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Break Out

Dateline, 1982: At the annual talent show at an elementary school, the majority of performers enjoy spinning on their heads atop pieces of cardboard. The breakdancing craze has stretched from coast to coast like one gigantic cultural rubber band, even encompassing the streets of cities like Denver. Kids are spinning on their backs, squirming on their bellies like worms and doing the moonwalk in imitation of Michael Jackson (he's still considered cool). Forget about baton twirling -- kids who can't do a pop lock while wearing parachute pants and fingerless gloves just aren't going to make it on stage.

Now to the present. As two members of the British B-boy collective the Freestylers, DJs Aston Harvey and Matt Cantor have seen their lifelong love of breakdancing come to fruition. Both were trans-Atlantic aficionados of breakdancing in the early Eighties, and although much of the world seemed to promptly forget the phenomenon as quickly as they had embraced it, Cantor and Harvey never did. We Rock Hard, the Freestylers' debut album released early this year, finds the duo ditching the parachute pants but not the moves or the grooves that first established breakdancing as a major tenet of hip-hop.

"Thousands of people are still breakdancing," Harvey says. "Every year they hold the world breakdancing championships. It's huge in Europe and Japan, though this year, the Americans won it. It's more of an underground thing than it used to be -- years ago, you'd see people breakdancing out on the streets."

The roots of breaking can be traced to the South Bronx in the late Seventies, where pioneers like DJ Kool Herc lengthened the percussion-filled break portion of funk songs so the B-boys could rock the dance floor. Harvey first discovered breakdance music when it invaded England in 1983, but he admits, "I used to break dance a bit, but I wasn't amazing." He fondly remembers when the movies Beat Street and Breakin' made their way across the ocean, fueling the craze on both sides of the Atlantic. For those who don't remember the 1984 epic film, Beat Street centered around a multiethnic group of New York youth working to organize a breakdancing show for their neighborhood; it featured Afrika Bambaataa, the New York City Breakers, and Grand Master Melle Mel and the Furious Five, among other hip-hop luminaries. "A friend of mine had this uncut version of Beat Street that had extra scenes in it," he says, "including more battle scenes between the breakdancers. I also remember seeing this other movie that was something like Death Wish with breaking in it," Harvey continues. "It was probably shit, but I loved it because of the breakdancing."

Although Harvey was a fan of the movies, he says, "I wasn't as inspired by those movies as I was by the whole birth of hip-hop to get into deejaying. Then I started making music. Because I lived in England, I was influenced by house, reggae, dub, and drum-and-bass music."

The British influence is evident in the modern polish the Freestylers bring to old-school sounds, but their music is, nevertheless, pure breakdancers' delight. "Technology has moved on since the Eighties," Harvey says, "so we're now able to produce phatter beats, a fuller sound than they had then."

Harvey and Cantor had been involved in the British dance and rave scene since the late Eighties, with Cantor making records as Cut 'n' Paste, 2 Fat Buddhas, and Freska All Stars, and Harvey as Blapps! Posse. The Freestylers began as a collaboration between the two in 1993 and has since grown into a ten-member band with two full-time breakdancers-in-residence. According to Harvey, "Matt and I were working on separate projects. We met up, talked about music that we were into and got an idea for the first track, put it out and haven't stopped since then."

The pair's first single was "Drop the Boom (AK-48)," released on their own Scratch City Records, and they continued to release singles and remixes for the next few years, scoring a British hit with "B Boy Stance." The success of the single is partially attributable to the dust-up the Freestylers had with Oasis's Noel Gallagher over an unauthorized sample of "Wonderwall." The Freestylers removed the offending passage, added a line about a "Mr. Bad Man" and surged in popularity in the U.K., winning the 1998 Muzik magazine award for best band. At first, however, the Freestylers were strictly a studio act. According to Harvey, "The nine-piece band developed at later stages, when we decided to take the Freestylers to a live arena. Our first show was just me and Matt and a couple of breakdancers with a DAT player. It was really amateurish -- there was a lot of jumping up and down."

The Freestylers' inspiration for turning their live show into a performance event worthy of the New York City Breakers was derived from American influences such as early forerunners like Afrika Bambaataa, Soul Sonic Force,and Freestyle, all of whom the Freestylers have sampled or collaborated with. The Freestylers also sample several Public Enemy tracks on We Rock Hard, but, Harvey says, "American hip-hop has lost its funk a bit. I enjoy the new Method Man and Red Man, Public Enemy, of course, and NWA's first album was amazing, but I'm not too much into Nineties hip-hop."

This conscious departure from current hip-hop is obvious in the Freestylers's lyrics, which some critics have labeled "corny" and which indeed hark back to hip-hop's more innocent primogeniture, when gangsta rap was just a twinkle in some young thug's eye. "Here We Go," with a guest appearance by Definition of Sound, is a prime example: "We've been flowin' since '88 with the greatest V's/Get it straight, we're great/Dance to this, 'cause the bass is deep/Prance to this 'cause your girl looks sweet/I must repeat, we can rock your world/In the meanwhile, shake your girl/The freshest MCs are back again with the old-school flow just settin' the trend."

Perhaps because of the disparity between old- and new-style hip-hop, the crowds the Freestylers tend to attract are not the sort that the original producers of breakdance music played for. "There is a mixture of people at our shows," Harvey says, "not the hardcore hip-hop crowd, but people who are into the Propellerheads and Chemical Brothers." And each Freestylers show is different; the Freestylers Soundsystem, which is currently touring the United States, for example, is not the full band. According to Harvey, "It's myself deejaying with loads of different records, including the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, house and drum-and-bass music and, of course, our own songs, with Navigator emceeing and one of the breakdancers, Little Tim, performing."

Groups like the Freestylers hope to smash notions that breakdancing has disappeared, gone the way of the macarena. And while they're at it, they might inspire a few people to attempt headspins and glides on cardboard, or popping, or the cricket. And that can't be a bad thing, especially if all concerned do the right thing and leave the parachute pants behind.

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Jenny Shank

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