Peace, Love Unity and Having Fun
An introduction to the history of Northern Irish Hip Hop.
By Anna Wherrett
The Belfast City Breakers (BCB) were formed in Belfast, by a small group of friends who were at the cutting edge of the dance, music, and graffiti scene, in the early eighties; showing their skills and keepin’ it real. CultureHUB speaks to the ‘Godfathers of Northern Irish Hip Hop’, Belfast City Breakers members Geoff Allen and William Madden (twin of the late John Madden – of ‘the Madden Twins’).
Earlier in the year, I was invited to ‘What has Hip Hop ever done for us?’ that piloted at the Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics in Belfast. The event was curated by journalist, director, and award-winning broadcaster Eileen Walsh, and included a Q & A, breakers showcase, a comedy session and the screening of Chris Eva’s Bombin’, Beats and B-Boys. The film reflects the underground Hip Hop scene, where sectarian baggage is left behind, from Old Skool B-Boys to present-day rappers, showing how Hip Hop and its early proponents were peacemakers in a broken community. The festival itself helped bring together many people heavily involved in the Hip Hop scene in Northern Ireland, going way back to the 1980s, particularly those who had grown apart after the death of legendary B-Boy John Madden.
I asked Eileen Walsh what led her to undertake the curation of this event; she explained that it had all started at the Imagine Festival the previous year, with the broadcast of her film Together in Pieces – a documentary on the changing landscape of Northern Ireland – showing how the world famous murals and political slogans that have taunted its communities for over 40 years are being slowly transformed by a graffiti revolution. Following this path then led her to the underground Hip Hop scene in Northern Ireland.
A Hip Hop scene, that had gone into hibernation has been reignited. The work that Eileen has put in behind the scenes, has been a catalyst for the rebirth of the scene and the Old Skool B-Boys’ emergence.
I caught up with the Belfast City Breakers Godfathers to get a quick chat with them before their big reunion at the Oh Yeah Center. MC Geoff Allen, who was the founding member of Belfast rap group 3 Core, and William Madden, both also featured on episode 3 of CultureHUB TV.
I asked William Madden, the original BCB member – how did the Belfast City Breakers start?
William: The Belfast City Breakers started with a guy called Anthony Lynne, he made the main foundations for it. Then me and my brother, we used to do a thing called Breakpoint. We ended up joining with two crews and joining together. It was in the early 80s, that’s when it all started.
Geoff Allen later joined the group as an MC and was also the founding member of Belfast rap group 3 Core. I asked Geoff, how did you become a member of the BCB?
Geoff: We met in a small chapel in Carrickfergus. A guy called Paddy G – he was friends with the Belfast City Breakers. We hooked up with them. We all went into Belfast one day, I just couldn’t believe 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 – they were the Belfast City Breakers. I started MC-ing 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 and 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.
How did you get into the whole Hip Hop scene?
William: I used to do all the rock n roll, used to do the teddy boy dancing – I was always dropping on the floor. So the first time I ever saw it [the dancing], it was the popping I saw first. I had a friend and he was over from Canada, he did an arm move and a body move and after that, I was hooked. There was no such thing as the internet then, so the only thing there was an old beatbox and video. So anything that was on TV – the video went in and we recorded it then we watched.
Geoff: It all started with The Old Grey Whistle … I heard Grandmaster Flash … that’s where it all started, before that 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 breakdancers – to the whole of Belfast! Especially the Madden Twins, William and John. Then everything after that fell into place. We formed a group called 3 Core, we had a number 1 hit in the UK Hip Hop chart.
Was there ever any trouble or animosity?
Geoff: Many years ago the subways in Belfast were a channel for us to breakdance. The Mods used to hate us, they used to think we were an out culture, but the rockers loved us. That stems way back to the early 80s, we were all breakdancing in the subways and then the Mods would walk up with the knives etc. One day in particular – Breakdance 2 was on at the ABC in Belfast. Which is now a hotel. We all ran out of the cinema afterward with our beatboxes, running past the city hall in Belfast. The Mods were all sitting there with their scooters, and they were like ‘those guys are dicks let’s go and get them’. So they all got on their scooters and followed us down the subway – it was such a funny experience. That was a ‘them and us’ experience.
