Interviewed by Madeleine Byrne
Chief69 is a Bronx based Bboy/Emcee/ Graffiti writer/educator of Puerto Rican descent, inspired by Rammellzee, Mr Wiggles, Keith Haring, KRS-One, Immortal Technique, Brother J (X Clan), Frosty Freeze, among others. Member of Zulu Nation and President of the Mecca chapter of The Bronx Boys Rocking Crew, Chief69 is keeping the spirit of the pioneers alive in his ‘positive and consciously imaginative works of art and performance pieces’.
Here in this extended three-part interview with Hip Hop Forum Chief69 takes us back to the beginnings of hip-hop culture in the Bronx, to then talk about the foundations, spiritual dimensions of b-boying. Towards the end, Chief69 gives his take on education/miseducation in the US and hip-hop politics. Thanks Chief69 for sharing some knowledge with us.
HHF: Could you describe those very early days of b-boying, or rocking – back in the 70s?
Chief69: At that time you had a lot of different parties in the neighbourhood, in school yards, community centers, project housing centers. Usually it was in the evening, sometimes you had them sporadically in the afternoons and they (the parties) would pop up all over the Bronx, not just in one part of the Bronx, not just from one DJ and not just from one person. DJ Kool Herc was one of the first to play more of the funk sounds cause at that time people were playing more disco.
Back then at these parties it was people of all ages; if they were in the day-time, if they were in evening it was usually more an older crowd, like late teenagers or adults, but this was definitely a youth movement. You know this was the 70s so they were cutting out the funding to after-school programs, that’s why a lot of these kids were on the street; they were cutting out funding to teach them to play instruments so that’s why a lot of these kids made their own instruments, using turntables as instruments. They weren’t in bands, they couldn’t afford that. They couldn’t afford nice art supplies so they painted on the trains.
You would walk into one of these jams, if you got invited or if you stumbled upon it, you’d hear music in the neighborhood and you’ll just start walking near it and it was like, hey what’s going on, you know. You’d get closer and feel the vibration and you would feel the energy and it would make you want to dance, cause it’s feel good music, which is that whole funk, soul thing. Usually the DJs would bring their own friends to carry records; some of them later on would have friends who’d make announcements, they were the very early emcees. The DJs were always like the superstars of these events, the b-boys and b-girls weren’t the superstars unless they were really, really talented.
HHF: I can hear a great love for this era in your voice, what prompted this interest for you? Your dad introduced you to hip-hop …
HHF: What is it about this era that so impresses you?
Chief69: Well, yeah, I was born in 91, so I wasn’t around for none of this (laughs). However, I identify it as the original foundation and essence of the whole hip-hop movement. Those first ten years you could say before a hip-hop record was ever recorded before an emcee ever spoke words into a microphone … A lot of people forget there was at least a decade before in the culture. These were the formative years. Everyone was experimenting musically; everyone was experimenting artistically; everyone was experimenting with the dance; everyone was trying to figure out where they were going to take this and no-one knew.
The mid-late 70s at the same time you have a lot of other things in America going on, especially on the north-east coast: you had a lot of police brutality, you had salsa music coming out of the Bronx.
The heavy metal/punk scene was coming out of the East Coast. The Civil Rights movement carried on you had all these movements, like the Black Panther Party, The Young Lords. A lot of these people would mingle and interact with the hip-hop crowd.
Some of the hip-hop people, in those early years, in those formative years were politicised; a lot of them were not though, a lot of them just did this because it was fun. They weren’t going to school, they’d go to these jams, get high, drink. It was their childhood.
This was the time when a lot of New York and the Bronx was abandoned by government funding. Things were really rough, even compared to the 90s and the 80s in New York City which were also rough. This is why I like the era; it’s captivating in the lens of looking at it from a historical point of view. It’s just probably the most interesting time that we will never see again in New York’s history and probably human history.
HHF: You’ve talked about the way your work connects with your ‘ancestors’ – the pioneers – could you expand on that a little more. Why is this important for you?
Chief69: I think it’s important because a lot of them come from my neighborhood – a lot of them come from the same circumstances as me. I live in the hood. I don’t live in a very nice place in New York City on 5th Ave. I don’t shop at the Gucci store, I go to the corner-store (laughs) and buy my clothes from discount places; I’m like any other person out here. As far as my generation of millennials a lot of us grew as Hot 97 babies, we grew up in the whole bling-bling era when the music was leaving that New York sound and going down south. Even if I have a lot of passion for that New York sound, a lot of it is lost. When you look at the dance today, you don’t really see the foundations any more. You don’t see that New York Bronx style, when I dance I keep that alive. On the graffiti aspect, you don’t really see people coming back to the roots and making those connections, because graffiti is worldwide now and it’s become commercialised to a degree. The Bronx even to this day has always been the bastard child of the culture.
