For Ghost, Golden Child, and Saibot, the three cats in the breakdancing crew Lionz of Zion, the battle is the ultimate expression of twinkle-toed dexterity. Each routine begins innocently enough, with the requisite standing moves, known as “uprocking.” Momentum builds as each dancer hits the floor and peaks when, together, the b-boys launch their power moves and start contorting themselves in ways that violate all sense of gravity and human anatomy—standing on their hands and swinging their legs like helicopter blades, spinning on their hands and back-flipping across the circle. Throw in the testosterone-laced shit-talking, crotch grabbing, and minor shoving from the competitors, and by the time the battle’s over, the intensity in the room is thicker than smoke, and the jaws of everyone around the Lionz are slack.
“You have to be willing to battle anybody any time,” the Lionz’ manager, Kevork Garmirian, tells me. When I bring up the topic of combat, Ghost’s face lights up for a moment, then hardens into a stony scowl. “When I battle,” Ghost says, “I want to hurt you.”
If all battles were fought under a strobe light, with a James Brown breakbeat for a soundtrack and a throng of honeys looking on, the Lionz of Zion would run the world. The threesome has already established a reputation as perhaps the best b-boy crew in the area, challenged by only one other, the Natural Elements. And the Lionz have been to New York to battle hiphop’s best-known breakdancing clique, Crazy Legs and his Rock Steady Crew.
But—perhaps more importantly—the group also represents the forces currently altering hiphop’s social order. The hiphop generation today suffers from cultural amnesia, forgetting the forebears of the form. The culture and the music have become almost wholly unrelated entities. Groups like the Lionz keep carrying the old-school torch, though doing so has become less marketable in a sphere ever smitten by novel ephemera. It’s a noble struggle. Too bad no one’s watching.
Ghost’s basement in Falls Church doubles as a mini-dance studio, where the group practices on a large swath of soft tile in the middle of a carpeted floor. The Lionz use a large-screen TV to critique footage of every battle and performance they give. (Ghost watches TV sometimes, too.) Tonight, the sounds of Jeru the Damaja hum low from a small radio. Golden Child is spinning a tale that reflects the sorry-ass state of the art:
The setting is Rhode Island, where Golden Child was enrolled in culinary school. One weekend, he decided to check out a new hiphop club that had recently opened. The handbill even featured a b-boy doing a move called a chair freeze. Fresh in his Fila sweats and jersey, Golden Child trooped to the joint, expecting to find a new battleground—or at least a spot to show off his latest combo of moves. “There were, like, six people in front of me,” he says. “The bouncer looked back at me and called out, ‘No sweats, no jerseys, no caps.’ He basically listed everything I had on.”
Each member has an extensive list of such incidents, in which he tried to get into a spot that billed itself as a “hiphop club,” only to be turned away for dressing like an original hiphop head. Saibot even made the mistake of taking seriously the ads for the local club D.C. Live, in which the club insists it plays hiphop. “We went over there,” Saibot says, “and on one side [there were] the Versace hoochies, and on the other side were the gangsta bunnies.” Being neither, he didn’t get in.
It’s typical treatment for the b-boy, who’s right there with the graffiti artist as the most overlooked of hiphop artists. Yet the lack of a spotlight and its pleasures have not swayed the Lionz from perfecting their complex style. Watching Ghost, for example, is a mathematical experience. His uprocking and floor work are at once blindingly swift and mechanically exact. When Ghost prowls the circle and explodes into a whirlwind of limbs, the unseasoned eye is never sure exactly what it has seen—only that it’s just been dazzled.
Whereas Ghost is angular and geometrically precise, Golden Child is fluid and jointless. While his floor moves catch the eye, it is his freeze techniques that distinguish him. Saibot, the group’s sole African-American member, is a masterful exhibitor of breakdancing’s anti-gravity elements—headspins and high-flying flares. Together, the group jells sublimely.
