Music News

The Beatdown

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.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera