Looking for the Perfect Beat
In the 1970s, hip-hop culture arose in and out of the Bronx--where Kurtis Blow claimed the people were fresh, by way of its innovative B-boys, rappers, DJs, and graffiti maestros cultivating their art. Its proud adoptive father Afrika Bambaataa eventually christened the culture hip-hop, a term that first appeared in print in an article written by Steven Hager, "Afrika Bambaataa's Hip-Hop," etching Bambaataa's place in the testament of the movement.
By the time the multiplatinum classic record "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang proved commercially viable in 1979, a rainbow coalition of journalists, photographers, filmmakers, producers, fashionistas, and promoters was conspiring in documenting and defining the art form. When the general public got a whiff of just how funky the B-boy (and B-girl) was, he became the media darling and an essential prop to any fresh party. The graffiti documentary Style Wars, and films like Wild Style, the Hollywood co-opted Flashdance, Beat Street, Breakin', Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, and later, the Russell Simmons--produced krush Groove, propelled break-dancers, graffiti artists, and rappers to celebrity status not just in the States, but all over the world.
Their global popularity soon led to a demand for a showcasing of the culture on foreign ground, which was met when the first international "rap tour," plucking a group of talented young blacks and Latinos from the streets of New York City, journeyed to Europe's hot spots. Attempting to re-create in writing the booming club scene abroad, writer and editor David Hershkovits accompanied the tour only to end up documenting the cultural divide that gaped between the entertainers and their global audience, and at the same time the universality of the music and the dancer, in his article "London Rocks, Paris Burns, and the B-Boys Break a Leg," for the now defunct Sunday News Magazine insert for the New York Daily News.
Hershkovits, a fixture in the psychedelic melting pot of the downtown New York scene in the 1980s where the art world and B-boys would collide harmoniously on the dance floor, was also an editor who encouraged other writers, like Steven Hager, to pursue their curiosity about the burgeoning hip-hop scene. Along with Hager, Bill Adler, dance critic Sally Banes, Nelson George, and other early journalistic pioneers, Hershkovits made the first attempts to truly define what hip-hop culture was and its potential as an international force with which to be reckoned. What particularly defined this nascent hip-hop culture in the 1980s was the club and party scene. One of the most popular attractions in the Bronx, other than the zoo, was Sal Abbatiello's Disco Fever. Some fifteen subway stops north of Studio 54, Disco Fever, as Bill Adler wrote in 1983 in his article "The South Bronx Was Getting a Bad Rap Until a Club Called Disco Fever Came Along," had "emerged as the headquarters of rap music." So important were the DJs at the Fever that if they didn't spin your record, felt Russell Simmons, your joint was just wack. And who would know better than Simmons, who was already being touted a mogul by The Wall Street Journal at twenty-seven, as reported by Nelson George in his article "Rappin' with Russell."
Simmons would eventually be responsible for making rap music equal big business, and the bigger the business the more dire the need for competent and accurate coverage. This need for coverage soon cemented an unprecedented closeness between the artists and those who wrote about them. Hip-hop personalities weren't as accessible or on the World Wide Web, and the genre wasn't synonymous with pop culture at this time, so journalists covering this insular scene had to parlay in the cut with the artists they wanted to write about.
Signaling the possibilities of this new relationship between hip-hop artists, their handlers, and the writers who covered them, Bill Adler went from writing about the art form and participants like Russell Simmons to becoming someone to be covered himself. Nelson George was soon writing about his journalistic peer, and his lifelong contribution to hip-hop, as Adler morphed from hip-hop writer to director of publicity for Rush Artist Management and Def Jam Recordings in 1984, becoming Simmons's second full-time employee. Adleralso has the distinction of being the only writer of this period to still be almost exclusively immersed in hip-hop culture, penning an authorized Run-D.M.C. biography, and founding a New York City--based gallery devoted to showcasing hip-hop photography.
By the mid-eighties, rap was becoming bigger business, giving those who wrote about it much more to do. Graffiti art and breaking gave way to rapping with the crossover success of artists like Run-D.M.C., whose collaboration with Aerosmith on "Walk This Way" in 1986 marked rap's arrival on Music Television, better known as MTV, exposed rap to an audience of rock enthusiasts, and led to the debut of YO! MTV Raps in 1988. L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, EPMD, and 3rd Bass then muscled aside the pioneers with their mainstream appeal and corporate sponsorship.