HHF: I know you have links to two groups: The Bronx Boys Rocking Crew – TBB (est. 1975) and the Zulu Nation (est 1973) … How are you continuing this legacy?
Chief69: Basically I got down with The Bronx Boys Rocking Crew and Zulu Nation in 2010-2011, as far as TBB, I’m the President of the TBB mecca chapter – which is a big honor that was bestowed upon me. We are international, we have members all over the world. Our crew is one of the first dance crews ever. We do performances, we do battles. We enter dance competitions. We have a lot of members who are into other elements, sometimes they are passionate about hip-hop, or they’re cool and down with the family.
It’s always been like that, ever since the beginning. Like a lot of the b-boys over the years would have like a little sister and the little sister might show them some dance moves and she would be a b-girl temporarily; or they might have a girlfriend and that girlfriend, or significant other, might learn the moves, or may take it seriously.
There hasn’t been a lot of b-girls in the formative years, however I heard of a whole b-girl crew in Queens. I heard of a few b-girls who were talented and a lot of the guys respected them but a lot of those stories are not being told because there was a large lack of female energy, always even to this day. Not to say it doesn’t exist, it does exist and there are definitely honorable women, but often when it comes to the music they have to sacrifice their individuality it seems. When it comes to the dance, competitions have a lot of politics. Recently though you see a lot of girls entering competitions all over the world and this is beautiful to see today.
HHF: Let’s focus in on the dance, you’ve talked about the foundations, what do you mean by that in terms of b-boying/b-girling?
Chief69: When we say hip-hop dance, we’re talking about b-boying/b-girling because it started in the Bronx, right. The dance started uptop, with what we call the Bo-oi-oing, it’s basically a hopping style of what we call top-rock, where you’re bouncing – you’re bouncing from side to side to the beat. It’s still a dance, it’s within the movement of top-rock, which is everything you do standing up. In the early years everybody would do it standing up with what we call uprocking, or top-rock. A lot of it consisted of steps, jumps, slides – mixing things, like a lot of the Puerto Ricans would mix salsa hip movements, Latin formal dance movements and mix that with funk party movements.
A lot of the early b-boys and DJs all had African roots and in the Caribbean islands. In all the islands – Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Trinidad … – there are many different dances that come from different parts of Africa where you have a drummer, a dancer. Usually the drummer follows the dancer and they’d call it different names from island to island, but basically those movements came into b-boying.
Alongside that a lot of the movements came from what people saw on TV, by the mid-to late 70s you had ‘Soul Train’ it introduced other moves of dancing that came from the West Coast, like locking from the Campbell Lockers and popping that came from the Electric Boogaloo. When people started seeing this by the mid-late 70s, by the 80s, you had a whole popping scene in New York City. You see in the 80s, if you look at the footage they mix b-boying with popping because it was popular at the time, but in the early days you didn’t have no-one like popping, in the 70s everyone was uprocking, or b-boying strictly and doing party movements.
HHF: Speaking generally, it seems like a language, where if you’re battling another guy you respond to what they do; is that true, it’s like a language of movements?
Chief69: It depends on the context. For example, if I’m in what we call a cypher … First, the term cypher, a lot of people don’t understand where it comes from, the term comes from The Nation of Gods and Earths, the 5 per centers, the term cypher is a circle you build a 360 degree circle, basically we’re exchanging knowledge, so whether it’s a DJ cypher, with a turntable set-up, the DJ will do their routine and then the next DJ will come in, so they’re having a conversation. If you have a dance cypher, you have a circle and we exchange our movements. Or I might dance however I feel, do a freestyle, or I might do a routine that I’ve been working on to impress the other dancers, or maybe I want to impress a female in the crowd, who’ll think oh wow, he’s an amazing dancer (laughs). There are many different ways of seeing it.
We might also have what we call battles, or call-outs where within the cypher someone might get offended, someone may feel like they have something to prove because they come from a different neighborhood, or they come from a different block. You live on 149th and they live on 148th, they’re going to battle you and represent their block and their friends are watching. Those really early years are often glorified as super-happy and friendly, but a lot of times it really wasn’t. In a lot of these battles people took it too seriously and they’d shoot stuff but you don’t hear that a lot.
