by Donald Hutera
Alongside Jonzi D, names to reckon with on the UK’s hip hop dance scene include Benji Reid (bodypopping champ turned scintillating soloist/director), Robert Hylton (who dubs his fusion of ballet, contemporary and hip hop ‘urban classicism’) and Kwesi Johnson (whose Kompany Malakhi produced the UK touring hit HipHopstory). What follows are their thoughts and words of wisdom, culled from several conversations.
Kwesi Johnson: ‘With a lot of younger people, hip hop begins with Eminem. For them it has no history past the last few years. But hip hop means more than just the industry’s biggest-selling music. There’s a need to inform them that there are many stories about how it started, going against the disco frenzy, hiring a pub or school hall for a jam, creating something for ourselves. And twenty or thirty years later it’s massive, relevant to people we know and people in the street.’
Jonzi D: ‘I do hip hop theatre because I wanted to be honest about what moves me as an artist. I’m an MC, Master of Ceremonies, someone who facilitates a crowd, Making Connections. That aspect of hip hop is what I’d like theatre to get a feeling of – the way the crowd participates. It comes from the tradition of African people’s theatre and performance in the round. It’s not like the framework by which artists usually perform in theatre. We’re trying to make a 360-degree thing, as opposed to a 180-degree relationship, to blur the lines. So it’s not just hip hop in theatre, but theatre in hip hop.’
Robert Hylton: ‘Hip hop is a culture that tells you to create, to look at where we live and who we are and to apply yourself. It isn’t like McDonald’s. You can’t buy it off the shelf. It’s my understanding of hip hop that gives me permission to abstract it, to manipulate and modify, to make it my own.You can only do that if you understand the forms. But people seem to think they can visit and be tourists, be in and out. You can create something that is good, but it’s never what it could’ve been because you didn’t understand the whole process. It comes across as a borrowing. Which hip hop does, but you have to understand what you’re borrowing or you’re just stealing.’
Benji Reid: ‘You don’t need bling or a girl on your arm. Your tools are who you are. Your voice, your body. Watching, looking, searching. Digging, and being humble. Being hungry is the first thing. Then you find your skills. We ourselves have to witness every time we fall off the bike, realise our mistakes and climb back on again. The end result is an understanding of how the body works in order to make your own moves, and then taking that to the next generation.’