Natalie Beal, the petite, soft-spoken program manager at the Spot, is not a fan of the misogynistic overtones prevalent in modern hip-hop. A few of her boys have spent the entire afternoon recording a tune at the center. They are eager to share it with anyone in earshot -- especially someone from the media -- but more than a bit reticent to let Beal hear the offending material. And with good reason. As I'm putting on the headphones, Twin, one of young MCs, mentions the name of the track: "Playgirl Pimp Song."
"That's real edifying, huh?" Beal grouses.
"Fuck that," another kid replies. "Play that song. Natalie's a gangsta, dawg."
I wouldn't exactly classify Beal as a gangsta -- although to manage a place that caters to the most rugged and rough-around-the-edges kids in the city, she'd almost have to be. As we leave one of the center's five recording studios, she takes on the air of a big sister, admonishing one of the kids to "get into the classroom and get that diploma or GED, for real." In addition to continuing its original mission of providing kids with an alternative to gangs and a safe haven in a neutral part of the city, the Spot -- established in 1994 by former NFL defensive tackle Dave DeForest-Stalls -- also offers a GED preparation program. This fall, a satellite of the P.S.1 charter school will be housed in the Spot annex, at 731 21st Street, giving these kids a chance to get their diploma.
"Ninety-five percent of our kids don't have diplomas," Beal says. "A lot of people don't see their talents, just their weaknesses."
Hell, Stevie Wonder could see that these kids have talent. In another room that's decked out in top-to-bottom murals, several B-boys are busy honing their moves on two pieces of linoleum duct-taped to the carpet. A worn beatbox pulsates on a chair in the corner, directing their every step. As I watch them lock, freeze and spin on their hands, I realize that these kids, who weren't even alive during the first wave of hip-hop, now embody the true essence of the culture. They're aware of all four elements -- breakin', deejaying, emceeing and graffiti -- and clearly realize that hip-hop is more than just music.
I was thirteen years old, just a little younger than these kids, when I was first exposed to hip-hop. As much as I'd like to romanticize my introduction and unfold an epic yarn of growin' up in the hood, bustin' rhymes in the schoolyard, the truth is that I grew up smack-dab in the middle of suburbia -- a world away from the mean streets of New York, where hip-hop was birthed.
I got turned on to the movement the same way I'm sure a lot of kids my age did: through a seminal movie called Beat Street. It wasn't long after hearing "Beat Street Breakdown," by Grandmaster Melle Mel, and seeing breakdancing for the first time that I recruited a bunch of friends from the neighborhood and, armed with a ghetto blaster and some cassette tapes, fashioned a crude, makeshift dance floor out of scraps of cardboard and took to the street. In a matter of months, we'd mastered the windmill, lockin' and spinning on our heads. We'd stage impromptu battles with rival crews anywhere there was a slick floor: in the hallways at school, in the church foyer, at the skating rink.
It would be years before I'd become immersed in the music of Run DMC, L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane and Whodini. During the summer of '84, all we had to dance to was an album released by the New York City Breakers (which came with an instructional poster) and a slew of singles -- Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," Midnight Star's "No Parking on the Dance Floor" and "Freak-A-Zoid," and Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You." Later that year, as a result of our insatiable desire to absorb this new cultural phenomenon, we discovered Ozone (Adolpho "Shabba Doo" Quinones) and Turbo (Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers) and a West Coast version of the movement in a movie called Breakin¹. We spent endless hours emulating the new style, which was less rigid than its East Coast counterpart. Rather than being based entirely on floor acrobatics, it incorporated a more finessed and fluid approach, relying on optical illusion over gymnastics.
In my mind, I had mastered the art form -- but I was still just a kid from the 'burbs. At my junior high school in northwest Denver, I knew a girl whose boyfriend belonged to D&S Connection, one of the city's two respected outfits; some friends had friends in the other crew, Radioactive. I plotted to get an audition with either group -- which never happened. And after wearing out the back of many nice shirts, I lost interest -- in breakdancing, at least.
