At the fag end of the 1970s, not long after the dawn of Cultural Studies – the academic discipline that deemed the everyday practices through which people expressed themselves every bit as worthy an object of study as "high culture" – the British sociologist Dick Hebdige published one of its seminal texts, Subculture: The Meaning of Style.
"The tensions between dominant and subordinate groups," he argued, "can be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture – in the styles made up of mundane objects which have a double meaning. On the one hand, they warn the 'straight' world in advance of a sinister presence ... and draw down upon themselves vague suspicions, uneasy laughter ... On the other hand, for those who erect them into icons, these objects become signs of forbidden identity, sources of value."
Although talking about the paraphernalia of punks, mods, teddy boys and other pre-80s "style tribes", Hebdige could just as well have been describing the bling, beatbox and breakdancing mat lugged stoically around the streets of Nottingham by veteran b-boy "Dancing Danny", the tragicomic star presence in NG83: When We Were B-Boys, a fascinating new documentary from first-time filmmakers Claude Knight, Luke Scott and Sam Derby-Cooper. The film charts the four-year arc of their home city's breakdancing scene through the eyes of five very different characters, examining the way in which those identities have endured, etching themselves in the hearts and minds, the language and the wardrobe, of its prime movers.
Originally a bodypopper, then later part of an MC double team, Knight met Scott while working at the distribution centre of Paul Smith (another local boy done good). Borne of many hours spent swapping stories, NG83 is the quintessential labour of love, involving eight years of interviews and trawling through film archives and old Betamax videos of breakdancing competitions at Nottingham's iconic venue, Rock City. "I feel like our personalities are in there," says Knight. "I could be one of those five characters."
Nottingham in 1983 was full of original, pre-Nazi skinheads – as famously depicted in This Is England, the most celebrated film of the city's most celebrated filmmaker, Shane Meadows – and if the identities forged through subcultures are always in part a response to social convulsions, then Britain's de-industrialisation under Thatcher meant that prospects for breakdancing's predominantly working-class black kids weren't particularly shiny. It was in this context that the scene took off, the inspiration coming from across the pond.
"I saw This is England, the scene where it's the last day of school," recalls Knight, "and I thought, 'I was a breakdancer in 1983.' I remembered this crew, WFLA, came over to Nottingham from America and put on an exhibition in the Market Square during the afternoon, a promo for some flavoured milk drink. Here were these American guys! In the flesh! Rock City that night was amazing. Initially, I wanted to create a 10-minute drama about all that."
However, as the process of gathering footage unfolded (some tapes weren't given up, others were incinerated before they could be found) and real events fed back into the filmmaking (deaths, strokes, imprisonments), the narrative changed tack. Interviews with Goldie, who had been in the Wolverhampton B-Boys, and Take That's Jason Orange, who'd been with Mancunian crew Street Machine, didn't make the cut. "You might have more commercial appeal with Goldie," says Derby-Cooper, "but in terms of universal appeal, once we'd decided to use 'ordinary people' to drive the story, all interlinked through breakdancing, it became much easier."
The trailer for NG83: When We Were B-Boys
Rather than a history of UK breakdancing, they restricted it to Nottingham. And instead of an exhaustive chronology, they'd focus on these characters and their investment in a scene that provided them with discipline, self-esteem, achievement, camaraderie and, for some, hard cash. Going back over the 100 or so hours of footage threw up several forgotten nuggets – interviewees with their guard down, their b-boy persona parked – and it's the inclusion of these moments that elevates NG83 into a genuinely fascinating study of a subculture and its various masks.
"Moments of spontaneity were what we wanted to keep," reflects Derby-Cooper. "A lot of people from the b-boy world don't open up. It's all about image. But with our characters there was no, 'Oh, I'm being filmed. This could be embarrassing for my street cred.'"
One such nugget shows Tommy Thomas, once of the Rock City Crew, Nottingham's Harlem Globetrotters, struggling to make a cup of tea while proudly boasting of visiting his mum's house for food every day. "There's no filter with Tommy," chuckles Knight. "He's like: why wouldn't you come to your mother's for tea every night?!"
Knight insists that NG83 isn't a Nottingham-specific film, and through the characters' tales we learn some of the scene's wider truths: that hip-hop was a broad and inclusive church in which people from vastly different backgrounds could find their niche. Take dancing postman Karl "DJD2", who looks off his bean in one scene and speaks with misty-eyed affection about togetherness and its loss.
Some of the film's most tender scenes involve the searingly candid reflections of "Electro Barry", a beatboxer with various obsessive-compulsive traits who's amassed a formidable collection of mixtapes in his room at his mother's house, and who finds in that hip-hop alter ego a means of escaping teenage bullying, a persona much more "real" than plain old Barry Shephard. But then that's precisely the magic of subcultures: a space of escapism, experimentation and belonging – but on your own terms.
