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Physical Graffiti: Breaking is Hard to Do

To The Beat Y’all

Chico and Tee and their friends from 175th Street in the High Times crew were breaking in the subway and the cops busted them for fighting.

“We’re not fighting. We’re dancing!” they claimed. At the precinct station, one kid demonstrated certain moves: a head spin, ass spin, swipe, chin freeze, “the Heli­copter,” “the Baby.”

An officer called in the other members of the crew, one by one. “Do a head spin,” he would command as he consulted a clip­board full of notes. “Do ‘the Baby.’ ” As each kid complied, performing on cue as unhesitatingly as a ballet dancer might toss off an enchainement, the cops scratched their heads in bewildered defeat.

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Or so the story goes. But then, like ballet and like great battles (it shares elements of both), breaking is wreathed in legends. “This guy in Queens does a whole bunch of head spins in a row, more than 10; he spins, stops real quick, spins … ”

“Yeah, but he stops. Left just goes right into seven spins, he never stops.”

“There’s a 10-year-old kid on my block learned to break in three days.” ‘

‘The best is Spy, Ronnie Ron, Drago, me [Crazy Legs], Freeze, Mongo, Mr. Freeze, Lace, Track Two, Weevil … ”

“Spy, he’s called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy.”

“Spy, man, in ’78 — he was breaking at Mom and Pop’s on Katona Avenue in the Bronx; he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet,”

“I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance: All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, ‘That was luck.’ So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn’t see it I would never have believed it.”

The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and end­lessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial specta­cle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture — graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping­ — breaking is a public arena for the flam­boyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favor­ite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibili­ty and budding sexuality of the gangly male adolescent body. It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of op­posites: women, babies, animals; illness and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew. But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity, a codified dance form cum warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.

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For current generation B Boys, it doesn’t really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a com­petitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist’s improvised bridge be­tween melodies. For the B Boys, the his­tory of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx. maybe in Har­lem. It started with the Zulus. Or with· Charlie Rocle. Or with Joe, from. the Casanovas, from the Bronx, who taught:it to Charlie Rock. “Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a ·style for yourself.” In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring or onlookers drops to the floor, circles around. his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.

Fab Five Freddy Love, a graffiti-based artist and rapper form Bedford Stuyvesant, remembers that breaking began around the same time as rapping, as a physical analogue for a musical impulse. “Everybody would be at a party in the park in the summer, jamming. Guys would get together and dance with each other, sort of a macho thing where they would show each other who could do the best moves. They started going wild when the music got real funky” — music by groups like Super Sperm and Apache. As the beat of the drummer came to the fore, the music let you know it was time to break down, to free style. The cadenced, rhyming, fast talking epic mode of rapping, with its smooth surface of sexual braggadocio, pro­vides a perfect base for a dance style that is cool, swift, and intricate.

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But breaking isn’t just an urgent re­sponse to pulsating music. It is also a ritual combat that transmutes aggression into art. “In the summer of ’78,” Tee remem­bers, “when you got mad at someone, in­stead of saying, ‘Hey man, you want to fight?’ you’d say, ‘Hey man, you want to rock?’ ” Inside the ritual frame, burgeon­ing adolescent anxieties, hostilities, and powers are symbolically manipulated and controlled.

Each segment in breaking is short — ­from 10 to 30 seconds — but packed with action and meaning. The dancing always follows a specific format: the entry, a stylized walk into the ring for four of five beats to the music; the footwork, a rapid, circular scan of the floor by sneakered feet while the hands support the body’s weight and the head and torso revolve slowly — a kind of syncopated pirouette; the freeze, or stylized signature pose, usually preceded by a spin; the exit, a return to verticality and to the outside of the circle. The length of the “combination” can be extended by adding on more footwork-spin-freeze se­quences. The entry, the footwork, and the exit are pretty much the same from dancer to dancer — although some do variations, like Freeze from the Breakmasters crew, who stuffs a Charleston into his entry, and then exits on pointe. But it is largely in the freeze that each dancer’s originality shines forth, in configurations that are as in­tricate, witty, obscene, or insulting as pos­sible. A dancer will twist himself into a pretzel. Or he will quote the poses of a pinup girl. He might graphically hump the floor, or arch up grabbing his crotch. Someone else might mime rowing a boat or swimming or emphasize acrobatic stunts like back flips and fish dives. Sometimes two breakers team up for a stunt: imitating a dog on a leash, or a dead person brought back to life by a healthy thump on the chest. According to Rammellzee, a DJ who’s gotten too tall to break, the set of sequences adds up to a continuing pantomimic narrative. It is each dancer’s re­sponsibility to create a new chapter in the story. “Like if you see a guy acting like he’s dead, the brother who went before him probably shot him.”

