justDANCE! Albino Zebrahs

Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen and Alan Ng
Photography by Jenkin Au

Location: Toronto

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Please tell us about yourselves, your b-boy names, and how you got them?

Leftalep: Hi, my name is Lance and my b-boy name is Leftalep. I started in 1995 and I was seventeen years

old at the time. I used to do Hip-Hop dancing when I was a kid. That was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and then I got out of it. I fell upon hard times after that and did a lot of raving and experimented with a lot of bad stuff. Then I found hip-hop again and got really connected with dance because I was looking for a way to express myself at the time and art wasn’t really cutting it for me. As soon as I got into dance I kind of went right for it and started practicing it all the time, full fledge. Then I ran into one of the older members of the crew from Montreal, Taste. He started breaking before me, around 1994. We started getting together to practice every day and it got to the point where we were dropping out of school. We wouldn’t go to class anymore. We would pretty much break all day by ourselves at this place that we found down the street from our school. From that point on it just became an addiction that I could not get rid of.

Demon: Hi, my name is Damien and my b-boy name is Demon. I started in the spring of 2000. My oldest brother, who has since passed away, actually introduced me to mutual friends of these b-boys when they were only three or four years into the game. They had a practice spot really close to my high school and I started going there and practicing with them. I picked up a lot of things really quickly and I was immediately drawn to how all these guys danced and the way they thought about it. It was more about their concept that drew me in and they emphasised freestyling, improvisation, and keeping it fresh, new, and unique. This philosophy was not just for everybody else, but for ourselves too and that is kind of keeps us going. Even to this day, Vince and I constantly cipher together and we are always pushing ourselves to come up with new stuff on the spot; this is how we write our ciphers and how we keep ourselves going. It is very important for us as a crew and is what drew me to breaking in the first place and kept me on for so long. Also, I have been a musician longer than I have been a breaker. The musicality of both arts has always gone hand in hand for me and if you are not breaking with the music then you are not really breaking.

Whiplash: Hi, I am Troy “Whiplash” Melvin. When I was in high school I was looking for something to get into, like a sport or something, but I hated sports. I found out about dance and I got into that. I started b-boying during school and after school, just doing sessions in the hallways. I hooked up with a group called the Racoons and we always went up to a club called Field McNassies’ in Burlington. The Albino Zebras would come down to Burlington and we would battle them all the time. But the thing though is that I ended up chilling out with them a lot more than I would chill with my own crew. We became really good friends and I joined them four or five years ago. I have been part of other crews too but everything is not as open as it is with these guys because they are always pushing boundaries and trying new things, which is what I want to do in my dancing. It keeps it fresh, new, and exciting.

Tell us more about the origins of the foundations crew and the origins of your crew name.

Leftalep: We used to be in this crew that we started in 1995 called Epelectrics; it was kind of a wack crew. Back then, we were just dancing, experimenting, and soaking everything in. At that time we were listening to a lot of West Coast rap, which was getting really big in the mid ‘90s. We listened to a lot of groups, like Project Lode and Freestyle Fellowship, and we liked how those groups were rapping. We really loved the way their music flowed and we noticed that breaking dances were not flowing like how rap music was beginning to do so. We felt that b-boying at the time was very rhythmically stagnant and while there were a lot of cool ideas and concepts that people were doing visually, like freezes and all that, it was still all rhythmically stagnant. We wanted to manipulate rhythm and emulate what we thought rappers were doing. We developed our new style mostly through sessions that we would have in my homeboy’s mom’s basement. We could only break there after midnight so we would be there, half asleep, breaking for hours until it was like five or six in the morning. And through these sessions we developed our style to the point that we felt we were more refined than we had been in the past.

Then, we were invited to a battle in Toronto. It was at the Comfort Zone I believe, for the Unsung. It was a pretty epic jam. It was there that K-Mal, Boogie Bratz, and some other guys finally called out Bag of Tricks. That was also the time when Dizzy was first starting to make a name for themselves and we actually made it to the finals and battled them. We ended up getting smoked though because his guys were crazy. And, it was on the ride to Toronto that we came up with a new crew name. We were listening to an album and we heard this lyric: “Makes no sense like Albino Zebra.” We started thinking of the concept of an Albino Zebra and how it pretty much encapsulated what we were all about in or dancing. We liked the absurdity and the rareness of the idea of an Albino Zebra, one that had translucent and “invisible” stripes. Can a zebra still be a zebra without visible stripes? We felt that the image of an Albino Zebra evoked our philosophy of keeping it fresh, new, and stylistically different.