The media tends to portray it as soft, like kids who are not violent are doing this, when a lot of these dances were created by the most violent people. They were created by thugs of the neighborhood. A lot of the early b-boys were stick up kids. When they weren’t dancing they’d go stick up some people; they weren’t going to school, they were getting high that’s the real stuff that was going on. Not everyone, but a lot of them were. They weren’t bad kids. They were dealing with the circumstances they were given. The dance, like the general culture was what they were exposed to. A lot of these people grew up to become like councillors, a lot of them grew up to become activists. A lot of them were later politicised, a lot of them were locked up.
HHF: You’ve talked about the ‘spiritual’ dimensions of what you do, you’ve talked about honoring your ancestors, remembering those who have passed. When you’re actually dancing do you feel like there is a spiritual component to what you do?
Chief69: I think it is definitely like a spiritual experience. I look at it this way, if I’m dancing to James Brown, right, or any other funk music especially if it’s a live band recording, I’m feeling that energy that somebody might have felt in the 70s in a concert arena, seeing this band five feet from them. I feel that energy. Some of these band members, most of the band members are not very well-known by dancers of hip-hop yet we sample this music all the time. A lot of people don’t know who the band members are, I think that’s kind of sad. But at least as dancers we get to appreciate them a little bit more than the emcees, or the graffiti writers, or maybe even a little bit more than the DJs. While the DJs are like playing with the music, we’re really taking it in, it’s making us jump. It’s making us dive, making us spin. We’re like losing ourselves in the rhythm. It’s definitely spiritual. It’s like when you see a basketball, or baseball game you get really enthusiastic about it, when Michael Jordan goes for a slam-dunk you get lost in the moment as a spectator, but you even get more lost as the person making the dunk (laughs).
That’s how the dance is for us. We’re not a spectator. The DJ is a spectator, even though they’re like a wizard, the DJ is like a wizard because they’re giving us the magic. They’re making a magical experience for us, but we’re the one in the magic. We’re in the moment. When we dance we get to forget our daily issues. We get to forget, hey maybe I’m poor. For this dance, maybe for these few hours, I’m rich. For these few hours, I’m Bruce Lee. For these few hours, I’m Superman in my neighborhood. Then when I leave the dance floor it’s back to 9-5, it’s back to reality. That’s why the dance is so special.
HHF: One comment you made in an interview that I found really interesting was that ‘hip-hop is linked to the idea of taking back public property’. You were talking about how in New York dancers often hustle on the street (in Manhattan, or wherever), but that comment seemed to me to have a broader political meaning as well. Could you explore this?
Chief69: It’s definitely political. Hip-hop from its inception if you look at the early jams, there were no permits. They had no permission from the city to connect their electricity to the light post in the neighborhood. They also sometimes had no permission to go into a school yard; they also had no permission to dance even in the early parties at popular venues in New York City they didn’t accept the b-boys and b-girls because disco was popular. They kicked us out as a people so this forced us to create underground spots. If people had a garage, they’d open up their garage for people to dance in. If you had street gangs in the 70s who had a clubhouse, then the clubhouse would be were the party was. A lot of those clubhouses were abandoned buildings where they weren’t paying rent (laughs) it was like a political statement you know.
If you look at the history of groups like the Savage Skulls, with the Young Lords they had altercations against police. The Young Lords took over the Statue of Liberty in the 70s twice and put a big Puerto Rican flag on the crown of the Statue of Liberty, which I think is an amazing action in itself. A lot of them were friends with b-boys and b-girls, I bet you they had hip-hop in their fire, in their essence.
HHF: Going back to your comment though, you were talking about people hustling on the street and then having trouble with police. Your comment interests me because it’s about reclaiming the streets, reclaiming the city and the way dance allows young people from poor neighborhoods to make money. Both of these idea have a political dimension.
Chief69: When it comes to people dancing in the street, or doing their artwork, if you’re from the environment where I’m from, the Bronx today, it’s no different politically from 40 years ago when hip-hop was starting. The Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the United States. The Bronx has a very high unemployment rate for people aged 18-25, that’s definitely my age range and the age range of most of the people who do this dance. A lot of the people who do this dance are drop-outs, it’s hard for them to get a job; a lot of them have records. If you look at the average person, a young man of color or a young woman of color – it’s usually young men though, it’s much easier to be positive and dance for money. The reason why the city doesn’t like it is because they say we block the street, so people can’t walk by, or we blast music too loud so it becomes a disturbance to businesses. Or they even say things like it’s ‘poor taste’. I’ve heard all kinds of things from cops and the system. We’ve had our speakers taken, this has been going on for years, the same way they confiscate narcotics when they catch people in the street with that. I get it it’s an illegal substance, they’re just doing their job.
