The Legend of the KINJAZ
To call 2015 an exceptional year for the KINJAZ would be quite the understatement. In between making mesmerizing dance videos for YouTube, crowdfunding for a new dance studio in LA, growing an apparel line, and traveling constantly to teach passionate young dancers around the globe, they somehow also found the time to perform at countless events, including Kollaboration’s STAR showcase in November and VIBE Jr. on the same day.
I felt very lucky to sit down and catch up with Mike Song and Ben Chung, two key members of the KINJAZ, who I’ve become familiar with through my years in Kollaboration. Decked out with their KINJAZ gear inside our sleek white interview room, the combination of the dark urban dancewear with their calm friendly demeanor embodied the humble confidence that has become their signature. I struggled to find the right question to begin the conversation.
Through deep breaths and a few laughs, Ben and Mike shared the long and intertwining narrative of how they found themselves coming together, along with their third major member Anthony Lee, to build the KINJAZ Empire. It is an awe-inspiring story of serendipity, growth, and above all, brotherhood.
The journey began when a teenaged Mike was living in Los Angeles in the early 2000’s and exploring his obsession with choreographed dancing, having long been inspired by the likes of Michael Jackson, Mr. Wiggles, and old school k-pop. Mike, like so many other youngsters before the invention of YouTube or any sort of shared social media, relied on attending live shows in the artistic community and school to connect him to the dance scene.
It was at a UCLA Korean Culture Night that Mike, then a 15 year old high school sophomore, first saw 19 year old Ben Chung perform with Breakdown crew, his dance group at the time. Mike became an instant fan of Ben’s skill and style, and he would actively search for any other opportunity to watch him dance again. One day in 2001, Mike’s sister caught wind of a new talent competition called Kollaboration and heard that Breakdown crew would be competing in it. She told Mike about it and he happily attended the show. Funnily enough, this would be the night that Mike Song appeared in his very first viral video, where he danced against a then unknown David Elsewhere in the Kollaboration freestyle dance competition. At the start of the video, before David takes the stage, you can see a slight and skinny Mike rocking the signature AZN style of baggy jeans, frosted spiky hair, and glasses wow the crowd with his fluid dancing skills. Though Mike today laughs at that battle as the day he got “destroyed”, that night he learned about “the level of skill that exists out there, so that I wasn’t just comparing myself to kids at my high school.” More importantly however, that night Mike met Mike Chong, a member of Break Down, and finally had a loose connection to Ben. Score!
Fast forward a few years, Mike enrolls at UC Irvine, eager to join in on the huge, thriving dance scene on campus that Ben was already involved in. Ben and Mike had collaborated a few years before for a performance that ended up not happening, but they’d stayed in touch. Ben would adamantly advise his young friend that, without question, his crew KABA Modern was the group to audition for. Mike, who had already done a ton of research through downloading KABA Modern’s videos online, accepted Ben’s invitation to KABA’s Welcome Week show. This seemingly small moment had a massive impact on where both men’s lives would head.
Sadly, the overlap in Mike and Ben in Kaba Modern would be brief as Ben graduated just as Mike joined the crew, but their paths were destined to cross again down the road. Ben graduated from UCI in 2005 and would move on to work in production for MTV, though throughout Ben’s corporate life, he never lost his love for dance or his dream to pursue it fulltime. Eventually, the call became too strong and Ben made the decision to take the plunge, quit his fulltime job, get an agent, and start teaching dance in LA’s studio circuit.
It was 2006, while Ben was teaching a class in a San Diego studio, when KB, a member from the infamous Jabbawockeez, would come to take one of his classes. At the end of this class, KB approached him to ask if he would join his new crew in San Diego. Despite it meaning a 2-hour plus commute for Ben from the San Fernando Valley to San Diego, Ben was all about it and it was a done deal. Over the course of the next two years, Ben would dance and hang out with KB and his friends from the Jabbawockeez. He’d be called in when they had a couple shows with an open spot, and he’d eventually be “battled in” to become an official member of the Jabbawockeez dance crew.
In 2008, MTV premiered an explosive little show called America’s Best Dance Crew which would bring a mostly underground dance scene to forefront of mainstream pop culture. The first season’s competing west coast crews included the Jabbawockeez and, as fate would have it, an elite crew from the current KABA Modern roster, made up of Mike and his crewmates Yuri Tag, Cindy Minowa, Jia Huang, Tony Tran (a future KINJA), and Lawrence Kao (also a future KINJA).
Ben and Mike’s crews would go head to head for numerous rounds with the Jabbawockeez ultimately taking the first America’s Best Dance Crew champion title. KABA Modern would come in 3rd place. Season 1 of ABDC was a truly groundbreaking moment not only for the dance scene, but also for the Asian American community. The series showcased that Asians can not only have jaw-dropping technical skills, but also, to some, surprisingly audacious and comical personalities that drew in fans week after week. This gave many Asian Americans youth across the country a tremendous sense of pride in a younger, more swaggerific representation of themselves on such a popular national platform. Because of the success of the show, everyone’s lives would never be the same.