Branching off of that, the mascot for your crew is a zebra in a gi. Obviously that branched off from a martial arts influence. What influence did martial arts have on you as a dancer?

I think in the early days there were not many b-boy videos when we were starting out. We were mostly looking at pictures in magazines. However, kung-fu movies were abundant. We watched a bunch of kung-fu movies back in the day, especially Jackie Chan movies and the early Jet Li movies. We watched their form and their style because we liked the movements and how they were so intricate. We wanted to incorporate some of those movements into breaking and when Darcy was doing up some logo designs he incorporated that element into the design as a fun joke.

We see that the Albino Zebras have just celebrated their 13th anniversary. Over the past decade and more, all of the members have built a really strong foundation in the breaking scene. But outside of your dancing, what else have the members of your crew been involved in?

Demon: We all do different things. We all kind of try to satisfy our passion for all the elements of hip-hop and we all have our little side projects. Like I said before, I have been a musician longer than I have been a breaker and my main focus right now is as a producer. I have been producing a lot of experimental beats and experimenting with different musical genres like hip-hop, electro-funk, dub-step and house. Some of my beats are going to be up on our blog. Gripsy our DJ, has been producing for a while too. Darcy, who isn’t here right now, has been doing visual art and graffiti for a long time. Troy is not just a b-boy. He does house dancing and is acting now as well. We try to cover the whole scope of art and try to put our mark on it anyway that we can. We do not need to be so original that what we do has to be completely different from what everyone else does. Our concept of originality is just to not be so concerned with how people think art should be, not getting caught up in that and just being true to ourselves and maintaining our instantaneous relationships and approaches to those things.

What do you guys think that hip-hop has on today’s youth generation?

Leftalep: For me, I notice a lot of people branching off into their own elements and not really looking at it as a big picture. Take our crew for example. We take on art, Dj’ing, and rapping. For us, doing so satisfies a need to explore hip hop culture and to play with all its aspects because we love it so much. I feel that a lot of b-boys don’t really have the same connection with the music that I remember having when we started or that our crew has now. I think that a lot of b-boys can’t identify any tracks that or they just buy break mixes solely for the purpose of dancing to. I feel that having a connection with the music is an important element when one is working within the hip-hop culture. You have to have a connection with all of it as an entirety. It gets kind of nerdy, actually, when you pull it apart and you can tell a dancer who does not really love the music. The older you get and the more breaking you see, you can see through the breaking movements and tell the difference between someone who really loves the music and really enjoys it, or enjoys writing or any other element of hip-hop, from someone who just loves breaking on its own. For us, hip hop is a grand picture that needs to have everything in place in order to exist. It’s all connected, you know? You will have more insight into an individual aspect of the art form when you accept it as being connected to a larger whole.

Whiplash: I just want to hit back on how all of us coming together changed our individual styles. I have been in a lot of different crew and it takes a long time to find a crew that you are truly comfortable with. There are people that you can dance with but you can’t chill with, and vice versa. When you are coming up, you go through many stages where you are dancing with or vibing with different people. And now, I am at the point now in my life and career where I have found that the people I chill with, my best friends, are the people that I dance well with, create well with, and who will push me to be better every time that I dance. And I feel that all these guys feel that way. At one point, me and Jesse were in limbo, style wise and crew wise. There was not anywhere that we fit in exactly. There was no crew in which we felt comfortable to take apart our style and mix other stuff in. We felt like we were trapped in a box. And then these guys came here and there was this opening up. I felt like I could do what I wanted to do. I could mix new styles into my dancing. It’s more encouraging, and when you are encouraged to do stuff like that, you know you are developed.