But if we’re just dancing in the street, or doing artwork, they shouldn’t confiscate (our stuff) – it’s our property, but we never get it back. Some of the dancers hustle so they can feed their kids, you know.
HHF: Let’s now talk about knowledge, you’re also a teacher and see this as an important part of your role, right.
HHF: You’ve said that the main issue facing young people is education, or more miseducation, can you talk about that more?
Chief69: When I’m speaking about this I’m talking about the United States. They teach you many different things – you can become an educated person however a lot of it is just memorizing information. In the American educational school system they don’t necessarily teach us the things that would help us become successful people. They used to teach music and mechanics and carpentry in New York City, they don’t teach any of that now.
One of the beautiful things in the hip-hop context though is I actually go to colleges and I speak. I speak about hip-hop culture; a lot of these colleges have courses on hip-hop and urban culture and what was going on in the 70s. These are things I’m thinking about every day and it’s reflected in my culture and my music, the dance and graffiti.
When I go to college I’m putting them on to .. well they could search it on Google but they wouldn’t know what to look up. They can read all the books in the world, but there are lots of things that are not in the books which I shared with you today. I think it’s always interesting to meet someone first-hand who is within something. You can learn martial arts if you wanted to if you practised the moves but you’re not going to get the philosophy that a teacher would sit down and give you. That’s part of the whole miseducation thing and education in general. A lot of people learn about hip-hop culture, they learn about Black culture, they learn about urban culture from an outside perspective. You have professors at colleges doing lectures on hip-hop who have never even visited the hood. They have never left their comfort zone, they’ve never come on a subway train in New York City; they’ve never seen a fight on the street; they’ve never had a 50 cent bag of chips and a 50 cent soda (laughs). A lot of those little things – this environment, this is part of hip-hop. There is a reason why this environment created this energy and why it still does.
A lot of people confuse hip-hop with the street culture and gangs, it was never about that. Those people eventually came into the conversation because hip-hop embraces everyone, which is the gift and the curse of this blessing. But back to the education thing, for someone like me it’s kind of special cause I graduated high school but I didn’t attend college but I get to speak at colleges and high schools all the time about what I do. I generally tell them this information and have these discussions for free, but it’s kind of cool for me to stab the schools back, you know. I slap them in the face cause I get some of their budget (laughs) but I’m educated to know often enough it’s stolen money anyway, because a lot of these colleges were formed upon plantations and plantation owners’ money. But they don’t often want to have those conversations, you know.
HHF: How does Zulu Nation fit in here?
Chief69: Afrika Bambaataa, one of the founders of Zulu Nation, was one of the first people to promote young inner city youth in the late 70s, the early 80s. He was having conversations with them and would say, hey do you want to come on tour with me? He’d take someone from the hood and they’d see the world. They might stop gangbanging because they’d see that there is a ghetto everywhere and they could get out of their issues. He may have taken someone who had been incarcerated and given them an opportunity to perform.
Zulu Nation created a lot of opportunities for people who then became politicised and given a global perspective on things. They could see that even though the Bronx is fairly horrible, it’s also horrible in India, in South-East Asia, there are a lot of people who are illiterate who deal with the same circumstances as us in the Bronx but they can’t even read. It could be worse. We don’t have to deal with bombs going off like in the Gaza Strip. Zulu Nation was the first group to do this, it politicised a lot of people.
HHF: Thanks for your time today, you’ve been really generous. I’ll let you have the final words …
Chief69: I would love to give a shout out to A Tribe Called Quest, for Phife Dawg who recently passed away – who was a member of Zulu Nation – my heart and the hearts of hip-hop go out to him and his family and to everyone else we recently lost: Sean Price, for example. We appreciate these people even if they’re not appreciated by mainstream America, or mainstream music industry worldwide. My last shout out is if you’re not from America and you’re a hip-hop head, you’re still special. A lot of people from America think that they’re better than everyone else, just because they were born here but I think that there is talent all over the world and it should be embraced.
You can find Chief69’s Newest Mixtape Release Below