The Streets are Still Part of Bronx Hip Hop
By Mark Naison
“He knows the code. It’s not about a salary
It’s about reality and making some noise”
- Fort Minor, “Remember the Name”
Last October, when I was taking a group of people on a tour of the Bronx’s historic Black neighborhood, Morrisania, I noticed a group of twenty teenagers standing in a circle on the corner of 168th Street and Prospect Avenue, clapping their hands in rhythm, while one by one, people entered the circle and began dancing energetically and acrobatically I watched for a minute in my car and then drove off to my next destination, thinking that the street dance tradition that began in the Bronx in the 1970’s, which people called “b-boying,” of breakdancing, seemed to have gotten a new lease on life. My curiosity piqued, I kept a close eye peeled for street dancing on all my drives through Bronx neighborhoods and saw the same kind of circular gathering on Bronx street corners at least three more times. I also noticed, during my visits to Bronx schools, where I regularly give lectures that every single musical performance or talent show that I saw featured dance moves that seemed a cross between those being done in contemporary Hip Hop videos and routines from 1980’s break dance films.
The vitality of street dance traditions in Bronx neighborhoods impressed me so much that I mentioned it during a lecture to teachers at a public university in the Bronx last month, only to be told that the dance phenomenon that I saw actually had a name- “Getting Lite:” and that it was being done by informal dance crews all over the Bronx who were posting their performances on Youtube! When I got home, I decided to explore this phenomenon through Google and found an incredibly array of “Getting Lite” videos in settings that varied from school cafeterias, to street corners, to apartment living rooms, to the insides of McDonalds and Burger Kings and stores which sold Fried Chicken. The dancers were Black and Latino, male and female and were in their early to middle teens, with the average age being 13 or 14. The moves they were doing involved very rapid and graceful foot movements, occasionally accompanied by dips and spins, but the dances lacked the aggressive upper body component of early break dancing and “krumping”- a contemporary dance craze that started on the West Coast- and seemed easier to do a confined space. They were also less gender exclusive- a good number of the dancers in “Getting Lite” videos were young women. The videos themselves were relatively primitive, probably taken on cell phones, but the participants still managed to post them on the internet where some of them registered thousands of hits! Here was electronic democracy at work; giving young people the opportunity to showcase their skills to thousands of people instantly with minimal expense.
As someone who has been studying the cultural and musical traditions of the Bronx, the emergence of a new dance style in some of the very neighborhoods where break dancing originated thirty years ago fascinated me. Like Hip Hop itself during its early Years, roughly 1973- 1976, “Getting Lite” began as a grass roots youth movement in Bronx neighborhoods without any encouragement from commercial media. While amateur “Getting Lite” videos are all over the internet, the dance has not yet been acknowledged or publicized on the major music television networks- MTV and BET- and has not been incorporated into a commercially distributed hip hop video.
The fact that a cultural movement can still start “from the bottom up” in Bronx neighborhoods raises interesting questions on the continuing salience of urban public spaces as centers of cultural and musical creativity. Is this something unique to the Bronx or does it exist wherever large number of marginalized people live in crowded conditions, and where immigration and internal migrations bring people with different cultural traditions in close proximity to one another?
The Bronx today, as it was sixty years ago, when rhythm and blues, jazz and Afro-Cuban music were the sounds heard on the streets, and as it was thirty years ago, when hip hop jams were capturing the imagination of young people in schoolyards, community centers and parks, is a multicultural urban space being rapidly transformed by people of different nationalities moving into the borough in search of affordable housing.. According to the University Neighborhood Housing Program, the Bronx, which has the lowest rents in the city, and the highest number of rent stabilized apartments, has become the borough of choice for “the poorest households who can no longer find an affordable apartment in other parts of the City.” Many of these households are composed of recent immigrants, particularly from West Africa, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, who are moving into private rental housing in the Southern and Western portions of the borough. Statistically, the Bronx has the highest rates of severe overcrowding in the city (4.5% compared to the citywide average of 3.7%), but those rates, based on government surveys which are notoriously unreliable when dealing with undocumented immigrants, seriously underestimate the extent of the problem. A South Bronx priest that I interviewed, Rev John Grange, pointed to the block of five story tenements across the street from his church and said that there was an entire Mexican family, often composed of six or seven people, living in every single room in those buildings. Anyone walking or driving along major Bronx thoroughfares like Fordham Road, the Grand Concourse, Tremont Avenue, or East 138th street, or trying to find a parking place on the street in many Bronx neighborhoods, is likely to trust Father Grange’s estimates more than those of the US Census. The Bronx below Fordham Road is packed with people, all of them Black and Brown, most of them working class and poor, representing a wide variety of nationalities, religions and cultural traditions. Every day, it seems a new mosque, Mexican restaurant or Dominican grocery or hair braiding store opens up and school classrooms are filled with children speaking a wide variety of languages and dialects, some of which, like Soninke, Malinke and Bambara, have never been spoken in the US and are only taught in a handful of Universities.
