Hip hop has come of age. A subculture that originated in America is now even represented in Germany by a political party called “Die Urbane” (The Urban). A talent show to find the breakdance champion of the year, the Battle of the Year, has been held for the last 27 years and in 2017 it is taking place in Essen.
Breakdance looks like head-spinning daredevilry. It is a dance of minorities, street art, protest, a straightforward contest, a battle. It will be celebrating this year’s final on 21 October in the Grugahalle in Essen. As in previous years, the world champion of the largest annual international breakdance contest will be selected. Thomas Hergenröther has been involved from the start. He invented the “Battle of the Year”. If you wish him ill, you might say he has turned a subculture into a sport. If you want to praise him, you might say he has given B-Boyz and B-Girlz from around the world an arena that enables them to gain respect.
It is striking that the last German crew to win the Battle of the Year were the Flying Steps from Berlin back in 2000. Since then, the winners’ podium has been shared without exception by French, South Korean and most recently Japanese performers. We asked Thomas Hergenröther why that is. His reply: “The Japanese are very perfectionist when it comes to show and teamwork,” enabling their skills to be evaluated in performances of just six minutes in front of a hand-picked jury. “The Floorriorz are a crew from Japan who have won the competition the last two years. Now they’re aiming for a hat trick“, says Hergenröther, and they have a good chance of achieving that because they come from the roots of hip hop: “Someone who just spins through the air performing saltos would definitely not win.”
Vagabonds, France, winner Battle of the Year 2011
© Maurice van der Meijs
The Floorriorz, Japan, winner Battle of the Year 2016
Gamblerz, South Korea, winner Battle of the Year 2004
Jinjo, South Korea, winner Battle of the Year 2010
Last Action Heroes, Bad Oeynhausen/Germany
Poster International Breakdance Cup 1990
1989 and its repercussions
Germany, however, represents the beginnings 27 years ago when the Iron Curtain came down on both sides of the country. While hip hop was seen in the GDR as being western and decadent, a few officials understood the genre to be a protest movement against ghettoisation and poverty in the USA. That was what US-american singer and entertainer Harry Belafonte, known as King of Calypso, told them. An avowed socialist, he was a frequent visitor to East Berlin. On one occasion, in 1984, he came as co-producer of the US film Beat Street, which popularised breakdance (called Brechtanz in the GDR), even among the state organisers of concerts and guest performances. Soon afterwards, the First Leipzig Breakdance Competition took place in the International Friendship Youth Club Völkerfreundschaft
. Initiator Dieter Bittner commented on its effects as follows: “The people at the top had no idea what a major impact this film would have. Belafonte was a resistance fighter. Anything he did had to be good. The aim of screening Beat Street
was to show the audience how badly black people were treated in capitalist countries. But the main things the kids in the socialist paradise saw apart from dance were sneakers, training suits and ghetto blasters. Things they wanted to have themselves.“
East vs. West
Thomas Hergenröther was his significantly younger colleague in the west. Following the box-office success of Beat Street, the youth magazine Bravo
went along with the zeitgeist and organised the first national hip hop competition in Stuttgart the same year, 1984. It was a typically western phenomenon that the Dynamic Freezing Crew, a German group, were of Turkish origin. That’s how things were back then. The hip crew in Hanover were Burning Moves. Hergenröther was one of them. He was a vigorous opponent of nationalism of any kind and could not get the dream of world-wide b-boyin' out of his head. The first competition he organised looked as if it was between East and West Germany. It began with four regional qualifying rounds, held in Münster (for northern Germany), Dresden (for the new Federal Länder), Stuttgart (for southern Germany), and Berlin (a region in itself). The 1990 final was held in Hanover and was won by the Berlin group “Tod durch Breakdance”.
Germany, France, USA, Asia
Hergenröther did not find a model for his idea of an international battle, so there was also no competition. In 1997, the Style Elements were the first crew from the United States to win the competition, which was held in Hanover. Eight years later, in 2005, one of the group’s dancers, Poe One, took the Battle of the Year to Los Angeles. In 2001, Russian DJ Hobot had already established his battle based on the German model in Moscow. That year, the competition was also a hit in South Korea and in the French city of Montpellier. Only Tokyo was faster. National qualifying rounds were introduced, and then international qualifying rounds. The winners, for example from China, compete first in Asia, this time in Bangkok. But Senegal and Réunion are also taking part. All the winners are going to Essen.
“And who’s going to win?” Thomas Hergenröther asks the staff of his organisation office SIX STEP in Hanover. “The Last Action Heros from the wonderful town of Bad Oeynhausen” is the resounding response from a number of voices in the background. “No, not spa guests”, explains Hergenröther. “They’re training at the Flying Steps Academy in Berlin and are one of the new crews that has emerged since we introduced the Kids Battle format to promote young talent.“ The 14 or 15-year-olds, now in the third generation of breakers, have their own competition. Counter-question: Who’s your favourite? “South Korea“, I say. I think it’s time they won again.