Photos by chris hornbecker

Ashes to Ashes

5 vs. 5 b-boy/b-girl battle

Sat Feb 28

PSU Smith Center Ballroom

724 SW Harrison

West Coast b-boys are on some serious world domination shit.

Is the above statement an exercise in hiphop hyperbole? Hell, no. Two weeks ago, at the 2004 World B-Boy Championships held at Wembley Arena in London, England, three West Coast breaking crews swept the top spots: Seattle's incredible Massive Monkees crew took the championship with their fine-tuned floorboard rigor, while California's Style Elements and Super Crews placed first and second. And this week, PSU plays host to Ashes to Ashes, the largest and most important b-boy battle Portland has ever seen.

Featuring 16 five-person crews competing for a $2000 prize, three legendary b-boy judges and an eight-man "King of the Hill" exhibition battle, this is the competition that will put Portland on the map--a recognized hub for b-boys and b-girls all over America. According to organizer Huy Pham, "Ashes to Ashes was a blessing that came out of nowhere; a friend of mine from the PSU Popular Music Board approached me about throwing the biggest, most extravagant battle I could possibly imagine. I was like, 'That is just too perfect for words.'"

Pham knows how to throw a party. Currently part of Portland's Moon Patrol crew, he's been b-boying for about eight years, and staging battles for about five. Last November, Pham and his production company, Amplified Techniques, held their annual battle at Reed College, a grassroots b-boy event Pham's been staging for three years. Despite the fact that it was barely publicized, the Reed Student Union was packed--not just with Northwest breakers, but folks from Texas, California, and the East Coast of Canada, bringing the competing-crew tally to 64 b-boys and b-girls. Perhaps more extraordinary was the crowd--fans so squished into the cypher, it hardly seemed big enough for the breakers to do their thing.

When a b-boy battle is on fire, it's four alarms. You've never been in a room so pumped; so full of high-energy, classic breaking music, from the likes of James Brown and Afrika Bambaataa, amped to 10 in the sound system. Amazing spins, aerials, footwork, uprock narratives, whatever--you've gotta pump your fist, because when a b-boy or b-girl is good, you feel like you'll explode if you don't cheer for them.

It's a little like the Olympics, except you're far closer to the dancers, and instead of spending dough on jillion-dollar personal trainers, b-boys and b-girls are dedicating their lives to perfecting their moves. They throw down anywhere they can--floorboards, concrete, sheets of linoleum, anywhere. Breaking moves are hard-won, but mastered steps make everyone go bananas.

And from a b-boy perspective, battles are imperative for growth and betterment, especially in a smaller scene like Portland.

Says Pham, "Battles fuel a lot of motivation in both younger and seasoned dancers. You go to a jam to earn respect from your peers. Without battles, there's no real place to do that, to get that recognition. And when you go to battles, you learn a lot about battle tactics; it's not just about the move--it's about the mind games, too. You just don't get a feel for what the b-boy environment is like until you go to a jam."

As the Portland scene goes, early crews like DefCon 5 lead the way for current up-and-comers, such as Moon Patrol (Pham's crew) and Missilefist, along with newer groups like Hardwood Heroes and Grand Funk icons. But since breakdancing first caught on in the Northwest, Portland and Seattle have held more of a kinship than a rivalry.

"The big Seattle crews [like Boss Crew] were first," Pham says, "but they really laid the foundation for us to grow. The Rocksteady Crew from NY had a really big impact on us here in the NW; we learned everything we could about the dance and the culture from the forefathers before we tried to reinvent it ourselves.

"[Outside the NW], a lot of kids will just jump in and learn the flashy moves first, but once they run out of those, they aren't able to freestyle. [World B-Boy Champs] Massive Monkees are all about the footwork, all about the dancing. Watching Juse Boogy (from Massive) dance in a circle is more entertaining, motivating and inspirational than seeing some guy do the craziest, biggest blow up. Because that guy, when the right song comes on and the right beat is rocking, you can almost see into his soul."

At Ashes to Ashes, folks from Massive, Moon Patrol, Style Elements, Soul Control, and more will represent the supersonic soul boogie. Pham, obviously, is psyched.

"I'm flying in two very special, ill Las Vegas b-boys--Ben from Knucklehead Zoo is a really aggressive dancer; he's got a lot of flavor and he's on point. Ronnie from Las Vegas is just like, taking the word 'solid b-boy' to a new extreme; this guy does not mess up. He's one of the hardest guys to battle ever, simply because he executes with clarity and precision. And with his speed and momentum, he's one of those guys who can hang for hours!"

"There are five Northwest guys I hand-selected to challenge the out-of-towners, to really hold it down for our scene," says Pham. "They're mind-blowing. We got a guy who's been doing yoga for 10 years, so his flexibility level is off the Richter; he applies it to the dancing and the rhythms, so all the tricks and flips you see people doing, he can do with a leg behind his head. This is one of the guys everyone's been looking forward to seeing."

I, for one, wouldn't miss it for the World Championship Title.

Huy Pham teaches a great b-boying class called Breakin 101. It's at Nocturnal, 1800 W Burnside, every Wednesday from 6-7 pm, $8 per class, but the first lesson is $5 if you bring a friend.