Breakdown

When hip hop came to Arkansas

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

In the early ’80s, about the time I started 7th grade, an odd thing happened in my small white Southern town: from its inception on the streets of the South Bronx, breakdancing filtered down to us, and suddenly we were spinning and popping, carrying cardboard boxes so the concrete didn’t tear up our clothes. This was a style of dancing we’d never imagined existed. We had heard rap music from Run-DMC and even Blondie had gotten into the business with “Rapture,” the first song featuring rap to ever to hit #1 on the Billboard 100, but we’d never seen breakdancing, nor the fashion that came with it — bandanas and head-bands, wrist scarves, and baggy pants.

This was a town with gun racks in the windows of pick-up trucks, where everyone in our high school was allowed a skip day when deer season started. Our parents listened to country music and went to church and drove 30 miles to get loaded because liquor wasn’t allowed in our Christian town, and I’ll say now we looked upon anything outside our cultural purview of camouflage and Coors Light as both highly sophisticated and highly dangerous, a thing to both admire and fear. Because of this, we didn’t eat wheat bread or drink dark beer. Men entering middle-age were still mad about Woodstock and hippies and marijuana cigarettes. Break-dancing then, and rap music and hats worn sideways on the head, were suspect here at the same time they were fashionable elsewhere since it all originated outside the walls of our village.

In that summer before my 7th grade year, we were all trying desperately hard to be cool. The Cold War was still frigid, but none of us were. We had all broken out at the same time, but our break-outs were of acne instead of our inner selves. No one could decide who they wanted to be — we all only wanted to be like everyone else. My voice couldn’t decide what it wanted to be either, whether the hard tones of a man or the high pitch of a kid. I wanted a mustache but could only afford fine fuzz on my upper lip, the kind the older men said a cat could lick off. In the cafes, on Saturday morning they drank coffee and decried the declining world.

This was the summer I had joined the swim team, not realizing it would involve swimming. I thought we would just hang out at the pool, growing darker and occasionally flinging wet hair from our eyes. In my first race ever I dove in and my swim trunks, newly purchased by my caring mother because she wanted me to look sleek as I cut through the water, came down to my ankles. My ass flashed like an albino seal, and for the first 50 meters I went along one-armed, trying to hoist my britches up with the other.

It was my last race. I managed to get my shorts up before I was arrested for indecent exposure, but my swim-hopes had been dashed. Retreating from the laughter, I left the pool and walked outside into the awful heat and loneliness only a 12-year-old boy can achieve.

On the basketball court next to the swimming pool a crowd had gathered. I thought first there was a fight coming. There was always a fight coming in my hometown. All through elementary, we had watched fights after school behind the library, and all through senior high we would watch them at the park, long lines of cars coming down the hill from the high school, even the girls who were going to good colleges, even the guys considering seminary.

There were perhaps a dozen kids in the circle. They had a loud boom box, what we also called a “ghetto blaster,” like a laser gun for gang members, and it was playing a song I would come to recognize as “Jam On It” by a band named Newcleus. Perhaps band isn’t the right word, but we didn’t know the right words then. Despite Deborah Harry’s appropriation, we didn’t know anything about the culture, the lyrics, nor the rhythms of rap music. We didn’t know how breakin’ was born, nor how it came here, to small-town Arkansas, where, well, we were all white. Super white. Not even a LatinX person at the time, or Asian. In high school, a Norwegian exchange student would live in town for a year, but he was whiter than we were, if more knowledgeable of the world due to having flown so far to be here.

By the end of the year — this was 1984 — Hollywood would have jumped on the break-wagon and brought us Breakin’, Beat Street, and Body Rock, but what was happening here was a total mystery. The kids with the boom box were from Fort Smith, the closest thing to a city we had, about an hour away. They had come down for the swim meet, but, like me, had wandered away from the water.

In the center of the circle a kid my age was dying. Or so I thought at first. I would later learn he was doing the dolphin, but then it looked as if — because I had never seen anything like it — he was flopping on the beach. He was still wet from his first race so I’ll forgive myself for the misunderstanding. From a full stand he fell forward, curving his body to take the impact of hitting the ground, knees first, then down to his stomach, his shoulders, and finally rising again like a rocker arm, body curving back up to almost full height, then down again, the hot asphalt hardly hurting him. I thought it a magic trick. I wanted to see more.

The next breaker spun on his head, and the one after that seemed to float on his feet. I’d later learn these were amateurs compared to Ozone and Turbo from Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, or any number of inner-city breakers who’d helped develop the style, but they seemed to move on a different plane. Their joints popped when they moved, and their feet were fluid, like watching water run. They played “Jam On It” again and again, and “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, and the circle grew bigger as more and more kids came in to watch.