What does this have to do with Hip Hop Culture and “Getting Lite.” In my opinion, quite a bit. For many young people growing up in the Bronx today, the streets may represent one of the freer and ironically, the safer social spaces they can congregate in. Crowded households, with people sleeping in shifts, with boarders renting space, and in the case of immigrants, with new family members moving in till they can find their own living quarters, are stress filled, noisy, and sometimes violent, hardly places young people would go to seek refuge from danger or find peace and quiet. In my own oral history interviews with Bronx residents, especially those growing up in working class neighborhoods in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s family violence was a recurring theme, as it was in Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s celebrated book, Random Family, which deals with Bronx residents immersed in the drug business, and Ivan Sanchez’s recently published memoir Last Stop: Growing Up Wild Style in the Bronx.. Poverty, crowding, substance abuse, domestic violence, the cultural dissonance that can separate different generations in immigrant families are all factors which pushed generations of Bronx youngsters to seek refuge in the streets, and are still doing so today.
If you look at the “Getting Lite” videos, what comes across most strongly is the unalloyed joy that the dancers display in showing their skills. There are huge smiles on the faces of the kids entering the circle to dance, and those clapping while they perform. It makes me wonder. Do the people in those videos ever look that happy while they are in school, or when they are in their apartments? Is there anything else they do that makes them feel so free, and so alive? There is also considerable diversity in the young people participating. There are girls as well as boys, Latinos as well as Blacks, and, if I can read appearance and body language accurately, kids whose families come from Africa as well as the South and the West Indies. Family problems, language problems, money problems, test passing problems (stemming from schools obsessed with standardized test scores) all seem erased by joyous participation in spontaneous performances that young people create by themselves, for themselves, in spaces designed for other uses.
The exuberant atmosphere of the Getting Lite circles, who participants perform for “street credibility” and neighborhood fame rather than financial gain, mirrors that of the outdoor jams that helped create Hip Hop culture in the Bronx in the 1970s’. To quote David Toop (from James Spady’ s book Street Conscious Rap):
“In those early days, each DJ was strong in his own district and was supported by local followers. Few had access to the big club so the venues were block parties and schools, or in the summer, the parks. A party in the park would entail wining the sound system to a lamp post or going to the house nearest the park, paying the owner and running a cable to their electricity. Then the party would go on till the police broke it up.”
A more detailed portrait of one of the most popular outdoor venues for Bronx hip hop, “63 Park”, a schoolyard at the intersection of Boston Road and 169th Street- only 6 blocks from where I first saw dances “Getting Lite”- is provided by Shelly Shel in a novel about her own experiences in Bronx Hip Hop called Mercedes Ladies:
“Boston Road was the place to be, especially during the summer months, because you always had different DJ crews playing music on the corner. The block was always rocking. Come on, with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Grand Wizard Theodore and the L Brothers, Kool Herc and the Herculords . . . Boston Road in the Bronx was one of the original home bases for hip hop. We’d just be rockin’ on the street corners or in ’63 Park, which was actually a concrete schoolyard down the block. Wherever the music was playing, everybody would be out there. The streets used to be packed, especially during the summer months. Speakers were big as hell with amps to match. They’d be plugged into the street lamppost, or the electric cord extension would be coming from somebody’s house through the window. People danced in the streets or simply stood around posting while the music blasted . . . . If you’re a real hip hop head, you can imagine the electricity that was in the atmosphere. This went on until either the power went out or you heard gunshots from somewhere. Then the cops would come shut shit down. All this action fell under the heading of street jams; they were like a free concert without any promoters or salaries involved, held purely for street rep and fun. It was always a carefree atmosphere.”
Though some of the terms Shelly Shel used to describe the jams as “63 Park”- “carefree atmosphere” “purely for street rep and fun”- could be applied to “Getting Lite “ circles today, the social conditions in Bronx neighborhoods in the 70’s were, at least on the surface, far more dismal. Huge portions of the housing stock of the South Bronx were burning in those years, leaving a landscape filled with rubble filled lots, burned out cars and vacant apartment buildings with broken windows. Hip hop jams, held in community centers, schoolyards, and the open areas of public housing projects, provided temporary escape from the surrounding chaos. A verse from Grandmaster Flash’s“ The Message”- “can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise, got no money to move out, you know I’ve got no choice”-spoke for a generation of young people in the Bronx who attended early hip hop’s events. During an oral history interview, Joe Conzo Jr,, hip hop’s first photographer, described sitting by his window in a public housing project and watching the tenements across the street, on Caldwell Avenue north of 156th, burn to the ground. Matthew Swain, a computer programmer today, described his relief at moving from Andrews Avenue in the West Bronx, where many of the buildings were burning, to the Mill Brook Houses, a public housing project in South Bronx, where dj’s spun records in the park every summer and where fires were no longer a threat. Hip hop, in those difficult years, was a gesture of defiance and affirmation by young people living in communities that had been abandoned by private capital and government and had been written off as dead by most of the outside world.
Mark Naison is a professor at Fordham University. This essay prints his Speech for Conference on Hip Hop and Street Culture in Barcelona, Spain.