By the mid-eighties seminal groups like KRS-One's Boogie Down Productions and the controversial Public Enemy, like no other collectives before (or since), also began using rap music not only as a method to entertain, but to educate the masses--"edutainment," as described by KRS-One, ironically paving the way for both the innate anger in the rap expression of South Central, Los Angeles, and the pan-Afrocentric Native Tongues Movement. Public Enemy's Chuck D became a media obsession because of his brutally honest depictions of life in the inner cities at the mercy of policemen and other social ills, and the contradictions that plagued his group. John Leland, who began writing about hip-hop in 1982, had a special relationship, if you will, with Chuck D. Giving us a hint about what would become a running theme of tension between artists and the writers who critiqued their music, Leland managed to tick Chuck D off with a record review he had penned for The Village Voice, which resulted in threats. The article featured in this section represented the first time the two had met since the one-sided war of words had begun.
While the dance and graffiti art of hip-hop became less popular as the hybrid sound of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, Brand Nubian, Queen Latifah, and others was embraced, rap music's colorful, sometimes erratic creators were by the late eighties proving to be the stuff great stories were made of, both in print and in the films of young directors likeSpike Lee, and later John Singleton and Albert and Allen Hughes. By the end of the decade, journalists, and those aspiring to be, had found the perfect beat to coverin hip-hop.
However, there would not have been a platform to set it off had it not been for the trailblazing efforts of the journalists with the vision, who announced to the world that this wild child had been born. And because of their efforts, featured in the following pages, everybody knew its name was hip-hop.
Breaking Is Hard to Do
Chico and Tee and their friends from 175th Street in the High Times crew were breaking in the subway and the cops busted them for fighting.
"We're not fighting. We're dancing!" they claimed. At the precinct station, one kid demonstrated certain moves: a head spin, ass spin, swipe, chin freeze, "the Helicopter," "the Baby."
An officer called in the other members of the crew, one by one. "Do a head spin," he would command as he consulted a clipboard full of notes. "Do 'the Baby"' As each kid complied, performing on cue as unhesitatingly as a ballet dancer might toss off an enchainement, the cops scratched their heads in bewildered defeat.
Or so the story goes. But then, like ballet and like great battles (it shares elements of both), breaking is wreathed in legends. "This guy in Queens does a whole bunch of head spins in a row, more than ten; he spins, stops real quick, spins ..."
"Yeah, but he stops. Left just goes right into seven spins, he never stops."
"There's a ten-year-old kid on my block learned to break in three days."
"The best is Spy Ronnie Don, Drago, me [Crazy Legs], Freeze, Mongo, Mr. Freeze, Lace, Track Two, Weevil ..."
"Spy he's called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy"
"Spy man, in '78--he was breaking at Mom and Pop's on Katonah Avenue in the Bronx, he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet."
"I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance. All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, 'That was luck.' So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn't see it, I would never have believed it."
The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and endlessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial spectacle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture--graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping--breaking is a public arena for the flamboyant triumph of virility wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favorite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibility and budding sexuality of the gangly male adolescent body It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of opposites: women, babies, animals; and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity a codified dance-form-cum-warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.
For the current generation of B Boys, it doesn't really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a competitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist's improvised bridge between melodies. For the B Boys, the history of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx, maybe in Harlem. It started with the Zulus. Or with Charlie Rock. Or with Joe, from the Casanovas, from theBronx, who taught Charlie Rock. "Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a style for yourself." In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring of onlookers drops to the floor, circles around his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.
Fab 5 Freddy Love, a graffiti-based artist and rapper from Bedford-Stuyvesant, remembers that breaking began around the same time as rapping, as a physical analogue for a musical impulse. "Everybody would be at a party in the park in the summer, jamming. Guys would get together and dance with each other, sort of a macho thing where they would show each other who could do the best moves. They started going wild when the music got real funky"-- music by groups like Super Sperm and Apache. As the beat of the drummer came to the fore, the music let you know it was time to break down, to free style. The cadenced, rhyming, fast-talking epic mode of rapping, with its smooth surface of sexual braggadocio, provides a perfect base for a dance style that is cool, swift, and intricate.
But breaking isn't just an urgent response to pulsating music. It is also a ritual combat that transmutes aggression into art. "In the summer of '78," Tee remembers, "when you got mad at someone, instead of saying, 'Hey man, you want to fight?' you'd say 'Hey man, you want to rock?'" Inside the ritual frame, burgeoning adolescent anxieties, hostilities, and powers are symbolically manipulated and controlled.