Demon: Yeah, if you think that you are supposed to be breaking a certain way or satisfying certain norms, you can be guided away from experimenting and cultivating your own style and being unique and standing out from the crowd. This is not to say that foundation is not important, because it is very important. But if you think that it is the most important thing, it will prevent you from developing as an artist. I think that a lot of younger people need to take that to heart a little more because as Lance has touched on, b-boying has turned into this huge international competition scene. In this way, the essence of b-boying is lost to a certain extent because it is no longer about the battle, the cipher, and expression. It’s now about the competition and the prize money. This might cause kids to stop experimenting because they will see moves that win competitions and go, “Oh, everyone is doing that move now.” They will conform to the moves that they see winning competitions instead of taking to time to develop their own ideas. They will focus on emulating the established moves that they will prevent their personal growth as artists. Competition becomes your motivation as opposed to the mindset of developing new stuff and furthering the art form.

You guys actually touched upon the next question. Not only do you have to be able to break together you have to be able to chill together as well. Aside from keeping an opening mind regarding other styles, what else does it take for someone to become part of the crew?

Obviously, they need to be around all the time. We think of a crew as it was thought of originally: as a gang and as your boys; your crew backs you up in life. Whether it is for emotional support when your girlfriend breaks up with you or when you are at a club, ready to break and down to battle, and you crew is ready to do the same. It is a very hip hop kind of lifestyle. With people who are around us all the time, over time, if you might be able to see similarities in the way that we break and their style may begin to influence the foundation of the crew. The foundation is like a puzzle that we are constantly tinkering with and adding to and if you meet someone whose style is helping the foundation of the crew and adding to the creative process then you know that that person can be part of the crew. A lot of people want to recruit the most skilled b-boys like it’s a softball team. We don’t think about it like that. We see what we do as an art form and if an individual has a similar outlook regarding the art form and we form a bond in friendship we will be down to roll.

Demon: I know it sounds weird but you have to be a little selfish in a way in order to keep yourself going. If you are constantly trying to satisfy the criteria that other people impose on you, you are going to stop enjoying what you are doing. Once you stop enjoying it, you are no longer creating something for yourself and expressing yourself. You will be doing it for someone else, not yourself.

Throughout the years, Albino Zebra has a strong reputation on the scene and a strong bond within the crew. What does the future have in store for you guys?

Leftalep: For us originally, it was very selfish, as Demon stated. We did not live in Toronto originally and we never really saw ourselves as a part of the hip hop spectrum. We just loved hip hop and built what was right for us and for our own enjoyment. But after moving to Toronto, we see that people are inspired by what we do and see bits and pieces of what we do brought out in the older generations. They see what we do that other crews don`t and that inspires them. We have had the chance to absorb and love hip hop and now we can inject new ideas into the scene and provide younger crews with a new perspective on dance. Maybe they can take it and learn from it in their own way.

What is one of the most fundamental messages you want to send out to the younger generation?

Leftalep: Probably drink tons of shots and bang lots of chicks.

(Everyone laughs.)

I think Damian touched on it earlier. We just want to see them be their best version of themselves and not to get caught up in the competition or to see who can do which move the best. We want them to explore beyond what is immediately present on the surface and take the time to find themselves, find their place in hip hop, find their perspective, and develop their place in hip hop and give it back.

Demon: Yeah, again, this goes back to what we were discussing before. Take hip hop as a greater whole and do not focus on a specific element, like b-boying. We know that our bodies will crumble and we will lose our physicality. Develop your concept and your mind, and that will never fade. It will get stronger as time goes on and you can use that in different ways other than just dance. You can use that in other elements of hip hop or other art forms. But if you focus entirely on b-boying, it will be all over once you get old. Spread yourself open and learn as much as you can.

Whiplash: Yeah, learn your foundation and put it in your back pocket but don’t be afraid to explore and try new dances. Dance with everybody that you can, whenever you can. Then you will find out where you fit in and who you fit in with. You might like one movement but the people you dance with may not dance like that. But it does not mean you should give up on that move or on those people, you can still try that move and still be friends with those people. Stay open minded. Listen to everything and try everything. Hip hop is who you are but it does not mean that you have to listen to rap music all the time and try to be a DJ all the time. If it’s who you are, it’s who you are.

