• History
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History 

Image of eight 1980s B-boy kids on 96th Street in New York City

Image of 1980s B-boy kids on 96th Street, New York City.

The decade of the 1970s was a time of cultural shifts in America; one example of where this can be seen is with the emergence of Hip-Hop as a cultural phenomenon in New York. This subculture gained momentum and ultimately swept the music industry. Encompassed within this scene were the stylistic art forms of rap (MCing), graffiti, DJing, and B-boying. Initially, this community served as an expressive outlet for the marginalized youth of the Bronx. Hip-Hop acted as a staunch rejection of the predominant, white, patriarchal social order (Holmes-Smith 1997).  

B-boying  – a sub-set of the Hip-Hop culture – created an environment that centered on street dance performance, and provided one of the most groundbreaking and innovative artistic forms of its time. Hip-Hop, and subsequently B-boying, incorporated related art and musical forms from Afro-Caribbean, African American, and Latino neighborhoods of the Bronx (Schloss 2009). The “Holy Trinity” of Hip-Hop music, Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash (two with Caribbean roots), all played a central role in the development of Hip-Hop at this time, bringing with them the over-dubbing of Reggae and Caribbean sound systems.

Color image of Richard "Crazy Legs" Colón of the legendary Rock Steady Crew

Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón of the legendary Rock Steady Crew

From the beginning, Latinos, especially from the Caribbean, played an essential role in the development, dissemination, and diversification of Hip-Hop culture (Reznowski 2014). Through the use of bilingual rap, Latino artists opened doors for non-English presentations of Hip-Hop and eroded the hegemonic English language in what would become the global phenomenon of Hip-Hop (Fernandes 2011). What’s more, Latinos were central to the foundation of B-boying and “breaking” as an art form in particular, further ingraining the “global” element of Hip-Hop and B-boying. 

The essential B-boy dance is comprised of distinct breaking movements (utilizing four styles in particular: toprock, downrock, power moves, and freezes) set to the tune of rap, Hip-Hop, and computerized beats with a distinctive ‘scratch’ or over-dubbing sound. The B-boy world functioned as a counterculture – an escape – from the traditionally oppressive society that members encountered on a daily basis; as a B-boy, dancers felt empowered and liberated from the stigma and stereotyping they faced as a result of their race and/or ethnicity (Fasting, Kari, and Langnes 2014). Despite the primarily minority-centric ethos of Hip-Hop and B-boying, this subculture rapidly spread throughout New York City as a well-recognized form of expression.

Color image of a B-boy performing a form of head in front of a crowd

B-boy performing a form of head spin

By the mid-1980s to early-1990s, Hip-Hop rose to mass popularity and gained substantial media exposure from artists such as Public Enemy and Run DMC. Additionally, films such as Wild Style, Beat Street, and more popularly known, Flash Dance, placed b-boying more prominently on the global mainstream stage. According to Steve Hager, the author of HipHop: The Illustrated History of Breakdancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti, “[t]his very real and vital art form created by inner-city kids became a fad,” for upper-middle class, predominantly white, teens and young adults (Hager 1984). Despite falling out of popularity briefly at the end of the 1980s, by the mid-1990s, B-boying was featured in newspapers across the boroughs, including the Village Voice and (more commonly-known) NPR. B-boying was both prevalent in the rave scene and in the original Bronx neighborhoods. The 1990s were a turning point for B-boying, as it became more widely appreciated.

Close up photo of a B-boy performing a pike

B-boy featured on So You Think You Can Dance

The 2000s ushered in the globalization of B-boying. International popularity soared from South Korea to Brazil, but what tied this culture together? An argument could be made that the shared ‘vernacular’ of the culture created a sense of unity among B-boys regardless of their country. Often times, B-boys traveled across borders to learn from one another and compete in street battles – a core element of the B-boy culture where dancers compete against each other in a cypher (circles of people gathered around the dancers) and are judged on musicality, skill, and creativity. Through these battles, B-boys established subcultural capital (knowledge acquired by members of a subculture) and developed bonds, ultimately tying the individuals and the dance to something deeper than location. “It’s all about the music,” or rather, it’s all about how the music is “mediated, negotiated, and competed over” in the various B-boy arenas (Fogarty 2011).

In addition to the globalization of B-boying, the 2000s also brought the dawn of the Internet, and major changes in the B-boy community; like many other aspects of society, the Internet greatly altered its dynamic. The launch of MTV, and later, the start of So You Think You Can Dance (and similar TV shows), popularized B-boying and the breakdancing art form to a level it had never previously occurred. The subsequent commodification of B-boying resulted in commercialization and dissemination of the “classic B-boy image” into one that was assimilated into the teenage market – subsequently disassociating any specific identity markers with the B-boy (Kong 2010). Today, “there is NO way to dress as a B-boy. B-boying is what you do and who you are, not how you dress” (B-boy.org 2010). Despite this attitude, many brands, dance shows (i.e. America’s Best Dance Crew), and B-boy groups have started their own clothing lines catering to the “classic B-boy image” thus reducing breakdancers to the one-dimensional costume of ‘street dancer’ rather than appreciating the lifestyle that is B-boying. 

