"Mash Hall love family thicker than blood." MC Ronnie Voice laid down those words 20 years ago on "Straight Outta West Coast," the first song created by the hiphop group that would come to be known as Mash Hall. The line has become something of a mantra (not to mention at least one pair of forearm tattoos) for the loose collective of creative friends and associates that has been ringing bells in breakdancing and rap circles across the region.
Voice and his cousin Kip Fox (better known as djblesOne) came of age in the 1990s, living up and down the West Coast, from Los Angeles and Oakland to Portland and Seattle, making music about their core interests: rapping, B-boying, DJing, and writing graffiti. The name of their group is a reference to this cultural mash-up, which Mash Hall strives to translate into music as danceable as dancehall... without sounding anything like dancehall.
Them Team is the breakdancing counterpart of the Mash Hall project, an outgrowth of the collective and a stand-alone phenomenon; the groups often perform together and share Fox/djblesOne as a founding member. As the footprint of Seattle hiphop continues to deepen, Mash Hall and its associates—especially sister group Don't Talk to the Cops!—have gained an increasing national profile while their local prominence remains strong. But it's not like that for breakdancing. Whereas hiphop has only become more and more central to mass culture over the 30-plus years of its existence, breaking made a big, brief splash and was subsequently relegated to the fringes, forced to snatch legitimacy from the jaws of novelty and nostalgia.
Fox says the desire to preserve the legacy of breaking was a major component of the decision to form Them Team in the first place. "Originally," he tells me over coffee, "it was kind of to protect, and to have outside people show respect to, what we were doing."
Having come of age in the '90s, when breaking was already seen by many as something that died in the '80s, or was inextricably tied to gang culture, Fox was used to his interests being downplayed and disregarded by event organizers. After moving to Seattle in the early 2000s and finding work on the club circuit, he decided to try to make the road better for dancers from the front and back ends.
"The dancers were getting treated like sideshows," Fox remembers. It awakened in him a protective instinct. "That was one of the things in forming Them Team: If these guys ever needed someone to talk to promoters or anyone in a business way, or to ask advice like 'Is this good or am I getting taken advantage of? What should I be getting here?' I was always available for them to help, because I don't want to see people being taken advantage of."
That sense of looking out for his fellow travelers—the love family thicker than blood aspect—has been the key element of Fox's approach to B-boy cultural preservation.
"[Fox] wanted to gather some of his closest friends in Seattle," explains music producer and Art of Movement B-boy crew member Chase "Cha Cha" Malone, "the younger people that he thought had potential, and bring them together and make a team that represented his brand of Mash Hall. Hence: the M Team, the Mash Team."
Fox has since become something of a cultural ambassador/consultant, brokering agreements with companies like Red Bull, Starbucks, and Sub Pop among other corporations that seek to use breakdancers in promotional campaigns. His mediation has proven beneficial both to the dancers, for whom he helps negotiate deals, and to the clients, whom he nudges away from the clichéd framing devices that often go along with representations of B-boy culture by outsiders.
"Like, get the boom boxes out of the background, and don't make them wear Adidas suits and fat gold chains," he says. "All this bullshit nobody does. That's all '80s stuff, and some of those kids weren't even born in that era... nobody needs or cares for these big outside companies to make them look corny. At this point, if you don't know or respect what we're doing, we're not messing with you."
Them Team has now been around for 10 years. Fox will celebrate the decade-long run Saturday at an all-day, all-ages party and break battle with the rest of the Them Team crew: B-boys Thesis, Tim the Pit, Cha Cha, Chico, Juse Boogey, Roc, Mango, Junior, and Dial Tone. But as much as the anniversary is cause for revelry, it's also an important part of the ongoing campaign to reestablish the legitimacy of breakdancing as a popular form.
To that end, Fox and his business/life partner, Megan "Emecks" Xaybanha, purchased a pair of billboards to advertise the party (and the accomplishment that occasions it), one at the corner of Madison and 16th on Capitol Hill, the other at 45th and Roosevelt in the U-District. Them Team's 10-year anniversary party is one of only two certified Pro Breaking Tour events to hit Seattle this year—the long-running annual Massive Monkees Day fell last month. And while billboards are a familiar signifier of showbiz ambition, they also represent a very different significance within the community they're addressing, and even within the crew they're advertising.
"Stuff like that gives us B-boys, especially B-boys who don't have that much but have a lot to offer, that gives us hope," says Them Team member and world champion solo B-boy battler Thias "Thesis" Lopez. Seeing those billboards "gives us the inspiration and motivation that we can actually create something out of ourselves. Bles is pretty much the outlook on that. He's pretty much the guy who's doing that the most in Seattle. It's always inspiring to talk to him, he always shows his respect to people, and he always has something—an idea for them that they can possibly do to better themselves."