"We have people flying in from Japan, South America, France, Italy, Korea just from all over," says Mex, a member of the local crew Unique Styles and Evolution III's promoter. The 72-hour spectacle begins Friday at Revolution (200 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale) and boasts enough high-stakes break-dance battling to keep the masses hypnotized until it returns the cardboard to the recycling bin on Sunday night. "And these are people buying their own airfare and paying the admission fee, all for a chance to compete against the best b-boys in the world."
Sure, there's money to be won a cool $20,000 in cash and prizes. But Mex says there are other reasons why such a large break-dance showdown is happening outside traditional hip-hop centers like New York or California. And it has to do with the way rap culture, steeped in old-school technologies like boom boxes and mixtapes, underwent a strange diaspora with the rise of the Internet. While its hip-hop roots suffered here, they flourished in places like South Korea, where b-boys now dominate popular culture. And like any lucrative market, it didn't take long for sponsors like Puma and Nike to follow.
"In Korea, they have break dancing on television, and dancers have healthcare for when they get hurt," Mex says. "Over there... hip-hop never died."
And Fort Lauderdale's relative isolation from the rest of the country, goes this logic, helps explain why a generation of local b-boys has also emerged in America's Venice. Locals grew up learning how to dance from original NYC ex-pats like Miami's Speedy Legs. They grew up anchored with the old-school knowledge that there's more to a scene than corporate sponsorship money and power moves, that hip-hop can strengthen communities and provide an outlet for pent-up frustration. That's why Mex and his crew have been throwing underground jams in Fort Lauderdale rec rooms, gymnasiums, and even church youth rooms since early 2001. His belief in the healing power of hip-hop is also why he and his b-boy partner Felix (AKA David Garcia) began an afterschool break-dancing program funded by Easter Seals at Morningside Elementary in Miami late last year.
Mex and his crew originally started holding jams so that they would have a place to up-rock against their friends. Then the battles started getting claustrophobically popular. Now, you'll find 600 or 700 kids piling into confined, sweaty spaces, and judges constantly have to threaten to end things early if the crowds don't push back from the dance floor.
There's a surge of intimacy and unity at these competitions. When a beef breaks out between two b-boys, the whole room feels it. Herd mentality kicks in. People scamper onto tabletops or shoulders to gape as the dancers temporarily work out their disagreements with backspins and forehead slides. But after the victories are announced, nearly everyone is tight again, and local crews catch up with buddies in traveling groups.
The crews began luring crowds through traditional grassroots methods fliers, word of mouth but more recently, they've connected with much larger audiences through websites like the one Mex works for, the Netherlands-based BBoyworld.com. The site now has more than 70,000 members in Korea, Japan, Italy, New York, Fort Lauderdale, and everywhere else where cardboard is thrown down as a dare.
It's that networking that is producing the hype for Evolution III. The extended weekend's schedule reads like a hip-hop spring break wish list: Friday's events begin inside Revolution at noon with perpetual cyphers battles that won't count for the title but will swing tons of respect to the winning crews and put fear into the losers. Outside, vendors will sell stockpiles of merchandise, gear, and break-dancing videos. South Florida graffiti artists will begin a three-day-long collaborative graff wall in the patio, and at 5 p.m. the audience will fight for a front-row spot, because that's when hundreds of dancers will lace up their Adidas and compete to land their crew one of 16 coveted positions in Sunday's final round. Saturday also starts in the early afternoon with freestyle rap battles, a pop-and-lock showcase by Miami's own Boogie Squad, and a beatboxing performance by Crunchtime and ends with a not-to-be-missed, show/album-release party from 6 to 8 p.m. by Fort Lauderdale's own funk phenomenon, Fusik. And although Sunday's schedule includes all the fundamentals (graffiti, b-boy and b-girl battles, and MC competitions), the main event throws down from 5 to 7 p.m., when the top 16 break-dancing crews in the world face off for a chance at $6,000 in cash, plane tickets for the entire winning crew to fly to Korea or Paris and compete in another major battle with entry fees covered, tons of merch, and national superiority bragging rights.
Revolution, meanwhile, has the nights covered. After the final windmill has been spun and the final freeze thrown on Friday night, the party will start back up again at 10 p.m. with a performance by the original "Smooth Operator." Big Daddy Kane has been "relievin' rappers just like Tylenol" since he b-battled his way into a record contract in the late '80s but he's sometimes remembered more for those salacious Playgirl and Madonna photo shoots that followed slightly later (reminding folks why they call him BIG Daddy Kane). Also on the bill is the powerhouse duo that notoriously "sometimes rhymes slow and sometimes rhymes quick," Nice and Smooth, along with local rapper Brimstone127 and break dancing by our boys Unique Styles Crew. Saturday night's show spotlights a DJ set from original Bronx sensation DJ Jazzy Jay. A former Zulu King Breaker, Jay found more fame battling with his turntables. He scratched against hip-hop greats Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, then later opened up a recording studio and proceeded to launch the careers of guys like Fat Joe and A Tribe Called Quest.
The element that sets Evolution III apart from other monstrous competitions is that it's being done without the aid of major monetary sponsorship. Mex is fronting the winnings from prize money and profits he's culled from previous battles, Revolution is pitching in with the venue, and BboyWorld.com is hyping it up on both its site and on MySpace. So although it's occurring on a much grander scale than, say, a rec-room battle with a $100 prize, Evolution III is operating on a similarly modest budget. The grassroots approach seems to be working, however, judging by how many international contortionists are expected.
But our homeboys have the edge, Mex insists.
"The talent level is better here," he says. And with his weekly sessions with Morningside students, he's hopeful that another generation of locals learns all the right moves. "We're trying to preserve that."