Black and white image of Les Twins during a World of Dance photo shoot

World of Dance photo shoot image of Les Twins

Ultimately, the commercialization and media hype around B-boying served to both discredit and further ingrain authenticity structures. The judges on dance shows and sensationalized B-boy crews “[played] a crucial role in authenticating street dance for the American public and in shaping the American dance aesthetic” (Kong 2010). This led to the establishment of a specific image and ideology of a B-boy in the American mind, discrediting the diversity within the culture and instilling a distinct mold that B-boys, at times, struggled to fit. However, it should be noted that the dawn of the Internet did not only beckon in negative effects for the B-boying community — social media brought a new creative outlet for artistic expression and communication. YouTube and other social media platforms allowed for conversations between B-boys around the world, resulting in a global exchange of knowledge, perspective, and subcultural capital.

Color image of Ken Swift performing at the B-boy Contest

Ken Swift performing at the B-boy Contest

Today, YouTube is a primary platform for viewing B-boying on an international scale. This isolated viewing of B-boy performance is a break from the traditional presentation which is characterized by communal praise as well as criticism (Kong 2010). This individualization of the B-boy scene (both in viewing and performing) led to questions of authenticity, specifically, who has the knowledge and capital to identify as a “real” B-boy. B-boys are, thus, forced to continually reassert their authenticity and reputation through dance battles. Ken “Ken Swift” Gabbert, known worldwide as the “epitome of a B-boy”, explains the significance of the dance battle as a history revealing process. When a dancer enters the battle circle, their history is revealed to themselves and those around them through their movements, musical tastes, and their “local and mediated influences” (Fogarty 2010).  In this moment, impression management converges with the genuine self of the B-boy, heightening the stakes of authentication.   

Through its evolution within the Hip-Hop world, b-boying enjoys a symbiotic relationship with graffiti, rap, DJing, and the various other manifestations of the Hip-Hop scene. B-boying has transcended generations and cultures, transforming itself through time from a local subculture to a global phenomenon. And, unlike many subcultures that remain largely “underground”, B-boying is regularly on the mainstream, public stage. Dance competition TV shows and Hip-Hop and pop concerts often feature B-boy performances, raising the question: to what degree has B-boying adopted mainstream elements? 


Race in the B-boy scene

Due to the popular correlation of Hip-Hop and the African American community, how does this influence b-boy subcultural membership and identity? Additionally, how has the gradual re-writing of Hip-Hop history erase the experiences of the Latinx community, which played an integral role in the establishment of b-boying. Schloss (2009)… Fogarty (2010)… Knox (2010)… Fasting, Kari, and Langes (2014)… Reznowski (2014).

Gender in the B-boy scene

What I the significance of the b-girl/b-boy divide? How does authenticity performance vary between b-boys and b-girls? Ogaz (2006)… Schloss (2009)… Fogarty (2011).

Authenticity Performance, Subcultural Capital, and B-boying

Despite the global nature of b-boying, the subcultural capital of music and breaking prowess unites b-boys around the world – regardless of nation lines. How do the various b-boy interpretations enjoy a symbiotic, uniting relationship with each other? Fogarty (2010)… Kong (2010)… Fasting, Kari, and Langes (2014)… Fogarty (2016)

 Media

Documentaries

Planet B-Boy – American Documentary about Breakdance & Hip Hop (2008)

An Independent documentary on the history and culture of b-boying in the global context.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmXWmGT1I-M 

The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy (2002)

An Israel film detailing how b-boys shaped the current Hip-Hop culture and pioneered a new art form.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uizp9UYdKKw (part 1)

Films

Beat Street (1984)

A Rhino Entertainment film about a South Bronx graffiti artists who hired to paint a backdrop for a rap/b-boy battle.

Wild Style (1983)

An Orion Films picture about a South Bronx DJ trying to make it in show business.

Interviews

SOUNDBREAKING | The Holy Trinity of Hip Hop and Rap Music Was Three DJs | PBS

Various influential Hip-Hop figures discuss the inception of Hip-Hop in New York City.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gg5Nd-QcynY

Important References (Dancing Clips, Foundational Songs, etc.)

DJ Kool Herc – on Tim Westwood Show in the late 1990s.

