"Please note: This article was written about 15 years ago and the author is not associated with this site in any way or the owner of the site. I do not necessarily agree with the contents of the article but placed this article out of respect. The author spent a great deal of time with his research and was in the areas of the USA which I was not. Sometimes I do not agree with some references of particular races in that the language is outdated but I copied the article as is! Please feel free to comment on what you see as I myself are learning more about this culture and have only experienced what I know when it came to Australia." Rap Attack 2005.
Dr Thompson at his "podium".
Hip-hop ain't no Hula-Hoop, no matter what the trend spotters say. In 1984, of course, hip-hop was hot news. Everywhere you looked, you could see hip-hop in one or more of its manifestations: break and electric-boogie dancing, rap music and granite. Then the media moved on, leaving the impression that hip-hop was a fad.
Here today, gone later today. Over and out.
But tradition just don't work that way. Hip-hop is still with us in all its sainted sassiness, and its impact is likely to reverber- BY ROBERT FARRIS THOMPSON
ate for years and years. Rappers in concert crisscross the nation. During his last tour, Prince share the limelight with Tony Draughton, a break dancer know as Mr. Wave. Michael Jacksons 3-D Disney project, Captain E0, will feature one of the main innovators of Electric Boogaloo, Pop'in Pete (Timothy Solomon) of Fresno, California.And this summer Mr. Wave-, alone with the New York City Breakers, will bring his imitable body lightening to sixty American cities.
All of this is simply part of an enduring cultural evolution. And the roots go back, back baby. Way back.
Consider Charles Dickens in l842. He’s in New York, digging the action at the Cotton Club of that era, Almack’s, in a tough but vibrant Manhattan district known as Five Points. The scene, which he wrote about at length in a travel book, American Notes really blows his mind. He describes the manager of Almack's, an elegant black woman in a multicoloured African-style head tie. Then he zeros in on the work of a master black dancer, of that city and of that time, performing what the landlord of the bar actually calls "a regular break-down":
Single,shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut: Snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, Spinning about on his toes and heals . . . dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two woodern legs, two wire legs, two spring legs. . . .
What does this have to do with hip hop and its roots? A lot. For example, in 1986, as part of his New York electric boogie, Tony Draughon turns in his knees, then spins around to present the backs of his legs. African-American dance history is evident in other moves that Dickens witnessed. There were immitations of Kongo, an ancient and distinguished black civilisation in central Africa, in the shuffle and double Shuffle (in the Kongo language, these contrasting modes of perambulation are called ta masamba and ta masamba n’swalu). And the Kongo people, apparently since the Middle Ages, have poked fun at a knocked.kneed bird in a dance they call ta minswele and have patted their thighs and chests and snapped their fingers for extra percussion in a dance called mbele, which was described by a French priest in May 1698.
Back to the future. lt's 1969. James Brown, Soul Brother number one, needing no futher praise or in introduction is performing on stage at Madison Square Garden. Newsweek is there, taking down the moves: "dazzling double shuffles, knock-kneed camel-walks and high-tailed, chicken-pecking atavisms." The imperative was clear: get loose and let loose. A cultural threshold had been reached. Moves Dickens had seen, and some he hadn’t were coming into play again. And all creative hell was breaking loose. James Brown begat Soul. And soul begat George Clinton and the funk movement And James Brown and George Clinton and others, in combination with cultural forces including jazz, salsa and reggae (dub and the sound-system style ROBERT RARRIS THOMSON, professor of art bestow at Yale University of record playing more than the music itself), begat Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation - in short, the hip-hop revolution.
Watching James Brown and listening to George Clinton from afar ,were young black dancers like the Solomon brokers in Fresno and Afrika Bambaataa and his followers along 174th Street in the Bronx. Out of the bronx emerged break dancing, turntable percussion, the beat-box sound and rap. And out of Fresno and black Los Angeles emerged electric boogaloo, which New York renamed electric boogie. All of which takes us up to where we are today.
Of course, it's easier to savor the influence of tropical Africa in the DUN- tuh-PAH, DUN-DUN-TUh-PAH, DUN-tuh-PAH, DUN-DUN-tuh-PAH now resounding from a thousand beat boxes than to comprehend that sound as an aspect of a serious historical tradition. But in the effort to do just that, we might discover why 12.2 percent of our population, Black Americans, are consistently responsible for more than 50 percent of our popular music.
