Hip Hop Subway Series

by

06/09/2007

Delancey St & Essex St, NY, NY 10002

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

On May 20th, while most of the city was watching the Yankees and Mets slug it out for “Best Team in New York Baseball” bragging rights, just beneath their feet, a different sort of battle was being contested inside the Brooklyn-bound J train. The whole car, even when stationary with its doors open onto a platform, was rattling from the rhythmic pounding of fists. The grey benches were splashed with color from the fluorescent-hued sneakers of patrons standing on top of them, stomping their feet harmoniously with the beats set down by a small circle of beatboxers, a cadre of mostly young men whose lips flapped and tongues clucked and vocal chords vibrated, creating a percussive atmosphere without the aid of drums. On the outskirts of the circle a few young women supplied some harmonies. And in the middle of the cipher, a fierce contest for breakdancing or b-boy supremacy was underway. As the train lurched along the track, the competing b-boys, clad in clothing ranging from baggy jeans and oversized shirts to shortened khakis, well-fitted tees, and fedora hats, performed back spins, windmills and six-steps on the sticky subway floor. Each acrobatic feat was greeted by cheers and each slip, generally caused by the movement of the car, was met by an ooh of concern.

Despite the intensity of the showdown, the mood remained mostly light, which was a testament to the good-humored leadership of the event’s organizer, Terry “Kid Lucky” Lewis. Kid Lucky is a beatboxer and the founder of Beatboxer Entertainment, the first production company to revolve around the specialized art of creating drum sounds and syncopated rhythms without the aid of musical instrumentation or electronic equipment. In addition to his business above ground, he’s been organizing bimonthly underground celebrations for a few years, inspired by a friend who used to do the same in the early 90’s. Before each party gets started, he stands on the platform to deliver the opening address with his headphones draped around his neck as though he were about to put them back on and sunglasses covering his eyes despite the darkened subterranean environment. “At the first Hip Hop Subway Series,” he always tells the assembled crowd, which can range in size from anywhere between ten and fifty people, “there were only four people–me, my wife and two other friends.”

Kid Lucky resurrected the subway celebrations as a way of demonstrating that hip hop is alive and well in New York, and can be positive despite its misogynistic and violent portrayal in the mainstream media.

“We need to show that it’s not all about angry black men,” he usually says. Lucky is black though he’s not at all angry. Usually one of the last to arrive before the 6 pm departure time, Lucky exchanges hugs with all of the regulars and greets the new faces, most of whom had heard about HHSS from friends, with handshakes and smiles. As the train pulls into the station, he warns the crowd that the event has not been sanctioned by the MTA so if a subway patron asks you to move, oblige him. “Don’t be starting anything. Don’t try any of those conflict resolution skills you learned at the New School. Just move.”

There weren’t any complaints during the battle, which began as the subway departed from the Essex and Delancey stop. Not that any would’ve been heard above the cheers and singing. The contest, which HHSS hosted in conjunction with the dance outfit Boogie Nation was open to anyone with a desire to show off their skills and style on an unstable surface. Those who signed up were paired off to battle each other, and the winner of the preliminary round, decided by two judges, would face off against another victor until the pool was whittled down to last two b-boys. The final showdown would take place on a subway platform in Queens.

Between the rounds of battle, it was business as usual for HHSS, which meant one big cipher with an emcee taking center stage, the beatboxers in the inner ring, the soul clappers and singers a little further back and the rest of the participants, including some with video and film equipment on the outskirts. The rotating cast of emcees pushed their way to the middle and threw down rhymes, unscripted and generally forgettable, but that didn’t seem to matter to the crowd, who applauded them all. Most favored were lines that denounced the war in Iraq and demanded more funds for the inner city. A couple of months earlier, Kid Lucky had attempted to curb the dour impulses of some of the emcees by establishing humor as the official theme of one particular meeting. He meant to remind the audience that hip hop used to be funny and that the early rappers and b-boys were cut-ups and characters in addition to being artists. But without a mandate from Lucky, subsequent gatherings featured a heavy dose of the political though goofy lines slipped in occasionally.

At one of the last stops of the J train in Queens it was on. The final two b-boys, Macho and Frankie, took their places in the cipher as the crowd began stomping, singing and clapping to create a beat to dance to because breaking, first and foremost, is a dance and you gotta stay on the beat. Many people forget this because they are distracted and dazzled by the acrobatics of the discipline. Or maybe their knowledge of the dance is still rooted in the breakdancing fad of the 80’s, which featured robotic, herky-jerky movements and a general sense of clownishness. Or perhaps they associate it with embarrassing displays of the worm performed by uncles and cousins at bar mitzvahs and weddings.

But it’s a real dance, one of the four foundations of hip hop culture (the other three being graffiti, DJing and emceeing), and Frankie, the first one to step into the ring, focused on the top rock steps, which are the oft neglected movements done completely upright before the b-boy descends to the floor to do his more flashy footwork. It is during the top rocks that the b-boy gets to inject his style into the dance. Frankie’s upper body conveyed Bruce Lee-style aggression while his lower body moved with loose abandon as though a salsa rhythm were playing nearby. He menacingly approached Macho, who was standing with his arms crossed in front of his chest and staring right back at his opponent. Frankie then dove for the grimy subway floor to begin his footwork. His hands and feet blurred as he made use of every inch of the circle. His only pause came when his windmills spun into a nearby black garbage can though he quickly regrouped. Macho’s turn in the ring displayed a similar frenetic pace and daring athleticism but it was lacking Frankie’s musicality, spending little time on his top rock or flair. And after a few rounds of battle, it became evident that he could not match Frankie’s stamina. Though both b-boys had slowed down as exhaustion set in, Macho’s movements had become sluggish with long pauses between elements. You could see practically see the cogs in his mind turning as he thought about each step instead of reacting instantaneously to the beat.

The judges cast down their bandanas, one red, one black, signaling the end of the battle. Frankie was declared the winner and was presented with a framed poster that had been decorated graffiti-style, colorful bubble letters signifying the date, the occasion and the two collectives, HHSS and Boogie Nation, responsible for the event.

And most fittingly, Frankie was also awarded a monthly unlimited Metrocard so he could ride the subway, a place where there’s always an audience and room to dance for those willing to risk it.

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