Interview with Geoff Alan | MC/Rapper – Belfast City Breakers
By Anna Wherrett
What has Hip Hop ever done for us?
A four-part tribute to Hip Hop culture in Northern Ireland.
Film: 7.00pm: Bombin’, Beats and B-Boys / 8.30pm: Breakers Showcase / 9.30pm: World Premiere of Hip Hop Comedy Game Show / 10.30pm: DBMC’s and guests
Tomorrow’s event will include a special screening of Chris Eva’s acclaimed documentary about the Hip Hop scene in Belfast, Bombin’, Beats and B-Boys, which shows how Hip Hop and its early proponents were peacemakers in a broken community.
You were an MC for Belfast City Breakers. How did you meet?
It all started with The Old Grey Whistle… I heard Grandmaster Flash… that’s where it all started. Before I was listening to the likes of Michael Jackson.
After that we hired out a video called Beat Street, then we went to the cinema and saw Breakdance and started dancing, body popping. It was a great wee life you got you and your decks. Danced on the street. Then we bumped into the Belfast City Breakers in 1984. That was a big moment in my life, as they were basically the kings of break-dancers – to the whole of Belfast! Especially the Madden Twins William and John Madden (John Madden sadly passed away two years ago). Then everything after that fell into place. We formed a group called 3Core, we had a number 1 hit in the UK Hip Hop chart and toured with quite a few big artists which was great – it was such a different lifestyle. You went up to clubs and you were straight through the door.
We met in a small chapel in Carrickfergus. A guy called Paddy G – he was friends with Belfast City Breakers. We hooked up with them. We all went into Belfast one day, I just couldn’t believe that these two twins – who were just the most the amazing dancers. You could tell they were twins they looked exactly alike. They were the Madden Twins and they were the Belfast City Breakers.
I started MCing then and I got asked would I be the MC for Belfast City Breakers. I said, ‘Of course I would’, it would be an honour, because the dancing was not my thing. I was ok at graffiti art, I was ok at rapping I was OK at DJing. I was able to scratch, but I couldn’t get that dancing thing at all. But to be a part of the Belfast City Breakers, the way that they let me in, it was an honour and it was incredible.
I asked Geoff – this must have been a real eye-opener, especially at that time, and what was going on back at home in Northern Ireland? As we all know, people just didn’t go into the city centre in Belfast during that era.
We as a crowd, were doing the breakdancing, with the Hip Hop, doing all that – with everything that was going on. Putting all the boundaries aside, you know the Catholic, Protestant blah-blah-blah… Putting all that aside – we had a fantastic time. My youth, as I always would describe it, was probably the happiest time of my life and I’ll never forget it. Hip Hop is not just what people think. The music now, the way it has evolved, I don’t like it. I’m not impressed with it in the slightest. I’d rather go and see an old skool hip hop artist who has something to say and has meaning behind the words. It’s a disgrace when you think about it.
The good news that has come out of it is – that the old skool artists are coming back. Rakim and Harik Bee are just about to do a tour in America. That is brilliant news. The Just Crew – they’ve been doing tours, and it’s really great to see, it is such a big part of Hip Hop. Even from beat-boxing, I’m ok at. But some of the guys out there are amazing.
Hopefully, on Sunday night (18 March 2018) when people are asking questions and they are getting the right answers, they (the audience) will know that we are not all just old ‘has beens’. We are all still listening to it and enjoying it.
Everything we do as creatives – is a statement. A stamp, an individual stamp by (and/or) audio-sound/verbally/visually. What is the statement of Hip Hop to you?
My statement on hip-hop is very simple; Its culture, life, and understanding. And also, being REAL. That’s a big word.
I’d mentioned about today’s music being the same. Back in the day they were using all the old breaks. Which they made new again. The guys at the time … when I bought a record, it was like reading a book. That’s was because the lyrics became a big part of my life after the breakdancing days. I did the graffiti and all that there, but the music itself was that good at the time – and every single rapper had a story to tell; which is so important. The work that I would describe Hip Hop as: It’s a story, it’s a book. It has no end and no start. It’s always going to be there.
So, I ask – Hip Hop in Northern Ireland – would you say that is unique/organic? Is it different to Hip Hop universally, for example, American Hip Hop?
Everybody always complains to me about my accent. It is my accent! It’s doesn’t sound Belfast, it doesn’t sound American. This accent was created from being a young child listening to records, rapping the way the boys did on the records. And that is where this accent came from, it’s not from anyone else. If you look at the Belfast City Breakers for example, if you look at their style of dancing… they created a different break dance Hip Hop style, compared to what was going on in America. They incorporated more of the Irish side to it with their wee dance moves, which was really good to see. If you look at Hip Hop in Northern Ireland now, it exists but it is so underground.
This brought me back to Belfast-born, Manchester-based rapper Jun Tzu’s gig at the Empire in 2015. This was a one-off night of pure and undiluted Hip Hop collectives. You have never seen a venue that has been so packed and bursting at the seams.
