Breaking Down

Old-guard hip-hop dancers return to Times Square

Watching these guys dance is a bit like watching the grown-ups bust out old moves at a wedding. And much of the fun in the period footage is nostalgic, especially the outfits—the loud colors, enormous apple hats, and white gloves. But it's never embarrassing. The middle-aged men have still got it. In his long black coat, dark glasses, and porkpie hat, Boogaloo Sam exudes the unmistakable authority of a creator. You can tell that the style is his. "Younger cats are mostly trick-based," says Harris. "When you go to the Boogaloos, you're going to see people dance."

Harris makes room for local guests, too—young New York hotshots, both male and female. DJ Evil Tracy and others will display their mad skills. For can't-believe-your-senses virtuosity, it's hard to top "human orchestra" Kenny Muhammed—one man, one microphone, making at least two turntables' worth of sounds.

Still, the project as a whole has an older-but-wiser air. The footage reminds us just how young the legends were the first time around. These days, they're concerned with avoiding exploitation, controlling production, starting unions, and finding time for their kids. Harris wants to encourage universities to hire them (he recently taught hip-hop at UCLA).

Spinmeister: Keith Alonzo of L.A.'s Tokyo City Lockers in Rennie Harris's Legends of Hip-Hop
photo: Bob Emmott
Spinmeister: Keith Alonzo of L.A.'s Tokyo City Lockers in Rennie Harris's Legends of Hip-Hop

By their lights, the old-school guys don't get enough respect from either the world of rap, where dance is often treated as a stepchild, or from mainstream dance, where the negative "street" associations haven't entirely faded. Says Harris, "These people shaped pop culture. Don Campbell was the first one to organize a company. In Japan, he's Elvis. Go outside the country, and these guys are treated the way they should be." Harris hopes the Legends show will change all that, though he's been disappointed with the interest level so far.

Hip-hop dance is in a "transition period," he says. Some awkwardness is to be expected. (West Coast forms, he reports unironically, are now to be called "funk styles associated with hip-hop cultures.") Recent years have seen a resurgence, with new groups and more video and concert work emerging. Dancers are scrambling to establish a more solid foundation this time.

That's clearly one reason Harris has hit the road. "A lot of people would challenge whether what I do is hip-hop," he says. "But all my movement is hip-hop. I have to show people where it came from."

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