By the end of the swim meet, when the tall pimply kid who owned the radio turned it off and the crowd dispersed and our parents came to pick us up, I was trying to remember the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight.” My mother asked what I was doing with my arms. Looking in the rearview mirror, she must have thought I was either convulsing, or I had swallowed so much water I was becoming liquid. I had learned the names of some of the moves, and when I told her I was doing the wave, she didn’t ask what it was, nor what it meant nor where it had come from, but I could see her worrying that here was something seriously wrong with me.

By the time school started a few weeks later, the first bandannas and wristbands had appeared. One group of girls wore Michael Jackson gloves and tried to moonwalk in the courtyard, and by late September the first breakdance circles appeared like crop-signs that signaled there might be aliens among us.

There were only a few dancers. I don’t mean to make it sound like we were all poppin’ and lockin’, but we all watched. The circle would grow bigger and bigger as Joe Foster attempted, for the hundredth time, a head spin, which usually ended with someone being kicked in the face as he flailed about, or Stacy Gaston performed his mime dance, in which he not only pretended to be locked inside an invisible box but, since he had nothing else to do in there, pretended to masturbate, complete with climax in the form of spit.

In the hallways Melanie Hart moonwalked to class. Madison Stenn did that Michael Jackson toe-stand, and Amy Bishop wore the jacket from the Thriller video. On the bus to basketball games we listened to Run-DMC.

One Saturday at Walmart two break-dancers gave an exhibition and I remember thinking there was no turning back now. Even at 12, I knew Walmart was the last bastion of conservatism, and here pop-culture — Black pop culture — had infiltrated it, even though the breakdancers were white. They wore slick vinyl tracksuits with bandannas tied around their wrists and ankles and the women watching gasped when they did the worm and the windmill but wandered away when they began to explain how the movement started.

By 1985 even Mr. Rogers was breakin’ (seriously, look it up). Run-DMC released King of Rock, which hit number 52 on the Billboard charts, and 12 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop. LL Cool J released his debut album Radio, long before he started solving crimes on NCIS. Schoolly-D came out with “What Does It Mean?” one of the first gangster rap songs.

While our parents were listening to George Strait and Hank Williams Junior, we were experimenting with early Ice-T and bootlegged Beastie Boys. That summer my best friend and I stayed up late watching The Breakfast Club and Better Off Dead, the whitest movies we knew, but we secretly loved The Last Dragon, in which a Black kid named Bruce Leroy is forced to fight The Harlem Shogun, Sho’Nuff.

At the homecoming dance Stacy Gaston did his locked-in-a-box masturbation. Joe Foster had almost mastered the headspin and was working on the windmill. Melanie and Madison moonwalked even to the slow songs. The DJ kept playing “Beat Street Breakdown” between “Billy Jean” and “Purple Rain,” and each time the circle formed someone would enter, imitating what they’d seen filtering down from a world they would never know.

One morning in October of 1985, Joe Foster challenged me to enter the circle. I had been watching for weeks like everyone else, but the idea to enter had not occurred to me. I had spent the rest of the summer, after the swim meet, practicing the dolphin and the wave and moonwalking forward and backward and sideways, but something stayed my hand-spin. Perhaps it was the idea that I didn’t know what I was doing. None of us did. By the time I was a junior, gangster rap in the form of NWA would have reached us, and we’d walk the halls singing “Fuck the Police” and “Dope Man” without understanding the anger coming out of Compton. (When I saw Boyz n’ the Hood I wanted the shirt Cuba Gooding wears that says “Crenshaw,” not knowing it was the name of the street that cuts through South Central.) All through the ’70s we had heard Motown but knew nothing of Detroit and the exodus from the South that helped start that sound, how Blacks fleeing the segregation we still lived in settled in northern cities, creating Motown music, and Harlem jazz and now rap coming from Queens and breakin’ from the South Bronx.

Perhaps I knew even then that in white America we only accept the cool parts of black culture, adopting them as our own. There’s a reason Blondie hit number one on the Billboard charts long before any black rappers, the same reason Vanilla Ice — a name that managed to proclaim whiteness twice in two words — was the next to do it, followed by Marky Mark — who twice proclaimed himself “Mark.” “Rapture” wasn’t a rap song — it was a pop song with a rap part, a sample to see how it would be received. It would take ten years for rap music to make it anywhere close to mainstream.

None of that mattered to us. We were caught in the culture coming out at us from Compton. This may have been because we realized that our culture was one of war. We lived near an army base where live-fire lit the dry hills every summer. Our fathers watched the news every night and cursed the communists who wanted to destroy us. Every night I feared the missiles flying. Every politician looked exactly like our white fathers, so it’s no wonder we were all confused, that we wanted away from our whiteness and war as much as we wanted to be cool, cool meaning, in this case, not consumed by nuclear fire.

