The ultimate B-Boy battle is heading your way...
Johannesburg - It’s early November in the Netherlands and we leave behind a chilly autumn sunset and walk among the long wooden beams and old metallic columns of the Westergasfabriek.
The 19th-century industrial complex that used to house Amsterdam’s gasworks is today a destination with bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.
As we walk up the stairs to a sparsely-lit anteroom, heading for the 3 500-seater Gashouder (gas holder) dome, we hear the DJ’s beats through the speakers and my heart skips a little beat. We enter the main hall and encounter a brightly lit underworld vision of two B-boys battling it out on a raised cyphrical stage, like the whole world’s a music video.
B-Boy Meaty is warming up
Peering into the crowd below the DJ booth, I spot South Africa’s B-Boy Meaty warming up. He’s athletic – not built like his name suggests. He earned that moniker from his birth name Dmitri Nell. He’s getting ready to show off his skills in the “last chance cypher” in which 31 B-boys, each having won their respective country’s cyphers (dance battles) must now compete for the last remaining spot in the world finals two days later.
Breakers from over 30 countries qualified for only 16 spots. Fifteen of those spots were invite-only and they were chosen based on their previous performances.
“There’s a feeling that I need to feel before I go on stage. I can’t really describe it, but in a sense when I warm up and my body is a certain temperature, then everything flows,” Meaty tells me in a bar afterwards.
That flow is one of the most crucial elements of breaking, he explains.
“It’s how you interlock with the music because none of us has heard the music before the DJ plays it. And it’s on the spot, in that moment where we have to interpret it,” Meaty says. The expression on his face is coy, animated and he’s smiling all at once. His accent is the finest Eerste Rivier, where he was born and bred.
Each taking turns in the spotlight, the breakers must immediately try to best their opponent with the drops, the floor rocks, the freezes, the suicides, in a one-on-one battle. All this without ever knowing what the DJ will drop next.
“Getting to a point where one feels comfortable with this takes a lot of hard work, dedication and practice,” says Meaty.
He didn’t clinch that last remaining spot in the finals, but he’s not particularly upset. He’s proud that he’s dedicated his life to pursuing what he loves and has validated his decision to stick with his craft. It’s not about winning the battle, but winning at life.
“There’s a thing called battle attitude and I understand that, but that stays on the floor and when the round is done we shake hands. I give you a hug and that’s that. Maybe afterwards, if the respect is there, we can catch up and talk about life,” Meaty says.
Hip-hop is not the problem
Dmitri Wayne Nell met his future as B-Boy Meaty on the streets of Eerste Rivier, about 40km outside Cape Town in the Western Cape.
He was a young teen walking through one of the local parks when he saw a group of B-boys doing their thing.
“I never understood what they were really doing, but I could feel the movements and felt really connected to it. When something just clicks, you don’t even have to go any further. This is it, this is your stop, and that’s how it was for me,” he smiles.
He changes the subject when asked about growing up, save to say: “This is seen as a culture that can alleviate certain social ailments. Because breaking is one of those things that can bring people out of poverty and give them something to do. Breaking is one of the things that can help someone not be a gangster, but be a dancer.”
Our conversation is echoed by one of hip-hop’s golden-era kings, hip-hop trio Naughty by Nature, in a lecture the next day.
The Grammy-winning group was the headline act at the BC One Finals, dishing up classic hits like Hip Hop Hooray and Jamboree.
In their lecture, well, more of an intimate chat in a circle of chairs in the venue, DJ Kay Gee reminisced how he got his “ass whipped trying to ‘scratch’ on my mother’s turntable ... way back when music was for the black, the white, the brown, the purple and the yellow. All cultures.”
Hip-hop is not the problem but the solution, added rapper and broadcast star Sway. He pointed to the room, which was a melting pot of races, cultures and religions, all talking about hip-hop culture.
“Wherever breakers are in the world, it’s like this family within hip-hop that embraces peace, love and unity,” Meaty had said.
