“I don't know what all of you have heard,
So it's up to me to spread the word
About the man that we feel has got to be real,
Our crowned Prince on the wheels of steel.
He goes by the name of Grandmaster Dee,
So if its all right with you, its all right with me…”
Whodini's “Five Minutes of Funk” propelled breakdancing far beyond five minutes, and the popularity of b-boys surpassed even Andy Warhol's “fifteen minutes of fame” rule. From the ghetto to MTV, breakdancing transformed urban street fashion from dance uniform to suburban trend. The 80's were fresh with new turntable sounds and the pop-rock styling of the b-boy's jive.
Ghetto blasters, Bugle Boy, Grandmaster Flash… Breakdancing was an urban dance style influenced by mimes and fueled by the music and energy of Jamaican DJ’s in metropolitan areas like New York’s South Bronx. The look was nothing like the white faced, black leotarded Marcel Marceau, however—in parachute pants and track suits, b-boy fashion was pure urban styling.
As early as 1974, a young Michael Jackson wowed audiences with his robotic dance movements to the hit “Dancing Machine.” By 1977, two mimes from San Francisco named Shields and Yarnell built upon the mechanical movements and brought the robot to life: the jerky robot moves became super smooth, and the fake ‘bot looked like it could glide on wheels. This move, which would be the precursor to the gravity-defying moonwalk, made stars out of the two street mimes. Their appearance on The Muppet Show in 1979 brought their outta-this-world dance style to the mainstream.
Meanwhile, four youngsters had been watching the two mimes perform in the early days, and they used the style as a base for their own movements. Calling themselves the Harlem Pop Rockers, the group of kids began the urban street craze that would take the 80’s by storm. Outfitted in sweatsuits, sneakers and sideways-twisted caps, rival gangs would battle each other through dance competitions. DJ’s were fighting for their reign on the turntable, ‘scratching’ and ‘sampling’ their own music. These elongated instrumental ‘breaks’ opened the dance floor for a highly competitive dance style in which each group tried to outdo the other in performance.
The b-boys hit the streets with their cardboard and linoleum pads, using music, dance and fashion as a form of non-violent confrontation. As breakdancing’s popularity grew, and crews battled each other on every corner of the city, the rivalry spawned a strong fashion dissension. The style moved from simple military fatigues and sweatsuits to label-encrusted track suits and brand name sneakers.
It wasn’t until the breakaway hit Flashdance featured the styling antics of breakdancers that suburban kids witnessed the unbelievable moves. Overnight, breakdancing jumped the track and couldn’t slow down. Michael Jackson performed the moonwalk, as did a young regular on Soul Train, Jeffrey Daniels. The young breaker made movements so extraordinary, he had fans tuning in just to see him dance. Even the comedic Rerun from the TV show What’s Happening used the lock as his signature step. Breakdancing was breaking out, and clothing manufacturers took notice.
The breakdancer’s uniform—a pair of fitted sweatpants, t-shirt, some old kickers, a fitted cap and a bandana—made it into every boys closet. As most styles do when function moves into fashion, the looks changed to keep up with the competition. Soon the clothes on your back were just as important as the moves you were grooving to. Slick nylon parachute pants were introduced to the market in 1985 by Bugle Boy, replacing military fatigue pants and sweatpants as the pant of choice. This new style, built for the slick spin ability of the slippery nylon material, helped to keep the smooth propulsion going during the movements. With their multitude of zippered pockets, parachute pants became the hottest-selling item of the mid 80’s.
Movies like Breakin’ and Krush Groove pushed this street-savvy dance style to the masses. Rappers RUN-DMC, weighted down by larger-than-life gold ‘dukie’ chains, pushed the fashion frenzy even further, sparking the advent of label lust in urban kids. Nylon track suits from adidas and Nike provided slick and stylish threads, while oversized adidas sneakers, or kickers, swallowed the feet.
Breakdancing was in decline as the urban looks grew more outrageous and impractical. It was discovered that hard metal zippers weren’t all that comfortable when your body was rocking and spinning on them, and oversized, unlaced sneakers didn’t do much to keep the kickers on your feet. But though the boom times passed, breakdancing still exists as a powerful, non-violent form of confrontation between inner-city groups.