justDANCE! IllMask

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

Location: Montreal

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ILLMASK is a b-boy crew that has achieved recognition as one of Montreal’s finest crews. The guys have earned national recognition by performing in various Montreal shows, and are beginning to gain international notoriety by entering NBC’s America’s Got Talent and performing in the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Formed by members from two former Montreal b-boy crews, Illmatic Styles and Red Mask, the members of ILLMASK are a tight knit team who display a sense of genuine camaraderie that is inspiring to see. Their team chemistry is evident in their high energy and brilliantly choreographed performances that place an emphasis on dynamic acrobatics and physical comedy. It is apparent that these guys love what they do and have great fun doing it.

In our interview, the guys talk to justalilhype! about the history behind ILLMASK’s formation, their thoughts regarding the Montreal b-boy scene, their hopes of mentoring up-and-coming b-boys, the inevitability of a b-boy’s physical decline, their teammate, b-boy Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli, and their philosophy regarding limitless possibilities. ILLMASK is definitely a mainstay in the Montreal b-boy scene, and we are excited to see where they go from here.

Can you introduce yourselves to our readers?  Tell us about your individual  backgrounds and the genre of dancing that you are known for?

Dingo: I am Joe, a.k.a. “Dingo.” I started dance by learning breaking first. From there I have gone on to learn other kinds of dances, like ballet and modern dance. I like dancing in general and I don’t want to limit myself to one style. However, breaking is definitely a strong influence on my dancing style.

Scramblelock: What’s up, my name is Mark, a.k.a. “Scramblelock.” I’ve been breaking for about 12 years now. I started with breaking and I am getting into locking now; I am really into these two styles. I am a new addition to the crew but I have been around the scene for quite a while.

Decoy: I am Mark as well, a.k.a. “Decoy.” I started dancing in high school. Before I discovered dance I was really into martial arts. I have always enjoyed acrobatic type moves. That led me to b-boying, and I am doing that a lot more now. I am trying to do a lot more entertaining, performing at events and festivals, stuff like that.

City: My name is Chris, a.k.a. “City.” I started breaking in 1998 when I was still in high school. I was influenced by someone doing the windmill during a dance and I instantly fell in love with breaking. I have accumulated a lot of injuries since I started breaking. I have been with this crew every since I started, and this has helped our team chemistry.

Oktofoot: Hey, my name is Alex, a.k.a. “Oktofoot.” I started breaking in 1997. I saw a video of Battle of the Year in 1995 and I saw some Europeans doing these crazy power moves. I knew then that breaking  was something that I wanted to do. So in 2000, I joined Red Mask. In 2005 we formed a crew called ILLMASK, with members from another crew, Illmatic Styles, and Red Mask. We hit it off and we have been breaking together ever since. ILLMASK was formed because both groups wanted to compete at more competitions, so we formed a super crew to do just that. In 2007, I started training MMA to complement my breaking; MMA helped me build up my competition and discipline. I still break and I also compete in amateur MMA fights.

Can you tell us a little more about the formation of ILLMASK?

City: I was part of a crew called Illmatic Styles. We started collaborating in High School and we had a good run, which lasted for about five years until people became busy with their lives. Our group of nine dwindled to three or four. In 2001, we did an event called Extreme Supreme. Before we went to that event we had been breaking for three years.  We kept hearing about b-boy Thunder Blast and b-boy Dingo, from the Red Mask crew. Incidentally, b-boy Dingo is here right now. They were like legendary heroes in the Montreal b-boy scene. We were inspired by these guys and we were able to make it out to a Montreal event one time to check out the Montreal scene in person. The experience had a huge impact on us. At the time, the Red Mask crew was peaking in the scene. After seeing them perform, we looked them up and were fortunate enough to be able to have them practice with us a few times. They are inspiring. The remaining members of Illmatic Styles merged with Red Mask for a big battle in Chicago called City Versus City. Our crew had few active members and theirs had few active members as well, so we joined up together. That was the first time that a lot of people from our group and people from Red Mask were on the same team. We bonded and we began to practice more and more together. From there we took it to the next level and formed a super crew.

