Hip to the Game – Dance World vs. Music Industry, The Battle for Hip Hop’s Legacy
Let’s take it back to the ‘70s. It was a time when Nixon scandalized a nation, women were fighting for equal rights, and disco was the preferred style of dance. But something else was happening on the streets of New York and California—hip-hop dance was born. The first black and Latino dancers were popping and locking on the West Coast while their East Coast counterparts, early b-boy’s and b-girl’s, were breaking and up-rocking. During this time Afrika Bambaataa, gangster turned DJ, also outlined the four elements of hip-hop as DJing, MCing, graffiti art, and breaking. Thirty years later, we see a style of dance that has evolved so far from its humble beginnings—it is primetime now in movies and television—but not so far that it has lost its roots.
In its origins, hip-hop was largely a subculture and a form of style and expression developed by urban minorities. But now it has become part of the mainstream. Street talk, dress, and music have all become an undeniable influence on American culture. In 2003, the Oxford English dictionary added “phat,” “jiggy,” ”dope,” and “breakbeat” to the online updates of its dictionary. Slang terms like “bling” and “baby mama” are now so colloquial you can hear them on the news. Clothing trends like tracksuits and hoodies are no longer limited to rappers’ gear, but are worn by everyone. Hip-hop style has become so prevalent that Jay-Z has his own clothing label, 50 Cent his own shoe line, and Diddy his own fragrance—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Hip-hop music has risen to a new level of prominence. Violence, selling drugs, and life on the streets have mistakenly characterized the genre until recently. Now it has expanded its scope and become relatable to a wider variety of people, so much so that it has made the crossover into pop music.
Without the music, the dance wouldn’t be possible since hip-hop dance is so essentially linked to the beat. You can’t find a Billboard top-ten chart these days that is not dominated by hip-hop artists. Commonly, Kanye West and Lil Wayne are chart-toppers. The legitimacy of the music has paved the way for hip-hop dance to take center stage. But this wasn’t always the case. In the ‘90s, dance took a back seat to the slower beats and vocal sounds of gangsta rap. But now, hip-hop dance is back.
An entire category of songs, based around hip-hop dance, is urging people to get up and move. Many of today’s tracks are named after particular dances, representing what goes down in dance studios and clubs across the country. The dirty South has come to the forefront of hip-hop in the twenty first century. Songs like “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It” released by Dem Franchise Boyz in 2005, and Unk’s “Walk It Out” from 2006 are evidence of how ATL gets crunk. In 2006, DJ Webstar and Young B brought us the hit “Chicken Noodle Soup,” a dance that originated in Harlem and was an evolution of the Harlem Shake. On the West Coast, E-40 put the spotlight on the hyphy movement in the Bay Area with his 2006 single, “Tell Me When to Go.” Artists are not only giving people something to dance to but they are also telling them how to do it.
Television, music videos, feature films, and the internet have fundamentally changed the way people interact with new media. These modes of communication have given viewers greater access to hip-hop dance and helped to make it more widespread. In the early ‘80s, the first music videos were created. This visual accompaniment to music originally played 24/7 on MTV, and transported contemporary dance directly into homes across the country. MTV’s TRL and BET’s 106 & Park maintain viewer participation by calling for the home audience to vote for their favorite videos. As hip-hop and pop videos take over these countdowns, teens are engaged by the moves of artists like Chris Brown and Beyoncé, not just their music. The videos also popularize the work of new choreographers and professional dancers by exposing them to the public.
In April of 2008, MTV launched a series of shows in order to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Yo! MTV Raps, the show that brought hip-hop to the masses. Dances From Tha Hood, part of this anniversary series, offers step-by-step dance tutorials, and can still be accessed through television OnDemand and through its website. YouTube and MySpace, with direct communication through blogs, chats, and uploaded videos, have become forums for aspiring dancers to showcase their talent and connect with a larger network of artists and fans.
A plethora of blockbuster hip-hop dance movies have come out in recent years in contrast to Wild Style in 1983, the first of its kind, and Breakin’ which came out in 1984. Both catered to a very small market. Today’s dance movies are reflective of the reach of hip-hop dance. In 2001, Save the Last Dance explored the racial divide that hip-hop has been able to overcome; in 2006, Step Up demonstrated the inspiring and transformative power of dance. In 2007, How She Move and Stomp the Yard brought stepping onto the scene, a style of dance where the body is used as an instrument. Even Disney has selected the hip-hop choreographer Jamal Sims for the upcoming Hannah Montana: The Movie, scheduled to be released in 2009.
