I had heard about Ed Johnson, known in the world of break dancing as B-Boy Blakk, countless times before meeting him: he’s a member of the world-famous break-dance crew Renegade Rockers, and founded a crew called Cloud 9 Tribe that was recently inducted into the Universal Zulu Nation. Only two days after meeting Blakk in person, we were on a plane to Zanzibar; a mutual friend who coordinates an annual trip to the island to provide a capoeira group with formal training had invited Blakk to teach. I was there to photograph the trip.
At age thirty, Blakk is one of the oldest active B-boys in the world. Most B-boys and B-girls stop breaking in their late teens or early twenties, due partly to the physically taxing nature of the dance. That phenomenon, along with his passion for working with youth in the Bay Area, has driven Blakk to try and understand break dancing from a kinesthetic point of view. We met for this conversation several months after our return home.
BLVR: Do you think genetics played a role in your start in breakdancing?
BBB: Honestly, I do. Before I started breakdancing, I was a wrestler. I started on a whim because I didn’t make the basketball team my freshman year. I was like, ‘Man, this is whack.’ [laughs]. Then this crazy guy, he came up to me and goes, ‘Hey! You should come out for the wrestling team!’ I remember him slapping me upside my head. We were at school. I was like, ‘Don’t you guys get sued for this stuff? You just slapped me in front of the school.’ But he was just like, ‘Come out to the wrestling team! I want you there!’ I fell in love with wrestling. The reason why I say genetics have an effect is because I didn’t know till about two years in that my Dad wrestled.
BBB: He was State Champion. He kind of left that out of the books. But yeah, wrestling has helped me bridge the gap in breakdancing.
BLVR: They’re both so physical.
BBB: It’s something about being on the ground. It translates really nicely. I read an article that had scientists saying they find wrestlers to be some of the strongest people in the world because of how they train and what it does to their body.
BLVR: How do they train?
BBB: It’s similar to gymnastics. You do a lot of movement and you have to move through space a lot. That produces these amazing athletes. I’ve seen amazing gymnasts, amazing wrestlers, amazing break dancers. There aren’t any objects involved. It’s just your body manipulating space, moving through space—that’s what we do every day, right? What wrestling, gymnastics and breakdancing teaches you is how to efficiently move through space. I’m going to do a triple axel flip—what’s the best way I can land in a safe manner? How can I move quick enough to get where I can push this guy onto his back? These guys become more efficient doing their day-to-day activities.
BLVR: Would an example be how you make breakfast in the morning?
BBB: Absolutely. I gotta reach up to this cabinet to grab an ingredient that’s super high. I gotta get down low and grab a pan from a low cabinet.
BLVR: Is there a way you think about moving?
BBB: In breakdancing, it’s like a dream state where you’re conscious but unconscious. It’s kind of a spiritual connection. You’re no longer thinking about what you’re doing. The music is dictating it. James Brown does things to you. The Beegees do something different. If you think about it as a culture, MCing is the language, graffiti is the artwork, B boying is the dance, and DJing is the music. It’s just like any other culture. Any tradition has those elements involved, right?
BLVR: Right. You study the body. Does that help you visualize new moves?
BBB: It does. But really what helps me visualize is moving. That’s how a lot of the moves were created in breakdancing. Crazy Legs, he invented the Windmill. He was just rolling around on his back. All of a sudden, he started kicking and came up with the move. It was just him stumbling onto this move that became a move in breakdancing today. That’s the best way I find to create. Don’t think about the end-results, just go on the journey.
BLVR: From what I’ve gathered, it seems like various styles of dancing have coalesced to create breakdancing.
BBB: In Hip-Hop dance, there are so many styles. Naming them all off would be crazy. When you think about Hip-Hop, you think about what you see on TV. Choreography. The Beyonces, the Chris Browns. Turfing, Crumping, Jerking—those all stem from breakdancing. And breakdancing is a crossover from tap-dancing, capoeira, a lot of martial arts movements and gymnastics.
BLVR: Have developments in capoeira and breakdancing paralleled each other in any way?
BBB: Yeah. If you think about how capoeira started, it was slave times. They were being oppressed. Breakdancing and Hip-Hop came about as a response to gangsters, organized crime, all these things going on in politics. It sprouted up as a way to escape this oppression, to express it. So, similar backgrounds, different eras. Breakdancing is only 30 years old. Capoeira’s 300 years old. When you’re doing it, you want a group around to spectate and bring energy into it. And you have to do it with somebody else. I mean, you could do breakdancing by yourself, but it won’t have the same effect as doing it with your peers.
