Rock rock the spot (Part III)

(Photo by Justin Madol)

Hip-hop culture consists of 4 basic elements, graffiti art, b-boying, DJing, and MCing. In recent years — maybe even since the end of the 90’s — MCing has taken over as the most popular element. But that hasn’t stopped local Greg Bruce from making making breakdancing one of his passions. He is the founder of breakdancing group the East Rock Crew, who hold regular lessons at MUN Hatcher House.

Elling Lien had a chance to chat with Greg one Sunday afternoon to talk about breakdancing and hip-hop in Newfoundland.

Why hip-hop?

I don’t know. There’s something about hip-hop that just grabbed me more often than other forms of music did.

So you know, I was into it in junior high. I wore the clothes, like hat on backwards… That was about ten years ago. It was interesting, because when I got into hip-hop, I was wearing baggy jeans and hats on backwards and people would ask me, “Are you a skater?” And I would say no, because at the time, the whole hip-hop image wasn’t around here. Even through high school, there weren’t a whole lot of people wearing those kinds of clothes. I almost feel like I was a pioneer [laugh] of that ctyle of clothing, since

I was watching all the videos and downloading all the music. But from there, I did get into DJing and I was interested in breakdancing, and I got into more underground artists. It expanded from there really. It was the music that moved me, but the image was very important as well.

What about your friends?

Yeah, a lot of my close friends were into it as well, but no one really latched onto the clothing and the imagery as much as I did. I don’t know why, maybe it was because I was a nerd in elementary school.

So when you were going into junior high you were like “Oh, I can change my whole image now!” I know I felt that way. “I can make a new start!” … I failed though. I was pretty nerdy.

[laugh] Yeah, and it also happened to me in high school, to a greater degree. You know, you get your part-time job and you get a bit of money and you want to get pimped out. [laugh]

And how do you get into breakdancing when you’re in Newfoundland?

Well, man, breakdancing, or b-boying as it’s originally called, is in the videos, and it’s something that you see every now and again on TV or on the internet or whatever. It’s always been there, and it’s always been something I wanted to be able to do. It was just so engaging.

Was there a moment when you realized you really wanted to do it?

There wasn’t really a moment, but I grew up in the eighties, and it was huge then. I can remember trying to spin on my back on my kitchen floor, so it’s always been this thing in the back of my head. But I never knew anyone who was into it, and so that didn’t really give me much drive to learn it on my own.

Then I actually saw a poster for breakdancing lessons, here. And this was over three years ago. It was with this guy Jake Evans, and I took two of his classes, and I said to myself, “This is it.” I was so amazed. Finally, at long last, without me even searching it out. And I was like, “This is it.”

He was here with a couple of guys from his crew and they did a show down at what used to be Octane, and I was, again, blown away. So I was practicing, and I still didn’t know anyone really seriously into it, but I was serious about it.

I was practicing a lot, and I would go into the Feild house, since I didn’t have anywhere to practice. I would bring my crappy portable stereo, and bring a lot of the hip-hop that I was into and wanted to dance to. So I’d start dancing in the corner of the Feild house by the track and some guy came over and he knew another guy, and he had met someone else, so there were four of us who really loved b-boying.

How did they find it?

Learning on their own. One of them had done some dance classes, and he was acrobatic, so learn some breakdance moves and away you go. The other guys just practiced in their basements, just like how a lot of people have done it all across the world. So there were four of us, different backgrounds… I was into martial arts and I guess that gave me some discipline for practicing, and so we all got together. We formed MUN Moves after we had been practicing for a while, a breakdancing club at MUN, so we could get a space at MUN where we could practice and show people this dance we were just getting into and loved. We did shows for residences and fairs going on at MUN. There we met three other guys who were either already into it or wanted to learn, so there were seven of us then. We were all practicing together and watching videos and sharing moves.

I was finishing my Music degree at the time, so I didn’t have as much time to devote to it as the rest of them, but when I was finished we wanted a place outside of MUN where we could do stuff, and we started East Rock Crew.

We got a website, and made a demo video, and [laugh] “what the hell is going on?”

You were an actual entity!

Yeah, and last year we started teaching classes – weekly classes – and we have really good turnouts. It’s just cool to have started this thing.

Let’s step back from breakdancing for a moment. What’s your physical background? Your sporting background.

I was a fat kid. From grade seven ‘till now, there’s probably only a ten pound difference.

How is that?

I guess I just played a lot of video games and ate a lot of food. [laugh] But I was into martial arts, and through high school I was in pretty good shape and I went away to do some tournaments but martial arts weren’t something that really made me work at it every day.

Martial arts is a different bag of hooks. I don’t know. I guess there was less of a community associated with it. My buddies weren’t into it, and I competed, but competition wasn’t what I was into. But then if I wasn’t into competition, what were my goals? I love martial arts, and I think it is something I might pursue later in life, but it just never really grabbed me.

But then when I was in all-right shape. I couldn’t do a hand-stand, or stand on my head…

What is it about breakdancing that you like so much?

Hip-hop has always been my favourite music, so now you’re personifying that music and the lyrics and the beats and the attitude and it’s something that is much more real than just wearing the clothes and having a chain on, you know?

So you’re dancing and you’re sweating, and you’re still bringing that aggressive attitude, but you ARE it. You aren’t just wearing it, or listening to it, or making it, but you’re dancing, you are it.

Visually, it’s such an inspiring thing to watch and maybe I’ve always been a dancer at heart. I love dancing, and once I get sweating and there’s good music on I can dance all night. Maybe that’s it.

You get to hang out with your friends, because that’s a big part of it, sharing moves and practicing and having fun, and you’re listening to music that you love, and you’re getting in shape and you’re showing off. It’s all these things in one.

