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A former dancer himself, DJ BBad provides the soundtrack at top breaking competitions

TORONTO — Like figure skating, music is integral to the sport of breaking. But unlike skaters, breakdancers don't get to choose their soundtrack. That's where Andel James comes in.
Andel (BBad) James, a Toronto DJ, is shown in this undated handout photo providing the soundtrack to a breaking event. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Red Bull-Marquis Peterson **MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO — Like figure skating, music is integral to the sport of breaking. But unlike skaters, breakdancers don't get to choose their soundtrack.

That's where Andel James comes in.

James will be providing the music Friday at the national finals of Red Bull BC One Cypher Canada, billed as the largest breaking competition in Canada. And in the guise of DJ BBad, he is very good at it.

James will be joined by Montreal's DJ Benny Lava, a good friend and former dancer, at Toronto's Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts.

James, a youthful-looking 42, started as a breaker himself in 1999 — a dancer who loved music. As he grew older, he had his own take on the music at competitions.

"Some of the music that would be played at jams didn't really hit that well or didn't get me that excited to really want to battle," he explained. "Because the whole thing's about energy."

He started the transition to providing the music in 2010 — looking to complement the dancer's performance.

"Me as a dancer, thinking that I had a better sense of what dancers would like to hear, that's what kind of propelled me into learning how to DJ," he said. "I already knew the songs that breakers would like to dance to. And then the next step was actually learning how to DJ, which is a whole other skill set."

He went to a lot of parties, to listen and watch DJs in action.

"I would take that and then go home and practise that, to be like 'OK how does this makes sense for a competition?'"

Breaking, which makes its Olympic debut this summer in Paris, is a one-on-one battle with competitors going head-to-head in short bursts in front of a panel of judges. One breaker watches the other as he or she competes, with their body language often serving as not-very-subtle commentary.

James provides short segments of a song, connected by juggling (using two records to prolong an existing beat or create a new one) — or scratching (moving a vinyl record back and forth on a turntable to produce percussive or rhythmic sounds).

He looks for parts of songs "that really draw out that energy from the dancer."

The music varies, but funk often fits the bill. It's a bite-sized soundtrack with each round of the battle only lasting 45 seconds to a minute because of the demands on the dancer.

A beat is needed.

"Almost any song that has (a beat) has the opportunity to land in a breakdance competition," said James. "And it's up to the DJ how they produce it or edit it or juggle it manually to make it fit for the battle."

Competitors don't consult with the DJ although they will sometimes provide feedback.

"I work the competition … (The dancers) go in not knowing what the DJ's going to play so there's a lot of trust and responsibility that the DJ has to take seriously or really follow through on to make sure that it's a good experience for the dancer," said James.

He goes into a show with a list of timed music, with backups in case he has to adjust the soundtrack.

Copyright can be an issue.

James, who has worked the Red Bull event for some years, is provided a music library by Red Bull which he then digs into to curate his soundtrack.

"Other competitions that I do, not so much" he said. "And then they're subject to getting their video taken down or the music being muted if there's no approval."

The DJ "doesn't just press play," he added.

He will give dancers a pattern through juggling or scratching, offering the competitor something to follow.

"As they follow it, I repeat it. Kind of like recreating a new song with an old song," he said.

He also has to watch what's going on in front of him, so he can provide a seamless musical transition for when the next dancer takes centre stage.

Each competition is different, depending on the competitors, audiences and energy they produce.

James points to "The Mexican," a 1972 release by British band Babe Ruth.

"Almost every breaker knows that song. If you played it in a venue where everyone in the room is a breaker, they've heard that song a million times, they might respond to it differently. You play it in a crowd where no one really knows about breaking … you get a different reaction."

James says there are some 10 DJs in Canada, all former dancers, who provide the music for showcase breaking events across the country. He also DJs on non-breaking events.

When not DJing, James is artist manager at Unity Charity, a non-profit group founded in 2007 by Michael Prosserman (a.k.a. Bboy Piecez). Unity helps those up to the age of 29 "develop resilience through free hip hop-based programs, and provides development and employment opportunities to young emerging hip hop artists across Canada."

Born in Edmonton and raised in Toronto, James has a criminology certificate from Toronto Metropolitan University. He has also served as an assistant coach at James Town Boxing Club, which his older brother runs in suburban Oshawa.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2024

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press