Roxrite stands onstage in Moscow, covered in Champagne, having just won the world championship of breakdancing, the Red Bull BC One. Surrounded by thousands of breaking fans, Roxrite shouts out his hometown b-boy crews SUB-4 from Windsor and Renegades from San Francisco, and on a world stage, between breaths: "I finally got to accomplish a dream, it's a blessing. Much respect 415 and 707, Sonoma County!"
Three months later, Omar "Roxrite" Delgado is fresh off an airplane from Rio de Janeiro, taking a few days to unwind before leaving for an Adidas Originals breaking contest in Poland. Hailing from Windsor, the 29-year-old has catalogued trips to 37 countries, winning more than 70 championship titles all over the world. Between video shoots with Red Bull, judging international competitions, and filming the TV series Break'n Reality, out this spring (watch the trailer), Roxrite is a local b-boy making good—and finally getting paid for paying his dues.
From the very beginning, the b-boy has been one of the four elements of hip-hop culture, together with the DJ, the MC and the graffiti artist. Their combined disciplines form the source of a uniquely American experience. In the early 1980s, the boroughs of New York City produced the elements in which breakdancing became immortalized in movies like Beat Street and Breakin'. It was a time when Adidas stripes and boom boxes lined every corner. Calling themselves break-boys, after the drum-heavy breakbeats that make up classic hip-hop, the abbreviated "b-boys" embody the hip-hop lifestyle through a highly technical and infinitely original form of dance called breaking.
The chronicles of Sonoma County b-boys go back nearly as far as the Reagan administration and Ms. Pac-Man. Many of the old-school pioneers started dancing in junior high and have grown up to become guardians of hip-hop history. As in every culture, the most notable participants build up the group as a whole; it's those pioneers who keep the movement thriving for the youth to discover and develop.
Before heading off to claim victory in Russia last November (see video here), Roxrite came through Sonoma County to visit family. "The trip reminded me of where I'm from and what I represent," he says. "It gave me that fire."
Born in Mexico and raised in Windsor, Roxrite's story is like that of so many other immigrants. Yet he is also a bona fide example of the promise of the American dream; it was through perseverance and devotion to his craft that he earned the 2011 B-Boy of the Year and world champion titles.
On the resurgence of the b-boy culture, Roxrite speaks from the heart. "When I hear more kids are doing it, it makes me smile. It's such an important part of true hip-hop," he says. "It provides an outlet to make something out of yourself. I wanna see more b-boys from the 707 step it up—I don't want to be the only one. Anything is possible; I came out of here."
Every champion has had a mentor to guide him along the path of discovery and maturity. Yoda once said to Luke Skywalker: "Always two there are, no more, no less—a master and an apprentice." Becoming a world-class breaker requires a relationship no less profound.
In 1984, when Beat Street and Breakin' were in theaters, there was Sha-One. Considered by many a seed in the cultivation of hip-hop, Shen-na "Sha-One" Smith was one of the first to pass down the knowledge that has fostered an entire culture in the North Bay. "Sha-One is the oracle," says Man-E, a local disciple of hip-hop. "He's the one who gave us our fat laces and told us Kangols need to be tilted to the side."
A respected mentor, Sha-One found his apprentice in Mike "Ground Level" Cisneros of Santa Rosa. "Sha-One blessed me with my name when I started SUB-4. 'Ground Level' means the foundation, and everything that is built comes from the foundation," he says. Beneath a trunk gold chain, Ground Level's classic b-boy style is reminiscent of an iconic graffiti-art character.
SUB-4 has become one of the most significant b-boy crews in Sonoma County history. Standing for "Straight Up B-Boys-4 Elements," its name gives a nod to the importance of the DJ, the MC and the graffiti artist within b-boy culture. Assembled in 1994 on the linoleum floors of the Danger Room at Windsor's first community center, SUB-4 was adamant about dedicated practice times while forbidding drugs and alcohol. During an era of heavy gang activity, dancing was a positive outlet in an otherwise rough environment.
At one of SUB-4's signature events, called Hip Hop on Stage, a 13-year-old Roxrite suddenly appeared out of the crowd to battle another b-boy, and outright rocked the show. Promptly inducted into the crew, Roxrite trained rigorously under the already experienced Ground Level. "One day we were at the Danger Room, and I said, 'You know what? I'm going to name you Roxrite, because you are doing it the way it's supposed to be done," says Ground Level.
Ground Level attributes Roxrite's inevitable rise to b-boy fame through SUB-4's commitment to daily practice, countless trips to competitions all over the country and living a life dedicated to the dance. "I don't think a person like Roxrite can exist on thinking he was going to get prizes," he says. "A person who does that does it for the passion."
For many in the early breaking scene, receiving a b-boy name from a mentor is a blessing, as well as acceptance into the inner circle. Having your idol present it to you is almost unreal. Jesse Ventura, a Healdsburg b-boy pioneer, was given his moniker, "B-Boy Child," by the one and only Ken Swift, widely accepted as one of the most legendary b-boys of all time.
At times a member of several of the North Bay's original b-boy crews, Ventura has experienced decades of breaking evolution. He also knows the potential adversity of outside influences. Back in the day, he recalls, it seemed that only the exceptional few had the determination and opportunity to overcome the influence of the street, while society's negative associations caused many to fall out of the scene. "When I was dancing as a little kid, kids used to get arrested for breakdancing on the corner," says Ventura.
