Words by Tom Cherrie. Tom is on our Guest Writers development programme which is supported by Arts Council England.
Climbing the stairs of Peckham Levels I notice the walls humming more and more every step. By the fifth floor, the tectonic rumble of Boom Bap Hip-Hop, funk, soul and breakbeats swallows me up. People gathered in sporadic circles raise their hands to the rapid scramble of the MC’s freestyle. To the side, graffiti artists throw up tags on canvases or cling film draped across some fencing. There are even market stalls selling vintage records and customised denim jackets. All these elements bring together EPIC Jam, a community celebration of Breakin’ and Hip-Hop culture.
EPIC is an acronym for Every Person Is Capable, which is the heartbeat philosophy of the event. After arriving, I’ve not been asked to take a seat, browse the show’s programme and wait quietly for the house lights to dim. Immediately I am immersed in the bustling energy of all these moving parts. There is no such thing as passive viewing at a Hip-Hop Jam like this.
The main elements of any Jam are the DJs and the dancing, the harmony of the two resulting in the cypher. The ‘cypher’ is a circle that is open for people to take turns dancing in, but beyond definition, it is much more than this. It becomes its own world, each cypher has its own ecosystem. Breakers hold conversations here. One moment they will be hyping each other up to a tune they love. They will share the space freely and encourage those with less experience to join in. But this could be disrupted the next moment when one dancer, with a signal as simple as a point, will call another out to exchange in a battle. This is where people can get smoked, although it’s not necessarily always a fierce contention, more often a friendly challenge.
I feel like the host of a nature documentary, I come into contact with all sorts of species watching the EPIC cyphers go off. Some are musically driven, they focus on every accent of the music and how to illustrate it. Their intuition is surprisingly fun. Others are more acrobatic; they leap from one hand to another, then crash down onto their backs before popping up onto their head spinning. Sometimes I wonder how they survive it. There are also those with a less traditional approach to Breakin’, who have their own interpretations of the foundations of the dance. They might float like a cloud before crossing the floor like squid, then hit a freeze like M.C Escher’s illusionary staircases.
There is no one way to Break. Watching, I find my affinity for some dancers stronger than others. This is Hip-Hop; the style which one embodies is the echo of their personality. Each individual’s unique qualities make the Jam so compelling to navigate. It’s also important to note the encouragement the cypher offers. There is no licence needed to join in, just the love to dance and the courage to commit.
The day ends in a battle. Four dancers from across the day are picked by a secret judge to compete in a call-out cypher, where the four individuals battle to music by the funk band EOTO. These moments are where we see the real art of Breakin’ come to life. It is not simply a game of one-upmanship, but a call-and-response challenge. Dancers must be intuitive, knowing how to simultaneously respond to the previous dancer, play to the crowd, and execute their own signature moves – all whilst being completely influenced and in touch with the music. B-boy Yes Kev’s animated style took the win of the event. While his rapid footwork could match the band’s intensity, his playful misdirection kept subverting expectations and delighting the crowd.
The experience of EPIC Jam embodies the core values of Hip-Hop: in the famous words of American DJ Afrika Bambaataa; ‘’Peace, love, unity and having fun!’’ The importance of this event’s place in the scene is crucial; 2024 will see Breakin’ be introduced into the Olympics, further projecting it into a worldwide phenomenon. This carries the risk of overshadowing some elements of the culture many consider crucial (such as cyphering). Qualifiers leading up to the Olympic games have been held by WDSF (World Dance Sport Federation). Like most big competitions, WDSF structures its events in a knockout-style competition; starting with a round-robin and then moving on to elimination battles. The scene is seeing fewer events formatted like EPIC Jam, which assumes the style of a party. It’s important in a time of rapidly evolving corporate culture, that there is still initiative to hold down the cypher for the community.
The air of spontaneity, the sound of authentic Funk and Hip-Hop, and the diverse, optimistic collective of people are what made EPIC Jam an experience I want to return to over and over. Maybe next time I’ll catch you there, just don’t call me out to battle, or they’ll have to call the fire brigade.