From Garden Village to the Zulu Kings and beyond, Que Rock carries on his hip-hop path

·8 min read

Garden Village's Que Rock spends most of his time in Toronto now as Covid has cut his travelling considerably. Before the pandemic washed over the world he was “travelling a lot to train hip hop” artists in various countries.

He was travelling “all over Asia,” he said, touring and teaching in China, Japan, and Korea. “I established a really good network” of people he said, enabling him to tour regularly, organize and promote shows and “engage with the locals” to put on collaborative events.

Que Rock is a DJ, a B-Boy, an MC, and a graffiti artist—the four cornerstones of the hip-hop foundation from which he built a creative career and lifestyle.

“We call it B-Boying, but most people know it as breakdancing,” Que Rock explained, adding that before the pandemic, he operated a school in China—the Ready to Rock Hip Hop School.

The school “was sponsored though the government of China,” he said, noting that Beijing, Shenzhen, Nanjing, “are the hotspots for the B-Boy community” within the country.

With breaking set to be an Olympic event in 2024, Que Rock was “hired to train the future B-Boy Olympic team.”

“Dancing is something they consider to be a positive outlet,” he said, referring to the Chinese government, who invested quite a bit to ensure the country’s first B-Boy team is a medal contender.

Each time he travelled there, Que Rock noted that “all expenses were paid, and they pay extremely well.”

Overall, the “government was really friendly to me,” even purchasing him a 10-year visa, “and I really enjoyed the experience” of coaching the team.

That said, there were a few hitches during his coaching hiatus. In 2018 the Chinese government banned rap music.

“It became illegal, which was insane to me because I’m really familiar with the foundation of hip-hop and I was raised in it, so I have a really strong connection to the true intentions of what these art forms are for.”

The ban was in reaction to “some famous Chinese rappers” who released an album “basically promoting drug dealing, prostitution, and a whole bunch of really negative things and so the government just banned it.”

But for Que Rock, the hip-hop culture “is not meant to be negative. It’s all supposed to be positive” but the Chinese government “were really firm” in their decision, so during dance practice, no rap emanated from his speakers.

“I had to play James Brown, or old school funk, but it couldn’t be rap music.”

He is still waiting to see if he remains the coach of China’s Olympic team. Since Covid struck, he has basically lost all communication with his old employer, although he hopes to return to continue what he started with his students.

Que Rock spends a lot of his time teaching these days, putting on workshops, painting, writing and recording music. After twenty plus years on the hip-hop front, the 41-year father of two admits his participation in the community has changed, but his dedication and respect for the art forms have never waivered.

For instance, he can’t break like he did in his twenties, but he still teaches, and passes on his knowledge to the next generation.

He was considering retiring from B-Boying in the early 2000’s. He had been competing in jams for about a decade by that point and had been winning them all.

Part of the era that helped revive breaking after it peaked in the 80s, the B-Boy culture of the late nineties and early 2000’s remained “grass roots,” an underground scene not yet commodified by large corporations.

“I was at my peak breaking then,” he said. The scene “just supported each other, it was always underground until Red Bull got involved, then it exploded.”

That was in 2004, when the energy drink giant sponsored Que Rock to produce a massive hip-hop event—the King of the Ring.

“I was the first athlete endorsed by Red Bull,” he said, and admitted that working with such a powerful company was a bit of a double-edged sword.

It allowed hip-hop culture to reach larger audiences, and once again elevated breaking from the underground. But these good points were also the bad points, as once big money enters the underground, there is potential for exploitation of the art.

When the corporations got involved, “and I’m guilty of this myself,” Que Rock admitted, “I saw money signs on everything.”

He felt himself “pushing aside the values that I had from the culture of the dance and the artforms. I wanted to get rich, you know, I was a young kid, and Red Bull comes around and they have a motto that they will give all of your ideas wings, and they literally do that.”

The arrangement is not something he regrets. The money came in handy. He was 24, a single father of two, and “trying to find ways of creating an income from things that I love and was passionate about.”

Red Bull entered his life at the right place and the right time. They broke him from the underground and brought the world of B-Boying to a whole new audience. However, after a few large events he felt the dancers were not being compensated fairly for their efforts.

“They got paid okay,” he recalls, but not what he felt they deserved for carrying the shows, he said.

But Red Bull did push him to a new level. Before they came along, he was considering retiring from competitive dancing, “but a new mentality led to a new longevity” not reliant on competitive breaking.

He became much more involved in producing events, teaching, coaching, and creating music, culminating in the release of his first album Smoke Signals in 2012.

While underground, before the Red Bull intervention, Que Rock was part of the DDT crew in Toronto—the Dirty Defiant Tribe. We were “against everyone at that time,” he said, hungry to make a mark in the hip-hop scene, eager to “change and evolve the dance.”

They did, and “everyone still copies the style to this day,” he said, referring to those early innovations.

This led to joining the Ready to Rock Crew “the last original B-Boy crew from the Bronx,” which led to him joining the Zulu Kings, “the first B-Boy crew from the Bronx” that had roots dating to the late ‘70s.

“Only thirteen members have been offered full membership” in that crew, “and I was one of them,” he said.

“I love the culture of hip hop, and I have my own personal reasons for feeling so passionate about these art forms,” Que Rock said.

“It’s the only culture that I was able to fit into in western culture that was created by western culture that I didn’t have to compromise my values or my Indigenous background.”

“I could still be Native; I could still incorporate my culture in my artforms and be accepted. It was the only thing in North America that I had, that I could do, without having to compromise who I was as an Anishinaabe person.”

Que Rock hails from Garden Village, in the Nipissing First Nation. His family resides there, and he visits often. He credits his culture and heritage with inspiring much of his music and dance style, drawing parallels between hip-hop and Indigenous cultures.

“I was already doing hip-hop,” before arriving in Toronto and New York. “It was just called Powwow where I’m from.”

“There are key components” to each he said. “Every Powwow has drummers, and every B-Boy jam has a DJ. Every Powwow has the dancers and in hip-hop culture they have the B-Boys and the B-Girls.”

“The firekeepers, our Elders” are for Que Rock equivalent to the “MC’s, the storytellers.”

When I went to the city “I just immediately started doing what I would do at a Powwow. I started to grass dance in my top-rocking,” and the moves immediately made a mark on the scene.

“I was grass dancing to break beats and hip hop, and it was accepted.”

Incorporating traditional dances into his B-Boy moves “created a style that is going around the world, and it has been for 20 years.”

Que Rock, proud of his impact, has no plans to slow down. He admits that his son and daughter keep him humble. At 41, “I know I’m young, but damn man they make me feel old sometimes the way they talk, and the stuff that they’re into.”

“I don’t even recognize a lot of the stuff that they’re doing that they call hip-hop,” he says, acknowledging that perhaps the same was true for those stalwarts of the scene before him.

He worries “everything has become pretty watered down and commercialized,” within the hip-hop scene, but understands the essence remains, and the revolutionary and expressive power of the culture remains.

That power is out there, somewhere, if not in the mainstream, then certainly underground, where Que Rock and his crews spent so much time battling and creating, passing out flyers for events and making tapes on VHS.

“Now people wonder ‘how can I gain’” from this art form? “Where before it really wasn’t a gain,” he said. “It was an outlet.”

David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca

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