William: We were up in there, in the Troubles, there was always a hard man walking about. We were running about pulled up socks and leggings. You’d get people mouth off and you were like ‘listen, mate, you won’t be calling me that again or I’m about to fob you’ because, at the end of the day, breaking is a very tough attitude, that’s the way it is. So there was a tough attitude. You see once people started realising – that there were a lot more people out there that liked breaking and graffiti and did like the music, they are the people that stood up and are still here to the very day, like the Bad Taste Cru. This movement is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger. It is never going to go away.
What was your most defining moment in the Belfast City Breakers?
William: Well, from when we did the Fleadh in Ardoyne. All it used to be was a shed down there and a bit of music, it sort of progressed over the years. In 1998, they had a stage that went up. We did that performance and the TV stations came. It reinforced the reputation for ourselves, which we already had from years before anyway. We were asked to do the performance – and you see what it was when we walked up [the stage]. My god, my nerves. I was shaking like a leaf. I was so nervous, I don’t really get nervous, but you see when me and my brother John walked up on that stage it was just amazing.
What does Hip Hop mean to you?
Geoff: For me, it’s very simple: It’s culture, life, and understanding. And also, being REAL. That’s a big word. I would describe Hip Hop as: A story, it’s a book, it has no end and no start. It’s always going to be there.
William: Hip Hop to me is my life, it’s in my blood, it’s a spiritual thing for me. It’s my first love. Like Graffiti, Hip Hop has often been described as an art-form for the under-represented. Graffiti has expanded into different genres, one of which is ‘street-art’. Do you see any aspects of the Northern Irish Hip Hop scene going in that direction at the moment?
Geoff: 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 Northern Ireland.
Why did the Belfast City Breakers come to an end?
William: We were doing a lot of training and a lot of dancing. People were falling by the way and not turning up. People getting sore – people were having families, having different lives. We thought we’ll just bring it to an end. So we took that to the BBC and ITV and got a farewell and a cheerio.
How would you answer the big question – ‘What has Hip Hop ever done for us?’
Geoff: Many years ago, when we were kids, about 14 – 15 we got together in Belfast. A lot of people judged. It inspired us, it challenged us and its made us what we are today. We all go out every day and do our jobs, I work in Harvey Norman I sell furniture for a living I never made it big time but back in the day – I did go on tour and I did rap all over Europe – I was in a group called 3 Core and it was absolutely fantastic – most of that comes down to my family – my boys, William, Stevie G, everybody. I thank them for that – that is what Hip Hop has done for me. To this day, I love it, trust it and I will never change.
William: What Hip Hop did for me, is give me a whole new way of looking towards life. It changed me – it changed my whole life. I wasn’t very smart at school and breakdancing taught me that I could be good at anything that I could put my mind to, as long as I push myself into it. Growing up in the Troubles, a lot of people, a lot of the younger people didn’t have any faith anymore. It got me a lot of good friends. All of those people we taught over the years have progressed on to be MCs, DJs, there is just so much positivity it has to give. I would say to anyone that is trying to make it now, get into it. It will change your life forever. It is a godsend. I’ve always said that about me and my twin, it will change you to be a better person. One thing about breaking is that it teaches you the hard way. You fall and you hit the ground, you’ve got to get back up again. That’s life.
You both seem to have fond memories.
Geoff: 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 back in the day – I respect what it was. I was lucky enough to have a couple of 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. William: It’s just such a beautiful dance. You meet so many good people during it, on your travels.
What can we expect from the reunion in August?
Geoff: A party like no other. It’s been a good ten years since we were all together and it will be brilliant to see everyone again and have a night of Hip Hop and everyone is welcome. Peace, unity, love and having fun! William: This is going to be a massive event. The Bad Taste Cru will put on a performance that you will not forget.
I asked a clearly emotional William: What would John would make of all this resurgence and the special event in his memory?
William: He’s probably sitting there laughing at me now.
The BCB Reunion will be held at the Oh Yeah Music Centre on 04 August. It will showcase the main elements of Hip Hop (Graffiti, MCing, Break-Dancing and Djing). It will also feature the film Bombin’, Beats and B-Boys. Another legendary breakdance group will also be performing on the night. The Bad Taste Cru are a breakdance and Hip Hop theatre group originally from Omagh. Inspired by the BCB’s, who performed in Omagh to support the victims of the Omagh bombing, the Bad Taste Cru actually left Omagh en masse 20 years ago and went to live in England. They made Newcastle Upon Tyne their home and still perform and compete, inspiring generations of young people, in England and all over the world.
CultureHUB TV Episode below featuring an interview with William Madden and Geoff Alan.