Two night ago, on Friday July 29th, I provided two hours of an all vinyl set at an event simply called “Mama Knows Best”.
MNB was held at Koko Cocktails, a San Francisco joint on Geary Street, and it was my first real gig. This blog is not about how I got to that point and where I’m going next. But it will focus on my journey through music, on my five to six years of dancing in Philly, on my genuine disillusionment with digital music about nine months ago, on my Sundays spent at Rooky Ricardo’s Records, and on my current experiences in this new scene.
I wish I could say “it all started with that…” but I’m sure I can dig up a long forgotten yet pivotal memory that happened much earlier than “that”. So I won’t kid around and I’ll tell you this instead. I moved to San Francisco a little less than two years ago. Prior to that, my formative years were spent in Philadelphia, the city that taught me about breaking, James Brown, Cornbread, and, above all else, what it means to have soul. My entry point into the music scene was haphazard and accidental; in high school I wanted to learn how to breakdance. And here I should take time out to talk about my first mentor, The Infamous Chiskee. But Chi is deserving of a more detailed blog entry that will come at a later time. For now, bare with me while I fast forward through two to three years of misguided showboating and the uncoordinated and random twitches of major muscle groups I called dancing to a pivotal change in my thought process. I can remember two practice sessions that were momentous for that realization. The first was at the Newman Catholic Center on 37th and Locust. It was a practice space maintained by my dance group Freaks of the Beat and it was open to the Philadelphia bboy scene. Every so often I would ask one of the Philly dancers for dance tips or training drills that I can use. Most of them were forthcoming but a few really stood out. One that was a real eye opener was a session with a bboy a lot of us called Joe Stun, who now goes by Stunn Gunna.
His teaching was simple. He played a song and told me to dance to it. (I can’t remember the name of the song, or rather, I never really knew the name; this is a problem I will touch upon in another blog entry.) Actually, it would be more truthful to say that Stunn played only one song and told me to dance to parts of it. The first part was easy, he told me to dance to the beat. I happily did that, thinking at the time that I would impress Stunn, especially because I had spent nearly a year learning how to keep a beat. All Stunn said was “good” and then he replayed the song, this time asking me to dance to the horns. I was confused by what he meant because the song didn’t have many horns in the beginning. So instead of listening to him I started dancing on beat and whenever the horns came in I would try to step to the notes I heard blasting through our static filled amp. He stopped me and repeated himself: “dance to the horns only“. More confusion from my part but I dutifully waited, while thinking how ridiculous I must look, for the horns to pick up. And I did my best. The lesson continued for no more than ten minutes with Stunn repeating the song and telling me to dance to the horns, or the keyboard, or the drums again. It was confusing at the time but it provided me with an essential epiphany. A song is not just a song, that it is made up of parts, of different people playing different instruments. This may seem like a silly or esoteric point but it opened up a whole world of ideas and multiplied my creative potential almost exponentially. I was no longer limited to the basic beat of the song. I could chop up the song in as many ways as there were instruments. I realized that at any instant I could be stepping on beat and then sliding on a horn, or picking out the piano parts. In just ten minutes I changed from being a 2-dimensional character to, potentially, an expression of the actual music. Stunn may not have realized the importance of that lesson for me. It was beautiful in its simplicity and yet profoundly complicated. But most importantly, it increased my love of the music to a new level. But while my internal appreciation for the music reached new heights, my external expression was still faulty. I knew I could be doing so much with the music but i didn’t know how. The idea was there but my body wasn’t trained to do it.
Until sometime later when I was training with my friend Ronny, now known as The Boogie Bandit, one-half of the international DJ duo, Control Freaks. Ronny was essential in my dance training. He was a friend first but was also co-president of Freaks of the Beat with me. Together we trained hard to better ourselves and to maintain and deserve the respect of our club. We always helped each other out and kept an eye on each other’s progress. It was Ronny who helped me learn how to execute what I had learned from Stunn. Ronny realized that my dancing was all feet, something I did not see until that point. He said that I had no problem dissecting the music but that my dancing was not going to get any better if I did not break out of this below-knee style. He told me to stand there, without moving my feet, and to just dance with my upper body. This was one of the most awkward dance experiences of life, as I tried to keep my feet in place while jerking my arms to the music. It didn’t look good for one main reason: I was trying to use my arms in the same way that I used my legs. By which I mean, I was trying to “step” with my hands. It took months of practice to finally realize that I could express the multilayered richness of the song by exploring different kinds of movements: head shakes, shoulder shrugs, wrists, elbows, even my back. All of it was at my disposal now! And my love for music sky rocketed.
From that instance, I would say it took me two more years, if not more, to really start creating what I imagined in my head. I passed down these two lessons to my students, Ed and Corey, as best as I could. What took me years to stumble upon was taught to them as a given prerequisite. Unfortunately I met Ed and Corey too late in my Philly tenure to teach them much more than that. And shortly after, I left for the West Coast.
Lately, I have moved away from breaking as a whole, instead choosing to focus more on the fundamental aspects of the dance: the toprock (i.e. the expression) and the music (i.e. the impression). I’ll wax poetics on this some other time though.