“Hip Hop theatre is theatre that uses the artistic disciplines of Hip Hop to create theatrical devises”- Jonzi D (10/03/17)
Jonzi D. Where do I begin. The legend. Certainly not a myth. That guy you go to when you’re a bit lost and need a pick up or a torch shone for the way. He is considered as one of the Godfathers of UK Hip Hop. He’s not only a pioneer but still a key player in the Hip Hop game at present. He created Breakin’ Convention in 2004 — The UK’s biggest Hip Hop festival. As a young dancer from East London, I spent my early years trying to follow in his footsteps. I will spend forever trying to impress him. Here’s a little insight into his world and how he cultivated his dreams, to provide more transits and platforms for Hip Hop.
So how did this all begin?
That is a question I can answer! This started as a desire to expose London to the developments in Hip Hop theatre. That was the first reason. An offshoot of that would be to create and attract a more diverse audience because I was very aware of the limited Contemporary Dance audience that there was, as well as the commercial audience. There were also the music audiences and the poetry audiences so I always thought, ‘there’s a new audience for this. This is a new form. We don’t see Hip Hop in the theatre. This could attract a whole bunch of different people.’ So, that was really important. I connected to Alistair Spalding when I did ‘Aeroplane Man’ (1995), my previous show at the southbank, and I told him, ‘we need to a Hip Hop festival’! So, as soon as he got the job here (Sadler’s Wells), that was his first thing he did. I remember his first press conference…there was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan, Wayne McGregor and me. And the big problem was… WHERE ARE THE WOMEN?!!! But that’s changed over the years.
What is Hip Hop Theatre?
It’s a term I coined in 1995. My reason for coming up with that term was because, again, I wanted to get the audience. For me the idea of saying:
“this is a theatre show”
just didn’t sum up the gravity of what doing Hip Hop in a theatrical context is because I grew up in dance schools saying:
“Hey I wanna do hip hop theatre”
and people would always snub it as though Hip Hop isn’t necessarily made for the theatrical space. When I went to Lewisham College we would always do a ‘street’ piece and it was always be seen as an aside and not necessarily central to the vision of art and creativity. However, for me it was central to my art and creativity because I love Hip Hop culture as well as Hip Hop artistry. I took it as disrespect. It seemed like they were regarding my whole culture, who I am and what I am as secondary to this ‘classic stuff’. So, I was already having fights because it becomes a high art versus a ‘low art’ thing. Even using the term ‘high art’ is problematic, with the protection it affords this class of artists. It emphasises division, cultural apartheid. For me, Hip Hop is the opposite of that. Hip hop is about everyone. It just brings everyone in. Hip Hop theatre uses the artistic disciplines of Hip Hop to create theatrical devises, in the same way that Contemporary Dance uses techniques like Graham or Cunningham. We’re creating dance from the techniques of Rock Steady Crew and Poppin’ Pete. We’re still doing a technique. We’re still doing a dance form. We’re still using a codified language but our pioneers are different.
How is Hip Hop culture important to the world?
I think it’s important because Hip Hop as a culture is like a gas, whatever space or structure exists, Hip Hop can find a way of making sense within that. For example, within the idea of literature, Hip Hop clearly has a place within because of the amount of writers. In terms of music, Hip Hop clearly has a place through the advancement with sampling techniques, scratching, spoken word, rap and obviously Dance. It’s entered all of these different realms. You look at advertising and the amount of Hip Hop that is used. A lot of graphics artists have roots in graffiti. So, Hip Hop has a real effect on society’s cultural understanding. For that reason, if we’re going to present a society that has cohesion, then these art venues have to present the arts that come from all different sides of the community, particularly an art form that doesn’t say this is only for this type of person. Hip Hop just doesn’t say that.
Could you talk about Hip Hop as an umbrella term in terms of Dance?
As far as Hip Hop Culture is concerned, Breakin’ is the only form that was developing at the time period in The Bronx. However, within the disenfranchised black communities in the West, the same type of dance form, which was used as a language of the people, was simultaneously developing and that is what connects these forms together. Now for me, I’ve never been to a Hip Hop jam and seen dancers there that are only Bboys or Bgirls, I’ve always seen Popper’s or Krump dancers. I’ve never been to a Poppin’ jam and not seen breakers throwing down. So for me, the segregation of it is detail but the reality doesn’t sum it up for me. I see Break Dance, Poppin’ and Lockin’ all in the same place because it’s the same generation. The roots of one form might be from one side of America and another form from the other side of America, but actually, to only think of those two places in the whole world of the dance culture of the disenfranchised, I think it limits the potential of what we can do when it comes to unifying our language.
Who are your favourite Hip Hop artists?
Historically, Ken swift, who is a Bboy. He will always mention. Megus. He’s a Canadian Bboy. He has some incredible threading techniques. KRS ONE. No doubt he will always be a major influence for me being a MC. Black Thought from The Roots. I connected with Black Thought when he first came to England and their first show in London they invited me on stage to be apart of their set (the first ever gig they did in London). Where graffiti writers are concerned, I really love DAIM from Germany. He’s got this dope 3D style. I also like ODEITH he did a piece at Breakin’ Convention three years ago. He’s got this really unique special effects style which involves doing a piece on a corner and depending on where you stand it looks like its coming out. It’s incredible. In South Africa there’s a MC called Hymphatic Thabs. He’s onto the next level. Very underground but I think he’s an incredible MC. Audio/Visual which were a collective of MCS that were pushing the form in the mid to late 90’s. Kendrick Lemar mainly for that brilliant album and MF DOOM because he’s just always pushing the boundaries lyrically. He’s got a very monotone style, which makes him a bit like marmite. You either love him or you just don’t get it.
What do you think is the future of Hip Hop?
I am going answer this question how I feel everyone should answer this question — like what Mos Def said:
‘Don’t worry about what Hip Hop is doing, worry about what you’re doing’
and it makes me then say Hip Hop theatre is going to go global just like what we’re doing with Breakin Convention. We’re doing four dates in America. We’re also doing Canada and Luxembourg. Sweden and Holland are both interested. So, there is a global thing going on with Breakin’ Convention. I also think that the forms of Grime for example will have an influence, which I think are Hip Hop. Again, we’re are just trying to divide and make everything super detailed when we have so much more in common than we do apart. I’m quite keen to say that it’s part of the world, however you want to say it. I would like to think that it’s all connected. I think that in this increasingly fascist system that the world is going through, not just England and America, that a lot of the media is pressurising us to fight amongst ourselves. I think this is in response to the obvious imbalance in resources. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, so it doesn’t surprise me that the media will try to enforce on us things that make us start arguing amongst ourselves. Hip Hop is the antithesis of that so I believe that Hip Hop is going to be responsible for helping to heal society.
It’s because of people like Jonzi D that Hip Hop is allowed to grow, influence and inspire people old, young in the UK and now around the world. Thank you.
Catch Jonzi D in the 2017 Breakin’ Convention tour! For details visit http://breakinconvention.com/events/festival/breakin-convention-2017-uk-tour