Friday, April 6, 2012
The Cocaine City Boys were out in full force this balmy summer evening. Tired day laborers/office workers & civil servants, coming off the #7 train, cast a weary glance towards the menacing presence gathered at the foot of the 90th street station in Jackson Heights. An unavoidable gauntlet arrayed in front of them; a pack of surly teenagers ready to strike out with the maximum amount of violence at the slightest hint of provocation over real or perceived slights.
It was the summer of 1982 & the CC Boys were a walking anachronism, a throwback to an earlier era of 70's style street gang culture. As Hip Hop's B-Boy's aesthetics was just about to break in to the mainstream's consciousness via groundbreaking appearances such as the Rock Steady breakdance crew & their scene-stealing moment via movies like FLASHDANCE. The CC Boys stubbornly clung on to outdated rituals & motiffs from a bygone era. Gang colors were still proudly worn on sleeve-less denim vests over leather jackets. Assorted World War II/Civil War paraphernalia, bandannas & motorcycle boots completed their daily ensemble. By the end of the year, various members with names like Junebug/Chocolate/Chiquitin/Pan Quemao, would be headed to gladiator academies like Spofford's juvenile correctional facility up in the Bronx. From there, as the 80s continued, most of them would end caught up in an endless downward spiral of drugs/crime followed by recurring stints of doing hard time at Rykers or any of the upstate NY prison farms.
I was a big Science Fiction nerd growing up & I remember reading Norman Spinrad's short story "The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde". This story, set in a dystopian future, told the tale of a group of obsolete Mongol horsemen that launch a last futile mounted charge against technologically superior odds. While the CC Boys were nowhere as romantic sounding as this, there was a melancholic aura of tragedy surrounding them. One knew that their days were numbered & if they could have spoken what they intuitively must have felt; I'm sure they considered themselves last of a dying breed, struggling to hold on to the familiar as events far out of their control turned their world upside down. My parents used them as a cautionary tale of who not to be & stay away from. They needn't have bothered as me & my crew of aspiring 13 year old B-Boys from the neighborhood were scared shitless of them.
The CC boys were only about 4-5 years older than us at most, but they looked like grown-ass men to us with a ferocious reputation for mayhem. Rumors of other "divisions" of the gang, culled from other parts of the city, were ready to back them up at a moment's notice. Stories of a legendary rumble at Flushing Meadows park in '79 still circulated around the way. The dawn of the Hip Hop era was supposed to have replaced fights with choreographed Breakdance battles, loosely affiliated Graffitti crews over gang chapters & an overall cease-fire that trumped the violent urban decay of the 1970s. A lot of people I knew growing up didn't get this memo, those Breakdance showdowns more often than not degenerated into violent melees, Graffitti writers beat down rival crews on sight & bands of roving stick-up kids declared open season on everyone's gear; snatching up sneakers/jackets/jewelry & your last nickel if you let your guard down.
The term B-Boy comes from the original Rap parties up in the Bronx during the early 70's. Whenever the DJ would replay the coolest part, or break, from a classic Funk/Soul or Rock jam that would get everyone moving en masse to the dance floor. The Break or B-Boys for short would command the center, showing off stylized routines that would eventually be codified into Breakdancing patterns. By the time this emerging style filtered down to our neck of the woods in Queens & the rest of New York City's 5 boroughs; being a B-Boy meant the 4 distinct, yet interrelated aspects of the culture: Graffitti, Breakdancing, DJing & Rapping/MCing. All of these elements came together at block parties & events held at community youth centers. We soon discovered the local mecca for the burgeoning Hip Hop scene, a skating rink called US Skates Of America. I can't say I did much skating in there, me & my friends hung out on the sidelines, feverishly absorbing the heady, excitement-filled atmosphere.
My first exposure to a live musical performance took place at US Skates that same summer of '82. Afrika Bambaataa's groundbreaking "Planet Rock" 12"record had just come out. I can still vividly recall the indelible impression he made on me 30 years after the fact. Afrika & his backing group, the Soul Sonic Force, came out onstage in these over the top superhero/sci fi outfits of neo-futuristic garb; sporting Samurai & Native American headgear. They looked like a wild mish-mash of George Clinton's P-Funk All Stars, Marvel Comic's Fantastic Four characters & swaggering Superfly attitude, nothing like I'd ever seen before or since. The music was on another level; I wouldn't learn this or fully appreciate it until much later, but his sampling of the unhip german electronic group Kraftwerk as the base for Planet Rock & layering rap's visceral energy on top of it was pure genius. A prime example of Hip Hop taking some previously existing influences & creating something brand-new & vital out of it, all the while coping with the reality of inner city life.
Afrika was a veteran of the 70's gang wars in the South Bronx, he'd learned firsthand what the CC Boys were about to (belatedly) discover. That world was slowly coming to an end, a new era was being forged & music would be the answer & through a philosophy espoused by the organization he started, the Universal Zulu Nation, whose credo could be summed up as: "Love, Peace, Unity & Having Fun". This was an outlook my teenage self could fully embrace. At heart, me & my friends, were good catholic school kids from working-class families that were striving for a better future. Seeing our neighborhood tough guys heading to a life of crime served as a powerful deterrent on who not to be & hip Hop provided tools for us to channel that restless energy into more creative endeavors. I was never very good at chosen field of Graffitti & even less at Breakdancing, but no matter; I still felt a part of the whole. A vibrant youth culture, full of intricate terminology that only its participants could understand & relate to.
As the looming specter of middle-age now appears before me. Hip Hop's once "outsider" status has become a moot point, its fashion/music/attitude has been irrevocably integrated into the mainstream's fabric, in such an extensive way; far more than the originators could have imagined beyond their wildest dreams. My initial love of Hip Hop has never wavered. I might not listen to anything that passes for rap these days (haven't in a while) or exhibit any of the current accoutrement of the culture. It's something that's become more internalized; that initial joy & wonder of using the music as an endless source of inspiration has stayed with me. Long after I've put away the spray paint cans & hung up my Adidas shell-top sneakers up on the shelf.
To Be Continued....