For all that it's character-driven, NG83 is still an invaluable slice of social history, tracing the scene's emergence, peak years and decline. "When breakdancing came out," recalls Knight, "everybody tried it. It was like having a yo-yo, a Rubik's cube or a BMX. It was a fad. Once everyone had tried it and decided they didn't want to do it, it just left a hardcore who did."
That hardcore would flock to the Saturday afternoon battles at Rock City, which were fiercely contested – there are still arguments over who won a legendary battle between Assassinators and Rock City Crew – but not a proxy for gang war. "It wasn't a postcode thing," says Scott. Quite the opposite, in fact. For a select few, b-boying provided the opportunity to escape the life of inner-city struggle seemingly mapped out for them. "Some of these guys come from tough neighbourhoods: dad's a gangster, car door for a garden gate, never been on holiday, and suddenly they're touring the US," says Scott. In a few short years, they were the ones doing promotional work for Top Shop and appearing on national TV.
Was this selling out? "People pay you just because it's a spectacle," says Derby-Cooper, "but once you do that you're watering yourself down. But then, you're also doing something you love and you want to pay the bills. It's hard."
No, the unravelling of the scene was for more prosaic reasons than commercialism bleeding it of authenticity. First, Rock City changed the Saturday afternoon music policy because they weren't making any money, which ultimately deprived the scene of its focal point, its big-stage glamour. The arrival of acid house also had an impact, but arguably the biggest reason was simply people growing old and having responsibilities. Or, as Scott puts it: "Adulthood comes and spinning on your head doesn't cut it."
Not everyone could move on so easily. The film's fifth main character, Annie McDevitt, not only tells her own story as a "fly girl" on the fringes of the b-boy subculture, but also that of her brother, Lloyd "KID" McDevitt, at its core. Once upon a time he had girls falling over themselves to offer small tokens of their devotion – fags and sweets, mainly – but as the bottom fell abruptly out of the scene and media interest waned, he became, almost overnight, a lost soul. Loss of status and the accompanying self-esteem led to mental health problems and eventually, during the course of putting NG83 together, to his death.
"People thought it was going to last forever," Knight reflects. "They put all their eggs in one basket. If you're going to be known as this guy, the breakdancer, and now you're walking down the street and people don't know who you are any more, that's gonna be tough..."
And here lies the film's achingly poignant epicentre: revisiting these ageing scenesters 30 years on, the youthful vigour having ebbed but the memories as fresh as ever. What happens when the subculture that had formed the contours of your identity – the clothes, the patter, the attitude, the soundtrack – collapses? And how do you negotiate, from middle age, the surging memories of that younger version of yourself, that past in which the truest part of your being was forged? How to reconcile the compelling power of yesterday with the constraints of today?
The film shows that there is no single answer – or rather, that the act of answering these questions defines its protagonists just as much as the original passion ever did. Not everyone remains in semi-permanent adolescence like Danny, railing like Don Quixote at imaginary breakdance challengers coming to his manor, nor succumbs to grief for lost youth, like Lloyd McDevitt. One of the Rock City Crew, Alfred, became a compere at Berlin's World Breakdancing Championships. And then there's Claude Knight himself, who one day decided to make a film documenting it all despite having zero experience.
For all that the tragic circumstances of McDevitt's death shocked everyone and exposed the crew-as-surrogate-family as a myth, it at least led to two Rock City reunions – the first in 2012 and the second last November, on the weekend of the film's world premiere. BBC's One Show turned up, with former Olympic 400-metre runner Iwan Thomas donning crepps and Adidas originals to unfurl a not-too-shabby backspin, while the over-40s held a dancing competition understandably lacking some of the twang of old – but beautiful nevertheless.
Knight, Scott and Derby-Cooper are now taking NG83 around the UK and beyond, where they hope to arrange similar reunion nights. Screenings and Q&As have been held in Birmingham, Amsterdam and The Hague, while this weekend it airs at Sheffield's Tramlines Festival. After that, they fulfil a dream, taking it to the mothership: New York City's Hip Hop Film Festival NYC, with the possible prize of distribution across the USA for the top five entrants.
Knight is adamant that different cities and different crews will recognise themselves in his film: "We're telling the story from a Nottingham perspective, but that's not to say we were the only ones who did it. Every town had a place to breakdance, so I think people will relate to it. But we're the only ones to have documented it."
"It's not just about the old b-boys and hip-hop heads," adds Derby-Cooper. "The film should resonate because of those universal stories, those characters. It's good to document the scene because it's something for those guys to hold on to, but it's not just a hip-hop story." Dick Hebdige would certainly agree.
NG83: When We Were B-Boys will be shown at Tramlines Festival in Sheffield this Saturday at 4PM. Tickets are available here. To book a film screening in a city near you, choose one from these options.
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