It’s true that breakers are some of the nicest people I ever spent three days with anywhere, ever. No one, in their fresh street looks, commented on my patent lack of style cred. When I made the mistake of mentioning that breaking is surely considered a sport – after all it was an official event at this year’s Youth Olympics, much to the annoyance of the ballroom fraternity, who have been waiting in line – they explained patiently that it’s not a sport, it’s a form of cultural expression.
Even so, there is an air of WWE at the grand finale at the Gashouder the next night.
The DJ booth is perched above the tunnel through which the breakers enter the centre of the arena and take the stage, a raised black platform with a white Red Bull logo in the middle. Red, blue and orange lights brush the crowd while blue spotlights light the centre. Screens around the dome broadcast close-ups of the dancers’ faces, revealing the emotions of the breakers as they go head-to-head.
Dancers have three rounds each to perform suicides, headflips, handstands and spinning moves (known as power moves).
After three rounds, the five judges, all former world finalists, reveal the winner, based on their individual criteria, by raising a board with the contestant’s name on it.
Each B-boy and B-girl has their unique style, but the crowd goes crazy every time a windmill, standing backflip or head slide is performed. When one of the crowd favourites doesn’t qualify for the next round, the applause and cheers for their opponent are muted, reserved only for their favourite when their name is announced.
This respect – however spicy – permeates the culture, I found in my interactions with everyone I met. Meaty was watching it all, enthralled.
Later Meaty laughs and says he would hate being a judge because there are so many factors that go into it: from the energy the breaker brings to the stage, the freeze moves they produce, the stacking transitions and the roasting of the opponent to the variety of moves produced.
In some ways the trip was a full circle journey for him. The last time he was in the Dutch city was 10 years ago when he was “still a kid”. Like many of the big names, he looks like he’s in his early thirties now.
“The funny thing is that we battled Menno [van Gorp, who lifted the B-boy trophy in Amsterdam] in a competition there and, 10 years later, I’m back in his country and he won BC One,” Meaty says.
Back in the republic
I call Meaty up once we’re home and we chat some more. He’s training hard as always and, because one cannot make a living off breaking in South Africa or anywhere else in Africa just yet, he’s busy with corporate shows and gigs.
Sometimes he’ll slip in a new move that he has been working on, to test it in front of a live audience.
“Amsterdam was a revelation to me,” he says.
“Just on an emotional level, when I was there and while interacting with the other dancers. I could tell how passionate they were and that they really love to dance. That struck a chord with me. Because I was quite a reserved guy going there, and when people were dancing, I was like okay, cool, and just watched. But now if there’s music I want to dance, if there’s a moment for someone to dance, I want to dance. I feel like I am more connected to my dance now than ever before.
“This was definitely a highlight of my career, just being on the same stage as people who you’ve watched and admired. It’s not dancing any more, it’s a form of inspiration.”
With more experience under his belt, Meaty will be hoping to defend his South African Red Bull BC One title this year and book his ticket to Zurich, Switzerland, for September 29.
But first he will have to overcome the best local talent around. There are 15 other B-boys who also want to be on that plane to the Alps. One of them is B-Boy Bax, who won the Cape Town leg of the qualifiers and is in the same dance crew as Meaty.
“I hope I don’t get to face him,” Meaty says jokingly, before telling me how talented Bax is and how strongly connected he is to youth development.
Meaty has an automatic place in the upcoming South African final. It’s in Cape Town, which he is extremely excited about, because “the Mother City is where it’s at”.
“We practise every day for four hours,” he says. The only time he takes a “break” is when there are commercial performances.
As we wrap up our chat, I ask B-Boy Meaty what a typical day in a breaker’s life looks like. He is silent for a second or two and then comes to the following conclusion: “A day in the life of B-Boy Meaty is about learning.”
It’s what I learnt in Amsterdam too.
The 2018 South African Red Bull BC One Cypher will take place in Cape Town on June 23. The World Final is in Zurich, Switzerland, on September 29.
Hussain was a guest of Red Bull at the 2017 BC One World Final in Amsterdam.