Each segment in breaking is short, from ten to thirty seconds--but packed with action and meaning. The dancing always follows a specific format: the entry, a stylized walk into the ring for four or five beats to the music; the footwork, a rapid, circular scan of the floor by sneakered feet while the hands support the body's weight and the head and torso revolve slowly--a kind of syncopated pirouette; the freeze, or stylized signature pose, usually preceded by a spin; the exit, a return to verticality and to the outside of the circle. The length of the "combination" can be extended by adding on more footwork-spin-freeze sequences. The entry the footwork, and the exit are pretty much the same from dancer to dancer--although some do variations, like Freeze from the Breakmasterscrew, who stuffs a Charleston into his entry, and then exits on pointe. But it is largely in the freeze that each dancer's originality shines forth, in configurations that are as intricate, witty, obscene, or insulting as possible. A dancer will twist himself into a pretzel. Or he will quote the poses of a pinup girl. He might graphically hump the floor, or arch up grabbing his crotch. Someone else might mime rowing a boat or swimming or emphasize acrobatic stunts like backflips and fish dives. Sometimes two breakers team up for a stunt: imitating a dog on a leash, or a dead person brought back to life by a healthy thump on the chest. According to Rammelzee, a DJ who's gotten too tall to break, the set of sequences adds up to a continuing pantomimic narrative. It is each dancer's responsibility to create a new chapter in the story. "Like if you see a guy acting like he's dead, the brother who went before him probably shot him."
When you choose your moves, you not only try to look good; you try to make your successor look bad by upping the ante. That's one way to win points from the crowd, which collectively judges. Going first is a way to score a point, but so is coming up with a cool response, chilling out. Through the freeze, you insult, challenge, and humiliate the next person. You stick your ass in his direction. You hold your nose to your spine, signaling a move so good it hurts. But the elegant abstract dancing that couches these messages counts, too. B Boys from the Bronx and Manhattan look down on the "up rock" prevalent in Brooklyn, a mere string of scatological and sexual affronts without the aesthetic glue of spinning and getting down on the floor.
Naming and performing the freezes you invent are ways of laying claim to them, though some poses are in the public domain. A lot of breakers are also graffiti artists, and one way to announce a new freeze is to write it as graffiti. Speed and smoothness are essential to the entire dance, but in the freeze humor and difficulty are prized above all. "You try to put your head on your arm and your toenails on your ears," says Ken of the Breakmasters. "Hard stuff, like when I made up my elbow walk," says Kip Dee of Rock Steady "When you spin on your head. When you take your legs and put them in back of your head out of the spin."
During the summers the B Boys gravitate to the parks, where DJs and rappers hang out. Younger kids learn to break by imitating the older kids, whotend to outgrow it when they're about sixteen. Concrete provides the best surface for the feet and hands to grip, but the jamming is thickest in the parks, where the DJs can bring their mikes and amplifiers. During the winters, breakers devise new moves. Crazy Legs, of Rock Steady claims the "W," in which he sits on doubled-back legs, was an accident.
"Once I was laying on the floor and I kicked my leg and I started spinning," says Mr. Freeze, of Breakmasters. But inventing freezes also demands the hard daily work of conscious experiment. "You got to sweat it out." You don't stop, even when you sleep. "I have breaking dreams," several B Boys have told me. "I wake up and try to do it like I saw it." Kip Dee dreamed he spun on his chin, "but I woke up and tried it and almost broke my face."
Part of the macho quality of breaking comes from the physical risk involved. It's not only the bruises, scratches, cuts, and scrapes. As the rivalry between the crews heats up, ritual combat sometimes erupts into fighting for real. And part of it is impressing the girls. "They go crazy over it," says Ken. "When you're in front of a girl, you like to show off. You want to burn the public eye, because then she might like you."
Some people claim that breaking is played out. Freddy Love disagrees. "The younger kids keep developing it, doing more wild things and more new stuff. We never used to spin or do acrobatics. The people who started it just laid down the foundations. Just like in graffiti--you make a new style. That's what life in the street is all about, just being you, being who you are around your friends. What's at stake is a guy's honor and his position in the street. Which is all you have. That's what makes it feel so important, that's what makes it feel so good-- that pressure on you to be the best. Or to try to be the best. To develop a new style nobody can deal with. If it's true that this stuff reflects life, it's a fast life."
The Village Voice / April 22, 1981