The Rise and Fall of Hip-Hop Dance

How the B-Boy and B-Girl Became Choreographed Count-By-The-Numbers Dancers

Prologue:

I have a dilemma. Every time I pull up old clips of Def Comedy Jam’s first season all I see is the comedians. Which is cool. Bernie Mack made his name with “I ain’t scared of you mothafuckas” on that jawn. But we didn’t really watch it for the comedians. We watched it for that last minute or two after Russell Simmons came out and said, “God bless.” We watched for the dancers.

The culture itself was founded on dancing, with the active participants, b-boys & b-girls, attending those early parties to dance to the breaks — or “the get down” part as Hip-Hop forefather Kool Herc called that one to two minute pocket of funk that drove the crowd wild.

Now, whenever I see what people call good dancing I’m bombarded with boy band dances: modified New Edition, Backstreet Boys, New Kids On The Block, Nsynch, B2k type shit. I count with them, 1,2, step, 3,4,5 step. The Five Heartbeats ain’t get trained by Harold Nicholas for us to suffer through a world full of Biebers. Where’d the dancers go? Can anyone catch wreck anymore? Who gonna open a circle? And if you weren’t trained to be a Motown artist, why you dance like that?

An ongoing joke between me and my brother Shawn McCallister is,“where is Hotdog” (Chubb Rock’s infamous Que Dog, dancer) — then we run down the list of all the MIA dancers. My starting point is always De La Soul’s China and Jette, the flower girls. Not because I saw and remember their dancing either but because Pos immortalized them in “Plug Tunin.’” We return to that joke often because the dancers were an integral part of any East Coast rap group…and now they’re gone.

Unfortunately, as time has passed, many of these dancers only exist in the memories of those of us who lived in that small window of time between 86–94. InshAllah (God Willing), we will eventually get to tell their stories but for this writing we’re going to talk about the development of what people now call “Freestyle Hip-Hop,” it’s elimination from the mainstream, and the rise of the highly choreographed dance moves that now are the common aesthetic.

As we previously discussed in “Video Birthed the Rap Star,” through videos, dances and trends were spread across the country. In a time before the internet, you have LA Rapper, Def Jef and his dancers, The Soul Brothers (Kraig E, V-Love, & Legendary), doing similar moves as their New York counterparts. (Of course, West Coast dancers have their origins in Locking, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Like every story that I tell — it has to be personalized. My older brother, super man, was a dancer. There’s stories of him dancing at 2. Me? No. I did not rock. I did not gigolo. I did not cabbage patch. I did not prep. B-boying was my entrée into the world of dance. Not popping. Top rocking, footwork, knuckle spins, back spins — that was my vocab. I have to admit, I was a part of the masses. I dropped out of breakin around 1985.

It was 1987 when the dancing bug finally got me. Once again, Whodini plays an integral role. The bait was their video for “Be Yourself” featuring Millie Jackson. We were biters. We were. We clamped on. The bait was two brothers in baggy suits, and they were going OFF. Next thing you know, Whodini was working the circuit. Boom, they were on Arsenio, same baggy suit brothers, now in baggy white and black sweaters, more moves — more moves — chomp chomp. Again, there they were on Soul Train — same sweaters. More moves CHOMP.

We had no idea who we were looking at. But what we were witnessing was two of the pioneers of what became known as Hip-Hop dance — Cliff Love & Buddah Stretch. Cliff Love moved out west and spread the love. While Stretch stayed on the East and added on with Link and Calaef around 1989. Later, Ejoe joined on. They were all a part of the Latin Quarters scene.

A name synonymous with the Latin Quarters is the IOU Dancers, a group that Fab Five Freddy estimates at more than 20+ members. Freddy says that out of this scene, rappers began plucking dancers. Most notably, Scoob and Scrap (IOU) by Big Daddy Kane, Steezo & Fendi by EPMD, and Kid and Play were also popular dancers at the LQ.

Of course people know Kid and Play as rappers. If you know Hip-Hop, you know Steezo, possibly as a rapper. To some, this may seem strange, but again, Hip-Hop was a participatory culture. In the early days, it was common for rappers to have been DJs (see: Grandmaster Caz and Run of Run DMC) or writers to become DJs (see Dez née Kay Slay). Many dancers from this period also rapped — from Zhigge down to two of our for mentioned pioneers Stretch and Calaef.

Me and my brother, Sayyed Munajj took on the monicker Zig and Zag, studied videos, and chomped away from 88 to 90. One time, while practicing for a talent show try out, we attempted a Scoob & Scrap move that ended up with me landing on my head and seeing lights — there was a price to pay for stealing moves. Our thievery aside, we became known as dancers…and many other names: “PE niggas,” “De La Soul niggas,” but alas, another story for another day.

