It comes from Brockton!

While preparing for a talk this week on Boston Hip-Hop history, I stumbled on a youtube video of kids in Brockton, MA breakdancing in the 1980s. I think I got there while looking for info about Ronnie Ruff, a dope Brockton DJ/Producer/MC from way back.

I could not resist making a little re-edit of the original video replacing the CVS-inserted (yet strangely beautiful) audio with the Ronnie Ruff track, “It Comes From Boston“. Now I loved the original mind you and need to give props to Dennis, all his Brockton (East Side) breakdancing friends and especially his mom, who apparently was handy with the Super 8 (thanks MOM!). But adding the Ronnie Ruff track just seemed too perfect. Apparently, the gods of Hip-Hop agreed. Notice the reference to “frosting” right as the cake comes out? That was complete luck. I just dropped the audio in and it lined right up. I must be doing something right.

Ronnie Ruff

There are so many things I love about this video. Having grown up in Boston in the 1980s, I just love how it looks. Like home.

I also love how it transitions from hanging out with dad in the yard, to a quick dinner shot (mom was probably too busy making, serving and cleaning it up to run much tape) and then right to the impromptu breakdance parties in the street and driveway. Cardboard/linoleum + boombox + dope tapes (probably off the radio…maybe Lecco’s Lemma?) + friends = mini-kid block party. In this sense, the emergence of Hip-Hop was so very local and fractal…every neighborhood had at least one kid who could rhyme, dance, DJ or at least had some dope tapes and a boombox. Some neighborhoods had lots. The little block parties that happened all over sometimes got much, much bigger. Then it went global and the rest is history. But back then, before the big money got into it, it was more about your friends, their moves and who had the better boombox.

I especially love that the length of the video allowed for the shoutouts at the end and find it funny that we don’t get one for his own town…Brockton! (I have secretly considered doing a re-edit of the track to replace all the refs to “Boston” with “Brockton”. If someone posts a good “Brockton” drop, I am on it).

Another amazing aspect of the video (that only became clear after talking to Dennis this morning) is the way Hip-Hop attracted kids like a tractor beam and then mixed them together. When I watched the original video, I immediately noticed the older dudes who make a cameo appearance early on and then disappear. Apparently, these guys were from East LA and were out visiting one of the neighbors and came over when they heard the music and joined in. They were probably in their early 20s whereas the rest of the kids were early teens from Brockton, MA. Hip-Hop apparently bridged the significant differences between them. It just proves that one upon a time, kids loved Hip-Hop enough to forget their differences for a minute and just dance. Some of them still do.

Peace Boston

Pace

Street Space Dance 2010

DJSpock

Thanks to all the rubberfans and funkateers who came out for (the last?) MUM this weekend! Brother Cleve, DJ Flack, Wayne&Wax, DJ Axel Foley, Dziga, Tdogg, yours truly and all the other people who volunteered their time and gear cooked up a proper P-Funk tribute all slathered up in rubbery bass, screwy syths and more bounce for your flashlight. There is nothing like dancing in the street with a few hundred of your new best friends to make you feel good about the world. Here’s some video of my set that gives you a sense of the vibe this year.

DJ Pace @ MUM 2010 from Carey Foster on Vimeo.

Thanks to the Somerville Arts Council for getting the community together to dance in the street.Those from funkier locations may think this sounds insane, but up here in the brainy Northeast, its often hard to get people dancing period. Forget about throwing a legal family style p-funk tribute dance party under a highway overpass. Despite the odds, that’s what we have done for the last 5 years.

This year the bass was so heavy and the funk so stanky that it made me want to take the show on the road. I kept wondering, “could a traveling caravan throwing outdoor electro-boogie-disco-breaks parties unite the country? The world?” Under a bridge in Somerville, MA this weekend, it sure seemed like it could.

Although the video clip above does not make it so clear, every year we rock together. Here’s a clip from last year with all of us on deck.

One nation under a groove. Under a bridge.

Europe’s Society Orchestra Animation Redux

Modern Dancing Delivery

This weekend, my pal Rob reminded me of the incredible book, Modern Dancing. The first time he showed it to me, I got obsessed and did some lame animated gifs from a photo I took. Since then I married a modern dancer and got a scanner. The combination was irresistible so I spent my weekend immersed again in this incredible tome. Here’s what I uncovered rediscovered.