Hip-hop is a tale of three cities. As I’ve said, break dancing and the hip-hop sound emerged in the Bronx, electric-boogaloo poppin' and tickin' moves arose in Fresno and Los Angeles (Watts, Long Beach, Crenshaw Heights). Naturally, the outsider might wonder how the devastated lots of the South Bronx and the suburban sprawl of Fresno and Los Angeles could have sustained the energy and the beauty of the hip-hop arts. Well, in the Bronx at least, it seems the young men and women of that much-misunderstood borough had to invent hip hop to regain the voice that had been denied them through media indifference or manipulation. By manipulation I mean filmakers' exploitation of what they took to be prototypical ruins, along the southernmost edges of the Bronx, as backdrops for the social apocalypse-witness the film 1990: The Bronx Warriors.
Michael Ventura, in the fascinating chapter "We All Live in the South Bronx," from his Shadow Dancing in the USA, descried how the cameramen in the seek would seek negative local color and apparently little else: "In roughly six hours of footage - Fort Apache, Wolfen and Koyaanisquatsi - we haven't been introduced to one sou1 who actually 1ives in the South Bronx. We haven't heard one voice speaking its own language. We've merely watched a symbol of ruin: the South Bronx (as) last act before the end of the world".
How wonderful, then, when the Bronx started to talk back. In the late spring of 1981, there was a panel at a Bronx-based conference on the folk culture of that borough with the title "This is Not Fort Apache, This Is Our Home: Students Document Their South Bronx." Tony Draughon, who grew up on 169th Street near Yankee Stadium, maintains: "That performing-in-the-ruins stuff is all a crock. There are no abandoned buildings where I live, and break dancing didn't start where all those broken buildings were - we danced at Bronx River, where Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation was, and Pœ Park and the schoolyards and even the back of classrooms when the bell would ring." It also happins that Bambaataa grew up in a comfortable apartment in the Bronx River Project, East 174th Street, with his mother, a nurse. The bottom line is that Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, D.J. Cool Herc and the other South Bronx hip-hop performers transcended and transmuted violence with music and peacemaking.
Nor were the original hip-hoppers confined, as some outsiders imagined to a single monolithic black culture. If lesson one is that a living, creative, embullient people live in the Bronx, then lesson two in hip-hop history is the appreciation that these creative people can be divided into at least five distinct African-influenced cultures:
First, Enlish-speaking blacks from Barbados live in the Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa's mother and her two sisters where from Barbados, as was the family of that other prominent Bronx DJ Grandmaster Flash.
Second, Black Jamacians live in the Bronx. Among them figures most famously D.J. Cool Herc (Clive Campbell) originally from Kingston, who was immortalized in the 1984 film Beat Street.
Third, thousands of blacks from Cuba live in the Bronx. The smell of Cuban coffee and the sounds of Mambo enliven the streets. (As early as 1954, a black blind Cuban guitarist, Arsenio Rodriguez, had extolled in song the talents of a legendary, "guy from the Bronx," or el element del Bronx," according to original Spanish lyric. In line after swinging line, Rodriguez praised him because he could dance mambo and danzon like a Cuban, right in the middle of the Bronx). It was only natural for Afro-cuban conga drums to become one of the favored percussive springboards for early breakdance improvisation. "Afro-Cuban bongos gave power to our dance," says Draughton.
Fourth there are thousands more of boriquas-Puerto Ricans - and they not only augmented the Afro-cuban impact, in the timbales of Tito Puente and the salsa of Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colon, but eventually provided an able-bobied army of knowing dancers who were to take breakdancing to its second, efflorescent phase between 1979 and 1982, after its invention in South Bronx by black dancers, circa 1975.
Fifth and finally, there are the North American blacks, whose music was jazz and soul and funk. And the Bronx also loved rock. In the Sixties and Seventies, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton were the main men. Bambaataa elaborates: "I loved their funk - hard-hitting bass and heavy percussion. Before James Brown, funk meant the smell of sweat. But James Brown turned it into a sign of life. And George Clinton turned it into a way of life, with funk adverbs, the funk sign [pointer and little finger up, other digits and thumb tucked behind the palm], funky glasses - all that came in with him. And Sly took rock and crossed it with funk, and had 500,000 people rising to their feet at Woodstock."
In short, to live in the Bronx was to live in a multi-cultural happening. The Bronx blacks had the cultural depth and confidence to talk back, when challenged by the media, staying loose, creative, different. "They stayed fresh, they maintained that certain volitility that hip-hop craves, "recalls Michael Holman, a young black hip-hop impresario, student filmmaker and author. No fear of the end of the world, just fear of being stuck: "If you become classifiable, "Holman says "you become all the things that kept you in check".
