys to see how universal the family really was. Entrants from America, Korea, Russia, Japan, Ukraine, Portugal, Germany, France, Holland, Brazil and Venezuela painted a hugely diverse rainbow on the centre stage, with Red Bull pulling out all the stops to make sure the cream of the crop were picked from across the globe. Each brought their own style and personality to the plate and each raised cheers, hand claps and feet stomps throughout the night, with even those going out in the first round received a rapturous round of applause when they exited the stage.
The most impressive part of the night was, unsurprisingly, the final showdown between the USA’s Cloud, a dancer for Madonna and French-Algerian Lilou, the winner in 2005. It could have been easy for the partisan crowd to get behind their countryman and turn their backs on Lilou, but there was never any indication of that. The support that both men garnered was deafening and it seemed apt that the winning vote go down to the very last vote. When Ronnie lifted the board that declared Lilou the winner, the roof was torn from its pillars and the Frenchman became the first man to win the belt twice.
It was an evening that encapsulated everything that makes hip hop the powerhouse that it is. It isn’t just about the music, or the graffiti writing, or the B-Boying, it’s about uniting everyone under the umbrella of hip hop, something that the legendary Crazy Legs said “means a lot to the community because you have a lot of upcoming B-Boys who are growing up watching BC One and being inspired by what they see“, something backed up by Kweli who said “What I’m really happy about is that a lot of the people who are coming here, performing or watching, haven’t been to New York before and because of this event and because of hip hop, they are now able to“.
By hosting this event at the birthplace of the culture, Red Bull definitely showed that they are doing things the right way and used the Hammerstein Ballroom as the perfect venue for the showcase of the coming together of the elements of hip hop. It’s only fitting that a KRS-One quote closed an exceptional night: “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live“.