You talked about hearing legendary names and meeting these members of the b-boy scene. Did you ever hear a legendary name, was excited to see them, and was disappointed with what you saw when you finally met them?

City: By the time I saw these guys I was still a beginner in the scene, so I wasn’t disappointed with anybody that I saw at my first event. I was blown away, to say the least. Everyone I met in the Montreal scene met my expectations.

Speaking of the fusion of Illmatic Styles and Red Mask, what different elements did each crew bring to the table?

Oktofoot: We were rivals, initially. We were inspired by two of Montreal’s top crews back then, Flow Rock and Tactical. We practiced with both crews even though they had beef. We had no studio, so we practiced with those guys to get the best practice possible. We were inspired by both crews. At the time, Illmatic Styles was right behind us, and both our crews came up in the scene together. When you compete against somebody, you tend to form a bond of mutual respect with your opponents. When we hung out together after City Versus City, we found out that we got along and had similar philosophies. Our two groups just got along with each other, fed off each other, and there was a dynamic chemistry that existed from the beginning. We battled each other a bunch of times, but it was a lot of fun.

Do you guys have any new and upcoming rivals?

Oktofoot: Arthritis is one.

(Everyone laughs.)

Fresh Format is a new crew, and they are blowing up too. There are lots of young kids coming up as well, like Sweet Technique. There are lots of young crews developing in Montreal who are hungry.

Yeah, an important part of breaking is to get inspired by others and pushing yourselves to top that.

Oktofoot: There are good rivalries and bad rivalries. A lot of people don’t respect each other. As soon as I started martial arts, I understood the importance of respect a lot more. If someone is willing to compete with you, you have to respect that. Even if you burn the guy, you have to give him respect for stepping up. You have to gain something from every battle. A lot of people are very disrespectful, especially the younger crews. I guess we are an older generation looking on the younger generation, and I was like that too before, so maybe it’s an age thing.

Other than b-boying, what are some other things that you guys are involved in?

Oktofoot: MMA. I do that more than b-boying now. I actually stopped b-boying for two years. When I came back to it, I felt like I improved due to taking care of my body for MMA.

Decoy: We all have our hobbies. Mine is music. I like hip hop and I have always been interested in all the different elements of hip-hop. MC-ing is a completely different animal compared to breaking, and that intrigues me. Doing events that brings together all the different elements of hip-hop inspires me. I am trying to DJ and produce beats.

Scramblelock: I have been studying locking for almost 10 years now. I enjoy traveling, battling, and teaching. Teaching is my main thing. I teach chemistry on the side as well. Dance has always been there to here to motivate me. Teaching is something that I really love, whether it teaching dance or teaching academics.

Dingo: I like people in general. I like to study people, their actions, reactions, and interactions. I like to study that. I do an event once a year, it’s called Who’s Hungry? It’s a b-boy event, but I want to make it into an event for dancing in general, with a focus placed on artistic expression rather than on judging and competition. I believe that dance shouldn’t be judged because it brings out negative aspects, like politics. We are trying to bring about a different style of judging in this competition. We want people to focus on themselves and their own artistic expression, and not to focus on others. Competition with others in dance is not as important as competition with ourselves. We must learn to improve our own selves and to grow in our artistic expression.

Going back to the roots of the group, as Illmatic Styles and Red Mask, what was the meaning behind the names of both crews?

Dingo: Our crew was formed from the Tactical crew. Tactical was the main crew but we were students of the members in Tactical, and they chose their best students to form another crew. They wanted to come out into the scene alongside a new crew who are all wearing masks to create a sense of mystery. Red Mask was born from that. Red was the color of Tactical, and that’s how the color became a part of Red Mask.

