Battle of the Year: Deep Inside the World Cup of Breakdancing
"Hip-hop is about a party, its not about a competition," DJ Skeme Richards says over breakfast. We are sitting in the lobby of the Citadines hotel in Montpellier, France, on November 20, the morning of Battle of the Year's main event, surrounded by breakdancers from around the world taking their petit dejeuner. A black man of lithe frame and dark skin, Skeme retains a youthful appearance even as he speaks in the serious tone of an elder statesman intent on clearing up some misconceptions. "This is something that came out of a struggle, it came from kids who didn't have anything and created something."
Skeme is in town to spin for the Battle of the Year (BOTY), the international championships for b-boy crews. Few have seen the development of breakdancing over the years like Skeme who began DJing in 1981 and soon joined the legendary Rock-steady Crew of New York City.
Dov Rudnick Montpellier historic center at night
The antics of the Rock-steady crew, with names like Crazy Legs and Mr. Freeze, first lit the firestorm that was the breakdancing craze of the early '80s. Soon kids all over the U.S. and beyond were laying down cardboard and trying their moves to the sounds of Radio Shack boomboxes. With a power and momentum that few could explain, breakdancing embodied a new form of rebellion. On sidewalks and social spaces across the countries circles were formed, called ciphers, to practice and watch the dance craze. Then, almost as quickly as it appeared, breakdancing vanished from the streets and was summarily dismissed as a passing fad. Yet what had slipped underground in America had only just begun around the world.
Dov Rudnick DJ Skeme from Philadelphia
Battle of the Year is, of course, a competition, the biggest of its kind. This year alone 35 countries as far-flung as Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe hosted BOTY qualifiers in their homelands with hopes of sending a representative to the main event in Montpellier. Founded in Germany in 1990, it was originally intended as an annual competition for German crews but by the mid-'90s it began attracting crews from other European countries. By 2001, BOTY participation blew up to include countries from all over the world.
Explaining this brief history was Thomas Hergenrother, a scruffy red-haired man in his early 40s, who founded the company twenty years ago. The evening's show was completely sold out for the first time in BOTY history. In a thick German accent he offered, "It is massive, of course I am pleased, but at the same time a little nervous because we are expecting maybe two thousand outside with no tickets and the French fans are... how can I say?.. a little more aggressive."
Dov Rudnick Street dance pioneer Karim Baroouche
The intense passion French youth have for all things hip-hop and the vibrancy of the b-boy scene in Montpellier in particular made the city attractive to Hergenrother as a possible site for BOTY. The city had always hosted the French qualifier and routinely attracted the largest crowds outside of Germany. Hergenrother had established a good relationship with the French organizer, Thomas Raymond, a Montpellier native who had been part of the birth of the hip-hop subculture in the region. While still a teenager he organized a collective of hip-hop inspired kids and sponsored events earning a good reputation for himself in the eyes of the city government. What started as a joke between the two Thomases about moving the BOTY main event to Montpellier became a real possibility with the building of an arena on the outskirts of the city. A 14,000 seat multi-use facility, it was completed only this last September.