As we head back a night in 1973 where a raw style of music kickstarted the Hip Hop revolution, spawning a dance craze that climbed from the streets of New York to dance clubs around the world, morphing into the biggest stage of all – the Red Bull BC One World Final – making its welcomed return with more than 60 of the world’s best breakers heading to Poland in November for the Final.
As fans await this epic showdown of the world’s best-of-the-best breakers and join Red Bull in the brand’s 20 year ‘Breaking Birthday’ celebrations, Verge revisits how it all began…
The Hip Hop dance form surged through America like a tidal wave of teen rebellion. And, by the late 1970s, it had washed into Europe. Among the first to hear of this new form of urban expression was German b-boy legend Niels “Storm” Robitzky, then just a wiry 13-year-old in search of himself. “When the entire hip hop culture came to Europe it had a really powerful impact,” he recalls. “It wasn’t just dancing… everything was so new. People were doing graffiti, and rapping. And the music was different to anything I’d ever heard.”
Their iconic scene in Flashdance – followed by a string of other movies and an explosive world tour – ignited international interest in the subculture. “I was always into superheroes as a kid and it felt like breaking and popping was a real superhero dance” says Robitzky. “From the first minute I thought, ‘Finally it’s possible. I can become a superhero’.”
What had begun in urban America’s crucible of youthful defiance had grown into a global street movement as breaking became a regular fixture in underground dance clubs across Europe.
Robitzky joined a b-boy crew in his hometown of Eutin and soon, they were touring the country. Similar crews were popping up in Britain, France, Italy and elsewhere, thrilling larger and larger crowds with their increasingly acrobatic skills. “When you’re doing windmills and flares and all these crazy moves, it’s like riding a rollercoaster without paying,” laughs Robitzky.“And you get to decide where the rollercoaster is going.”
But then, almost overnight, mainstream culture’s hunger for breaking completely evaporated. The dream seemed over. “In the beginning everything was great,” says Robitzky. “I was making a lot of money in 1984 already. But then it died down … the next big dance craze was here. Dirty Dancing was in and everybody wanted to dance Lambada and ballroom all of a sudden.”
Breaking was in a funk. Nevertheless, it lived on underground through a hardcore who continued to top-rock, pop, twirl and freeze… if only to keep the core culture alive.
Then, around 1989, Thomas Hergenroether, a small-time b-boy with big ambitions, had an idea. “[The b-boy scene] had collapsed almost overnight and I couldn’t accept it was over,” he recalls.
So, he and a handful of other breaking enthusiasts from his hometown of Hannover, Germany, came up with a plan: they would establish an international breaking competition – the first of its kind. “In the 90s, MTV and other media built this image around hip hop that it’s all gangsters and drugs and so on,” he says. “But I wanted to show that it’s not at all about this. I wanted to show people that breaking is a force for good.”
So, on June 9th, 1990 the first Battle of the Year took place in Hannover. They invited crews from all over the world to take part. They put 500 tickets up for sale. Despite the “many haters” who tried to block the event, it succeeded beyond Hergenroether’s wildest dreams. “It was totally full and more than sold out. We were absolutely stoked that so many people came,” Hergenroether says.
Buoyed by the event’s initial success, they put on another show the following year. Then another, and another. By the mid-1990s Battle of the Year was attracting audiences north of 14,000, with crews hailing from all corners of the globe, from America to Japan. “It was exploding,” he says. “All of a sudden we had crews from Norway, Poland, Croatia, Finland, England, Austria, and they came unexpectedly. It was really crazy vibes in the room. So raw. I thought, ‘This is hip hop… it doesn’t get purer than this.’”
The key to their early success, he says, was to bring an air of professionalism to the event. “Nobody at that time had official posters, just self-drawn fliers,” he adds. “We got a sponsor, and by 1994 we were selling merchandise, like t-shirts and VHS tapes. We were the first to sell VHS tapes.”
Back then, a b-boy couldn’t find the next hype move from around the world like we can today at the click of a button. So, crews from each local scene had to develop their own styles in relative isolation, through face-to-face tutorials or grainy hard-to-find VHS tapes shared by post. Suddenly, the Battle of the Year tapes, later DVDs, became a worldwide grail.
“The early Battle of the Year tapes are what we grew up on,” says American b-boy Omar “RoxRite” Delgado Macias, widely considered to be one of the greatest b-boys of the modern era.“I knew about Battle of the Year as a 13-year-old kid in Windsor, California. It was mind blowing. So many different nationalities in one place. The moves they were doing. That event is what legitimised breaking. They inspired the world.”
As the b-boy bug spread, new battles sprung up, each bigger and more spectacular than the last. Then, in 2001, Red Bull Lords of the Floor took competitive breaking to new heights, followed by Red Bull BC One – now the world’s biggest and most prestigious one-on-one B-Boy and B-Girl competition.
“In 2002, I went to Red Bull’s Lords of the Floor, their first event,” recalls RoxRite. “That humbled me. That’s when I realised this was what I wanted to do, and there was no way I was going to another battle like that and not be on stage in the finals.”
He never did win Red Bull Lords of the Floor. But in 2011, he did one better, winning Red Bull BC One – the “World Cup” of solo breaking. “Winning that title, in the fashion in which I did, was breath taking,” he says. “You dream about being a champion, but when it played out it was like nothing I could have envisioned. It completely changed my life.”
He goes on: “Red Bull BC One is the pinnacle of breaking because of the magnitude of the event, the publicity that surrounds it, the level of competition that it has. Win Red Bull’s BC One, and your name is going to be heard around the world. Nobody else is celebrating breaking like Red Bull BC One.”
Breaking has come a long way in the half century since a group of New Yorkers tossed a piece of cardboard on a sidewalk and let the music take hold. But it’s not stopping here. Last year, it was announced that breaking would also make its Olympic debut in Paris 2024.
RoxRite says, “This is a chance to tell our stories about what we’ve done as a community for the last 40 years,” he says. “We’ve been living it all this time, and this is the perfect way to get the world to see it for what it really is. After all, that’s what being a b-boy is all about: putting yourself out there for people to see.”
For RoxRite, breaking holds a universal power that few others can match. “In most other disciplines there are rules; in breaking there are none,” he says. “You can just turn on a speaker in your house, and you can be you. You can be free.”
To buy tickets or to find out more information about the livestream of the Red Bull BC One World Final taking place in Gdansk on 6th November visit: www.redbullbcone.com