Maybe that’s it. I don’t want to overanalyze it.

Mos Def has a quote at the beginning of one of his songs that goes “If you want to know about how hip-hop is doing, then ask yourelf ‘how am I doin’?’ ‘where am I going?’” What does that say to you?

Hip-hop, at its roots, is very much a personal thing. It’s the foundation of breaking, of MCing, of DJing, of graffiti – to express yourself. But that’s not what it’s pushed as. It’s seen as a thug thing, or something about the money and the image, but really, it’s always been a competitive outlet for creativity. For me, how I feel on a certain night is going to affect how I’m dancing in terms of what I do and my facial expressions.

It’s not just about copying other people and doing explosive movements. For me and a number of other b-boys, it’s about expression. It’s a very personal thing.

How important is it for hip-hop to have a presence in Newfoundland?

I feel a lot of the imagery and the attitudes and ideology associated with popular hip-hop aren’t that good. So I think it’s important, looking at that, for authentic hip-hop to have a presence here. For people who don’t like rap on the radio. To show them that’s not really what it’s all about.

It’s a creative medium. Some people aren’t going to be able to express themselves playing the fiddle, and some are just not going to be able to do it. And some people aren’t going to be into rock music, it’s just not going to do it for them. So I think for those people who have a lot of creative energy but aren’t really into the more traditional outlets, hip-hop gives them something that isn’t something you see around here every day. It’s unique here. It’s very personal, creative, but also has an attitude and energy around it. So I think that is important for people to have. For people to be able to express themselves doing something different.

Is hip-hop in Newfoundland about being different?

Difference is one way of looking at it, but a lot of it is about skill. In hip-hop, part of it is just being dope. It’s just being good at what you do, and that in itself is being different. Being above the rest. Being creative is about being different. Doing something that people haven’t seen before and it catches their eye, or it’s impressive, or it’s kind of weird, you know? Around here, with the b-boy scene, we’re trying to get people to learn the foundation, and learn how the dance was meant to be, and the basic movements, and how it originated. To stick to the original scripture, as it were. Doing bizarre, creative things is awesome, but we want to establish this community that understands each other. So we have to work from the foundation up. But if you’re here and you’re doing breakdancing, it’s obviously different. It’s the same with graffiti and MCing and Djing, really.

I think being different is one thing, but being ostracized because of your difference is another. And that happens a bit here, like “oh, how could you be a rapper from Newfoundland?” or “breakdancing, that’s from the eighties!” There is a bit of a stigma attached to it.

Who says this?

There’s always, at every club there’s always one. We’ve done bar shows where people just laugh at us. And that’s really frustrating, because a lot of the breakdancing you saw in the eighties is cheesy. Like guys dressed in full spandex bodysuits doing waves, telling you to get out and vote. It was sellout time.

And that’s really disappointing. There are a lot of people who know some movements, like karate kicks, tae kwon do kicks, or The Worm or a handstand or a backflip… and they think they can be at a club and be in a circle and do these things. But that’s not dancing. If you’re just throwing yourself on the ground and doing the worm, that’s cheesy. It’s not dancing. You’re not trying to feel the music, you’re just doing the move to get some cheers.

So what is feeling the music?

I’m not trying to be a dancing snob, which some people are, like “if you can’t do a six-step, you shouldn’t be in there.” We tell all our students to just feel the music and the rhythm. You don’t have to spin on your head. That’s not to the music. If you go and do The Worm, that’s not always to the music. …Now some people can do The Worm to music, but still that’s just one move, right?

We tell our students, if you’re groovin’, and just feeling the beat, that’s dancing. Then if you want to be a b-boy or a b-girl, then we have certain steps that also work to the beat. And then if you want to advance that further, and – heaven forbid – do The Worm, or do a headspin, or do a backflip, you have to integrate that into the rhythm. …The people that are watching you, they should see the music. That’s what dancing is. Expressing the music in some way.

Is there a certain of … for lack of a better word … snobbery that’s appropriate for hip-hop, or specifically b-boying?

I don’t think snobbery is the right word, but there are a lot of people that say “I can breakdance.” They can maybe do a windmill, which is a very popular power-move, or they might be able to do a little bit of a six-step, and they say they can breakdance. But that’s just a couple breakdancing moves, and that’s what I’m trying to say. The people like that who get in the circle like that, it gives the people who are able to do more a bad name. It reduces peoples’ tolerance for circles.

What would be the ideal venue or space – in the broader sense of the terms – for breakdancing in St. John’s?

We really like our classes. Obviously, people have to pay for them, and we teach the classes, and try to let our students know a lot about what I’ve talked to you about today. We have jams afterwards, where people can come and dance and share moves afterwards, and often the people who come to that are the people who really like it, and know something about it. There’s a really good vibe there. So in terms of a space, that’s really cool.

What I would like to see happen is to see every member of East Rock Crew have their own curriculum and teaching at a different dance school, so you’d be able to get breakdancing lessons any day of the week at an affordable price. But that’s a long way off. If that happened, so many more people would understand what we’re doing.

But how do you get over the notion that it’s a clique, or that it’s a closed thing?

I don’t think it is a closed thing, and if you watch us carefully, it becomes obvious. Going back to having people laugh at us… One time we were having a jam at the Breezeway one Thursday night. There was a guy there who was pointing and laughing, and he was watching, and then we turned it up a notch, and then he stopped laughing. And then the next day he came to our class. So it’s not something that takes a lot of understanding. It doesn’t take a lot of research. Just listen to what we have to say and watch what we do, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but give it a chance.