After winning ABDC, the momentum of the Jabbawockeez would launch them full force onto a “rollercoaster of craziness” as described by Ben. The world was amazed by the synchronicity of the crew and intrigued by their powerful choice to cover their faces with white masks. Which they did so that viewers would stay attentive to their art as a collective unit instead of focusing on individuals. In 2010, after having performed on commercials, tv shows, and world tours, Ben and the crew would eventually head to the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas to become the first dance crew to headline their own Vegas resident show called “MÜS.I.C.”
In the meantime, Mike would continue his dance career post college through teaching with KABA Modern. In 2010, Mike rallied a crew along with his best friend and former college roommate, Anthony Lee. Anthony had recently decided to move away and quit dancing, and Mike decided to create something fun as a “last hoorah” since they had never officially performed together. They called their one time project ANBU Black Ops, their name, and costumes, inspired by the Japanese anime Naruto. As a part of ANBU, Mike would grace the Kollaboration stage again for Kollaboration 10 in full ninja gear, highlighting an already incredible night at LA’s Shrine Auditorium that also featured the night’s winner Clara C, and audience choice winner Jason Yang. Though it was only their second performance ever as a crew, it became a turning point for Mike and Anthony as they realized that this could become something more. Mike recalls, “That was when we decided, maybe this isn’t just a one-time thing. Let’s do it again. Let’s friggin’ build this thing.” It was at this moment that ANBU Black Ops began its transformation into the KINJAZ.
As luck would have it, at the same time as this momentous epiphany, Mike received a call from Ben inviting him to be a swing dancer (like an understudy) for the Jabbawockeez Vegas show. The next morning, Mike and Tony Tran would get into a car and head out to join the Jabawockeez. Over the course of almost a year in Vegas, Mike’s conviction to dream big and build a dancing career and show on his own terms gathered steam. Mike reflects on this time, “The whole time I was there, I just couldn’t help but think, ‘Dang. I want to do this. I want to do this in the way that I want to do it.’”
After his stint in Vegas and a long supportive heart to heart with Ben, Mike returned to southern California to continue a solo dance career after an attempt to reignite the KINJAZ unsuccessfully. He’d link up with the likes of Terry “KRNFX” Im to develop their famous “Dancebox” routine, dropping by the Ellen Degeneres Show to show the world what’s up. Anthony Lee would also do the same, though they would always have the idea and dream of the KINJAZ in the back of their minds and hearts.
After several years of performing in Las Vegas, Ben returned to his hometown of Los Angeles, ready to explore opportunities for the next leg of his creative journey. Upon arrival in LA in 2014, Ben would get back in touch with Mike, as well as other old friends like Movement Lifestyle founder Shaun Evaristo and Anthony. Described as yet another perfectly serendipitous moment, together they would embark on a roadtrip to Arizona to reflect and explore where the road may be leading them next as artists.
It really was then in the late fall of 2014 that the pieces really started to fall in place for the KINJAZ to come to life. With Ben now permanently back in LA, and with years of solo careers and experiences under their belts, it was time to awaken the “sleeping beast” as Mike called it. And so they made the commitment to making the KINJAZ crew a reality.
After a few months as a newly cohesive crew, MTV announced a revival of America’s Best Dance Crew causing an uproar of excitement from dance enthusiasts. They’d go on to compete against the best crews in ABDC history with elaborate sets and striking black and white costumes that channeled urbanized martial arts fashion. They even brought back Mike’s frequent collaborator, Terry “KRNFX” Im to beatbox one of their sets in a viral video that floored the judges and the world. In the end however, the ultra dynamic Quest Crew would take home the top ABDC 2015 title.
In late 2015, the KINJAZ fanbase successfully crowdfunded an Indiegogo campaign for the KINJAZ Dojo, their very first studio out in east LA. Since its soft opening in early 2016, friends and well-wishers have come taken classes in droves. In addition to resident crew members, special guest teachers like Shaun Evaristo, Chris Martin, Jillian Meyers, Bam Martin, and Ian Eastwood have also made appearances. Not that running a studio or a wildly successful in-house clothing line has slowed them down as a crew, the Kinjaz were also selected as Company of the Year at the 2016 World of Dance Awards. No big deal.
The future is looking mighty bright for Ben, Mike, Anthony, and the rest of the Kinjaz crew. Their story continues to be one of providence and unwavering determination. While the KINJAZ do have plans to create their own hour-long show and expand their content and merchandise, their larger overarching goal is to create the dancer into an artist at the forefront. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to keep an eye on them for a reminder of not only how important it is to follow your dreams, but how possible it is too.
Ben reflects, “It becomes something more daily. We believe in this thing. It’s not just a gimmick, it’s not just a hobby. And those who believe in something to that degree are those that will make a difference. It’s until the wheels fall off.”
Cover Photo via The KINJAZ
A huge shoutout to Ben Chung for being one of the founding leaders of Kollaboration and coining our name.
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Check out their most recent performance at VIBE Dance Competition 2016