When you choose your moves, you not only try to look good; you try to make your successor look bad by upping the ante. That’s one way to win points from the crowd, which collectively judges. Going first is a way to score a point, but so is coming up with a cool response, chilling out. Through the freeze, you insult, challenge, and humiliate the next person. You stick your ass in his direction. You hold your nose to tell him he stinks. You put a hand to your spine, signaling a move so good it hurts. But the elegant abstract dancing that co.uches these messages counts, too. B Boys from the Bronx and Manhattan look down on the “up rock” prevalent in Brooklyn, a mere string of scatological and sexual affronts without the aesthetic glue of spinning and getting down on the floor.

Naming and performing the freezes you invent are ways of laying claim to them, though some poses are in the public do­main. A lot of breakers are also graffiti artists, and one way to announce a new freeze is to write it as graffiti. Speed and smoothness are essential to the entire dance, but in the freeze humor and dif­ficulty are prized above all. “You try to put your head on your arin and your toenails on your ears,” says Ken of the Breakmas­ters. “Hard stuff, like when I made up my elbow walk,” says Kip Dee of Rock Steady. “When you spin on your head.” ·”When you do ‘the Baby’ and you balance on one hand and move your legs in the air.” “When you take your legs and put them in back of your head out or the spin.”

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During the summers the B Boys gravitate to the parks, where DJs and rappers hang out. Younger kids learn to break by imitating the older kids, who tend to out­grow it when they’re about 16. Concrete provides the best surface for the feet and hands to grip, but the jamming is thickest in the parks, where the DJs can bring their mikes and amplifiers. During the winters, breakers devise new moves. Crazy Legs, of Rock Steady, claims the win which he sits on doubled-back legs, was an accident. “Once I was laying on the floor and I kicked my leg and I started spinning,” says Mr. Freeze, of Breakmasters. But invent­ing freezes also demands the hard daily work of conscious experiment. “You got to sweat it out.” You don’t stop, even when you sleep. “I have breaking dreams,” sev­eral B Boys have told me. “I wake up and try to do it like I saw it.” Kip Dee dreamed he spun on his chin, “but I woke up and tried it and almost broke my face.”

Part of the macho quality of breaking comes from the physical risk involved. It’s not only the bruises, scratches, cuts, and scrapes. As the rivalry between the crews heats up, ritual combat sometimes erupts into fighting for real. And part of it is impressing the girls. “They go crazy over it,” says Ken. “When you’re in front of a girl, you like to show off. You want to burn the public eye, because then she might like you.”

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Some people claim that breaking is played out. Freddy Love disagrees. “The younger kids keep developing it, doing more wild things and more new stuff. We never ·used to spin or do acrobatics. The people who started it just laid down the foundations. Just like in graffiti — you make a new style. That’s what life in the street is all about, just being you, being who you are around your friends. What’s at stake is a guy’s honor and his.position in the street. Which is all you have. That’s what makes it so important, that’s what makes it feel so good — that pressure on you to be the best. Or to try to be the best. To develop a new style nobody can deal with. If it’s true that this stuff reflects life, it’s a fast life.” ■

On May 3 at 3 p.m., the Breakmasters and Rock Steady crews will break, to rapping by Fab Five Freddy Love and Rammellzee, at Common Ground, 29 Wooster Street at Grand. Their performance ofi Graffiti Rock was organized by sculptor­1 photographer Henry Chalfant. For reser­vations, call 431-5446.  