Ask the average person, 30 and under, what they think of House music and they immediately associate it with LBGT culture, and while that remains to be true, there was a time period (1987–1993 roughly) where House music and club culture was almost as, if not more, dominant than Hip-Hop culture. My Freshman year in College, parties were advertised: House, Classics, & Rockers — whether that was Lower Manly parties or just random parties, some promoters went as far as adding “No Hip-Hop” to the flyers. All those clubs and parties were just a warm-up though. The real party was at Plastic.

Opening at 1am and going until you left the next morning, Plastic was a special place. Ron Pullman played the best classics, dub (rockers), and house in Atlanta and kept the floor packed. But what caught my eye and kept me captivated was…there were people opening up circles.

A circle, of course, was common with breaking. A person needed their space for footwork, windmills, headspins, and whatever other flips and kicks they had. But I hadn’t seen one in years. Yet here they were — big, huge, imposing circles.

The first thing I noticed was the spins — the footwork was blinding, no doubt — but to see a person go from their footwork to a two, three, four rotation spin was mind boggling. And then there was the acrobatics: there were flips, cartwheel like moves, and high jumps, often ending in the splits. This was something you couldn’t bite. Over the next few months, I learned, I felt, I joined a circle or two — it was good.

Incidentally, my studies have shown many of the innovators of the now dubbed Freestyle Hip-Hop dance were also House dancers — we’re talking the Moptops in general and Ejoe and Calaef in particular. If you track the moves, you can certainly see how one progressed into the other.

Now — back to our story.

A study of videos would reveal a change was taking place in dance. Case in point — Leaders of the New School videos. “Case of the PTA” features moves that were very familiar to any House head at the time. But it was there next video that we saw something different. It may have only been for a few seconds, but those quick ticks of the clock were enough for us. The few seconds I’m referring to is the quick moves done by Gerinimo in the “Sobb Story” video.

The first chorus comes, “I know you and you know me…I know you and you know me…” Then 1:40 in Boom! The move itself was standard fair but the execution was unique. Where once the whole going down, crossing your leg, spinning and coming up action would have taken two moves — Gerinimo did it in five. Translation: it looked like he froze on each beat. Maybe nothing to the untrained eye, but to someone who studied music video dance moves it was a seismic shift.

I liken the summer of 1992 to the spring of 1987 in terms of breakout videos. Between “They Reminisce Over You,” “Dwyk,” and countless others we were well-fed. For us, however, the summum bonum of dance was the Zhigge “Toss it Up” video. You had Lo (if you know anything about Polo, the 1992 line remains one of the most collectible of lines and it’s on FULL display here…Full, meaning the whole damn line), you had dope rhymes, you had that 360 camera panning, and most importantly- you had dancing. I don’t know names of dances, but every damn dance is represented here — I’m going to shut up and let you watch it. Damnit.

But nothing was as a mind blowing as the five dancers backing Nice and Smooth during “Hip-Hop Junkies” performances. The routine starts off as your requisite Hip-Hop dance; moves done in unison — you know the deal. Towards the end of the song though, that’s where our homework lesson began.

Two dancers come forward, one drags the other, then flips him, they do the splits in unison, some more dragging, they jump over each other, then there’s the whole lift the other dude up action. For the MTV Spring Break performance everyone comes forward and humps the air while shirtless — go ahead, laugh — but on Yo! MTV Raps, someone else rolls out and catches wreck before they all fall back and pick up in unison again.

It’s been twenty odd years and I’m just learning that the crew was known as the IBM Dancers (E-Boogie, Mike Swift, Cornbread, Cliff Love, & Showtime). We were far beyond our years of biting but we were definitely inspired. And that’s the thing, to anyone witnessing the dancers during this period, there was a bit of awe about the whole affair. Most importantly, it didn’t appear like anyone could do it — choreographer or not. But they would soon be metaphorically killed off.

We mentioned in “Hip-Hop Hair History” that Onyx brought in a wave of bald heads in the Spring of ‘93, well, here I’m going to hold them accountable for murder. Yes, so-called gangsta rap existed prior and yes, people had been killed on wax before, but to this writer’s knowledge Onyx were the beginning of what I used to dub “killaman music” with an entire album dedicated to murder.

“Slam” be damned, all the other songs on ‘Backdafucup’ were the least danceable tracks known to man. If anything, Chyskillz’s bass heavy production mentally prepared you to smack each and anyone within a five foot circumference. With titles like “Bichasniguz,” “Throw Ya Gunz,” & “Shiftee” it wasn’t that hard to figure out what this album was about. And if the titles didn’t make things clear — the lyrics surely did. Not to mention, they are screaming at you for 18 tracks. No dancers needed. Dancers had to ply their trade in Mariah Carey Videos. (“Dreamlover,” “Honey”)

The Fall of 93 gave us Wu Tang and Black Moon’s debut albums. I don’t think you need me to give you a description of either. East coast rap lovers proclaimed “New York” was back. And it was…sans the dancers. And they would stay on the missing milk cart for years, making a brief appearance in Foxy’s “I’ll Be Good” video in 96.