Hip-hop dance has been able to monopolize another contemporary genre of mass media: the reality TV show. In particular, Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance and MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew have put hip-hop dancing out there in a big way. So You Think You Can Dance premiered in 2005 and encourages dancers from all backgrounds, including street and hip-hop, to compete. Bringing these styles together in a competition that also features ballroom dancing, ballet, and jazz helps to legitimize hip-hop dance as a serious form of expression. The dancers on these shows are black, white, Latin, Asian and Filipino signifying just how far across cultural, social, economic, and geographical boundaries this style of dance has traveled.
America’s Best Dance Crew, produced by American Idol judge Randy Jackson, premiered in February of 2008. It is a street dance crew competition that is judged by rapper Lil Mama, JC Chavez of ‘NSync, and hip-hop choreographer Shane Sparks. It has already gone into a second season. The viewership was so high that on Thursday night primetime it held the number one spot among 12-34 year olds across all cable networks. Viewers are encouraged to participate by voting for their favorite crew and following them on the show’s website. Reality television has created the impression that anyone can be a star, but now people with real talent have more opportunities to perform and be discovered.
The first all hip-hop dance convention was created in 2002 by Andy Funk, his wife, Becky, and her sister Angie Servant. Andy’s background in business, and Becky and Angie’s experiences on the dance competition circuit gave rise to Monsters of Hip Hop, which provides a diverse offering for aspiring hip-hop dancers of all ages across the country. The conventions offer classes that teach dance, the history of hip-hop, and the business of using a dance talent agent. Stage shows, lectures, and seminars round out the convention.
Monsters uses some of the best choreographers in the business to teach hip-hop, popping, locking, and street jazz. Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timerblake, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Usher are just a handful of the artists that Monsters’s staff has worked with. Andy explains that since the organization was formed their mission has been to “create real career opportunities for hip-hop dancers.” They haven’t strayed from their mission but the convention is changing with the times. “We are now launching the first all-contemporary dance convention! So, we are expanding the Monsters way of doing dance conventions to a totally different genre of dance,” Andy notes. In 2009, Monsters plans to host conventions in Cancun, Mexico and Auckland, New Zealand, venturing abroad for the first time.
Along with major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, Monsters conventions are held in places like Worcester, MA, New Brunswick, NJ, and Reston, VA. Dance conventions brought hip-hop to a teenager out in rural Fort Collins, Colorado, now renowned choreographer Tony Testa. After taking tap classes, Tony became skilled at jazz , ballet, lyrical, and contemporary dance through conventions. Taught by some of the greatest choreographers out there, Tony was most inspired by Brian Friedman, and caught “the bug.” When Monsters launched, he was there to participate in the first convention and has since risen the ranks to become a Monsters staff choreographer.
Given his first job doing choreography for Aaron Carter through a convention, Tony’s story speaks to the success of the convention circuit. He was also discovered by Janet Jackson at age sixteen through a low budget choreography reel he put together and distributed at conventions. Tony is just one of many Monsters’s dancers or choreographers now in the spotlight. So You Think You Can Dance finalists Ivan Koumaev and Donyelle Jones from Season 2, and Cedric Gardner, Lauren Gottlieb and Sara VonGillern from Season 3 have all danced at Monsters. Faculty choreographer Dave Scott worked on the movies Stomp the Yard and You Got Served. Dancer and choreographer Tucker Barkley is featured in the new national McDonald’s/Coke commercial…and the list goes on and on.
Most recently Tony had the honor of directing the 2008 Monsters yearly showcase in LA—he was once selected for the show as a dancer, then later as a choreographer, and has come full circle as the show’s co-director. Only twenty-one years old, Testa uses his technical dance training as a way to push the boundaries of hip-hop. He has choreographed commercials for Sony and Skechers as well as music videos for Janet Jackson and the all-girl group Danity Kane. Nickelodeon chose him to choreograph a modern day American Bandstand called Dance on Sunset that premiered in March of 2008. Though he’s still young Tony has been dancing since he was eight years old. He has been established long enough in the industry to have witnessed some real changes.
Reflecting on the rise of hip-hop dance, Tony makes an insightful comparison, “you could almost compare hip hop to the way dance has been. It has been in the background for a long time and now we’re seeing a time again where dance is in the foreground. People want to see dance for the art of it. I think hip-hop is a little bit like that. In a sense the underdog is kind of coming up right now.”
STORY: Lauren Brown
PHOTOGRAPHY: Koury Angelo kouryangelo.com
ASSISTANT PHOTOGRAPHERS: Zach Fleming – Barrett Sweger
STYLIST: Joshua Rhorer – eunicestyleinc.com
HAIR AND MAKE UP: David Rodriguez
LOCATION: El Portal Theatre – Los Angeles, CA
PRODUCTION CREW ON SET: David Benaym, Anjuli Bhattacharyya
Jaquel Knight, Tony Testa, Bernardo Carmona, Tiffanie Burgess, Jillian Myers, Deana Brickle – monstersofhiphop.com