The last few years have been very kind to the 1980s. Everyone from graphic designers to hipsters to Urban Outfitters (whose buyers and executives make their pay sucking the marrow of cool) has fallen for that loveable decade of late-20th century American kitsch--the day-glo colors, the skinny jeans, the undeniably catchy pop songs, and television shows like The Golden Girls and Diff'rent Strokes.
And, of course, there is breakdancing. One of the defining fads of the '80s, it was brought up from the streets of New York and hit the mainstream thanks to a short scene in Flashdance and an episode of American Bandstand before flaming out of our national consciousness like Max Headroom.
Except that breakdancing didn't really disappear. Director Benson Lee recently resurrected the story of the dance that was originally known as b-boying. Lee's documentary, Planet B-Boy, follows b-boying from its early days as part of hip-hop culture in the Bronx to its second life today as an art form practiced by youth in France, South Korea, Japan, Germany, South Africa, and beyond. Lee and Planet B-Boy give Americans, and those abroad, the opportunity to learn the true story of a culture that was lifted up for 15 minutes of fame, sucked dry by corporate media execs, and nearly forgotten by millions. The story of the dancers in the film is one nearly everyone can relate to: kids engaged in a struggle to express themselves, have their art seen and heard by others, and make a living doing something they love, instead of joining the military or working a desk job.
What was the original motivation behind choosing b-boying as the subject of a documentary?
It was definitely for the reason of providing more exposure. I followed breakdancing as a kid back in the '80s in high school. I was one of those kids who tried it, did it and loved it. It kind of faded away because back then it was kind of a fad. I rediscovered it in the late '90s, and I was just blown away by how far it had evolved in terms of its agility, acrobatics and the artistic component of its choreography--because there wasn't so much choreography before. I was thinking to myself "My God, everybody knows what breakdancing is, but nobody knows it's still around." And then I started doing some research, and I scored the Battle of the Year videos. I started watching every year, continuing to be shocked by the skill level of these dancers.
It kept getting crazier, especially when Korea entered the scene in about 2001. I am Korean-American and that was the last country I ever would have expected to make an appearance at Battle of the Year and do really well. Most new countries end up being on the bottom of the competition, but Korea just came out third and was doing some crazy acrobatic stuff. And I was wondering how is it that Korea became this new b-boy-phenomenon country. It made me ask certain questions, because I know that hip-hop was a major force culturally for the youth in Korea, as it was for many other countries around the world. I just didn't understand how they became such good dancers. So it sort of sparked my interest in making the documentary, because how does a country become so good in so little time?
In the film, the president of the Battle of the Year said it took Korea a third of the time to evolve to the level that normally took other countries a decade. So that really made me question if there were other factors involved--social factors, political factors, cultural--so I ended up going to Korea to research this, and I met Charlie Shin. He's sort of the b-boy expert there who happens to speak English. What I learned was that every young Korean male has to serve in the army, and it plays a major role, because it provides this angst and stress that they really just pour into the dance. On top of that are social factors, such as Korea is a very strict country where there isn't a lot of social mobility, so if you don't go to the top schools you basically are relegated to these sort of lame middle-class jobs. And a lot of these kids who discovered hip-hop were sort of like, "You know what? I don't like school. I'm not academically inclined. I just think this personal form of expression, which is something I control, is something cool." And they took hip-hop and embraced it like you wouldn't believe just because of the social pressures that they have.
And there was a time in Korea in the '90s, right when it was being industrialized, when people really looked down on kids who were into hip-hop because they just automatically assigned them as thugs, as idiots, as losers basically. So you have these kids who embrace hip-hop and are like, "Fuck society and how they see us because we want to prove to them that we really are artists." Every kid who has devoted their life to hip-hop, whether it's grafitti or emceeing or deejaying, they really take it as a craft or passion just like any other artist.
Parents around the world seem to misunderstand hip-hop culture as much as their kids love it.
Yeah, absolutely. Just like any other art form, you're going to have the commercial side to it, and in the commercial side there's a very corrupt industry going on that controls the main reputation, or image, of the whole art itself. America's inundated; we have the most commercial hip-hop industry in the world. We're constantly inundated with the business end of it, which has been used to perpetuate what people associate with it in order to sell it. When Public Enemy came out, they were scary for a lot of people. But so was Malcolm X. You have people who fear anyone who has a strong opinion, and at that time Black America needed a really strong opinion to basically say, "We're here. And we're not going to take this shit." And for myself as a minority, that was really important to hear that.
I think it was the same thing with rock 'n' roll when it first came out. It was really sexual; the image of it was it was just a bunch of kids who fell to the wayside. It's a shame that we have such a conservative country that really focuses on how TV defines culture. And I think that's what documentaries are for--to totally shatter that and show that there's this really rich plethora of groups and subgroups within these groups, where you have independent hip-hop, where people are saying these things with a very important message. But it's a cultural thing too. African-American culture, especially from the youth, because it comes out of the street, it's a very aggressive force. It's a very aggressive message. And most of America associates that sort of aggression with violence--when really, it's just a young person. It's just that the skin color's different, and it comes with a different language and art form. It's very complicated, actually. It's hard for people who don't understand hip-hop, who don't understand the plight of these kids who are marginalized--except for the kids who are marginalized in other cultures, who really embrace this because they understand where it's coming from. There's a lot of kids who are into the commercial end of hip-hop. But then you have, for me, the b-boys, and lots of graf art, and then of course, a lot of young MCs who are out there who are really living their art form; it's the most important passion in their lives in terms of them expressing themselves, but also getting to know who they are. It's a guide. And people don't know that about hip-hop, in terms of how it can play such a crucial role for young people in that respect. I really wanted to show that in my film.
You're working pretty far outside of the mainstream, but I don't know how far; I know Planet B-Boy had some viewings on MTV. But it seems to me that the Web has been pretty pivotal in marketing this and getting the word out there, especially because it's a global phenomenon. Can you talk a little bit about that?
YouTube has been our best friend. Everybody knows now that the power of YouTube is just unbelievable. The other day I was watching these two girls who just sing in their bathroom because the acoustics are good. But they're really talented, and Ellen DeGeneres saw the clip and then profiled it on her show, and the next thing they're on Ellen Degeneres. Next thing you know, they've got tickets to go to the Grammys. With the Internet, if you know how to promote yourself and you're smart about it you can shatter every sort of traditional model of advertising and promotion--basically for nothing. But you have to be really smart. And you have to provide content. Content is huge. So, we definitely try to use that to our advantage, especially since we have some pretty engaging content, and it definitely paid off a lot.