Most of us have the illusion that rappers pick the groupies who star in their videos. We think of video chicks as unwitting participants in their own exploitation. This may be true in the insular world of R. Kelly, but in the Bay Area's hyphy scene, rap video starlets have their own matriarchy.
Exhibit A: During a recent casting call at Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in downtown Oakland, local choreographers Selau Faletoese, Amanda Doss, and their sixteen-girl troupe Damn Dancers hold video auditions for October projects from local acts the Federation, Balance, and Big Rich. While the rappers decide which of the thirty applicants will make the cut, it is apparent that Damn Dancers and Miss Monica from East Oakland's MTM Model actually run things. Selau, in particular, is a hustler.
In addition to dancing, teaching, and choreographing, 23-year-old San Leandro resident Selau (who was raised in Sunnyvale by her professional hula dancer mother and reggae musician father, and launched her own career at junior high pep rallies) sings the hooks on what seems like nearly every Bay Area rap song that features a female voice. She's often too busy to keep up; Balance says he has to call the doe-eyed, falsetto-voiced singer to let her know when she's on the latest hot KMEL single, such as Keak da Sneak's "I Don't Wanna Go" or Messy Marv's "Here I." Selau's own single, "A Man That Goes," which features Goldie Gold of the Federation, is an early October number 1 hit on Wild 94.9.
Ever the astute marketer, Selau says she'll eavesdrop on rappers in the studio, waiting to hear them mention their videos. "Then I'll say, 'Oh, you need dancers?'" she says. "Even if they don't need them, I talk them into it. Sometimes they don't know."
The Damn Dancers tryouts at Malonga begin at 6:30 p.m. and combine a freestyle dance and catwalk contest. Young hopefuls file in, sporting their finest urban apparel: kiwi-green halter tops, girly zip hoodies, Daisy Dukes, sweatpants, what appear to be little-boy briefs, and impeccable tennis shoes. All ethnicities are represented, and many of the women are on the low end of the 18-to-25 age range. Damn Dancers lead them into a medium-size room with a high ceiling and wall-to-wall mirrors where Selau and Amanda flit around brandishing clipboards. Their partners Kia, Dominique, and Sade riffle through contestants' profiles, each of which consists of a brief "About Me" page and glamour shot.
The judges saunter in around 7 p.m. They include Goldie Gold of the Federation, who is scouting dancers for its "Stunna Glasses at Night" video; Balance, who needs a chorus line for his forthcoming "Grind"; and Big Rich, aka Fillmore Rich, who wants backup for a West Coast tour to support his new album Block Tested, Hood Approved (which hit stores last week).
To say these guys are enthusiastic participants would be ... well, stretching the truth. In the middle of the audition, Goldie and his cousin Ray Rida of Dirty Mackin' Entertainment start throwing stuff at each other. Big Rich constantly gets up and walks around. Balance is the only one who seems engaged.
Meanwhile, Damn Dancers take care of all the details. They deal with paparazzi. They dole out bottles of Crystal Geyser. They tell all the contestants to look sexy. They try to keep inquiring reporters at bay. "We need to do business right now, so I need these guys to focus," says a flustered Selau, ushering Big Rich back to his seat as contestants line up for the freestyle portion of their audition.
First, each dancer performs a solo routine in front of the judges. You realize after watching the hyphy dance's boisterous jerking and stomping done over and over that it operates only in superlatives. When it's good, it's really good. But when it's bad, you just want to shoot yourself. Some of them can't keep a beat and compensate by grinding their hips a lot, while others try to come up to the table and blow kisses.
After two hours of improvised hyphy dancing and reveling, Miss Monica lines up traffic cones for the catwalk portion of the show. Each contestant must sashay toward the judges in stilettos, using her finest "couture walk." At the end of the runway she strikes a two-second pose, looks right, looks left, vogues, then uses her best "urban walk" to get back to the line. Goldie rushes out in the middle and does his own rendition, but his couture walk looks hella urban.
After three hours, Selau dismisses everyone and says she'll call them back that night. The rappers have some influence, but she makes the ultimate choices, occasionally vetoing their decisions. She says rappers will sometimes pick the girl with the biggest ass just because, even if she can't dance. "I think by the time we do the gig, they forget which girls they picked," she says. "They never ask."
Though the Damn Dancers are female-run, they don't burden themselves with being torchbearers for girl power. "We cover all categories in this industry where people need females," Selau says. "Whatever you need a girl to do, we have it." They seem to have accepted that there's no such thing as gender parity in hip-hop. Goldie Gold, Big Rich, and the rest of their cabal will surely get bigger and richer, while, in the background, Damn Dancers take care of their damn selves.
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