Breakin’ Convention: An Interview with Jonzi D

Jonzi D the godfather of UK Hip Hop theatre is a man not afraid to leap about the stage dancing in a silver all-in-one. Waving a wand over the close-minded cultural elite he has cast his magic and done the impossible. Without compromising on the true meaning of Hip Hop, “Victory over the Streets” through artistic expression, Jonzi has brought our culture into the public arena on our terms.

Hello. My name is Jonzi D and that is THAT!

I originally started breaking in 83. I was part of the first generation of Hip Hop, when Hip Hop first came to these shores and it wasn’t just breaking. I wanted to MC and do graff. I couldn’t afford decks, so I couldn’t DJ and my lips couldn’t get around beat boxing but the MC thing is what I really stuck with. For me I am not a master, I am a jack-of-all-trades.

What is Breakin’ Convention? Why did you set it up?

Breakin’ Convention is a Hip Hop theatre festival. It came about when my friends came and saw me in my final year show at London Contemporary Dance School. I was wearing a silver all-in-one and doing some stag leaps. My friends watching me said “Jonzi man, we like…we respect what you are doing, but that is not you man. We don’t know that. That is not how you dance. That is not where you are from.” I heard that and thought that it was right. Because I was doing theatre did it mean that I had to leave the culture I grew up with?

I realised there was a huge gap in this market. I developed my first hip hop theatre show in 95, which went on tour. When I came back I approached Alistair Spalding who runs Sadler’s Wells and said, “We have got to do a Hip Hop theatre festival”. And he was like “Yep, lets do it”.

Breakin’ Convention is about raising the level of Hip Hop culture and presenting a clearer sense of what this culture is. This is really important to me because we have seen Hip Hop get a pasting in the media right now. People are recording wack music and wack videos in the name of Hip Hop. So I have pulled together all of these amazing crews that I have seen around the world of Hip Hop dance to do their thing in the theatre.

What does Hip Hop mean to you?

Quoting KRS-One “It is victory over the streets’. It is an artistic expression that comes directly from the street and it is a way of healing yourself in light of the tension that exists in inner-city areas.

This is what it was back in the day before it became commercial. That is the aspect of Hip Hop that I continually focus on. Yes it is becoming a million dollar industry taking over the whole world…but anything good always does that…like Jazz and Soul music back in the day…it always gets commercial.

So for me I’m going to hold on to the roots of this culture. “Victory over the streets”.

What has been your greatest achievement to date?

Damn… my greatest achievement to date is not a moment. I think that my own personal greatest achievement has been sharing this idea of using Hip Hop culture in the theatre, particularly in England. In the mid 90s I was doing this Hip Hop thing on my own. I didn’t know if it was something that was going to blow up like it has. Seeing people just going for it. So if this is allowed, it is not a moment, it is a general thing.

What has been the lowest point in your career?

The lowest times in my career is when people take Hip Hop for a joke or just some sidelined marginalised thing. I am always arguing against that. I feel really low when I want to propose an idea and someone says ‘”Ah well, we don’t really do Hip Hop here”. That upsets me.

How far in advance do you plan each Breakin’ Convention?

About a year and a half; when we first started I had 3 months to programme it. But now we are in a bit of a rhythm. Last night I was in Denmark. I went to see a piece from a woman called Lene Boel, she is working with some amazing bboys from France and Denmark, for Breakin’ Convention 2012. It is a rolling programme.

How do you programme the Breakin’ Convention UK tour?

For the tour I assign a rep in each town that is aware of what is going on. I give them a brief that we are looking for theatrical applications of Hip Hop and then we organise an audition process. People come in with their ideas. I give them a little bit of feedback and then I make my choice. Its great, because I can see how much dope shit there is in the UK. We got a really good scene and it is developing fast.

How was the 2010 tour?

The tour was amazing. Cardiff and Croydon were a bit quiet. Nottingham just killed it, Sheffield was brilliant and Bradford was the best part of the tour. The audience was crazy in Bradford. Bonkers actually. We have never had a Breakin’ Convention go off like that. The vibe there reminds me of when we first did it in London. It was incredible.

What are you most excited about seeing at Breakin’ Convention 2011?

People ask me this question every year. If there were only one thing then I would only programme one thing.

One of the exciting things about Breakin’ Convention is that there are choices…I am excited about the length and breadth of Hip Hop culture and different interpretations of it.

I am excited about the Pierre Rigal piece “Compagnie Asphalte” because it is really contemporary. I love Tabu Flo because they are fusing traditional Ugandan movement with Hip Hop. I am excited about seeing Damon Frost a popper who has influenced so many great UK poppers in the early 80s. I am excited about Breaking Nest, seeing one of the top bboys in England working with one of the top bboys in Korea. I am excited about the style event where we have Turbo, Cindy Claes, Dickson and Brooke working with saxophonist Steve Williamson and DJ Business to do some structured improvisation. I am excited about seeing the Chicago Footworkers, a new style of dance, which has just come out.

It is really hard to say just one!

Breakin’ Convention 2011 will run from Saturday 30th of April to Monday the 2nd of May (the Bank Holiday weekend – so no excuses). Click here to for the full line-up and to buy tickes.

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Interview by Zoe Roberts

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9 Responses to “Breakin’ Convention: An Interview with Jonzi D”

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