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Breaking Down Limits:
Hip Hop Culture Around the World

Session with Michael Holman: Artist, Writer & Hip Hop
(Artwork by David Schalliol)

nthWORD: What do you think of the current Hip Hop scene in relation to the early break dance scene that helped you bring Hip Hop as a genre into the mainstream? Race isn't as much of an issue or the same kind of issue as it was back then, or is it? Where do you see race now in terms of Hip Hop culture, mainstream culture and so forth?

MH: It's so funny that you mentioned that. Not long ago, I was watching hours of break dancing on YouTube, and I was so captivated. Today the top rated, number one dancers, considered by many international B-boys and break dancers, are Korean. Before that it was the Europeans. At one point, the Italians were the best, the Germans were before them. And all this is going on as American B-Boys are scratching there heads, asking themselves, "What? How did this happen?" People have soul everywhere.

In fact I was at a panel the other day at NYU concerning Hip Hop. An important graffiti artist named Mare chimed in as we were talking about the origins of Hip Hop--where it began. And it never begins anywhere. Mare was saying how he had been doing some research and found documentation, from 19th century into 20th century Russia, of cultural events that were essentially Hip Hop in nature. There were people celebrating their work in an oral tradition that they actually called rap. It was literally pronounced rap. And you know that move in Russian dance where the dancer drops to the ground and kick their legs out in tandem? This was all a variation of breaking. There was another Hip Hop Pioneer on the panel, Fabel, vice president of the Rock Steady Crew, who was talking about footage that he found on YouTube that was more than 100 years old. On this film, a dancer is spinning on his head. So the point is, number one, nothing's new under the sun. But to a much more interesting evolutionary point--because we're talking about the universality of Hip Hop--is Hip Hop restricted to blacks and Latinos in urban America? Or, is there something going on that is far more universal? Clearly there is. What I've seen and experienced as a Hip Hop Pioneer/impresario that amazes me the most is how the culture has spread, so completely, all around the world. Gilberto Gil, the world-renown bossa nova musician, was the Minister of Culture for Brazil for a number of years, and during the time he held that cabinet position, he chose Hip hop as the culture to be emulated, as the singular culture of exploration for Brazil. For however many years he was in office, it was gonna be Hip Hop. And it was Hip Hop as it was played out specifically in Brazil, which is far more political in nature, then how it is expressed in the U.S.

But here's what I've noticed, here's a quick little story. I attended a Hip Hop conference in Folkstone, England in 1997, and I hadn't been in the Hip Hop game for many years at this point. I had been out of it for ten years, busy working in film. And I go and they want me there as an honorary Hip Hop pioneer, to speak and judge dance contests, etc. It was mainly a dance thing, but there were DJ battles, graffiti exhibitions, etc. And there were break dancers from all over the world, from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the U.S., all over. But at this time there weren't many Asians. They were flying in from all over and they were spending big money. And so this Polish kid stops me and says, "You're Michael Holman, I want to show you something." And he--step-for-step, beat-for-beat, move-for-move--does this break dance routine from beginning to end--up rocking, going down to footwork, then windmills, back spins, then a freeze. He does every single move, exactly step-by-step, move-by-move, from a routine that Chino Lopez (aka Action), one of my dancers from the New York City Breakers, performs on my TV show Graffiti Rock. The Polish B-Boy does it perfectly, and he gives me this look that was on Action's face at the end of the routine, the freeze that says, "...what are you lookin' at?" But it had a different meaning. And his look was like, "...did you see what I just did?" And I just about burst into tears. He was trying to convey, without saying a word, "I found a way, on the underground, to get a hold of a pirated videotape that maybe took years to fall into my hands." That the tape had gone through different hands and lost quality by being copied over and over again, losing video generations, but this is how this Polish kid learned how to dance, from these artifacts, these hints of history as they float through the airwaves and over tape, passed hand-to-hand, across borders, illegally at times, that's how he learned how to do this, to break dance. He was showing me how B-Boying had spread virally, pretty much at my doing. And it shook me because it was like, "What have I created? What have I done?"

Singularly, I'm the one who first put B-Boying and Hip Hop Culture on TV to the degree that it was on TV back then. There were other people helping to spread Hip Hop in other ways. But dancing, in particular, it was me doing that viral work. I saw how my films, TV shows and videos and all the things I was shooting and collecting and putting on the air many years before--like my cable TV shows (The 9:30 Show, TV New York and The J Show) on MNN (Manhattan Neighborhood Network), my syndicated television show, Graffiti Rock, and live, network TV shows, NBC Salutes the Olympics, CBS Kennedy Center Honors, etc.--were now being spread, via bootleg tapes, by dance freaks, all around the world, spreading the dance, the moves. I wanted to spread the culture and entertain people and make money, but I wasn't really thinking about an evolutionary, viral spread of the culture, of a dance. I was overwhelmed by how the process had played out. Back in the early 1980s, kids were coming to me, writing me, wanting to know how do the dance, sending us (The New York City Breakers and myself) letters, as a matter of fact letters from kids down South, who were writing, telling us that the Klu Klux Klan doesn't want them to break dance...because why? Because their break dance crews were made up of black and white kids. They wanted us to know that--I can't repeat the letter word for word, but to paraphrase--this kid was writing saying that they were breaking down some of the racial lines in their towns and communities, because their break dance crews were mixed race, and they didn't give a fuck. They didn't care what the Klu Klux Klan said. What's interesting and phenomenal about all that was... yes, in the hippie days, in the Sixties, society was breaking down, and blacks and whites were hanging out together in San Francisco, but it was in San Francisco. The kids at the time were running away to where they had safe haven. And they were doing it as older teenagers and young adults. These kids... these kids, young B-Boys and B-Girls, were much younger teenagers and adolescents, who were defying societal norms within their communities. They were too young to run away, so they defied societal norms, at home, in the South and Middle America, where the risks were much greater. They were breaking down social, cultural and racial barriers visa Hip Hop the way it had been done a generation earlier visa Rock and Roll, but these early B-Boys and B- Girls were doing it in a much more courageous and radical way, because they had to do it on their home turf.

