Upside down with Menno

Kids here are more appreciative of the art: Menno

2014 Red Bull BC One champion Menno was in Mumbai recently and he dropped some wisdom on finding his breaking style, India's b-boys and his unusual rise to the top of the global b-boying scene.

It’s not unusual to see Antisocial, a popular gig venue located in Mumbai swarming with people on a weekday. It is, however, a little strange for it to be packed to the brim at noon with kids in snapbacks and track pants. In anticipation of the Hip Hop Alive event, crowds of b-boys and b-girls from across the city have descended to display their breaking skills, battle it out against each other. They are also here to meet the Dutch b-boy Menno.

Menno and DJ Uri at Hip Hop Alive 2017
Menno and DJ Uri at Hip Hop Alive 2017© Snapshot Media

B-boys Ash and Kuku, and 13-year-old b-boy Charlie, are waiting outside the gates when I approach them. As they try to figure a way into the crammed club, they describe how they know of Menno. “We’ve seen his videos, he has a very unique style,” they tell me unanimously. “His drops are great and he’s extremely relaxed when performing.”

Most of the Internet is in agreement about Menno’s unique style, but no one has any real explanation as to what makes him stand out from the other title-winning breakers. His resume is impressive, loaded with wins at Red Bull BC One, Battle of the Year and the World B-Boy Series.

Menno soaks in his Red Bull BC Championship
Menno soaks in his Red Bull BC Championship© Romina Amato

Menno’s history with breaking dates back 17 years, when he was 11. At that age, kids are usually preoccupied with trying to forge an identity for themselves and Menno’s story is no different. “I started breaking because I thought it was cool. We all struggle with trying to create an identity for ourselves. What should I wear? How should I act... Breaking made me feel like I was a part of something,” says Menno. He wasn’t an anomaly, most of his friends at that time were breaking too but their enthusiasm tapered off after a few years. Menno loved it too much to stop.

Menno doing a freeze at Red Bull BC One 2014
Menno doing a freeze at Red Bull BC One 2014© Romina Amato

The Sports Education course he applied to after graduating high school rejected him for the “lack of motivation in his attitude” but Menno had other plans. Inspired by the b-boying scene in New York, which he witnessed first hand on vacation, Menno decided to follow his friend Xisco’s lead and start breaking full-time. Money started coming in as he won more and more championships and toured the world. Breaking had started taking shape as a feasible career for him.

The advice we’re often given is to do one thing and do it well but Menno isn’t one to be limited by vague inspirational posters. Besides his breaking, he’s an avid photographer, artist and has recently ventured into the world of fashion design. He will absolutely not indulge any comparisons to Kanye West though. “I never knew what to do with my life,” he explains.

Menno comes across as a very relatable person, minus all the championship titles, of course. He explains how he stopped competing after a few years of non-stop battles, and decided to take some time off even though the stage felt like the one place he was truly at home. “It gets tiring. Like a musician playing the same songs over and over at shows. People had heard my ‘songs’ too many times and I didn’t feel inspired at all,” he says. He tries to explain how the break helped his performance, drawing comparisons to making art. “Sometimes you start making a piece and stop but when you revisit it two months later, you know exactly how you want to finish it. It’s the same with my moves, I suddenly knew how to complete half-finished ideas.”

Trying to understand his process and the way he approaches both breaking and art lends some insight into Menno’s elusive uniqueness. Both are borne out of rejecting the norm. His art is pretty abstract in nature but Menno insists it’s only because he doesn’t know how to paint realistically. “It’s like my breaking, I can’t do power moves like B-boy Pocket. They’re out of this world and he trains so hard to perfect them,” he says. He knows his body can’t do the same so his flow is more fluid, relying on traditional moves only to suddenly improvise and freestyle. Both in his art and breaking, Menno will use similar concepts and patterns, only to do something weird with them. Identifying what you’re good at is no easy feat but he’s done it and is already on the road to perfecting it.

What was interesting about Menno’s rise to the top was that it coincided with championships becoming more diverse. Boards dominated by b-boys from Korea, France and the USA started making space for Russia and Ukraine. Since Holland had no name in the game so to say when Menno arrived on the scene, he insists there was no pressure on him to win. However, as a fourth generation breaker from Holland, Menno says breaking wasn’t a new concept in the country, unlike the nascent scene in India. Menno thinks that b-boys and b-girls in India have a vastly different attitude towards breaking than breakers from Holland. “The kids here have more appreciation for the art. Usually people will complain if the floor is too sticky, if the venue is too hot. That’s not the case here.”

We ask him if he’s noticed the fact that breaking, much like hip hop in India, is dominated by kids from lower-middle-class backgrounds. He has. The story is pretty much the same across the world, which explains why artists in India see their own stories and aspirations resonated in hip-hop. “Breaking is a way out, not a hobby for them. It becomes a different energy and you can see the hunger to win in their eyes. It’s a dope scene but it needs some time to grow, they don’t have so much going for them in terms of opportunity.” Back at home, Menno and his crew had people helping them out, organising jams and giving them space to practise; but in India, it’s limited to a few opportunities and events (find out more about this year's Red Bull BC One here). “If other companies could see that and see the potential in this scene, that would be great.”

Written by Neha Mathews