Did you know that Chiang Mai is home to one of the biggest, and self-proclaimed baddest, B-boy crews in Thailand?
Do you know what on earth a B-boy is?
Well, if, like me, you are not so up to date with the latest trends, the term “B-boy” may be lost on you. Put simply, a B-boy (or B-girl) is someone who is devoted to the hip-hop culture, with a focus on the urban art of breaking or breakdancing. Originating in the Bronx of New York in the 1970s, the term B-boy has evolved over the last 40 years to include other lifestyle identities encompassing music, arts, magic and even, here in Chiang Mai at least, hairdressing.
It was a cool evening as I stepped into the dark and smoky room, the sounds of treble and bass clashing slightly on some outdated club hi-fi. While I had seen my share of breaking and rapping on YouTube and TV, to experience it live, and in Chiang Mai of all places, was something very different. This cleverly named event, RUN CNX, saw several well-choreographed B-boys showing off their skills. Although no super high level moves were laid down, it was a spectacle – six-stepping and worms and some impressive fancy footwork. For the rappers, some were good, some not so good. Overpowered microphones and loosely rhyming Thai verse made it a bit harsh on the ears at times, but it was clear that the event was more for them than it was for the spectators. And somehow, this made it so much more real…I now know the meaning of the word swag.
Chiang Mai’s B-boy gang, now known as Maharajah, have been around since 2000 and claim to have a hundred members in their ranks. These guys were pure cool, and I wanted in.
To understand how such a western subculture had produced interest as far away as Thailand, I hooked up with Jo, a 32-year-old B-boy and founder of Chiang Mai’s first B-boy gang.
“We called ourselves MCM back in the day,” he told me. “Within a year, our interest went viral and we went from seven people to 50 people in our crew!”
Since the early days of MCM, the B-boy gangs of Chiang Mai have gone through many a metamorphosis, with break-ups, fights, rap battles and name changes – kind of like Chiang Mai’s very own West Side Story.
“When I was 20, I had no idea what a B-boy was, but on nights out I used to be fascinated to see how foreigners danced and dressed. It was fucking awesome!” Jo exclaimed in very American accented English.
“There was a CD shop in front of Kad Suan Kaew which used to blast hip-hop music,” he continued. “We just used to go and break there, showing off our skills. The shop was happy for the publicity; it was a win/win!” For a year the MCM crew danced, fell over, missed spins and forgot moves, just having fun as teens are wont to do.
Soon, their local fame brought two professional B-boys from America with the self-appointed tags Ily and Lego Rock, who decided to take the amateur but enthusiastic youths under their wings. They ended up staying with the crew in Chiang Mai for two years, teaching them everything they knew and training them not only in skills, but in the culture of B-boy.
The beauty of breaking is most certainly how much creativity is made possible. New ideas, attitudes and boundary-pushing keeps these crews moving forward and inspires them to keep improving, not only on a personal level, but on a collective one.
“They taught us all that ‘style is you.’ They told us not to copy, but just be yourself and keep developing yourself,” Jo said, fondly recalling his friends and their legacy: an ever-growing hip-hop subculture right here in Chiang Mai.
Interestingly, Jo’s tag is also Lego Rock, though he insists that it is not a copy but an homage to his mentors, who he has lost touch with over the years but hopes to reconnect with again.
“I loved hip-hop from the first time I listened to it,” said Jo…for the fifth time. While Korean culture is popular in Thailand, Jo has no interest in their hip-hop culture, saying that their overly choreographed dances are not to his liking.
Soon, the Chiang Mai crew’s love of dance turned into a full blown B-boy lifestyle with dance battles and all the drama that came along with it. Popping feet and laying down spins gave rise to serious breaking envy in certain members, and as the crew grew, friction occurred. By 2004, MCM had split into two groups, Jo’s Skill Breaker and a new rival group called Style Evertag. Out of respect or fear of loss of face, the exact reasons for the split were not forthcoming in our interview.
Today, however, fighting and hostility is something of the past, and despite the ever-present rivalry, life in the B-boy gangs has once again calmed down. A few years back, rival Style Evertag rebranded under the new name JunkFood and Skill Breaker was renamed Maharajah.
In 2006, Battle of The Year (BOTY) hit Thailand. A global competition looking for the best B-boys in the world, BOTY elevated the art of breaking in Thailand to a more widely accepted and appreciated level. Competitions were held across the country to find the best breakdancers to represent Thailand in the hugely popular international event. Qualification battles held in Chiang Mai almost exclusively saw Maharajah and JunkFood trade off first place year in and year out. Despite never getting the chance to represent the country, winning the Chiang Mai battle clearly brought all winners great respect and validated them as serious sportsmen and women. The events are standardised and in turn force breakers to find more commercialised moves and a more publicly palatable image.
In 2012 however, Chiang Mai saw its last year of BOTY – probably due to the same two crews winning each year. Now there are only competitions in Bangkok, and given the age of Jo and his companions, an executive decision was made to leave it in the hands of the younger generation and stick with home-grown breaking. “We are now focusing on training up younger B-boys to go and compete and to keep Maharajah alive,” said Jo.
So for a 32-year-old B-boy, what’s next? Well, luck would have it that other veterans of Maharajah, namely Jo’s friends Michael and Getto, decided to open up an instantly successful barber shop as a more permanent solution to the inevitable calling of the working world. With clippers beginning to buzz several years ago, first in Nimman and now on Huay Kaew Road, Skill Barber has gone from strength to strength. Pretty much all of the original crew works there and they have perfected the art of true B-boy hair styling and tattooing.
“All those years ago, we were following the latest US trends, and hair was a big part of that style,” said Michael. “Nobody in Chiang Mai knew how to cut our hair the right way so we thought, hell, why don’t we just learn it ourselves!” Soon they were following YouTube, online courses and all manner of free resources to learn how to do the best cuts in all of Chiang Mai. Practicing on the younger members and training everyone up, the Skill Barber family has acquired many brothers and sisters, all of whom are crafty with a comb and snappy with scissors. Now they offer everything from vintage styles to gang tags buzzed into people’s fades.
Meanwhile, Michael, Getto, Jo and all the other veterans are now working together on an exciting new project – the creation of their very own professional hip-hop and entertainment community training centre. Their dream of a dance school and academy teaching professional-level breaking, rapping, dance, art, singing, magic, DJing…and of course hairdressing, will soon be fully realised.
The Skill Barber Academy, soon to be fully functional, can be used for whatever you desire; from breaking to rapping, to ballet or even opera. DJ training booths, an up-to-date recording studio and many other resources will slowly be added to their already comprehensive list of services, all with professional, well-experienced members of the Skill Barber family to guide you on your way.
While the vets are settling into a more traditional lifestyle, they insist on one thing: “We love a party,” said Getto as he opened up a can of beer after work. “If there’s one thing we’ll never stop, it’s having parties.” The group’s regular RUN CNX hip-hop nights feature their young prot?g?s showcasing their skills.
Looking back at their early days as young, amateur B-boys throwing down some dubious moves outside a small CD shop in a shopping mall, it’s impressive to see what Jo and his crew have achieved. A verse from West Side Story comes to mind: “Play it cool boy, real cool.” Michael, Getto, Jo and all of the Skill family have certainly played it cool, and have helped make this city pretty damn cool, too.
Open daily, 1.30 – 10.30pm
83 Huay Kaew Road (just before the Sirimankalajarn junction).
Facebook: Skill Barber
081 796 0622, 080 845 4381