Geoff continues: The nonsense music, the blah-blah-blah music – my description of it, it’s just mundane. There was this guy, Eric B, he did the elements of Hip Hop on Facebook. He was able to go from way back in the day – until now, and do all the different rapping styles. If you listen to some of the nonsense nowadays and compare it to back then, it is a completely different story. Documentaries like Hip Hop History, were very good for me; because I was able to look back and see the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and Zulu Nation. Luckily, I was able to go to New York myself and see it. I touched the Apollo. I sat in the park where Hip Hop history was – that for me, was incredible. I stood outside LL Cool J’s house on the Queens Boulevard. Public Enemy, Beastie boys… Were all from around that era. If you listen to their songs – they are telling you something. I entered the Freestyle Dancing championships last year and came second to a guy from London. He asked me ‘what age are you?’ And I said I’m 45, he said ‘I cannot believe the way you rap!’. Well I said: ‘Thank you – I love the way you love rap too. It’s an amalgamation of new and old’. That’s why he won the competition. Everyone here is 21, 22, 23. Then you have this 45-year-old guy come second.
Talking to Geoff, you conclude that this is a very different perception/story to what others experienced.
If you think of Belfast and watch all the old videos of Belfast. Watch the videos only political form of political violence – the rest was on TV. I had one experience, I was walking up the Limestone Road and I started getting pelted with stones, was getting called Fenian this, Fenian that. I was a Protestant heading into a Catholic area. I didn’t care, because his (Geoff’s friend) took to me and I took to them. His mum actually cleaned the cuts up on the back of my head. I still have the scars to this day. That was the only form of political violence I saw back in those days. The rest was on TV bombs – funerals…I never heard a bomb go off, I never saw any sectarian violence. Maybe I was just blinded by it all.
A very different experience for you wasn’t it?
It was just beautiful. I went to UK Fresh 86 (Wembley Arena) – I saw loads of old skool artists, Roxanne Shante, The Beat Boys. One in particular, that will always stand out to me, because I DJ’d for him at the anniversary UK Fresh 86 in Wembley Arena – five years ago. And that guy was Captain Rock. His music was music was so happy and vibrant. To meet him, to get your pictures taken was amazing. There was a song called ‘Breakers Revenge’ when we were kids, which was made by a guy called Arthur Baker, I got to meet him.
After all the years, to actually see Captain Rock on stage and to actually meet him and DJ at that event – was incredible. The old is going to come back, and it will come back strong. If you talk to any of the boys my age or just slightly younger. They’ll come up again i.e. LL Cool J, Rakim. Everybody would be there.
The argument will always be ‘who is the best rapper in the world?’ There’s only one – and that is Rakim. He is a God, a Legend, he was the first storyteller that I have listened to.
What is it like now?
Every time we get together it’s all really friendly – there is no animosity at all. It’s always been that way since we were children so. We did a 3Core anniversary gig right around Ireland recently, it was sort of like the last night in Belfast. Then guy Paul in the group, he turned around and said ‘this is the last time I’m ever doing it again’. That was very hurtful, at the same time I understood where he was coming from.
There are loads of wee things in the pipeline. Really, now – all I want to do is festivals. I don’t want to really record anymore. I’m 47 years old! When you hear the beats and you want to rap – I will rap, I will do the best that I can to impress people. The past couple of years, I’ve just become more secluded from it and just stayed away from it. Then all this has come up and other bits and bobs (i.e. Imagine Festival). I thought, ‘right ok – you are not going to anywhere at this stage of the day, at the end of the day people can understand what you are doing’.
Like Graffiti, Hip Hop has often been described by many, as an art-form for the under-represented communities / marginalized social backgrounds (universally). Graffiti, for example, expanded into different art-forms. Out of this, came ‘street-art’ which became its own genre – that have art critics! Do you see any aspects of NI Hip Hop scene going in that direction at the moment?
There was a DJ back in the day – Glen Molloy. If you look at some of Glen’s work now it is unbelievable. He DJ’d Hip Hop to start with then he went into rave and house. He’s a good friend of mine. I’m very honoured and proud of the work he does on the walls. … The word ‘Legend’ springs to mind. If somebody can do that work, put it on a wall and make it that good. He is just awesome.
Do you see any trends coming into the Hip Hop scene, where you essentially have people from different social backgrounds?
On Graffiti – Geoff continues: I get people asking me all the time … what was it like back in the day? When you were doing Graffiti, compared to now? There’s only one thing different. It’s progressed. People come from all over the world to paint on the peace wall. I would say that the evolution of Graffiti is probably the biggest step forward in Hip Hop culture (in NI).
Geoff states: [most] DJs now don’t know what they are doing. Because everything does it for them. They will stand there with their arms in the air, it wasn’t like that back in the day when you had your mixer and the turntables and your records. I watched the mixing championships this year, the guy that won it was brilliant. He was really good, but it was all machine, him hitting buttons, to make effects to make it sound good.