That's when my foray into graffiti art began. Much to the dismay of my mother, I painted everything in sight -- some of it perfectly legal, some not so legal. Along with my best friend, Shaz, I spent all of my free time filling notebook after notebook with letters and characters adapted from underground books and magazines from the East Coast, as well as the work of the big boys around town: Zoom One, Zone, Jayzer, Rasta '68, Eye Six and Stoned. Before long, Zoom befriended me, and as I became a part of his crew, I began to make a name for myself.
That's how I met Marz -- now of Yo' Marzy Productions, one of the groups helping to organize this weekend's underground hip-hop festival, Elemental Flavaz. Marz was a B-boy who'd also gravitated toward graffiti art. As I grew older and realized that I could be penalized for my art crimes, I found other ways to express myself -- playing music and writing, for example. Marz, however, has continued to embody the true essence of the culture. I ran into him at the Soiled Dove last Monday night at that club's You Night -- one of the few weekly events that showcase Denver's thriving hip-hop underground -- and it was clear that he's still the quintessential B-boy, even in his thirties. Only now he's teaching kids like those at the Spot the finer aspects of the movement.
With Elemental Flavaz, Marz hopes to represent hip-hop the way it should be. "Like back in the '70s, when you went to a hip-hop show, it wasn't just an MC flossin' his ice and girls on stage," he says. "It was real. Graffiti backdrops, B-boys on the stage, DJs showcasing and MCs. That's what Elemental Flavaz wants to bring back -- that flavor."
Marz's words resonate, because mainstream hip-hop has lost its flavor. Although hip-hop's original influence on the cultural zeitgeist is undeniable, it's become a parody of itself. Everything from fashion to television to beer advertising has adapted styles birthed out of the culture -- and, consequently, bastardized them into a billion-dollar industry.
In the beginning, hip-hop was innovative and revolutionary. Its message was positive, and it bred self-esteem in its fans. Over the past decade, though, it's grown stagnant. Today an artist's peripheral interests/escapades overshadow his art. Once again, style has prevailed over substance, and art has been forsaken for the sake of commodity. Most MCs have either aligned themselves with the gangsta mentality of the West Coast or the bling-blingisms of the East Coast. Which means they're doing rap, not hip-hop.
As Marz can attest, hip-hop is a lifestyle -- something you do for love, not money.
"Hip-hop is the best alternative for any kids," he says. "It's free. You just have to practice. Whatever it is you do, it's all free. You just have to be a part of it, and it keeps you out of trouble. Trust me; I know this."
Although Marz thinks people could use a refresher course in hip-hop, he doesn't believe there's anything inherently wrong with the culture. "To me, hip-hop is hip-hop, period. I don't like to put it in a category," he says. "A lot of kids in the new generation don't understand the generation I went through. So if they don't have elemental flavors in their life, they're not going to understand it. What they see is what they do: If they see MCs rockin' ice, kids will rock ice. If they see people rockin' Range Rovers, kids will rock Range Rovers. But if you start representing, like Elemental Flavaz wants to -- with B-boys, real deejaying, real lyricists -- they're going to want to do the same thing. You just got to get the fuse lit."
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This Saturday afternoon, the fuse will be lit at the Universal Lending Pavilion. Elemental Flavaz is the first festival in the country to celebrate all four elements of hip-hop on such a major scale. In addition to performances by KRS-One, Qbert, Living Legends, Wu-Tang's Raekwon & Inspectah Deck, Rahzel, Crown City Rockers and the Procussions, it will feature toe-to-toe MC battles, B-boy/B-girl battles with special guests, a DJ showcase and a graf exhibition. And fellow organizers/event coordinators Ground Zero Promotions, Clear Channel Entertainment and Kroenke Sports Enterprises are putting their money where Marz's mouth is by investing in the very thing that will keep the culture going: the kids. A portion of the $31 admission price will benefit the Spot, which is schooling youngsters in the four elements of hip-hop, training them like soldiers at the center's breakdance studio, in its five recording studios, on its cherry walls and in its turntable cage.
And that's amazing, because when DeForest-Stalls founded the place, he says, he didn't know "hip-hop from a bunny rabbit."