Leftalep: Also, for me, when I was learning, I was not able to see too many videos. Most of the knowledge that I gathered was from reading articles, interviews, magazines, or books. It was enlightening for me to read how hip hop was articulated by our elders. And what I read helped me build my own foundation and articulate my own idea of hip hop and b-boying. After I developed my style and saw what the elders did, I could tell that our respective styles were different but had a similar foundation to it. The idea and concept is the same and the pulse of hip hop beats in both our styles. When people talk about foundation they are not necessarily talking about steps, or moves or aesthetical elements. Foundation clarifies that, true, but it is also about digging deeper, exploring and acquiring that knowledge base hip hop has. Knowledge is power, and with that knowledge, you acquire the power to express yourself, change, and still be hip hop and still be a b-boy. We don’t see ourselves as doing something different. We just see ourselves expressing ourselves within the context of what we have learned.

Throughout the east, hand signs are much more common than out west. The Albino Zebras are known for their handshake. Not only does it look cool in front of other people, the handshake obviously maintains a deeper connection within the crew. What is that connection for you guys?

Leftalep: We were taught the handshake concept the same way as a lot of crews. The handshake is just like when you are doing a top rock or an up rock: your hands are not just moving, they are telling a story or elaborating on an idea. When we are doing are handshake, it starts from the heart. We bring the stripes from the heart and we slide the stripes through each other. Then they become elusive and then we slap them back down, connect them, create the ‘A’, lock it in, and then we finish it off with the ‘Z’. We have another handshake that we do later which is very inappropriate and elaborate that I shouldn’t explain here. But like with all crews, a handshake should elaborate on something greater.

Throughout the history of the Albino Zebras, you guys have gone through so many events. Not just events as a crew but events in your personal lives as well. Was there a point where the Albino Zebras were stuck in a place and it took the whole crew to move forward?

Demon: When I first moved to Toronto from London, I wasn’t around the crew much because Donnie and Lance and those guys were still back in London. As a result, I kind of got caught up in how Toronto b-boys were doing things. Everyone is different in Toronto but I believe that there is a Toronto aesthetic and an approach to b-boy style that is universal to Toronto. There are a lot of dancers in Toronto who were all about perfecting their sets and combinations. I got a little out of touch with the freestyle and improvisation spontaneity that was a part of the crew. So when Lance moved back here I was still kind of in that rut and it was apparent to Lance. He told me that we had to start doing what we did when we just started. I can’t get distracted with what is going on here. I had to look within myself and realize what I really want. It sounds cheesy but I was distracted with the scene here and it took the rest of my crew to help me rediscover that and bring it to the forefront of my mind.

With technology you can see what people are doing internationally. With this technology, people say that the scene is becoming stronger because of the sharing of information. But at the same time, the scene might be degenerated because the sharing of moves may lead to a decrease in originality and creativity and give way to the plagiarism of moves or “biting”. What are your thoughts?

Whiplash: Honestly, I think that in the very beginning, when you are learning, biting is inevitable. When you get to a certain point, then you start creating your own stuff. I think everybody bites at first and that is how you learn. In that aspect, I think it’s fine, but it’s after a few years, if you are still biting, that you have a problem. I think it’s part of the culture and part of learning. Everyone learns that way, in anything, be it dance, martial arts, or any other art form. You have to learn from somebody else. Even when I teach my students they may have their own style, but I still see a little bit of my style in them. It may be your foundation, your tops, and your floorwork, but you will probably see a little bit of Crazy Legs or a little bit of Ken Swift inside everybody’s dancing. We are all biters. The difference is to know how to take that and to apply that to whatever else you are doing or whatever state of mind you are in. A lot of things influence me and I will perform differently under different influences.

Demon: Yeah, that is what I find weird when I see certain b-boys dance the entirely same way regardless of music, environment, or audience. It tells me that their dance is manufactured before they present it to people. It is not a pure form of expression and I personally would not get any joy out of dancing like or making any form of art that way. Most people will get bored doing that eventually. Those are usually the people who drop off and don’t do it for twenty, thirty years, and will not share their take with future generations. They do it for a while and then they are done.

