Belfast City Breakers: ‘Instead of violence, we were dancing’
A crew of teenage breakdancers in 1980s Belfast were unlikely peacemakers
(From left) Micky Rooney, Aidy McLaughlin and Kevin McKenna
Belfast in the early 1980s was a bleak place. But on Saturday afternoons, in a covered entryway close to Cornmarket, right in the centre of town, a posse of talented local breakdancers brought a vibrant spark of life and colour to the city.
Spinning on their heads, body-popping and windmilling their legs on the floor, they amazed passing shoppers with their moves, imported straight from black urban America. None of the Belfast City Breakers, as they called themselves, were older than 14 or 15 at the time – too young to go into bars – but they came from all parts of the city to rap and dance and play in the street together.
This was the beginning of an extraordinary Irish hip-hop movement that defied sectarian divisions and forged powerful lifelong bonds between the people who became part of it.
On Saturday, in the Oh Yeah Centre in Belfast, there is a 35th anniversary celebration of the Belfast City Breakers (BCB), in memory of legendary local hip-hop artist John Madden, who died 2 years ago. It will be an emotional reunion: some of these men haven’t seen each other for three decades. While the original b-boys may be getting on in years, the passion is still fresh.
Geoff Allen, an early BCB member, was inspired by seeing Grandmaster Flash on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test. “I was the MC - you know, the rapper, the hype man, my job was to get everybody moving. Growing up in the Troubles, all we ever saw was funerals, shootings, bombings. But instead of turning to violence, we were dancing. Protestant, Catholic, it didn’t matter. All that counted was the joyousness. It made you feel so good.”
“We didn’t care where people came from,” says Micky Rooney, from West Belfast, now aged 49. “You would just turn up with a roll of lino over your shoulder and a ghetto blaster, put the lino down on the ground and that was it. Looking back, we probably looked a bit strange. This was the height of the Troubles after all, and we were running all over town, dancing and writing on walls. But all we were concerned with was who could dance best, and who had the best graffiti. It was actually very innocent.”
Growing up in the Troubles, all we ever saw was funerals, shootings, bombings. But instead of turning to violence, we were dancing.
Rooney recalls how his mother used to lift all the furniture out of the hall of their house so the b-boys could practise there when it was raining.
Aidy McLaughlin lived on one side of the peace line on the Springfield Road, while another BCB member lived directly opposite, on the other side of the wall. McLaughlin remembers the excitement and the “explosive energy” of that time.
“We just hung out together as if hip-hop was our deity,” wrote Craig Leckie, in a recent blog post on Random Rap Radio. “We weren’t from the same parts of town, but that was neither here nor there. As teenagers that attended Protestant schools, myself and a couple of mates didn’t know any Catholic kids, and didn’t really understand what the religious fuss was about. Remember, it was a very isolated time, we weren’t meant to be hanging out with kids from the other side of the religious divide. But collectively, we all broke the mould.”
And they had a genuine DIY ethic, out of necessity as much as choice. “We got a can of Mr Sheen to polish the lino so we could slip and spin,” says McLaughlin. “Crowds would gather to watch us and they’d throw coins, which we used to buy batteries for our ghetto blasters.”
“We learned how to breakdance by watching films like Beat Street,” recalls Geoff Allen. “You paused the video every few seconds and watched the movements. There was no internet then, and nobody to teach us. So you had to do it at home then go out on Saturday afternoons and show everyone else.”
He remembers the thrill of going to see Breakdance - the Movie with his fellow breakers. After the film was over, they climbed on to the cinema stage for an impromptu performance, but were chucked out of the venue. Unfazed and high on pure adrenaline, they danced together right down the middle of Great Victoria Street. Allen subsequently became a successful hip-hop artist in his own right: his group 3Core were the first ever rap group to top the independent hip-hop charts in the UK.
Later, the hip-hop bug spread west when BCB performed in Omagh in support of the victims of the Omagh bombing. Conor O’Kane and his friends were immediately hooked. Together they formed the Bad Taste Cru and began learning moves from their Belfast brothers. Twenty years later, and now based in Newcastle upon Tyne, they are still breakdancing and performing in championships all over the world. The Bad Taste Cru will be taking part in the big event tonight, and bringing with them the young Battalions Cru, formed in the north-east of England in 2010, and taught by the Irish b-boys. “So it will be a three generation showcase,” says O’Kane proudly.
It may be a largely male scene, but this international gathering of dancers, rappers, beatboxers and graffiti artists would not be happening if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm and commitment of one woman: Eileen Walsh, a film-maker and broadcaster from Derry.
Walsh runs an interactive social enterprise company in the city called Together in Pieces, which aims to bring young people together through hip-hop culture. “It’s just so stimulating for all the senses,” says Walsh. “You’ve got the visuals from all the graffiti and street art. And then the rapping and the music and the writing, and the dance and the urban sports, which are simply mind-blowing. It’s like I was walking through a forest and came across a cave. And I heard music that was kind of magical and I was completely drawn in.”
The idea for the 35 year anniversary party of BCB, in tribute to John Madden, was born when Walsh met William Madden, John’s twin and fellow artist at a festival event she organised in Belfast. The brothers were at the heart of the Irish hip-hop scene for decades. “They were the ones that developed the craft, they kept the scene going,” says Micky Rooney. The Maddens were an inspiration to Craig Leckie too: “I can confidently say that if it wasn’t for their kindness, their cool, their dance moves and their generally positive spirit, I wouldn’t have been involved in a culture that pays me to this day … If it wasn’t for John and William Madden, I have no clue what path I would’ve found growing up in Belfast.”
“William told me that he wanted to have an event celebrating his twin brother’s life and he asked me if I would organise it,” says Walsh. “This was a huge honour and I have been busy ever since making it happen. Sometimes I think we need to have more fun in Northern Ireland. Life is hard enough, so I am doing my bit to bring a smile or two, and maybe God forbid some laughter to the conversation. And what better way to do it than through the medium of hip-hop.”
The 35th Anniversary of the BCB, in tribute to John Madden, takes place at the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast on Saturday, August 4th, from 7.30pm-late. Tickets are available on the door for £10.
REMEMBERING THE LEGENDARY JOHN MADDEN
John Madden is remembered with deep affection by his fellow b-boys. After he died, Conor O’Kane of the Bad Taste Cru paid a moving tribute to him:
“We knew John as Uncle John. He was one of the rawest and most charismatic b-boys of his generation. He was a genuine gentleman with the warmest heart and the kindest spirit. Along with his twin brother, the legendary ‘B-boy Wizard’, aka William, the guys started breaking back in 1983. They kept the Irish breaking scene alive along with their crew throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. Our first encounter with John was in 1998 when the BCBs came to perform at our local youth centre in Omagh to support a fundraiser for the families of the Omagh bomb tragedy that struck our town in August 1998. John and the BCBs came into our lives at such an important time, giving us inspiration and an opportunity to elevate beyond our wildest dreams. They shone a light on us, a light which still burns brightly today.
“John taught us the hip-hop values of respect, peace, love, unity and having fun. He was a man of wisdom and honour. He always encouraged us to dance, write, be creative and express ourselves positively. John was kind, a true artist and a true honour to have shared dance floors with and laughter with. John is hip-hop and will always remain hip-hop. His legacy lives on through us all, and is reflected in all of our expressions within this beautiful culture which he introduced us to. Thank you for all your inspiration, brother. Your spirit is in every step we take.”