Back in the day (For example DJ Cheese), it was just two turntables and a mixer. The scratching got better as the years went on. DJ Jazzy Jeff… ‘Peter Piper’ It’s awesome!! I watch at least once a week!!! It’s fantastic.
What is your vision of the Hip Hop scene in Northern Ireland in the future?
I see it being underground, unfortunately, that’s the way I see it. The music is so different now to what it was back then. The music turns around and it comes back again. But, for kids today, it’s all about their phone, its all about tablets, computer games. There’s no real exercise unless you go to boxing clubs or the gym. When we were kids, we had to make our own entertainment. So that was music and that was through dancing. There are so many kids that I have seen over the past few years, and I’ve thought ‘you would make a brilliant breakdancer’, they just have no interest in it whatsoever. Because technology has evolved and it has corrupted their minds. There is too much going on technology-wise now for kids to be fit and healthy or find something which they will find interesting.
There are so many kids out there now, and if they were to start dancing, they would love it. There is no music there for them. It’s all corrupted – it’s all just commercial nonsense. I’d rather put a record on: Public Enemy, Rev Run, LL Cool J … They are my idols, I’ve met them. Rev Run is one of the best people I have ever meet. I did this gig with Coolio years ago in Belfast Waterfront. He came in, looked at me and said ‘another white hunkie’ what this about? After I had come of stage, where I’d been rapping, been for hour and a half, it was then he came up to me and said: “I didn’t realise – Ireland – never mind Belfast had a rapper like you. All these boys from England are the same-same-same”. He continued “I walked in and I judged you, I should have let you do what you did’. And this is the thing you’ve to remember this was old skool.
Geoff on William Madden: This wee small man, very thin guy, you wouldn’t know now … But you don’t understand if you saw him (they – the twins) back in the old days in Belfast City Breakers, if you could see what they were like. They were awesome!
Geoff continued to explain about his recent conversation with William on the phone a few days ago: I spoke to William on the phone. We spoke about this Sunday (18 March) – this is why it is good – that people will see what it was like. And hopefully, people will understand and take something from it. William said on the phone the other day, ‘I hope they are not expecting me to dance! I’m an old man!’ I said to him ‘I’m an old man too, but I have to rap’.
In that phone conversation: William said (of Imagine Festival) ‘that will be the highlight of the year for me. Yes, I was that person, I’m getting old now. But: I was that person’.
There seems to be no outlet for children/teenagers to do it now, other than the odd cross-community workshop. What was it like in the Youth Clubs then?
The Belfast City Breakers youth club, guys came up from Omagh Strabane, Derry – if you got to go in with these boys – you were very lucky. How many kids want to DJ now? Not many, it’s become a technical journey. The excitement of being, to use words with a mixer. Why would you want to rap now? It all just sounds mundane and the same. Why would you want to breakdance? Because there is nothing there for you to go to. There are no outlets no clubs it’s all disappeared. That’s down to technology.
Grandmaster Flash for example at CQAF in 2016 – you generally don’t tend to see break-dancers in the crowd. You might get the odd one, but I can guarantee there would be a lot of people looking at you. Might be a novelty.
We are all past it now. (I’ve had to intervene, say to Geoff – steady on there … you’re not that old.) We always chat about the good times, the good things that we did. I speak to a lot of people that are my age, that were doing different things back in the day, they say, ‘your’s sounds so more exciting to what we were doing’.
It is an idyllic picture.
To be honest, I will never forget it. The past is the best for me. To get on stage and do a wee rap every now and again, yeah that’s cool. But everyday life is everyday life. I work in Harvey Norman now, I sell furniture for a living. I’m not glorifying myself to be someone that I‘m not. I just respect the fact that – back in the day – I respect what it was. I was lucky enough to have the couple pedestals to make the moves and make it happen. The door will never close for me on rap. I love the rap, I love the old skool and I’ll keep like that. And that little bit of faith that is inside my head, makes me smile every day. It’s all down to the old skool.
Belfast being one of the most war-torn cities of that time, the honour to be part that movement must be very special. When you look at the ratio to rest NI, it was just a handful of people – and it was a movement, and you were in that handful of people.
You can watch your video and the old times. With my house (parents) – it was like Take That – girls standing outside the house with holes in the fence – panels with ‘I love you’ scratched, it’s still there – after all these years.
Now, nobody will look at me in the street. Although I was in a Harvey Norman advert. When I’m out shopping with my Mum, I get ‘I know your face – you’re from Harvey Norman advert’.
Those dancing shoes haven’t been hung up just yet!?
Geoff: When you get to my age then you realise and then you just say that’s it.
Well, I would say on Geoff – despite his opinion, he is most definitely – hanging in there; that mic isn’t being hung up to gather dust just yet.
A four-part tribute to Hip Hop culture in Northern Ireland will be held at the Sunflower Bar, 65 Union Street, 18 March: 7.00pm – 12.00am (doors 6.30pm) – as Part of Imagine Festival of Politics and Ideas – more info here.
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