City: For Illmatic Styles, it seemed like every major point in our crew’s life involved forming a new crew. Illmatic Styles actually consisted of two rival crews in high school. We came together to form a crew for this show called Rock On. The show never came together but we enjoyed practicing together so we stuck together. We had been listening to a lot of Nas, so we got our name from his song, Illmatic. We also got a bunch of tapes from California of this crew called Styles Elements. We took “Styles” and “Illmatic” and merged them to form Illmatic Styles. It was a temporary name but it stuck in the minds of our audiences. There is nothing personal in the meaning of the name; it just represented stuff that we liked.

Tell us about the dance scene in Montreal.

Scramblelock: Its dope. There is a lot of talent in this city. There are lots of groups doing lots of different styles of dancing. I love living here. Montreal is an island and it is very condensed; there are a lot of people here and lots of different people come out to support dance. When you see the big events here, it is awesome. Even living here, I get blown away every time I see one. The scene and the community is very tight knit. Everyone does their own thing, but people come out to support each other as well. There is mad love in this city.

The scene is still growing and progressing. What is your collective stand point on the current breaking scene?

City: There are a lot of mixed emotions. That’s actually a major topic that people bring up in Montreal. Lots of people claim that the Montreal scene is dying while others disagree with that statement; there is a lot of debate on that topic. Personally, when I started, there were a lot of annual events that gave people a goal to work towards. Everyone knew which events were coming up. However, a lot of people who were going to big events when I started are not as active now, but that should not be an indicator of the scene’s health to me, the scene is same, if not better than ever. You go to practice and you see people training and training; there seem to be more and more people who are getting into dance. There are so many passionate people out there who want to learn and improve themselves. The scene may be a little more underground compared to before because of the decline in public events, but there are still lots of people passionate about dance. The scene is still strong and I think that it’s just in sleep mode in the public’s eye due to the decreased number of public events.

Oktofoot: Yeah, there were lots of breaking events before but you never saw popping or hip hop events. That stuff came out in the last five years. That took a bit away from the big breaking events. Lots of people were coming to support the breaking events and they helped build the b-boy community. Now, lots of b-boys are supporting those other events. There is a lot of cooperation between the different scenes. The b-boy scene is not dying. The focus has just broadened. B-boying was very egotistical. It was all about breaking. Now, the b-boy community is evolving and stepping it up by getting involved with all the other surging dance styles.

Scramblelock: The thing about the Montreal scene is that it picks up on a lot of trends. Right now, krumping and whacking are the trending dances. Back when we started, breaking was the trend. Trends die. However, people who are real keep up with what they love though. I think that breaking has lost its trendiness now, but people who want to develop the art stick with it. That’s happened in other scenes too, like hip hop. It blows up for a bit and then goes underground, but it always comes back. It’s not a bad thing.

How has Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli inspired and impacted you guys?

Alex: I wanted to quit when I saw Lazylegz for the first time. I had a very bad knee injury not too long ago, and it threatened my b-boy and athletic career. Lazylegz showed me that there are no excuses and that you can’t give up. Until all your limbs are gone and you are completely paralyzed, there is always something that you can do to express yourself. He helped me to deal with my injury and get through it. Even if my knee was never the same after, I learned from him that b-boying was something that I could keep enjoying.

Chris: He is a very inspiring person to be around. I started breaking when I was 16 and it’s always been a passion of mine. It was never business related for me. I did it purely for the enjoyment of the art. We will compete and if we win, cool. If we lose, whatever, it was still fun. We met Lazylegz and we saw that he has a completely different approach. He has the same passion, but he has managed to build a career due to his work ethic. At events, he will always work to meet new people and make connections. The more I look at it, the more I admire how he has a business oriented mind to go along with his passion for dance. It’s inspiring to us because we are always looking for opportunities to travel and get exposure, and if you want success, you have to go about it in the right way. Lazylegz knows how to go about it and he has definitely taught me a lot about business ethics and how to go about it the right way.

Scramblelock: He helped me to become more of an entertainer, and to educate through entertainment. I was in education before, so I was always interested in high school crowds. I’ve been working with Lazylegz by doing his shows and being involved in his motivational speeches at high schools. We are working to spread his talent and message.