Where it comes from is feeling like, ‘I just want to blow it up!’ Not like a grenade, but just making the crowd explode. It’s like WAAA! It’s a person having whatever hardships they’re having in their life and using that spontaneity to lash out in a different way, in a more positive way. But how do you keep that spontaneity? We’re struggling to keep it as a culture right now. When I started in ‘99, there was no rules. I could do a couple flips into the splits, come up, and call myself a B boy. Man, there was once this whole light-side, dark-side thing going on between B boys—
BBB: Oh yeah! We even had a competition. The light-side would be the foundational B boy. The dark-side would be the guys doing the tricks. Oh god, this is so funny that we’re bringing this up. So we had this battle, and all the guys on the light side would match up all the guys on the dark side. Light vs. Dark. Now, thinking about politics, you can imagine already who won the battle, right?
BBB: Light always prevails, right?
BLVR: It’s so epic!
BBB: People still talk about it to this day! I think now we’re finding a balance between the two. You can’t just do one of those things. Uou can’t hold yourself to those barriers. Because if you’re up against a guy who can do both, what are you going to do?
BLVR: Think about dance as a form of communication: any good conversation is balanced and has variation. It has as much ‘small talk’ as it does ‘big talk’.
BBB: It’s one element that we don’t really look at—as a society in America. But movement is how we express to each other and communicate. We need to do that more in the mainstream, to not lose that. We write each other, right? We talk to people on the phone, right? But we’re losing the music—communicating through music, through dance. Those elements are in life like everything else is.
BLVR: Do you think you studying the mechanics of breakdance moves is the same as this whole study of the body in general?
BBB: Yeah. When you get down to the basic stuff, doing movement, you start thinking about your body and you care for your it and learn it. It can cure all these different vices we have. Child obesity, that’s a huge thing in America. If you don’t learn about your body, how are you going to take care of it? Break dancers have a reputation of not taking care of their bodies, because we’re banging around, jumping around, landing on our backs. I’m trying to help people think about the best way to go into a move and come out unscathed. That’s my ultimate goal. Because we’re trying to move our bodies in a way nobody ever thought about, but our body has limits and we have to learn to fit within the means of our body. Sometimes we can push those limits, but to know those limits is important.
BLVR: Today I’m going to practice walking!
BBB: It’s funny you say that, man. I took this course, it was a mobility course, and they talked about walking. What your feet are doing, right? And they’re like, “You’ll see a lot of people walking with their feet turned out.”
BLVR: Like duck-footed?
BBB: Yeah. That’s why people have injuries—because they’re not working on their basics. I was sitting there in this course and—take my shoe—I look at my shoe and my shoe is worn out on one corner! I’m like, “I’m one of those guys!”
BBB: So for six months, man, I practiced walking! I feel weird, but I’m walking straight and my feet are facing forward. I have my hands turned out because I want my shoulders to be straight. And I’m walking around like a badass or something. Chest all out and walking down the street like WHAT, you know what I mean? And I see all these people, and I’m like, “you’re broken.”
BLVR: Just from seeing them walk around?
BBB: Just looking at them walking.
BLVR: I wanted to ask you about your observations of dance in Africa.
BBB: What I will say is that some of the things they didn’t even realize existed here, they actually created on their own. I don’t remember what the dance was called, but as soon as the song came on—
BLVR: Where was this?
BBB: In Zanzibar. A nightclub or whatever. When that song came on, it reminded me of the Electric Slide! It was the same movement, the same steps. It was different hand gestures, but the steps were the same. I asked, “Do you know what the Electric Slide is?” And they were like, “No, this is called—” I don’t know, the Zanzibar whatever. How is that even possible? It was just bewildering to me. Then we took a trip to Ethiopia and they have this thing called Guarinia dance. If I didn’t know any better, that Guarinia dance was the roots of breakdancing. The way they were moving their chest back and forth is the way we do it in our popping routine. All that stuff, it was dead on, same stuff. It must be in the genes, in the genetics—where you’re put in the situation where you’re getting oppressed, so you want to move in a certain way.