Look, someone has to take the blame. You may have your suspects. We can bring them all before the jury. I have Onyx up on accessory charges but the real murderer was difficult to find.

By the time the year 2000 rolled around I had earned my Doctorate in Hateration (thank you, Mary). I was unimpressed by almost all domestic offerings. Because of this, I missed the massacre and, as of late, I’ve been trying to work the trail back like a Serial podcast investigator. Frustrated, I sought council with my brother, Isma’il Latif. He gave me two suspects Ricki Martin and J-Lo. I barked up the J-Lo tree and down fell some low hanging fruit — Darrin Henson.

Although his choreography dates back to Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” his renown…or how I see it, his infamy comes from providing the dance moves for N’Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye” video. That video garnered him an MTV award, brought him more clients like Brittany Spears & Christina Aguilera, and he bankrolled that into the informercial smash, “Darren’s Dance Grooves;” a title that moved upwards of 500,000 copies in its first 8 months, a number which now is up to 3 mil.

Christopher Santarpio, a 28-year technology consultant in Boston, had tried to learn ‘N Sync’s moves from their concerts and music videos. But following Darrin’s Dance Grooves, “I thought it was impossible. Even though Darrin ‘breaks it down’ step by step, it looks easier than it really is,” Santarpio says. That said, he plans to use the moves next time he goes dancing. ‘Dance Grooves’ Gets Jiggy (Not Jiggly) With It, Kelly Dinardo, USA Today, June 12, 2002

I can’t say how many of the 3 million that bought Darrin’s video had the same sentiment, but enough of them did to where choreographed, video dancing became acceptable in a club.

Shortly thereafter, in 2001, the Choreographer, Dave Scott assembled B2K, which, unto itself, isn’t a crime. The film he choreographed in 2004, “You Got Served,” however, might be. Chris Brown — who, incidentally CAN dance — pop and locked on the scene in 2005. Soon we had “Step Up” (2006) and all it’s sequels, “Stomp the Yard” (2007), America’s Best Dance Crew (2008) and the onslaught of choreographed dance has not let up.

That’s not to say that dance is dead. Absolutely not. Krumping, for example, is still going strong ten years after the spotlight of “Rize” and still finding its way into dance choreography. And pockets of places still have dance-centric cultures (Oakland, Atlanta, & New Orleans, to name a few).

But what can be said is the days are gone where dancers were an active part of rap groups; where rappers themselves weren’t afraid to break out in a move or two. And the majority of rap is no longer geared to getting butts on the floor, instead it’s focus is providing the soundtrack for butts to slide down poles.

In conclusion, I’m not railing against choreographed moves — not in the least bit. I’m sure the Nigga Twins, Keith and Kevin, choreographed their moves. (Seriously hit Google if you don’t know who the Nigga Twins are — seriously). It’s the by the numbers, stiff, get-the-dance -moves-off-despite-what-the-music-is-doing type dances that I have a problem with. Even rocking (bka breakdancing) is a victim. The music used to make the body move but now — now it’s just a bunch of moves being done to the music.

Epilogue:

If by some chance you are blessed to know any of the following dancers and their whereabouts, hit me up at fundamizzy@gmail.com. We need their first hand stories to preserve a history that otherwise will go forgotten. Greatly appreciated.

Whodini — Doc Ice & Kangol Kid/Cliff Love & Buddah Stretch

Queen Latifah — Safari Sisters — Alison & Kika

MC Lyte — Leg One & Leg Two

De La — China & Jette

Big Daddy Kane — Scoob and Scrap (I.O.U dancers)

Heavy D — G-Wiz & T-Roy (R.I.P)

Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince — 2 Damn Hype Dancers

Steady B — Thick & Thin Dancers

Grand Puba — S.O.S. (Swingers of Soul) Dancers (Much respect, to DJ Tahleim for reaching out)

Salt N Pepa — IOU Dancers

Sweet T — Selema & Shane

Nice and Smooth — IBM Dancers: E-Boogie, Mike Swift, Cornbread, C Love (Cliff Love?), Showtime

Moptops — Buddah Stretch, Link, & Calaef (89) — later added EJoe

Divine Styler — The Scheme Team

Def Jeff — The Soul Brothers — Kraig E, V-Love, & Legendary

EPMD — Steezo, Fendi

LONS — Gerinimo