Dingo: When I started to dance, we would do shows for the young public or for people not connected to the dance world. I felt that that was my purpose. In a few years we moved away from that. Lazylegz made me re-think what’s important and made me rediscover my love of helping others to appreciate dance. He made me realize that I needed to do that. It was a wake-up call. If you have a talent and you can use it to affect others instead of only yourself, it’s magical. That’s what Lazylegz did for me.

Decoy: Lazylegz helped us to be creative in how we put on shows. We did the Paralympics opening ceremony. It motivated us to think creatively about choreographing shows and incorporating our talents and his talents to do something new and different.

Throughout the years of dancing, you guys came from the early stages of dancing to finding success in the scene. What else is down the line for you guys in the future?

Oktofoot: There is definitely more for us to achieve. The day you tell yourself that you have learnt everything is the day that you are going to stop improving. I have been away from breaking competitively for a while due to injuries and MMA, but I definitely want to travel to Europe and Asia before I stop my competitive b-boy career. I am always going to be involved in the scene and I will work to pass down my knowledge to the next generation, but I want to travel and do some major events first. These are my goals for the next five years.

City: I have been breaking for almost 12 years now. You think you are invincible but then as you get older, everything gets put into perspective. Things like a job, a girlfriend, or just other responsibilities in general can cause you to have less and less time for dance. My biggest fear is that I will grow older and have regrets about not taking advantage of all the opportunities to teach, compete, and travel, and maximizing all the opportunities that come my way, especially now, since I am getting older and it’s getting harder. It’s important to seize the moment.

Unlike some of the other elements of hip hop like MC’ing and DJ’ing, as dancers, there is always going to be a physical limit. Have you given a thought as to what you might be doing after you reach your physical peak?

Scramblelock: Once you get past a certain point, you will need to pass on your knowledge. Some people organize events to give back to the younger generations. They create opportunities for the younger generations to showcase themselves. I want to be a mentor. I don’t want to just be a teacher, but I want to give advice, about everything, not just dance. Many people organize events as a way of giving back to the younger generations. I know a lot of dancers who, as they get older, get more knowledgeable in a sense and get asked to judge competitions or travel to spread knowledge. We want to help the scene to grow, perhaps in a public relations capacity. There are many venues in the culture to contribute to the scene and give back.

City: People who knew me from before always ask me, “You are still break dancing?” I guess from an outsider’s perspective it may look weird, but it’s a lifestyle for me. It’s an extreme passion of mine and I can’t quit. Even if I am not competing, I will be involved in the art form in one capacity or another.

Oktofoot: If you take care of your body, you can definitely prolong your physical ability. You must respect your body and listen to it. As we get older, our training techniques are different. Before, you train for three hours and then you go out and party. Now, you warm up for half an hour and then you train. After training, you stretch for fifteen minutes, eat a healthy meal, and then you rest up. There will always be opportunities to teach. I am sure that when I am 50 I will be able to teach and do windmills. However, there will always be a limit to how physical you can be in competition. So, I try to prolong that. And of course, afterwards, be a mentor and teach kids, not just in dance, but to not make life mistakes. Be a positive influence in their lives, not just in terms of doing the right dance technique, but in life in general. Hip-hop was born out of neighbourhoods that did not have financial and social advantages.  A lot of kids entering breaking come from those backgrounds. Let them know that just because they don’t have money doesn’t mean that they can’t seize the same opportunities.

What is HYPE?

Dingo: HYPE is magic. To say that something is HYPE is to say that it is “in” and exciting. It can be an activity or something that when someone mentions it, your eyes open up and your brain gets stimulated. Your brain wants a piece of what’s HYPE.

Decoy: For me, HYPE is the anticipation of something that is sick. It’s a really short moment in time where something great and exciting happens.

Oktofoot: It’s something that’s blown out of proportion. Don’t believe it.

Scramblelock: The HYPE of something can be the build up or an idea or moment. Or, HYPE can also be a feeling. For example, when I am teaching, I tell my students to get HYPE; I want them to get into what they are doing.

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