In 1975, the lines of cultural brilliance, North American black, Afro-cuban, et al., were beginning to crisscross. Many of these musics, however different, shared Kongo qualities of sound and motion. The wheel of creative creole interaction was turning again, as it had once in New Orleans, Havana and Rio de Janeiro when Kongo rhythmic impulses collided with Western dance and music. One reason for the Kongo
tinge in new-world dancing is the sheer number of Kongo and Angolan peoples brought to our shores in the Atlantic slave trade-a miracle of cultural resistance, demographically reinforced. The historian Joseph C. Miller tells us that some forty percent of the 10 million or so Africans brought to the New World between 1500 and 1870 in the slave trade came from the ports of Kongo ad neighboring Angola. These powerful numbers, in combination with the spiritual and artistic gifts of the Kongo people, changed the course of the popular music of the world. In New Orleans, the city of jazz, the Kongo people were so numerous and their Kongo dance was so famous (1n Mississippi, too) that the place where everyone hung out to hear the latest sounds and check out the newest moves, a vast dancing plaza called Congo Square, was named after them. Dena J. Epstein, an exert in the history of black folk music, has discovered a letter from New Orleans, dated 1819, that includes this telling sentence: "On sabbath evening the African slaves meet on the green . . . and rock the city with their Congo dances."
They also took creole Kongo beats and rocked Havana with rumba and Rio de Janeiro with samba. (Both Rumba and samba are Kongo words for certain dance moves.) The upshot?
First, black Rio taught us how to samba, to dance to the sound of tambourines and Angolan friction drums. Second, from Cuba came rumba and the conga line, the circling line of dancers moving one-two-three-kick. This style has returned to the spotlight in 1986 with the Miami Sound Machine's "Conga," the first Latin song since the Sixties to become a major US hit.
Third, from the Kongo dance of Congo Square, from jazz dance and from rumba came "the Congo grind" (tienga), the hip-rotating sign of life that kept missionaries to Kongo muttering for centuries, that gave American Puritans cardiac arrest, that ultimately inspired Elvis Presley's famous suite of moves. Some of these motions have become part of the dance code of American people, white and black.
Fourth, wherever the Kongo people came in significant numbers, you frequently found their concept of the dance performance break: in Haiti, where casse ("break") stands for the deliberate disruption of the beat of the drums, which throws the dancers into ecstasy, or in Cuba, where rumba abierta refers to the dropping out of melodic instrumentation and the taking over of the conga drums.
Must we know this to pass what music critic Robert Christgau calls rapitude tests? Bet. Because a fusion of break musics in the Bronx sparked the rise of hip-hop. Afrika Bambaataa explains what happened in The beginning of Break Beat (Hip-Hop)’Music:
Break music has been around for a long time, but not until the early '70s . . . brought to popularity. Break music is that certain part of the record that you just be waiting for to come up and when that certain part comes, that percussion part with all those drums, congas, it makes you dance real wild. . . .That break is so short in the record, you get mad, because the break was not long enough for you to really get down to do your thing.
How to restore the delicious length of live music breaks in a mechanical, turntable situation? The answer was found around 1973. The Jamaican DJ. Coo1 Herc armed himself with gigantic speakers and thundering frequency ranges and defined a world where, as one hip-hopper put it, "the loudest noises were the newest," Herc took a conga drum break and extended it across two copies of the same record on two turntables. As soon as one break ended, he switched to its beginning on the second record, and the hat went on. This was the birth of Bronx-style break music.
In response, no later than 1975, young black dancers in the Bronx were improvising moves to match the new length and intensity of the music. They danced to break music, so they called themselves Break dancers. Or B-boys, for short.
In neighborhood gyms and in the parks and playgrounds, they would break to the percussion portion of a tune. I remember running full tilt into one of these scenes while driving in the Bronx in the late Seventies. There was a park filled with fifty or more radios, all playing tbe same thing. It left me thrilled and reeling. This was the musical background for the earliest forms of break dancing as seen in 1976 as seen in 1976 on the schoolyard of P.S. l 10 in the Bronx by G.L.O.B.E. and Pow Wow, two prominent rappers now working with Afrika Bambaataa: "Like, it'd be two guys, both doing unrock, stand-up moves, side to side, profile, and then one of them would fall back and the other guy would catch him."
Uprock was martial posing. Uprock meant battle mime. It was danced combat, a fight with steps instead of fists. One basic sequence: hop, step, lunge. Or the hands were used as if they were a knife in a form of uprock known as zipping, witnessed by a historian of break dancing, Sally Sommer. Uprock is not unlike nsunsa, a fast-moving Kongo battle dance - a sport, really - that's also one-on-one and also very popular with men. Can this also be the black social amusement called soesa, which J.G. Stedman observed in Suriname in South America and described in a book published in 1796: "(It) consists in footing opposite each other and clapping with their hands upon their sides to keep in time."