DJ Kool Herc is one of the founding members of Hip-Hop and is recognized as one of the members of the “Holy Trinity of Hip-Hop.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHNrWMyA5Qw

Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock (Afrika Bambaataa)

Like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa is a member of the “Holy Trinity of Hip-Hop”. This video illustrates both the b-boy subculture and the foundational music of Hip-Hop.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lDCYjb8RHk

Grandmaster Flash – “How to do a Break Mix,” on The Cutting Edge in 1983

Grandmaster Flash was a central figure in the Hip-Hop and DJing world during its inception in the late 1970s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiazqD6XcRY

Gamblerz vs Red Bull BC Allstars | BBIC 2017 Bboy Semi Final Crew Battle Bucheon South Korea – YAKbattles

This video features top b-boy crews from South Korea, demonstrating the widespread popularity of b-boying around the world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlE-98rb8ug

Bboy Brazil 2016 (World Best B-boys) – Bboys Are Awesome

This video features b-boys from Brazil, both demonstrating the essential ties of b-boying with Latin culture and the globalization of b-boying.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9s51UCYB1hM

 Scholarship

Books

Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History of Breakdancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti by Steve Hager; book cover

Steve Hager

Hager, Steve. 1984. HipHop: The Illustrated History of Breakdancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

This book, written by a New York Times reporter, offers a history of Hip-Hop (B-boying, graffiti, rapping, and MCing) in the Bronx and Brooklyn. This book includes information on some of the most vital B-boy elements, such as street battles, street performances, the inextricable connection to Hip-Hop, and more. 

Global Noise by Tony Mitchell, book cover (red, black, and white)

Tony Mitchell

Mitchell, Tony, ed. 2001. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

This book is comprised of thirteen essays that explore Hip-Hop scenes in Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia and demonstrate that other forms of Hip-Hop were created by first adopting the U.S. model then establishing a hybridity with local language and musical features. In this book, Mitchell skillfully demonstrates the vastness of the B-boy community and the interconnectedness that is felt, regardless of cultural differences. 

Feminism in Popular Culture edited by Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley, book cover (black, white, red, green)

Charla Ogaz

Ogaz, Charla. 2005. “Learning from B-Girls.” Pp. 161-182 in Feminism in Popular Culture. New York, NY: Berg Publishers.

This book discusses the relationship between feminism and pop culture, and through analysis of a broad range of topics, attempts to answer the question: “Has there been a “backlash” against feminism, or is feminism incorporated into the mainstream? Can feminism learn from popular culture?” Ogaz’s chapter, specifically, focuses on the dynamic between b-girls and the Hip-Hop community. In her chapter, Ogaz asks critical questions, such as “How does the identity of B-girl differ from that of B-boy?” and “What authenticity structure are in place for B-girls that are not present for B-boys?” 

Foundation: B-boys, B-girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York by Joseph G. Schloss, book cover (black, red, white)

Joseph G. Schloss

Schloss, G. Joseph. 2009. Foundation: B-boys, B-girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Through this book, Joseph Schloss conducts an in-depth examination on the foundation of B-boying in the Bronx. Additionally, Schloss provides a nuanced study of B-boying in its social context. Foundation successfully presents analysis on B-boying itself, as well as in the larger Hip-Hop community through intentful scrutiny of musical repertoire, education style, and street battle performance.

Articles

Fasting, Kari, and Tonje F. Langnes. 2014. “Identity Constructions among Breakdancers.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 51(3): 349-364.

Fogarty, E. Mary. 2010. “Learning Hip Hop Dance: Old Music, New Music and How Music Migrates.” Pp. 66-85 in Crossing Conceptual Boundaries II. London, England: University of East London.

Fogarty, E. Mary. 2011. “Dance to the drummer’s beat: competing tastes in international B-Boy/B-Girl culture.” Doctoral Thesis, Department of Dance, University of Edinburgh.

Fogarty, E. Mary. 2016. “Spontaneous Lux: Freestyling in Hip Hop Dance and Music.” Music and Arts in Action 5 (1): 70-79.

Holmes-Smith, Christopher. 1997. “Method in the Madness: Exploring the Boundaries of Identity in Hip-Hop Performativity.” Social Identities 3(3): 345-374.

Knox, M. Joseph. 2010. “Breakdance Corrupted B-Side Story: Resurrecting Authentic Bboying Through Live Music.” Thesis, University of California, Irvine.

Kong, Dehui. 2010. “Internet Killed the B-boy Star: A Study of B-boying Through the Lens of Contemporary Media.” Senior Seminar Thesis, Department of Dance, Barnard College, New York.

Reznowski, Gabriella. 2014. “Hip-Hop Mundial: Latino Voices, Global Hip-Hop, and the Academy.” Pp. 85-94 in SALALM Secretariat. Latin American Library, Tulane University.

Other resources

NPR. 1984. “Hip Hop Hooray: Breaking into the Big Time.” Retrieved Sept. 14, 2017 (http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/breakdancing/article.html).

Village Voice. 1998. “Breaking’s New Ground.” Retrieved Sept. 13, 2017 (https://www.villagevoice.com/1998/05/26/breakings-new-ground/).