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Confetti - Your Future

NG83 - Rock City Crew

19 March 14 interview: Ali Emm
photos: Claude Knight and friends

Nottingham was pretty ace at breaking back in the day, so we're chuffed there's a documentary being made about it

What inspired you to start making the film?
I realised it was important to make some kind of record of this culture that I lived through and that inspired so many people. So we bought a second-hand camera off eBay and started tracking down all the original B-boys. What was initially a no-budget project soon gathered momentum as we brought Sam Derby- Cooper of Rubber Goat Films on board and secured Heritage Lottery funding via EM Media.

Why is it so important that this story be told?
The breaking scene was massive in the UK in the eighties, but unlike other musical movements it has never been documented properly. It’s like this secret history that exists in the form of old flyers and neglected Betamax tapes. It was a turbulent time back then with race riots, mass unemployment and industrial unrest; but the Nottingham scene brought black and white kids together on a level we hadn’t seen before. Our prospects weren’t great as young people but we came together and did something positive with our lives through hip hop.
Was going back through the old footage emotional for you?
The process of rescuing and restoring all the privately owned archive footage was very rewarding. The one event that inspired me - and pretty much everyone else in Notts - to break was when the WFLA breakers from New York performed in the Market Square one hot summer’s day in 1983. After years of detective work we tracked down the cameraman who filmed the event. Watching that video back today is almost as mind-blowing for me as it was seeing it in the flesh.

NG83 has been in production for almost five years – why has it taken so long to finish?
Tracking down the archive footage and interviewees wasn’t easy. We’ve shot hundreds of hours of interview footage on a tiny budget, worked evenings and weekends to fit it in around our jobs and family commitments. Real life also kept intervening: one of the main characters in the film suddenly died, another was jailed for eighteenth months in the middle of filming... It’s been a struggle and a labour of love, which I think will be apparent from the finished film. The enthusiasm and support we’ve had from people in Notts has been amazing, and has enabled us to see the project through.

Why do you think the Notts breaking scene was so prominent?
There has always been a strong, close-knit music scene here, even going back to my parents’ generation in the fifties. The tradition of competitive dancing dates back to the late seventies, when jazz footwork crews would come from all over the country to battle at the jazz-funk alldayers. Arcade Records in the West End Arcade supplied the latest electro and hip hop import 12”s direct from NYC, so the breakers had the newest cutting-edge music before it was available elsewhere. Most of all we had a focal point for the scene in the form of Rock City, thanks in no small part to the efforts of resident DJ Jonathan Woodliffe. He brought over all the top acts from the US such as Afrika Bambaataa and Run DMC, and made the Saturday afternoon jams the biggest weekly hip hop event in the country. We also had the likes of Rock City Crew and Assassinators touring the country and Europe, putting Nottingham on the map.

What was the atmosphere like at the jams and battles?
It was off the scale! You’d hear stuff like Spoonie Gee’s Love Rap, Mantronix’s Bassline or ESG’s UFO getting cut up at earsplitting volume. Goldie used to come to Notts so much he called it his second home. He was with the Wolverhampton B-boys, who were some of the best breakers in the country. They used to team up with Rock City Crew and battle the likes of Smac 19 from Sheffield.

Why do you think the scene diminished and then ended?
The music changed, and public interest in the dancing waned. The breakdancing craze peaked in about 1985, so by 1987 it started to die off. The hardcore B-boys stayed with it but the majority of people moved on, and dwindling attendances meant the Saturday jams ended. There was still a strong hip hop scene in Nottingham but it didn’t have the numbers that breaking brought, it was more underground and focused around one-off jams at smaller venues like Barracuda or Mr Bojangles. Some of the top breakers became emcees or beatmakers, others got careers and started families. Some turned to drugs and crime.
What’s your most enduring memory from those days?
Performing at Hammersmith Palais with Rock City Crew supporting Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five and Chaka Khan - that was an amazing show. Chaka wasn’t best pleased when the crowd turned their backs on her to watch Rock City Crew busting windmills on the dancefloor. It was an innocent time really – no drink or drugs, no violence, just people brought together by the love of music and dancing.

Any tips for kids getting into breaking or street dance now?
Start by learning to dance to the beat, practice your footwork and style before attempting power moves. Watch the films Beat Street, The Freshest Kids and From Mambo To Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale. Go on YouTube and study the original B-boys like Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers. Learn about the Zulu Nation, breakbeats and where breaking comes from – there’s a whole history and culture behind the dancing that will inspire you. It’s all about peace, love, unity and having fun.

NG83 will be released in select cinemas in Spring / Summer 2014. 

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