The Bronx fall-back-and-be-caught moves recall another Kongo dance game, lukaya lweto, "our leaf that never falls. "In this game, the child who is "it" leans back precariously and is spun around in the hands of children seated in a circle on the ground around him. They spin him roughly, quickly, but never let him fall.
Then the B-boys brought break dancing down to the level of the ground. G.L.O.B.E. and Pow Wow elaborate:
We got tired of just stand up and catch. We started kicking side to side and hitting the ground. Jump down, bend, crouch and take a set, all down, doing whatever moves we could, spinning top, sweep, back spin. There were guys who danced (these moves) so much they said every week they had to get a new pair of sneakers. Anyhow, you'd fall, touch your hand on the ground, improvise something, bounce right up, and freeze.
Tony Draughon participated in the creation of these early moves. He says these strokes of prowess deliberately set up a contrast between the spin and the freeze: "Imagine, man, you're spinning, as fast as you can, and then you stop, in a beautiful position, in the twinklng of an eye."
Tradition built this tone of confidence, this arsenal if instant moves and creative options. What kinds of tradition? Why, freeze and swips and spins, of course.
Move-and-freeze sequences were legendary in the history of jazz dance. From the Fifties, I remember the New York mambo picture step, in which William Pittman and Teresita Perez, two well-known mambo dancers at the Palladium on Broadway, turned and froze, becoming momentary sculpture. I also remember the legend of a rock & rolling freeze dancer in Dallas in the Fifties- It is told that he'd show up with an alarm clock concealed within his britches. He'd sweat and dance and freeze, then shake and shimmy and freeze. The ladies loved him. And then an alarm clock would go off in his pants, signaling departure time for an amorous rendezvous, and he'd disappear, mysteriously.
But there is nothing mysterious about the origins of the sweeps and swipes of early break dancing. They clearly represent an ingenious adaptation of the pommel-horse exercises of Western gymnastics to the Africanizing "get down" level of the ground. Keep the muscle, get rid of the horse, and get on down.
The spin also recalls, in part the virtuosic whirls of Kongo dances. In the summer of 1985, I saw a dancer spin on his right hand in the middle of a revolving, chanting circle of children in Kiluango, a hilltop village near Luozi not far from the river Congo. In other villages, I saw standing children link arms with horizontal children, spinning them close to the ground. In another town, a youngster spun on his back.
What are we to make of all this? Simply that it's no more surprising to find spin dancing in the black Bronx than it is to find "London Bridge Is Falling Down" on the playgrounds of Anglo-Saxon America. In fact, some intervening links between Kongo and the Bronx can found:
First, a marvelously detailed nineteenth-century Cuban engraving shows a black dancer, bare chested and with a belt of bells, spinning on his left palm in the streets of Havana on Epiphany, the Day of the Kings. His use is like a stop frame from a film of today's New York breaking step, the four corners.
Second, hand spins came from Angola to Brazil, where they turn up as one of the moves of capoeira de Angola, the black martial art of the city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia.
Third, as we learn in Lydia Parrish's classic Slave-Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, a ring shout in black Georgia includes a sequence in which one member "gets down on his knees and, with head touching the floor, rotates with the group as it moves around the circle."
Fourth, powerfully illustrative is a silent, very early kinescope, Three-Man Dance, probably from the period between 1890 and 1910. This film bears an extraordinary relation both to ancient Kongo and to the modern Bronx. While one Flack man plays a harmonica and, another beats time with his hands, a third comes in, and choreographically introduces himself with a time step. (One of the other men men has just danced a rudimentary version of today's moonwalk.) Then he turns his hack to the camera, and he breaks. Suddenly, he's dropping on the ground, touching the floor with his hand, flipping his body upside down, then resuming, in a twinkling, verticality.
Spin-pattern vocubulary, coming down the body line from Kongo culture, was very likely reinforced by other sources. Blues historian Samuel Charters.
saw a West African Fula dancer fling himself down on the ground, land on one hand and begin spinning wildly, and I have seen similar stunts among the Gelede dancers of Ketu, an ancient town in what is now the Republic of Benin. But however blended and recombined, the spins in the Bronx were far from fixed or static. Indeed, the special intensity of the breakdance revolution split the atom of the spins and released more creative energy than had probably ever before been seen in this particular suite of moves.