Mr Ms Castle

Back in the teens, a high-society dancing couple named Vernon and Irene Castle made a name for themselves in Europe performing and teaching African American derived dances like the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. Returning to America in 1913, they found that social dancing and ragtime music were the rage in New York and quickly assembled a show to capitalize on the craze. As the story goes, because their dances “required syncopated music of a type that few New York bands were playing at the time” they needed a band that could cut the mustard. They found one in Europe’s Society Orchestra, an African American band playing a syncopated kind of driving ragtime that was circulating just prior to the first Jazz recordings.

Europes Society Orchestra

James Reese Europe was already a successful African American band leader in New York when the Castles saw him performing with his band at a private party. The pairing of the au courant dancing of the Castles with the syncopated ragtime of Europe’s Society Orchestra created an extremely popular show which went on to break some important color barriers in American pop culture. In 1914, when the Castles were asked to perform at the top New York venues, white musicians objected to having black performers share the orchestra pit. The Castles refused to compromise and solved the problem by having the band join them on stage. Apparently, this was the first known appearance by an African American band in a major vaudeville theater. Their 1913 Victor recording was also the first by an African American band on a major label. More on that in a minute.

As part of all this excitement, in 1914 the Castles published a book called Modern Dancing, which was an instructional manual complete with plates from a film (perhaps the newsreel Social and Theatrical Dancing 1909-1936). The book is available from a few locations including Archive.org and Google.

Unfortunately, none of these sites provide a re-animation of the plates themselves. I could not resist. Here are some simple re-animations of the classic Castle plates showing Europe’s Society Orchestra playing along. While I have not been able to sync them up to music yet, the following MP3 of Castle House Rag and Castle Walk will give you a good sense of the vibe.

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Castle Walk 8 Step

Castles 8 Step

A note on my methods may be of interest here. Because these plates are probably excerpts from longer segments, the frames are not always continuous. Nevertheless, I decided it was worth having all the plates for a given dance together even if it adds some choppiness. I also used really low tech approaches (e.g., an orange highlighter and time) and certainly don’t claim any film restoration expertise. If it looks amateurish, that’s because it is. Here’s what I did.

Modern Dancing Prep

First, I cracked a bottle of wine and put on some appropriate music (the awesome Victrola Favorites worked perfectly). After scanning the plates, I adjusted them to get each one as vertical as possible. Then I used Photoshop to chop out each frame, trying to get them all the same size. I created a folder for each dance and saved all the jpgs for that dance in order in the folder. Then I used Adobe Image Ready to “import a folder as layers”.

Highligter Registration

This got them into Image Ready as a set of frames, but I still needed to line them up (register them). This proved a little harder than expected. Not only are the images different sizes, but they are not all continuous frames. Therefore, the image jumps around a lot. Since I was most interested in the music, I decided to stabilize them around the band and let the Castles dance where they would. I found a few spots that seemed to work as registration points (highlights on chairs, corners of tablecloths and the nicely positioned circle on the bucket in front of a table). Using a highlighter pen, I marked these. Then I stepped through each frame (and often back and forth) moving things around until the highlights were all lined up.

Voila. Very analog in a way, but pretty effective.

There are two things that are especially fascinating to me about the Castle/Europe story. The first is the apparently close synergy between the dances selected by the Castles and the songs recorded by Europe’s Society Orchestra (Castle Walk, Maxixe, etc.). It serves as a powerful reminder that the cultural artifacts we study as “firsts” are themselves the result of complex processes of gatekeeping, meaning-making, status and so forth. The second is the obviously international flavor of these plates.

Innovation-Cortez

Castles Cortez

Castles Maxixe

Castles Maxixe All

From the Cortez, to the beautiful Tango to the Brazilian Maxixe, the Castles certainly seemed hip to the latest global dance trends. They even provide some historical guideposts. “The Tango is not, as commonly believed, of South American origin. It is an old gipsy dance which came to Argentina by way of Spain, where in all probability it became invested with certain features of the old Moorish dances”. What’s more, the first recording made by Europe’s Society Orchestra was the tune Maxixe (though it’s rarely never included on Europe comps). I don’t know the story behind the selection of this Brazilian themed tune for the first song recorded by an African American band on a major label, but I’d love to hear it. In any event, with my pals tracking more recent/rapid diffusions of global dance/music trends, I love finding antique examples that seem so similar (if kind of slow mo) in their features.

So there you have it folks. The first real reanimation of these important documents of American pop culture history. I am on a quest now to find the original newsreel and have a good angle on its whereabouts. But if you know of a copy available somewhere, please let me know.

Meanwhile, here are some additional links and background info I used for this post.

James Reese Europe
@redhotjazz
@jass

Modern Dancing
@ Archive.org
@ Google books