But the Lionz practice an art that even its inventors have classified as passe. It’s been a decade and a half since breakdancing reached the zenith of its popularity. In the early ’80s, a slew of movies came out centered around hiphop, and breaking featured quite prominently in them. At a party, it was nothing for a circle to form and kids to bust out into windmills and backspins. It seemed as though every other street corner was home to cats dancing on cardboard for change, or just for the hell of it. But breakdancing disappeared from the popular scene with a swiftness that rivaled that of rap’s polka-dot era. Even for purists, breaking suddenly became like the Soul Train line—something you did at a party as a nostalgic joke.
But some folks weren’t laughing. As most black Americans and Latinos (who dominated during the early years) moved on to the Cabbage Patch, the Whop, and the Snake, breakdancing became a pop-culture stepchild—with devoted caretakers. Progenitors like Crazy Legs and Rock Steady stuck with it, and a horde of suburban whites and Asians who went crazy over one look at Wild Style or Beat Street began to adopt the forgotten art.
“I got into b-boying watching Beat Street,” explains Ghost, a Vietnamese-American. “Back then I thought I was the only Asian out there breaking.” The reality, as Ghost learned, was much different. Chapters of Rock Steady followers dot the globe; one of the largest is in Japan. Golden Child, who is white, notes that when he first started, all the crews he saw were Filipino.
All three members insist that race is not an issue for them when it comes to dancing. The only culture that’s relevant, in their context, is hiphop culture. In exhibitions, Ghost and Golden Child have had to deal with the predictable aspersions cast on latecomers. “Me and Golden Child have to work harder,” says Ghost. “You get [people saying] you’re a wannabe.”
The reality, however, is that the most likely candidates for breakdancing wannabes now are not Asians and whites, but black Americans. To be sure, hiphop began as an expression of the African diaspora—a mingling of mostly Caribbean, Latino, and African-American cultures. And in 1979, you wouldn’t likely have found a b-boy crew with the Lionz’ demographic makeup. But 20 years later, when crews entirely made up of Asian b-boys abound, it is the all-black b-boy crew that is rare.
With the exception of rap, blacks don’t have a dominating presence in any other element of hiphop. Legions of platinum MCs—from Puff Daddy to Busta Rhymes— yell, “Hiphop lives!” wherever there’s a microphone—but almost none of these artists has a DJ in his group or a crew of breakers featured in his stage show. With young black Americans abandoning critical elements of hiphop culture besides rap—DJ-ing, graffiti, and breakdancing—they find themselves pretenders in a culture they helped create.
“I talk to these kids,” says Golden Child, “and they’re like, ‘Black people started it.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, but at least show some knowledge….’” Listening to Golden Child makes me shiver. I can recite Kool G. Rap’s “Streets of New York” verbatim, but until recently, I wouldn’t have known a flare if I had done it myself.
It’s Thursday night at the Hung Jury in downtown D.C., and the Lionz’ reception couldn’t be any more unlike their previous club experiences. They get in free and don’t even get frisked at the door (whereas your friendly neighborhood journalist gets a good pat-down). Inside, it’s like a scene from Cheers as the three exchange pounds with the regulars and get ready to go into their routine.
Tonight’s circle is innocent, small, polite. There’s no battling, and only one other breaker who isn’t down with the Lionz joins the fray. As I watch the group run through an assortment of acrobatic flips and flares, I become perplexed. I don’t know if it’s my stupid prejudice or some sense of heritage talking, but I can’t help but think that more people who look like me should be in that circle.
I don’t begrudge the Lionz their success, but watching them forces me to confront my identity as a hiphop head. It’s easy to love rap in ’99; it’s America’s most popular music. But can you love those aspects of hiphop that thrive in the basement of popular culture? Can you proclaim genius in a backspin or beat-juggling when no one else cares? These are hard questions for even the most ardent self-proclaimed purist. The sad fact of the matter is the average head’s bond to rap is tight, but his bond to the rest of the culture is far more tenuous than he’d ever want to believe. CP