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Interview: Breakin' Convention's Jonzi D

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Since the inception of British hip hop culture, Jonzi D has been at the epicenter of it's creative development. After graduating from London School of Contemporary Dance in 1993, his career has impressively embraced dance, music, spoken word, theatre and often- as a by-product- education. After enjoying international success as a choreographer, Jonzi went on to collaborate with MC Mello and tour with Gangstarr.

Returning to the world of dance and theatre, he became creative consultant on the LWT South Bank Show Special, as an expert in the field of the art and culture of hip hop. Jonzi even went on to take the coveted role of Associate Artist at contemporary dance venue The Place. Showing no signs of slowing down, he is about to launch the ninth Breakin' Convention- the biggest international festival of hip hop dance theatre, no less- at Sadler's Wells, as it's Artistic Director.

Right from the start of your career you worked with the UK hip hop greats, such as Mudfam, Lowlife and Black Twang. Many people saw this as hip hop's golden age, would you agree?

I think the highlight of UK hip-hop was a generation before that. The highlight of UK hip-hop in my opinion was London Posse, MC Mallow and Demon Boyz.

Quite specific!?

Well you were specific, I guess that you really know what you're talking about! (laughs)

Has hip hop become more of a commercial enterprise?

Definitely! I guess that all of our favorite kinds of hip-hop will become commercial. As soon as we heard the term hip-hop, the style became commercial. For me, that was in 1979 with the Sugar Hill Gang (sings an excerpt from Rapper's Delight) I said a hip, hop.... We're talking about different degrees of commercial, but my favorite moment was, as I mentioned, that period of UK hip hop when London Posse first used the UK vernacular and accent.

The Breakin' Convention is in it's ninth year now, which must be incredibly exciting. Have you noticed any big changes in the break dance scene since you started?

I have, I really have. I've seen it on TV a lot more, in shows like Britain's Got Talent and stuff like that. I've also seen it develop on the underground TV networks and the sports networks- the UK B-boy championships was on TV, I think maybe Channel 4 showed some, so yeah, I've seen the dance side of hip hop really develop in its own right as well: nowadays, it isn't only seen in the music videos- like in Missy Elliot videos- we're also seeing dance get a life of its own which is really exciting.

Does that commerciality make it difficult for grass roots crews to enjoy the same kind of recognition?

Erm, yeah. It's that familiar double-edged sword. On the one hand, you want to see it on the TV, but at the same time, once TV starts to get it's own ideas of what is really "cool" about hip-hop, then it starts to go through this corny filter, which can be quite annoying.

When you are choosing acts for your line up at Breakin' Convention, do you bear that in mind? How do you decide what makes the grade?

For me, it's a mixture of technique and originality. People who train really hard and understand the various techniques that make up this wonderful culture- that's really exciting for me. But, also, when someone pushes in a slightly different, more original direction, that is also very exciting too.

You trained at London Contemporary Dance School. Does that classical training continue to feed into the work you do today?

I'd say that it fed into the work that I was creating in the early '90s. Prior to that, I couldn't really see hip-hop being explored in the theatre, so actually, me having an understanding of theatre through contemporary dance allowed me to create my first show- so it definitely fed in there. What I'd say it's really giving me now, is being able to watch people who have a deep understanding of the form, and seeing where they are taking it. What I do find now, though, is that when contemporary dance feeds into hip-hop, it's really important to remain true to the fundamentals of hip-hop culture.

In 1999, you made Aeroplane Man, which was a piece of theatre about searching for what you could call home, and feeling like a 'lost generation'. Do you think you've found a sense of belonging now?

I actually found it as a result of creating the work. The work was definitely a result of me looking for that and I then found it through the work. It's deep actually because, using a piece of art to talk about an individual trying to find his place in a different country of city, I actually found my place in the artform. That's where my home is now.

Rather than finding it in any geographical sense?

Exactly. And to be honest, I didn't realize that when I made the piece, I only realized it a few years later.

It's difficult to talk about hip hop without mentioning politics. They've always had a difficult relationship, and continue to today, with David Cameron recently blaming hip-hop music for knife and gun crime...

Hmmmm... (Jonzi moans derisively)

It is an unfair association, but do you think it's an association that will ever go away?

I think that as long as we have racism in society, where young people are a scapegoat because of their colour or their nationally or their religion, it won't. The attitude towards hip-hop is a bi product of this scapegoating of young people of colour.

The dance industry is one that has long been dominated by women, but in break dancing, the majority of crews and dancers are male. Do you think that there's a place for women in break dancing, and are they represented within your productions?

A difficult question. The development of break dancing as a form, started with young, excited boys- not men, boys, under twelve years old. These are the people who started the culture of breaking, so the development of the form has been about upper arm strength, which is a very young, male, physical attribute. I don't want to sound sexist now! (laughs). The form has developed from young boys doing the crazy things that young boys do, for example, spinning on your head and balancing on your arms and stuff. Women are going to have to work hard in a form that has developed like that. But you can see a lot of females that are actually leading the way, in a lot of hip-hop iconography for example. There's people like our lovely redhead girl, Roxy, who dances with Soul Mavericks. You've also got people like Sofia Boutella, from the Street Dance films; she's becoming an iconic female break-dancer. Things are developing and changing, but as to whether there'll be a female break-dance champion, I very much doubt it over the next 10 years, but it's difficult to say never, I hate to say never. But women will have to try very hard to get to the same level as men when it comes to breaking.

Now urban culture has been more embraced by the mainstream, what do you think the future holds?

The idea of "urban culture" being embraced by the mainstream is normal, it's been happening since the original jungle, nigger music, which is jazz. There was a time in which this music form was only supposed to be for a certain type of people in he ghettos. But, it became popular, and now everybody plays jazz, so I think that the idea that mainstream absorbs popular culture is a continual thing and will always happen, and the notion that it seems like it's just happening now is crazy. We've got to be aware of history when we're looking at this term "urban culture", AKA Black Culture, and I think then it's easier to see the dynamics of it.


Hip hop was such an underground movement in its conception, how can it grow now that the theatre world at large is beginning to ingratiate it into a high-brow theatrical bracket?

I think that anything that is underground will become overground, particularly when it comes to black, American community. Anything that is popular with that community will become popular with the mainstream and the middle class- white people will see it as an art form. It is happening with hip-hop, and it will continue to happen with hip-hop. I've seen it in England, at rap battles, these very middle class teacher types getting involved with the whole battling thing, and it will continue, and I hope that it does. I think it's funny and an example of how hip-hop can permeate very level of society and every form- be it graphic design, arts, language, spoken word or dance. Every level of art is being influenced by hip-hop culture, and long may it continue.

The Breakin' Convention is at Sadler's Wells from Saturday 5th May, before embarking on a national tour. Tickets and information are available from http://www.breakinconvention.com/