Teaching the integrity of hip-hop culture comes naturally for Ventura, who now runs after-school programs from math tutoring to breaking classes. "It's about being able to transform kids' lives through hip-hop. It doesn't necessarily need to be dancing," he says. "I help them find their medium, accommodate that and push them forward to whatever it is they want to do."
Rapidly coming up in the game is Ventura's 15-year-old daughter, Vanessa, who recently won the all-styles dance division at a "Rep Your Style" breaking contest hosted by Reprezent Clothing. With style and skill, she outshined 20 other breakers, nearly all male, proving to the judges and crowd that females are also making waves on the scene.
Donning a crisp camouflage cap with the golden Philippine star of unity, Manuel "Man-E" Weigel is an intellectual force for local hip-hop. Raised in Windsor, Man-E started breaking with the SUB-4 crew in the '90s. "For us, SUB-4 wasn't just 'Straight Up B-Boys'; it also meant 'Straight Up Brothers.' It was a real family feel, and all of us looked out for each other. Staying true to the crew meant everything."
Now a member of the Northstar Zulus, he is a West Coast representative for the Universal Zulu Nation, the international organization for hip-hop awareness founded in the Bronx by Afrika Bambaataa in the '70s.
Considered by many a vehicle for breaking down racial barriers worldwide, hip-hop embraces knowledge, wisdom and understanding of all peoples and belief systems. For Man-E, "it is what the Zulu Nation has done on a global scale: to bring people together under one flag of hip-hop, our common ground, and build upon that."
Passing down the true essence of hip-hop is crucial to maintaining that all-encompassing nature. "Knowing your roots is a deep aspect within hip-hop. The Universal Zulu Nation is important because they are not single minded into one ideology; rather, they present a packet of information and let you figure it out, take your own spin. You don't have to believe my interpretation of it; it is information for you to think of," says Man-E, adding the importance of the unspoken fifth element.
"The fifth element of hip-hop is the third-eye perspective. It is knowledge of self and being able to express and share it with like-minded individuals to build understanding. When you take that knowledge into understanding, eventually it will evolve into wisdom, and that is the wisdom that we will hand down."
On a recent evening, Sean Armstrong is kicking back in his south Santa Rosa home wearing a signature hoodie that reads "Live, Love, Inspire, Reprezent." The block-letter design is one of a growing line under his hip-hop brand Reprezent Clothing. With Brooklyn block-party legends Newcleus on the stereo, the 30-year-old Cloverdale native is nursing a severely broken ankle.
Breaking since the late 1990s, Armstrong and crew were invited to join Ground Level's SUB-4 as the official Cloverdale chapter, spending the next decade battling against the biggest b-boy crews in California. But Armstrong also wanted to rock fresh threads.
Amid the cultural deterioration of last decade's bling obsession, the demise of urban stores like Mr. Rags meant supporting underground designers was challenging. "With hip-hop, you always wanna be fit and fresh. These big corporations don't understand what an underground cat wants to rock—what represents them," affirms Armstrong.
Being down for the cause in hip-hop isn't about getting rich; it's about developing a technique that will allow an individual to subsist while contributing to the culture. "I want to inspire," Armstrong says. "I have always wanted to take what I've learned and make the community more artistic." To keep that flowing locally, Armstrong developed his lifestyle brand giving light to all four elements. Doubling up on jobs and sleeping in cars, the Reprezent project took shape.
Armstrong has fond memories of longtime friend Roxrite's presence in the Sonoma County breaking scene. "I'll never forget how he kept asking me, 'You're dancing, right? I hope you're still dancing.' I never wanted to find a day when I'd say, 'No, I'm not dancing anymore.' I didn't want to let him down. Just the fact that he asked me, that he cares every time I see him, that kept me going."
Six weeks into what doctors say is a minimum year off from a life of breaking, Armstrong is no doubt optimistic. "My ultimate goal when I started Reprezent was to stay in the hip-hop game. I once thought, 'What if I can't battle forever and make money off it?'" he says, sidetracked by his immobilized foot, "and I can't, especially now. But no matter what, I can cultivate and spread the culture."
To many, hip-hop would seem to have gotten a bad rap over the last decade—the excess of money, sex and violence have misled a new generation to believe the media hype about a culture based on commercialism. But to those who truly keep the art form alive, working to maintain a support system of cultivation for the next generation of b-boys and b-girls is crucial. In passing down the true essence of hip-hop, with the likes of Roxrite and the accomplishments of b-boys everywhere, the practitioners are changing the conversation, and society is beginning to take notice.
In the words of Ground Level, "At the time we were still kids, but I could tell b-boying was going to be huge. How huge it is now, I never dreamed it would be this big. But the best never die, and real b-boys still exist."
CLASSES IN SONOMA, MARIN & NAPA: PRIVATE AND GROUP LESSONS
Mike “Ground Level” Cisneros
“The Art of B-Boying” by Ground Level
Thursdays 6pm-7:30pm @ Club X Gym
545 Ross Street, Santa Rosa
Manuel “Man-E” Weigel
“New Funk” By Man-E
Fridays 5pm-6:15pm @ Core in Motion Studio
134 Weeks Way, Sebastopol
Jesse “B-Boy Child” Ventura
”Nut’n But Style” by B-Boy Child
By Appointment @ Club X Gym
545 Ross Street, Santa Rosa
707-843-8789 and 707-591-0487
“The U.N.I.T” by Bernadette and Joe Gray
3077 Coffey Lane, Santa Rosa, CA
Academy of Danse
1123 Jordan Lane, Napa, CA 94559