Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Break Out The Blue & Gold Jump Suits!

The mid 80s witnessed the peak of the world wide break dancing craze, but the roots of the dance style extended as far back as the mid 70s. During 1977 a dance crew calling themselves the Rock Steady Crew started appearing on the streets of the Bronx borough of New York City. Bronx ‘b-boys’ Jimmy D and Jojo were the founders of the original Rock Steady Crew, but each of New York’s five boroughs had an equivalent dance crew, with competition to gain acceptance fierce to say the least. To gain admission an outsider had to out dance an incumbent member of the crew. I can recall having to survive a similarly gladiatorial challenge to become a fully fledged member of the local chapter of the ‘Star Wars Collectors Card Society’ during the same period - I’ll see your Chewbacca and raise you two C-3POs - but enough of my traumatic childhood experiences.

During 1979 a young man going by the moniker of Crazy Legs became a key member of the Rock Steady Crew. Crazy Legs soon started busting moves in and around Manhattan (hopefully not in peak hour traffic), and began making contacts with the burgeoning Hip Hop scene. He initially sought to start a Manhattan based chapter of the Rock Steady Crew but couldn’t locate any of the original Bronx crew to get their ok. Instead Crazy Legs joined another South Bronx based crew called the Rockwell Association (no association with the Rockwell - see earlier post). The Rockwell Association gave Crazy Legs their backing to kick start his own crew in Manhattan, but he eventually opted in 1981 to use the Rock Steady Crew tag, after finally getting the ok from Jimmy D.

The Crazy Legs chapter of the Rock Steady Crew began attracting a lot of attention for their performances. In August 1981 a battle with rival ‘b-boys’ the Dynamic Rockers attracted local television coverage and received space in The New York Times and even National Geographic, bringing the profile of the Rock Steady Crew to both national and international attention. Crazy Legs was then named the official President of the Rock Steady Crew - though I doubt he had to go through the whole electoral process normally associated with these things. By 1982 the Rock Steady Crew were appearing on the same bills as music acts like Bow Wow Wow and Afrika Bambaataa (known as the ‘Godfather of Hip-Hop’). Though when appearing at venues such as the Ritz nightclub, I’m not certain if the blue and gold jump suits had yet become a part of the act.

Now at this point the intricacies of the whole ‘b-boy’ scene gets a little complicated. But basically I think that through impressing Afrika Bambaataa, Crazy Legs and his Rock Steady Crew were admitted to the Zulu Kings who in turn were part of the Zulu Nation - now I’m guessing all of this remained geographically within the confines of New York, but obviously with cultural derivatives that extended beyond. Several members of the Rock Steady Crew, including Crazy Legs, appeared in a sequence in the film ‘Flashdance’ in 1983. During this period the Rock Steady Crew expanded to become more of a social and cultural collective, incorporating dancers, roller skaters, graffiti artists and DJs. But Crazy Legs and his dance lieutenants, or should that be congressmen (and women), were soon taking Europe by storm with Afrika Bambaataa and other artists on a fully fledged Hip-Hop tour. In November 1983 Rock Steady Crew were afforded the honour of appearing at the Royal Variety Performance. Given their strong affinity with cutting edge music, the Rock Steady Crew were soon offered a recording deal of their own with U.K. label Charisma Records (through Virgin).

In late 1983 the song ‘(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew’ was released in Britain and soon busted into the top ten (#6). At this time the members of The Rock Steady Crew that appeared on the record, and in the video, were Crazy Legs, Prince Ken Swift, Buck 4, Kuriaki, Doze, and ‘fly-girl’ Baby Love. ‘(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew’ had elements of contemporary dance music, rap and hip-hop in the mix. The vocals from the Rock Steady Crew were nothing special but good enough to get by, and good enough to push the song to #33 here in Australia early in ‘84 (#38 U.S. Dance). The Rock Steady Crew website makes reference to the fact that the Crew weren’t really offered the chance to have much creative input into the music that was released in their name, and were in some respects taken advantage of by the record label(s) involved. After ‘(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew’ racked up sales of over a million, it was inevitable that an album and follow up singles would ensue. In May ‘84 the very funky song ‘Up Rock’ hit the charts (UK#64), and became the Rock Steady Crew’s biggest hit in Australia (#9). The song peaked in Australia roughly around the same time that the Rock Steady Crew made a very famous appearance on the ABC’s Countdown program. Countdown was holding a national break dancing competition and Rock Steady Crew were special guests on the finale. I recall having been totally hooked on the song ‘Up Rock’ and in awe of the dance skills of the Rock Steady Crew, in particular Crazy Legs with the whole head spinning thing. By then the blue and gold jump suits had become a signature image for the Rock Steady Crew, and I sat with finger at the ready on the VCR record button to capture the best of the Rock Steady Crew’s appearance on Countdown. Sadly, I’d neither the dexterity nor neck muscles to replicate any of the moves that so intrigued me, but I could (and did) play the song ‘Up Rock’ incessantly at the time and yearned for my own blue and gold jumpsuit.

The aptly named album ‘Ready For Battle’ was released in mid ‘84 and was produced by B. Soldier and Stephen Hague. It battled its way to #73 in the U.K. and #34 in Australia. It only featured seven tracks, but did spawn one more minor hit single in Australia with ‘She’s Fresh’ (#85). It seems remarkable that the Rock Steady Crew didn’t score a mainstream hit record in the U.S., but a major factor may have been that Charisma Records went belly up and their catalogue was taken over by Virgin Records, so maybe distribution and marketing were issues. The Rock Steady Crew were advised by their management to put everything on hold, including their dance performances. Under contractual constraints the Rock Steady Crew lost all the momentum they had worked so hard to establish, and soon faded from view during the second half of the 80s.

Some members of the Rock Steady Crew went on to other pursuits, but Crazy Legs remained involved and during the early 90s relaunched the Crew on the club scene. In 1991 a musical titled ‘So, What Happens Now?’ covered some of the Rock Steady story, and was a critics choice in the New York Times. Each year since a Rock Steady Crew anniversary has kept the flame burning on this dance/hip-hop institution, which now backs many community based initiatives. In 2008 the Rock Steady Crew celebrated 31 years as a going concern, with ‘President’ Crazy Legs still providing inspiration at the helm, to a group that has chapters across the U.S., Japan, the U.K. and Italy.

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