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How Rammellzee Turned Graffiti Into Urban Mythology

Even back then, they didn’t know what to make of Rammellzee.

At the dawn of the Eighties, in that magic moment when the uptown scene met the downtown scene and hip-hop spun out from its roots among the b-boys, mobile DJs, and graffiti writers of the South Bronx and began its takeover of global culture, Rammellzee, though a central figure in this scene, was — even to true heads — a mysterious quantity.

Born in 1960 in Far Rockaway, Queens, Rammellzee — or to use his preferred orthography, RAMMΣLLZΣΣ — began tagging at fourteen, under various identities such as Maestro and Hyte. He took part in the birth of wild style, which turned the forthright act of spray-painting your name into a pageant of colors and extravagantly shaped letters, bulbous or jagged or shooting out arrows, melted into one another to the point of illegibility. For him, this was not just art but ideology. His theory of history, which he synthesized in a series of esoteric writings, focused on the struggle to liberate the letters of the alphabet from the shackles of words and sentences. (He called it Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism, and believed himself in the lineage of the medieval monks who inked illuminated manuscripts.)

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He put up some large pieces, including on subway cars — the paramount graffiti-art display surface of the time — but he was not one of the ubiquitous whole-car artists, like his contemporaries Iz the Wiz, Dondi, or Seen. Instead he shifted to drawings, paintings on canvas, and sculptural forms. But unlike many other “gallery writers” who began making portable (and sellable) pieces, his graf esthetic gave way to a weirder practice in which he used trash and discarded materials to enact his idiosyncratic theories.

“Fresco Love Letter: Scavenger, Bill of Fat” (1988)

Thus, beginning in the Nineties, he built Letter Racers, sculptures that he imagined represented individual letters, formed of junk mounted onto roller-skates or skateboards, suspended from wires, swooping like a vengeful armada. He also made Garbage Gods, whole-body costumes with names like Alpha Positive, Panmaximus Magus, or Destiny, each with particular powers and weaponry. When he left the Battle Station, his loft on Laight Street in Tribeca, it was often clad in one of these outfits. Usually he received visitors at home, surrounded by these creatures, drinking Olde English 800 and discoursing on esoteric subjects.

By the time Rammellzee died, in 2010 — of cardiovascular disease, likely resulting in part from the alcohol and unprotected exposure spray paint and epoxy — he was something of a mythic figure, an oddity who emerged from hip-hop’s foundational stew and had a moment of art-world prominence yet moved away from both, preferring not to compromise his stubborn habits and his quasi-impenetrable system of knowledge.

Exhibition view

“Rammellzee’s influence and mythology is ensconced in folklore and hearsay,” says Max Wolf, chief curator at Red Bull Arts New York. The two-level space in Chelsea, a gallery sponsored by the energy drink, has organized the most comprehensive survey of Ramm’s life and art, complete with evocative extras that transport the visitor into his world. There are big-screen videos of early hip-hop shows where Ramm, a proficient rapper, expounds in his nasal, sing-song style; footage of interviews and performance-art events, Ramm clad in body armor; and a rich oral history, accessed via phone-booth handsets — another retro reference — at wall-mounted listening stations that dot the exhibition space.

A merit of the current exhibition is that it fleshes out the story of Rammellzee the working artist. The lower floor of the gallery is largely given over to a spectacular display of Garbage Gods, who lurk like an occult army in the darkened space. A flotilla of Letter Racers hangs in the stairwell, as if frozen in interstellar space. This is the wild, science-fiction Rammellzee, and it’s exciting to see all these inventions in one place. But there is also, on the upper floor, a substantial selection of Ramm’s prior work, much of it on loan from museums and private collectors, particularly in Europe, where he found many of his buyers and patrons during his art-world phase in the mid-Eighties.

