Bucking the Bronx with the B-Boys

“B-BOYS, ARE you ready, are you ready, are you ready?”

Mr Freeze of The Jazzy 5 MCs was getting ready to introduce The Rock Steady Crew. The Crew had a touch of nerves showing through their smiles, but they were ready. This was the first downtown club gig for Bronx’s kings of the art of breaking, and they were definitely going to rock the house tonight.

Breaking is a dance form and a form of competitive play, a ghetto game of athletic skill and graceful one-upmanship. It’s strictly an uptown, Harlem and South Bronx thing, tied to the same tradition of hard-funk “breaking” records that rap grew from. Many MC crews, such as The Funky Four Plus One, started out as breaking teams.

The action consists of going from dance steps into various positions down on the floor, culminating in fast and wild spins, and then “breaking” out of the spin into another position or step, as gracefully as possible. The idea is to outdo the next guy, and individuals compete as well as teams. In summer, breaking or B-Boy teams travel the circuit of parks, boxes in tow to provide a portable soundtrack for the competition. In the winter the action moves into school gyms and various Jam Nite dances. But for a B-Boy team to come downtown and put on a show for “you punk rockers in the house” is something new.

The place was Negril, a reggae disco located in an East Village basement. On occasional Thursday nights a group called The Corporation had been taking it over to run their own club, along the lines of the Beat Route or Heroes model. But tonight they’d come up with something special — a rappers’ jam and breaking demonstration. Uptown street culture meeting downtown club culture, not in an audience-performer situation but uptown-style, with everyone down on the floor, the audience gathered in a circle around the breakers.

The DJs set up their turntables on a long table at one end of the room. Jazzy Jay and Afrika Bambaataa take turns spinning, while The Jazzy 5 MCs (currently hot with ‘Jazzy Sensation’) keep the stream of rap going. Off in a corner, a lone monitor showed Michael Hollman’s video of breaking crews performing in various places — the International Break Masters in a Queens playground, a battle between The Rock Steady Crew and The Dynamic Rockers at the Lincoln Center Plaza.

Then The Rock Steady Crew — Crazy Legs, Frosty Freeze, Lenny Len, Cisco and Take One — move to the centre of the dance floor and the crowd gathers around. They range in age from 15 to 17, though the youngest, Take One, is so short and boyish he looks about twelve.

DJ Jazzy Jay is mixing records with a sure hand, doing Flash-style quick mixes, whomping the records into new beats and generally cutting up with some fast turntable jazz. Fab Five Freddy (yes, the one mentioned in ‘Rapture’) is MC’ing, and he’s great — a carefully controlled and melodious voice, funny and hip.

The B-Boys get down. Each in turn steps out into the centre, drops down, and spins — one on his shoulders, one on his rear end, the next one on his head. They twirl like tops, — furiously, blindingly fast, and then — wham — they’re balanced on a hand, a foot, or seemingly nothing at all. The crowd is wide-eyed, gasping, smiling, and muttering, “How do they do it?”

© Richard GrabelNew Musical Express, 6 February 1982

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