Enter the Puerto Ricans. They took break dancing to another level in the late Seventies and early Eighties. They built tough, athletic structures around the original spins, mirroring an age of joggers, Adidas oufits and Nautilus-trained bodies. For one thing, as suggested by hip-hop scholar David Sternbach, they added a fast-stepping entry pattern that strongly recalled the flash and celerity of some of the steps of the Puerto Rican dance known as the bomba. The Puerto Ricans added new spins to the lexicon: head spins, windmills (a variation on the back spin, with flaring legs) and helicopters (one person spins two other dancers like human blades), plus a sympathetic bit of virtuosity, a whirling one-arm handstand called the 1990.
By April 1981, when Sally Banes published the first article on break dancing, the original black and subsequent Puerto Rican improvisations had fused to form the full-blown break-dance sequence: entry (rapid-fire stepping), break (down to the hands), swipes (the ground gymnastics imparting momentum and special flair), spins (on the hands, the back, the shoulders, the head and other body parts), finishing with a freeze and then an exit (returning the performer to verticality).
Some dancers pushed these moves to the limits of human anatomy. One dancer, for example who dreamed that he had spun on his chin, tried it in real life and damn near broke his jaw. But the way some spins dissolved into the freeze could be truly magical. In the end there was no way of confusing the daredevil baroque of break dancing with the straightforward spin games of ancient Kongo. For one was early and the other was late, and enormous amounts of time and creativity had intervened.
Meanwhile, drum machines were coming in: DUN tuh-PAH, DUN-DUN tuh-PAH, DUN tuh- PAH, DUN-DUN tuh-PAH. "These beats," reports Doug Wimbish, a musician who has worked with Bambaataa, "build the total tack-head experience - the tack head is young, formative, black, out for whatever, and the safest way to keep that tack head listening is to keep that beat."
The hard, relentless beat-box pulse - "total tack" - called for a correspondingly hard and relentless motion. Once again, the Afro-American vernacular was more than equal to the challenge.
For more had come from Kongo than horizontal play spins. Most, remarkable were ecstatic healers, dancing in trance, famed for "sending waves" (fila minika). Kongo healers in trance make sharp, sudden pulsations with their shoulder blades as a sign that the spirit of God is with them.
Cut to the Solomon brothers (their stage names are Boogaloo Sam, Pop'in Pete and Tickin’ Deck), who were to invent electric Boogaloo. While While attending services at the First Corinthians Baptist Church on Thorn Street in West Fresno in the Sixties and early Seventies, they saw women in the front row "jerking and trembling" with the Spirit. This may not have been a direct inspiration, but the fact remains that several years later they came up with poppin’ and tickin’, rhythmic angulations of the torso and the limbs, executed at a moderate tempo if one is poppin’ or very fast if one is tickin’. With electric boogaloo, dancers could scintillate as if strobe-lit.
Boogaloo was a Fresno term of honor. It meant that a dancer could master anything. It meant he could even mime electricity, pass it through his body and put his own stamp on it. These brilliant moves reached New York via Los Angeles, Cleveland, South Carolina and other mediating points in the late Seventies. New York turned the style slightly around and called it electric boogie.
Dancers of California electric boogaloo or South Bronx electric boogie, "popping hard, hard waves," perfectly captured the hard and driving sound of hip-hop drum-machine percussion. In addition, according to hip-hop tradition, some of the flashier moves were copied off jerky, badly synced Saturday-morning television cartoons. By this theory, wave dancing, in collision with "found motions" borrowed from television animation, helped build the corporeal cubism of the best masters. Dancing like pneumatic drills given life and spirit, or shattering into fragments of deliberate oscillation, their cultural engine, fueled by the past and driven toward a high-tech future, matches exactly the rationale behind the work of New York painter Keith Haring. "I’m attracted by the (past), but at the same time I feel driven toward the future," says Haring. "Primordial (styles) help you to be new."
Being ancient and being new explains the contrasts in Haring’s drawings: silhouetted pyramids irradiated by flying saucers and ancient-looking jars vitalized by boogie friezes. You might say that Haring is the Degas of the B-boys. In murals on Manhattan's Avenue D near Houston Street, on the FDR Drive at Ninety-first Street and fugitive chalk drawings in subway stations all over town, he has captured some of the basic moves of break dancing. He also captures the volatility and the camaraderie of the hip-hop world, which 1 have experienced firsthand.
I remember sitting with friends in a New York restaurant one night after a breaking contest. A dancer who had seen us at the contest passed by on the street. Immediately he started a wave with his left hand, passed this current through his shoulders, down his right arm and into his hand, and aimed the energy at me. It shot like a laser from the street through the plate glass, stopping my pointless conversation with this message: We saw you digging us. Come back. "Cause hip-hop is here to stay."
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