“Maestro” (1979)

The earliest gallery pieces here were made while Ramm was still in his teens. They transpose a pure graffiti ethos onto cardboard or canvas; some incorporate his street tags. Maestro (1979) is a drawing, with architectural precision, that alternates lines of train cars with lines of graffiti lettering. Several pieces are long rectangles, emblazoned with lettering, aerodynamic lines, and other geometric shapes, as if they were models for whole-car pieces. By 1982 to ’83 the subway references decrease: Works such as Jams (1982) and The Knowledge of the A (1982) are large canvas squares that evoke a busy section of wall where taggers have put up letters, dollar signs, abstract shapes, and chicken-scratch scrawl.

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In this period, Ramm was close to Jean-Michel Basquiat, also born in 1960. They were rivals and mutual inspirations; in one oral-history segment, the gallerist Barbara Braathen calls them “frenemies.” In another, the musician Nick Taylor recalls long sessions with Basquiat, in thrall to Ramm. “It was like talking to Malcolm X on acid,” he says. “It was a little threatening. He went beyond Afrocentrism and talked about arming and militarism on a cosmic scale.” The graffiti writer Toxic sums it up: “Ramm was like a general. Ramm wanted to destroy everything.”

Exhibition view with “Gulf War” (1991)

This sense of imminent conflagration grew as Ramm’s canvases gained relief through epoxy additions or assorted glued objects, and surfaced in their titles. Ransom Note of the Infinium Sirpiereule (1984) is a “resin fresco,” in which a video camera, splashed with green paint and angled downward like a surveillance apparatus, is glued onto the canvas along with collaged drawings, Gothic lettering, and assorted plastic bric-à-brac, all set against an eerie reddish-brown background that feels vaguely post-apocalyptic. It comes with Rammellzee’s notes, presented as wall text: “Specifics: Your death, a Planet’s death, the death of your Ego, Super-ego, or Id. A Galaxy or womb’s death and any kidnapping worth the mechanic’s crime.” Letter M Explosion (1991) is an iridescent purple and green phantasmagoric in which what may be some kind of battleship seems engaged in combat with a weaponized M shape (spacecraft design, jagged edges) amid a field of cosmic projectiles. Ramm clearly had a military obsession; yet the sculpture Gulf War (1991), a highlight of the exhibition, and distinct in that it references an actual conflict taking place at the time, reads in that context as pacifist critique. It involves a found Gulf gas-station sign split down the middle and stuffed with random items — a bicycle, a train set, a record player, caps and hats, plastic toys, a gas mask, other flotsam — and marks the turn to recycling that would sustain the rest of Ramm’s career.

Detail from the exhibition

Rammellzee’s is a New York story, with many classic features of the form. It involves a hard-knock upbringing that his brother, identified as K.P., describes on one of the listening stations: their mother was a Black woman from South Carolina, their Italian-American father ditched the family, and a stern policeman stepfather raised them. There is a plunge into street knowledge and esoterica: As a detailed wall timeline in the exhibition explains, Ramm received his name from Jamel-Z, a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (or “Five Percenters”) he knew as a teen. (Rammellzee changed his name legally, too, in 1979; in accordance with his wishes, those who know his prior identity keep it secret.) Later, gentrification plays a part: A few years before he died, the Laight Street building was sold for condo conversion, and Ramm had to put his works in storage and move to a more conventional setting — an apartment in Battery Park City.

Detail from exhibition

He died, however, back in Far Rockaway, where it all began. Perhaps his lifelong outsider instinct stemmed from his roots in this distant outpost of the city, with its high density of housing projects way at the end of the A train. The art, oral histories, videos, and ephemera in “Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder” can’t help but summon nostalgia for a time when the city was rougher, more raw, its public culture infused with outer-borough grassroots brilliance and improvisational futurism instead of corporate programming. But you can’t wallow with Rammellzee. He was always looking ahead, formulating the next theory, plotting his next surprise attack on conventional thinking, setting the letters free.

‘Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder’ 
Red Bull Arts New York
220 West 18th Street
redbullartsnewyork.com
Through August 26

Exhibition view of “RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder”