Since the birth of Seattle breakdancing crew Massive Monkees in 1999, the local b-boys and b-girls have won world titles and defied gravity with their spins, flips, and one-armed lifts. Joe “Jorawk” Stolte has been a part of Massive Monkees since 2002 as a dancer, choreographer, and executive director of Massive Monkees’ nonprofit Extraordinary Futures, which empowers urban youth through dance and arts programs. With his help, the crew will rally the next generation of breakers this Saturday for Massive Monkees Day—a night of danceoffs at Showbox at the Market that culminates in a battle between Massive Monkees and Las Vegas’s Battle Born.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation we talked to Stolte about the connections between Seattle’s b-boy and hip-hop scenes, the breakers that wow him, and his run-ins with Beyonce.
For the uninitiated, what exactly is Massive Monkees Day?
Massive Monkees Day is an annual dance competition that brings together over 1,000 urban youth from Seattle and around the country to promote productive, positive and healthy life choices through art and dance. It's also a celebration of former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels proclaiming April 26 to be the official Massive Monkees Day of Seattle. Every year to celebrate both our anniversary and to carry on the recognition that we received from Nickels, we do an annual event that involves the top b-boy or b-girl or breakdancing crews from around the United States. They all come to Seattle to compete for first place.
What are some highlights from your time with Massive Monkees?
One of the highest points was just last year. We won the world title, it’s called R16, out of Korea. We were the first American crew to do that. I competed at R16 with the crew back in 2006 and we were super disappointed to lose to the Korean team in the semifinals. So this year, to beat the Korean team in the semifinals was a really, really high point us. Most of us are in our thirties at this point, and a lot of these dancers are younger than us. It was just a testament to our formula as a crew that it could stand the test of time.
Aside from that, I would say two other really big highlights were being able to dance with the Seattle Supersonics Boom Squad for many years, from 2004 to 2008... and I would say a sub-bullet point of that was being able to do the 2006 All-Star Game in Denver.
We’ve done some pretty incredible stuff, whether it’s being on the Warped Tour for a couple of years, or touring around Europe, or I think at one point in my career, I’d performed—in the same stadium or in the same venue—with Jay-Z or Beyonce five or six times over the span of two years. I just remember seeing Beyonce and Jay-Z in the hallway, with a couple other people from my crew, and they were sort of smiling and giving us a head nod like, oh, you guys again. It’s just these little moments that you can’t really describe.
How strong is the connection between Seattle hip-hop and the b-boy/b-girl scene?
Early on for us, in the early 2000s, our crew was really making a name for itself nationally as well as in Seattle, and in 2004 we won a world title and got a lot of attention for that. We kind of came up doing work with Steady Productions… and that whole melting pot of dope hip-hop elements in Seattle. I would say back then it was very, very close and integrated.
…If I were to just look at it at a macro perspective, the relationship of b-boying to hip-hop in Seattle, I just don’t see a lot of these next generation of dancers going to hip-hop shows and supporting MCs—and I don’t see a lot of MCs asking b-boys to dance at their shows. People like Massive Monkees get an opportunity to perform with guys like Blue Scholars and open up for Macklemore a handful of times. I think other than the fact that our crew has been asked to perform and dance with some MCs, the relationship really isn’t as strong as it could be. I personally would like to see a lot more MCs and a lot more b-boys working together. In fact, this year at Massive Monkee Day we have Nu Era, we’ve got Dyme Def, we just booked One Be Lo, who is a part of our crew who is not from Seattle, just to kind of reintroduce the MC element at the b-boy jam to get some of these young dancers more familiar and hopefully create a bridge between the MCs and the b-boys.
Are there any up-and-coming b-boys we should know about?
I would give a head nod to this kid SeanSteady. I think he’s, like, 10 or 11, maybe even younger, but he’s been dancing for a number of years now. Little kid, but he’s going to be incredible. His dad is Nam, who is the other half of Steady Productions, so it’s cool to see him get involved and come up through the scene.
Another person I would definitely give a highlight to is BBoy Thesis. In my mind he’s like the Neo—a la The Matrix—of breaking right now. This guy is 21 and I think he’s won almost every major b-boy competition. We actually just put him in our crew Massive Monkees. He’s one of the youngest guys in our crew and he’s already one of the best. He’s clearly one of the best in the world and he’s right here in our own backyard.
How has Seattle influenced Massive Monkees?
Here in Seattle, we’re not LA and we’re not New York. There’s kind of this camaraderie in our scene that you don’t see in other scenes, whether that’s a factor of it just being small or the way we grew up here. I think one of the key things that’s really distinguished Massive Monkees from the rest of the world in terms of breaking is we’re really well known for being a close family, a true close crew. We raise each other’s kids, we stick together at all costs, we’ve got some really high standards for getting in, and I think that’s all influenced by Seattle … by where folks grew up and the schools they went to, whether that’s the Beacon Hill area or going to Franklin, and just sort of being close their whole lives.
If you weren’t a breakdancer, what other line of work might you have pursued?
I actually have a day-job career that I’m pretty involved in and doing quite well in. I work at Microsoft as an internal management consultant. I get paid to travel the world and help them make more money. I would never be where I am today—never in a million years would I have even thought of pursuing that career, which is pretty challenging—had it not been for breaking and hip-hop and having a crew around me that’s really talented and constantly pushing me to get to the next level. I will reap the benefits of hard work and perseverance and all the character traits that breaking his instilled in us, hopefully, for the rest of my life. It’s such a character-moulding experience. I think I’ll be a b-boy until I’m dead.
Massive Monkees Day
April 13 at 6:30, Showbox at the Market, $20