Last month, Paris 2024 organizers voted to include breaking in the 2024 Summer Games. If the IOC votes next year to make it official, breaking will be in the program for 2024 Olympics.
One thing working in breaking’s favor was the success of its trial outing at the Youth Olympics. In late 2016, the IOC accepted the World DanceSport Federation’s nomination of breaking as an official “dance sport” and added it to the program of the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, despite the fact that WDSF had tenuous connections at best to the global b-boy community. Not that the IOC ever troubles itself with the matter of who has legitimate cultural and historical claims to a particular sport. (See: Parkour, which is currently being administered by the International Gymnastics Federation.) WDSF did eventually reach out to notable figures within the breaking community—such as Rock Steady’s Crazy Legs—and brought them into the fold. So what unfolded in Buenos Aires, though something entirely new, had the trappings of the familiar. Famous b-boys like Crazy Legs, Storm, and b-girl AT presided as judges; one on one battles, which have been a mainstay of the dance since its earliest years, took place; and hours of break beats, tracks of mostly percussive sounds so that the dancers would be able to do the iconic moves—the footwork, the freezes, the headspins, all of the stuff that made breaking a global phenomenon—played over the speakers.
But for all of the feeling of the familiar, there was something notably missing from breaking’s (Youth) Olympic debut. If you watched the hours of battles streamed live on the Olympic Channel in October, you wouldn’t have heard some of the most famous breaking tracks of all time.
There was no “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch.
There was no “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band.
And there was no “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” by James Brown. (Or any James Brown for that matter.)
The reason for the absences of these songs and other classic tracks had nothing to do with the skill and knowledge of the two DJs that spun at those battles, and everything to do with the high cost of music licensing. These tracks don’t come cheap, and I suppose the powers that be at the IOC and Olympic Channel didn’t want to foot the bill so that DJs could also play some iconic tracks during what was, for many spectators, their first introduction to the dance. The two DJs—Lean Rock and Fleg—could only spin tracks that they produced throughout the competition.
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“We had to come up with music that was, essentially all produced by us,” Fleg explained. “Produced, meaning, not just sort of piecing things together on a computer but produced as in using live drummers, using live horn sections, getting a lot of the elements that are in the songs that we used to break into these productions so they feel natural for the breakers that are getting down to them.” Fleg told me that he had somewhere between 40-50 tracks to play over the course of the multi-day competition and he had to repeat himself at times.
And the Youth Olympics wasn’t the first mega event that created a need for cleared tracks. The dance hasn’t gone from small neighborhood jams in clubs and community centers to the IOC without at least a few intervening steps. Events like the Red Bull BC One, which is broadcast via livestream, and Freestyle Sessions, a massive West Coast battle that has been around for more than 20 years, both created a need for cleared music.
Chris “Cros1” Wright, who started Freestyle Sessions, explained that he first encountered this issue more than 10 years ago when they got a major sponsor, Gatorade. “We didn’t find out [until] after the event that they wanted us to have all cleared music,” he wrote in an email. “So when it came time to put up the footage, we wound up hiring a band to play breaks over the actual sound of the event.” He said that it turned out very poorly.
“We put all of the clips online Gatorade’s website. And the entire time, everyone was asking for the normal music, which we never got to release. Was a nightmare, really,” he said. But it gave him a glimpse into what the future of these large events might be like. Up until that point, breaking DJs had been doing their own thing and, more importantly, playing exactly what they wanted to play.
Wright said that they attempted to license music for future Freestyle Sessions, but that doing so has always been a bit difficult. “Honestly, it would take a considerable budget to clear all tracks. Figure an event could use in upwards of 150+ tracks,” he said.
Lean Rock noted a particular challenge when it comes to clearing certain classic breaking tracks: the fact that a lot of them come from old, possibly defunct labels. “It can be difficult to get in contact with a label like this that might not exist anymore or the artist passed away you’re not able to find who actually owns the tracks,” he told me.
Other times, price is a bigger obstacle than obscurity. “Biggest ones that come to mind though are tracks by James Brown,” Wright said in mentioning the tracks that are most difficult to clear.
If and when breaking makes its official Olympic debut in 2024, these licensing issues will hopefully be worked out. NBC will have a lot more money to throw around, and so licensing fees shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The network was able to afford Beyonce for French figure skater’s Mae-Berenice Meite’s program in Pyeongchang.