Whatever the reason, we called each other homeboy and crackhead. Girls were strawberry or fly. Shit was dope or wack, depending. We dissed anyone who wasn’t chill. We stole the language, for no other reason than we could, because we wanted it because we wanted what we considered the coolness of black culture without actually being black, because we knew, even isolated as we were in our small white town, that to be black was to be in danger, to be targeted by police and dismissed by people like us, that the only way to get anyone to hear you was to express your life in music or art because no one was listening any other way.

Where we were, we had it all. When we weren’t listening to Run-DMC we had the other ’80s we could switch to, A-Ha and Wham and Bananarama and A Flock of Seagulls with their flopped over hair, as if the ’70s had synthesized into something else. I still don’t know what it was, but we loved it too, even the country music our parents forced us to listen to on the way to school in the morning. We had the hair bands and rock ballads, the keyboards and clapping of John Cougar Mellencamp, a name that’s too depressing now to try to explicate. It was as if we didn’t have a culture of our own and so adopted pieces from everywhere, trying to make ourselves into something else because we didn’t like who we would become.

Six weeks before the ’85 Superbowl the Chicago Bears recorded their own rap song. This was right about the time my high school football team made it all the way to the state championship game, where we would go up against Marvell, a Black high school from the eastern part of the state. The Bears’ rap was not as good as their football, but for some reason we all accepted it — I heard it more times than I care to count, and though it’s shudderingly bad now, I remember how much we loved it. Sweetness came first, followed by Willie Gault, who was followed by Singletary, and in the background, the other Bears kept up that white-guy slide-shuffle throughout the video.

It’s so, so bad. The lyrics are even worse, as is the fake instrument playing, but no one seemed to notice. Caught up in the wave of other bad ’80s music, we didn’t realize that the producers were just trying to cash in on the sudden emergence of rap. I’m surprised Singletary didn’t do the dolphin across the stage.

In February of ’86, it would hit Number 41 on the Billboard 100, and it spawned a wave of imitators, from the ’86 Houston Rockets and their “Rocket Strut” to the “Seminole Rap” of Florida State in ’88. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to rap. By the end of the ’80s whole groups of white people were rapping in commercials, proving that we’ll do anything if we think it’ll make us look cool (it didn’t).

A few days after “Super Bowl Shuffle” was recorded we went to the state championship game, a whole caravan of cars listening mostly to country music while our parents smoked in the front seats. In the stadium, we segregated ourselves by color: I mean my team was purple and gold and Marvell was blue and white, but I also mean we sat white on one side of the stadium and they sat Black on the other. The respective cheerleaders were introducing themselves to one another and the players were shaking hands on the field, but we sat staring, waiting for the game to begin so we could pretend it was every day we interacted with black people, that we could talk to them as easily as we could talk to each other, that we knew their hopes and fears and dreams and what made them who they were.

I don’t remember much of the game, only that the other team was bigger and faster than we were, and every time they scored we got a little madder, retreating into our old insecurities a little further, the same way we feared the Soviet Union, the same way we feared ourselves and everything we didn’t understand. When the Marvell band took the field at halftime, we were down two touchdowns and seething, so it didn’t surprise me when, as their drum line began to dance, that the old men from my town stood staring, open-mouthed, as if they didn’t quite know what was happening.

It didn’t last long. Maybe someone did a backflip. Maybe someone did the dolphin. Whatever happened, I realized our parents didn’t know what we’d been doing, not the music we were listening to, not the culture we were captivated by. Maybe it’s not fair to say they didn’t know anything existed outside our postage stamp of land, but it is fair to say they didn’t give it much thought, sure as they were that we would follow in their non-moonwalking footsteps.

At the end of the game we filed out of the stands, our egos bruised and beer-battered. In the bathroom a long line of men who’d been sipping smuggled whisky were emptying themselves into troughs along the wall, and I waited in line, a small kid who still looked up to the men around him, even as he began to understand their ignorance might end the world.

“Did you see that shit at halftime?” one man said, shaking his head. His face, lined by wind and weather and a declining middle-age, was so close to the wall over the urinal he had his hat turned backwards, which made me wonder how far he could see in front of him. “I mean, did you see them shucking and jiving?”

Of course, he said more. There were some slurs. I’m not afraid of telling you what they were. I’m just choosing to remember it differently, in the hope that my changing of the story might change the men I looked up to as a boy, allow them to see the world through a different-colored lens. He finished and flushed and went to wash his hands, where he looked at himself in the mirror. That he went out into the passageways of the big stadium and saw his kids waiting for him, and then, to cheer them up, moonwalked all the way to his car. •

Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt YouThis One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We'll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, and Tin House. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm. @PaulCrenstorm

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