Leftalep: Yeah, you know what they say: copy from one, it’s plagiarism, copy from many, it’s research. I think it’s just like how it is in the academic world when I am school. When I take an idea from someone and I don’t sort of flip it and I don’t credit the idea, I can get kicked out of school for that. It’s the same with hip hop. You can’t love someone’s stuff, take their moves, and put it on the internet under your name. It’s all about balance. You can’t be watching b-boy videos on the internet all the time; it’s not going to give your brain room for information. How we developed our style was through ignorance. We didn’t have everything laid out in a sense. There was a lot of room for us to imagine and be creative with how our style can evolve. So, knowledge is good. It’s great. Even myself, I look at the internet to see bits and pieces that show what people are doing, but that is balanced with me having already created and knowing where I stand with my dancing and everything else. So I believe that for people coming up, there has to be a balance between creativity and knowledge. Give yourself that space for imagination.

With b-boying and dancing in general, it is one of the purest and fullest forms of expression because you are using your whole body and almost all of your senses (except taste). Routines are often found in b-boy battles, where b-boy battles are traditionally more about freestyling and feeling the beat and the atmosphere. So what are your thoughts on routines fitted into a freestyle battle?

Whiplash: You can freestyle a routine. We try to do that too, a lot of us. You go in and sometimes the stuff works and sometimes it doesn`t. That`s the fun of it, not knowing what is going to happen. If you practice something and then you go in and you screw up, people know that. But if you don`t practice something and you go in with nothing planned, you can go in and there is no way you can screw up!

Demon: And that`s how we developed our style. If you are always capable of recovering from any failure, your flow is always going to look continuous from start to finish. You are not going to crash and burn when you try something that you have worked so hard on and for some reason it goes wrong that day. We all know how to recover instantly from that stuff and keep our flow going and still get up and have a complete flow from start to finish, even if it`s not exactly how we preconceived it.

Leftalep: Routines are subjective. There is no real way to lay out what works and what doesn`t. I have judged battles myself and have seen routines that have been HYPE and seen some that be foul. A battle is a battle. If two MCs were battling and they were doing written rhymes at each other the whole time or if they stood together and then doubled off, it’s weird. If they are battling and doing the showcase they were doing two months ago, I feel like I am in the audience and that it is no longer a battle but a straight performance, and it gets awkward. It’s as if you are removed from the battle. That cipher idea, that whole passing of rhymes back and forth, that whole conversation, and it all ends. This is just my personal preference, but some people pull routines off nicely. Everything is clean and it’s done tastefully. Now that`s HYPEd.

Demon: We have always focused more on ciphers and battling. Battling is like a conversation so long as you maintain that playing off of each other, but once you interrupt that, you cancel out that effect. Because we have always been more about ciphering and feeding off of each other, we bring that to a battle and try to draw that and inspire that from the people that we are battling. Even though we are going against each other we are trying to bring something positive out of the other. It’s symbiotic in a way. Everybody is growing together and working towards something better.

What is HYPE?

Leftalep: For me, HYPE can be a selfish thing. It can be what excites you, as simple as an exclamation mark. But I think that the word has come to mean what is hot or hip. The media uses the word and I think that the word has taken on a mainstream feeling. So I don’t know. I hear the word HYPE and I think of hipster or what has been HYPEd up for me by the masses.

Demon: I think what Lance said is important. HYPE can be interpreted now as America’s Best Dance Crew or something like that. What gets the crowd the most excited is those huge moves that people who know nothing about dancing can get excited about, like flips and air tracks and crazy power moves. But HYPE to me is inspiration. I get HYPE personally from seeing someone doing something that inspires me. It inspires me to see someone so confident in who they are and what they do that it’s so strong regardless of what kind of situation they are in or what they are brought up in. They are just so confident in their approach and take on things. To me, I get super HYPE off seeing people do that and that can be in anything. That is what HYPE is to me. People think it’s big, huge, obvious things, but sometimes it is a little more subtle than that.

Leftalep: Subtlety is key I think for our crew. For us, even with the styles that we have and the stuff that we play with, it has always been very subtle, very hidden. Our HYPE has been disguised from the majority. The people who absorb HYPE in the way that Damian has just described are not going to get HYPE from what we get HYPE. We feed out the dance in a way that only the people who interpret HYPE as Damian has just described perfectly can absorb. Our moves are disguised. The coolest stuff that we do is hidden and you see it if you have that perspective and that way of looking at HYPE I suppose, to really feel what HYPE is to us.

Whiplash: Don’t believe the HYPE!

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