That’s good news for Olympic viewers who will may get their first exposure to the world of breaking in 2024, because for all of the attention lavished on headspins and flares and windmills, what the sport really comes down to is the music.
Breaking is one of the four elements of hip hop—the others being DJing, MCing, and graffiti art. But the traditional songs that b-boys and b-girls get down to are not what you’d think of when you think of hip hop music. “They are the rock and funk songs that b-boying’s originators danced to in the half-decade between hip hop’s emergence as a sociocultural movement around 1974 and the development of an associated musical genre in 1979,” Professor Joseph Schloss writes in his seminal book on breaking, Foundation: B-boys, B-girls, and Hip Hop Culture in New York. (Disclosure: Schloss and I are friends.)
More than 50 years after these tracks were first produced and the first b-boys got down to them in the South Bronx, today’s young b-boys and b-girls are still battling to these tracks (and some new ones, too.) They’re getting down to songs they enjoy and find eminently suitable to dance to, but they are doing so with an awareness of the history of these songs and the important role they played in the creation of the dance. When I first started breaking in late 2006 and early 2007, every practice session I went to was a history lesson in addition to being a grueling workout. Dancers were not only showing me how to do footwork, freezes and toprock—the physical elements of the dance—they were teaching me about the music I was dancing to, or at least trying to dance to.
B-boy Phantom from New York said this to Schloss about why he keeps going back to the old songs:
“I was introduced, basically, to James Brown, Jimmy Castor Bunch, and the rest of my life listened to that music and enjoyed that music and did the dance that went along with it...I believe it’s important to learn to that, to break to that, because that’s the original essence of the dance. It was inspired by that music.”
“You have songs from the 1970s and you know, people are dancing to them still and so you have literally 40-plus years going by and we’re not talking about someone who is 50 or 60 years old who remembers those song, breaking to them. You’re talking about 16-year-old kids,” Fleg said.
Fleg mentioned that he had the opportunity to see Chuck Brown from Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers before he died and told him how important his music was to a group of young dancers. “I kind of mentioned it, like, ‘Hey, just so you know, you might not be aware but there’s this whole subculture of dancers that love your music and still dance to it.”
Not just any song produced during that period in the 1970s will do; the songs that the earliest b-boys latched onto are the songs that tended to feature “Latin percussion (especially bongs), have relatively fast tempos (110 to 120 beats per minute), use horns and guitars in a percussive way, use stop-time at various points in the song, and feature a formal structure that builds to decisive musical peaks,” Schloss writes. “But most important, they have breaks.”
The break is where the name of the dance and practitioner come from, that part of the song where everything falls away except for the rhythm section. This is when the early b-boys would do their most dynamic moves. DJ Kool Herc noticed that these particular dancers favored the break of the song and brought their best to it so he started buying to copies of the same record with the break, cueing one up to the break while the break played on the other record. He repeated this so that the dancers would have more time with that part of the song to dance.
“Hip hop music and b-boying were born as twins, and their mother was the break,” Schloss writes.
When I asked Fleg which three songs he’d like to play if he’s given an opportunity to spin at the 2024 Olympics, he mentioned Brown. Specifically, “Give It Up Or Turnit Loose,” a quintessential b-boy track. (His other two picks were “Yellow Sunshine,” by Yellow Sunshine and “Caverns,” by Liquid Liquid.)
Michael Holman, a legendary hip hop promoter who first proposed that breaking should migrate to the Olympics all the way back in 1984, said this about that most famous Brown b-boy track:
“Give It Up or Turnit a Loose’ is designed to let you ride on it...To let you dance. It’s like it cuts your work in half. It’s like a galloping anthem. I like to associate it to [the] William Tell overture because they’re both anthem-like. And they’re just this galloping, charging, martial music, in a way.”
Some loss might be inevitable as breaking transitions from art to sport. “It’s not possible for breaking in the Olympics to be the same thing as breaking in a rec room on a Tuesday evening after work,” Schloss wrote to me in an email. (He and I still occasionally break Tuesday evenings in a community center rec room.) “And the music is a big part of that. To me, the real questions are about whether it’s worth giving up some of the deeper cultural significance for what you get in return, and—more importantly—who gets to make that decision.”
Still, there’s plenty of time until 2024 to at least get the music part right.
“It [the music] still functions perfectly for what we’re doing and the dance was created around that music... it [the dance] can all be related to that music because that’s kind of where it came from,” Fleg said.
“To bring that to the Olympics, given that history... it seems like it would be a disservice if some of that wouldn’t be played.”