Now back to the idea of this Polish kid B-Boying. It's very simple: Hip Hop is a culture created by working class kids, poor and working class kids. It is not the expression of middle and upper middle class young adults. It's the expression of poor and working class kids. It's dancing on the ground. It's spinning on your head. It's making art with spray cans instead of canvas and brushes and expensive arts schools. It's spray cans and learning from the street. It's dancing on linoleum instead of going to Julliard and learning modern dance and ballet. It's two turntables and a microphone creating a billion dollar industry. It's kids who have very little, who sometimes steal the equipment, plugging into lamp posts to power the turntables to have parties for other poor and working class kids, in the parks of Harlem, The Bronx, Hollis, Queens, Brooklyn.... So this is purely an expression of the underclass. So guess what? Poor and working class kids exist all over the world, and they completely, completely,—without any need for intellectual or academic explanation or translation--instantly understood that what they were witnessing was being created by kids just like them, maybe not the same race or the same nationality, but the same socio-economic background. They recognized it. Kids from ghettos all over the world instantly got it, wanted to see more, and it spread like a virus. It spread like wildfire. Necessity is the mother of invention.

And it just keeps going, it keeps spreading because it is the first time, perhaps in human history, maybe except for the 1960s, that people of a particular age and class have ever had the numbers (as with the baby boomers) to actually dictate social discourse, the discussion in terms of culture. Before that it was always adults telling kids what to do. The kids rebel, sure. Kids are always coming up with new ways to do things. That's been a teenager's job since the beginning of time. But it wasn't until the Sixties that that idea had turned on its head, because the population numbers had changed. Baby boomers - the number of teenagers in comparison to the general population had changed. There were so many babies, turning into so many young people, that they could dictate the terms. And we saw that played out with the Sixties, with the hippies, with the anti-war movement. Well a new milestone happened with Hip Hop as well. This is why I'm so proud of being a Hip Hop Pioneer, in terms of Hip Hop's evolutionary force and influence. With Hip Hop it was the first time for young, working class kids to find a universal, global culture that they could all plug into, whether it be through the Internet or physically being together, battling each other for supremacy within each of the elements. And now, the culture has gone worldwide. You gotta see this stuff. Japanese B-Boys battling Korean B-Boys...amazing. Japan and Korea joining forces to battle Europe. Japan and Korea battling America. These guys, they fly everywhere. There's big prize money involved now. Tens of thousands of dollars. It's a big thing and it's still very viral. And that's what airplanes are for.

This is a serious digression, but the corporations that make airplanes, cars, etc., they see themselves as important, while seeing artists as expendable. But I say to that type of thinking: "Fuck you...you're making cars and airplanes so that kids who break dance can get from one place to the other. So that people who want to experience other cultures and worlds can travel to experience them first hand. Travel ultimately is for the experiencing of culture and leisure. Art doesn't serve industry, industry serves art.

I'm making a lot of points here, but the larger point that I'm trying to make is that Hip Hop, its popularity, its importance, is still yet to be seen, to be realized. Eventually it's going to start to take on global, political ramifications. It's going to change the world. And I don't know to what end or if it's necessarily for the better, but it's going to happen. Already in African countries there have been elections that have turned on a rap song, promoting one candidate over another. In the United States, unfortunately, rap has a bad reputation. It's all about materialism, this glorification of negative ideas that titillate and sell well to teenagers looking for ways to shock parents who have been through it all themselves, through sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. Hip Hop fit the bill perfectly. What better way to shock a 1960's era parent than to talk about guns and bitches and all that shit. The kids in the U.S. have found the perfect way to shock their parents, and rappers have bought into this ridiculous paradigm, hook, line, and sinker, to make that paper, and unfortunately much of that music is unchallenging and boring. But that's not true in the rest of the world. The rap scene in Cuba or in Brazil is anti-establishment. In most places the rap message is anti-establishment, anti-the-oppressor, looking for ways for working class people--who have been under the whip since early human history--to find a voice. There's always been the idea of bread and circus for the great unwashed, escapism for the working class that keeps them too occupied to rise up in protest. We'll always have bread and circus, but Hip Hop is challenging the model. The bread and circus that Hip Hop promises is turning into a political circus. It's turning into something bigger.
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