When Mooncricket and his crew, the Termites, take over a section of a park in downtown Stockton on Wednesday evenings, they perform a reenactment of the oldest ritual in hip-hop. One kid plugs a vintage boombox into a public outlet, while another unrolls an eight-foot square of linoleum. The six-man, mostly teenaged Termites stretch their legs around the portable dance floor as a DJ mix of crackly old funk emits from the stereo. Then they take turns strutting on the smooth surface, doing head spins, windmills, and other staple moves from break dancing's almost-thirty-year-old unwritten choreography manual.
The only clue that it's not the Bronx in the mid-'70s -- besides the newer models of Adidas on the dancers' feet -- is the presence of a second group of hip-hoppers sitting on a bench at the other end of the park. These four twentysomethings sharing a joint in the shadows clearly take their fashion cues from a far more modern era: Ja Rule videos, most likely. Wrapped in football jerseys, thin gold chains, and crisp black jeans, they're as aloof and sullen as the cool-guy greaser kids in a '50s movie. And they're trying hard not to watch as the Termites land increasingly impressive aerial moves.
Mooncricket, who at 29 serves as the de facto coach and father figure to the Termites, surveys the two encampments sharing the space: "The bling-blingers," he says, nodding towards the stoned, stony-faced toughs on the far end, "and the B-boys," meaning his crew, which is preparing for a breaking battle that weekend. Two groups sharing the same language -- beats, rhymes, and show-and-prove bravado -- that probably couldn't have much of a conversation. It'd be like fans of Buddy Holly and Slayer sitting down to talk about rock.
Dancing, for the blingers, is what one does casually at clubs, preferably while sipping cognac and spitting game to women. Practicing dancing for a low-stakes competition just seems corny. But to the B-boys, hip-hop is not a spectator sport, and one's legitimacy rests on how well one can perform, be it in a dance, DJ, or MC battle.
Mooncricket, born Beto Lopez, is deeply troubled by this gulf separating the new and old schools of hip-hop culture. The problem, as he sees it, is one of education. "Most of the kids who get into hip-hop now do it through the radio and MTV, and have no idea B-boying is where rap music came from," he says later at his Stockton studio. "It's not really their fault -- kids follow the fads and what's in the videos. The problem is that the industry's misrepresenting or just not telling the history. For example, what they're calling hip-hop dance these days are movements that come from breaking, uprocking [breaking's upright counterpart], and popping [uprocking's twitchy cousin] -- they use all of our stuff, but they don't give respect to where it came from. They want to separate it all and claim it as theirs."
Lopez's life mission is to cure this ignorance. He intends to be the first to accurately and completely tell the history of B-boying, which he sees as the earliest manifestation of what we today call hip-hop. Lopez has moved from the East Bay to Stockton, stopped paying his bills, and become intermittently homeless to bankroll, research, shoot, produce, and direct a documentary he's calling The B-Boy Connection. In the nine years he's been at it, he's probably amassed more break-dancing footage than anyone on earth. He says the film -- 90 percent finished and in need of a final infusion of capital -- will be the last word on the origins of the culture that now generates more than a billion dollars annually. "I want the viewer to finish watching my film and say, 'Ah, I finally get it. That's where hip-hop came from.'"
Lopez is in an uncommon position to tell the complicated, obscure history of B-boying the right way, because he's not just a filmmaker looking in from the outside -- he's been a dancer for twenty years. Yet he's also not so close to his subject as to skew his presentation. B-boying, which consists of the showy, athletic dance styles of breaking (done on the floor) and uprocking, popping, and electric boogaloo (done standing up), was birthed by New York City blacks and Puerto Ricans in the early '70s. So as a half-black, half-Mexican kid who grew up around the Bay Area and Stockton, Lopez is at once immune to the politics and backbiting rife amongst the pioneering New York B-boys, but also down enough with the culture to gain their trust.
A filmmaker colleague named Israel beat Lopez to the punch by releasing the first documentary on B-boying -- 2002's The Freshest Kids -- but Israel took on breaking's highest-profile dancer, Crazy Legs of the Rock Steady Crew, as an executive producer. As a result, the film veered close to becoming a promotional vehicle for Rock Steady, and many of the originators who weren't tight with the crew were marginalized or omitted from the story altogether.
Lopez, who has amassed more than four hundred hours of interview and competition footage, has taken a hard-nosed approach to ferreting out the truth from the murky and often contradictory folklore that aging NYC B-boys present as their history. Lopez took numerous quasi-pilgrimages deep into the Bronx and Brooklyn looking for forgotten original B-boys, like an anthropologist searching for shamans in the rainforest. Some were in their forties and didn't know breaking had come back, so they were amused to have a camera suddenly thrust in their faces and be plied with questions. As they'd get a gleam in their eyes and start reliving their salad days of battling in the park, Lopez would have trouble discerning which facts had been colored by nostalgia.
So he insisted on proof.
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