- West Coast Originals:A Case for Reassessing the "Bronx West" Story of Black Youth Culture in 1980s Los Angeles
In 1983, African American filmmaker Topper Carew went west to investigate rumors of hip-hop in Los Angeles. The young, Washington, D.C.-based auteur was intrigued, because at that time, hip-hop was still an infant music trend confined to and synonymous with New York City. It was an insular East Coast arts movement that garnered little respect or attention beyond the boundaries of the five boroughs. Yet something similar seemed to be taking root in California. Carew believed that hip-hop was a more far-reaching and impactful cultural force than music critics in the early 1980s were willing to concede, and Los Angeles offered a way to test that theory.
Carew completed his LA documentary that same year, titling it Breakin' 'N' Enterin', a loose reference to break dancing, the acrobatic dance craze found thriving along Hollywood Boulevard and the Venice Beach Boardwalk. From the opening scenes, which included images of cars slogging along ribbons of freeway, palm trees towering above manicured lawns, and weightlifters and roller skaters reveling in the sun, the film suggested to the viewer that Los Angeles was certainly not New York and that its youth culture was, relatedly, unique. It helped that Carew recruited local hip-hop artist Tracy "Ice T" Marrow to guide his cameras around town. Ice T, a regular performer at a colorful downtown hip-hop nightclub called The Radio, provided the filmmaker intimate access to what the rapper described, in rhyme, as a singular regional [End Page 87] "movement" marked by "graffiti turning ghettos into art" and "kids who dance on the street and in the park."1
Despite the film's premise, that it was spotlighting a novel cultural phenomenon that might redefine the contours of American hip-hop, Breakin' 'N' Enterin' presented an LA youth scene cast in an East Coast mold. From the multiracial break-dance crews to the colorful graffiti murals decorating the nightspots Carew chose as backdrops, Breakin' 'N' Enterin' presented New York hip-hop trends grafted onto Southern California landscapes, sometimes to the point of cliché. For instance, LA rappers and dancers honed their skills not on a concrete basketball court or schoolyard but inside a palatial ballet studio. In front of single-story family homes, on long driveways and freshly cut lawns, kids exhibited "top-rocks," "freezes," and other dance moves learned from young Bronx migrants. As New York-based performer Steve "Suga Pop" da Silva explained in the film, he and other break-dancers came to Los Angeles in the early 1980s for work opportunities that, it turned out, included offering step-by-step dance tutorials to locals. Even Carew's well-connected local tour guide had East Coast roots—Ice T had been born and raised in New Jersey, and his creative sidekick Charles "Afrika Islam" Glenn was a recent Bronx transplant.2
The Radio nightclub, the downtown disco featured in the film, was itself a kind of New York import. A French immigrant named Alex Jordanov ran the place, filling the venue's event calendar by tapping his Manhattan connections. Jordanov turned The Radio into one of the few afterhours establishments in Los Angeles, adopting a dusk-to-dawn schedule reminiscent of New York City nightlife norms. It was one of the first LA dance clubs to provide New York's newest recording artists with West Coast gigs. In addition, Jordanov commissioned colorful faux graffiti murals for the stage. In a city in which street graffiti was mostly single-line, monochrome "tags" and Old English lettering written to designate gang territory, The Radio's vibrant, bubble-letter backdrops were an unusual sight calling to mind Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway cars rather than the Los Angeles River's concrete tunnels.3 Chris "The Glove" Taylor, a local disc jockey (DJ) who delivered sound equipment to The Radio, said Jordanov aimed to make his establishment "a piece of the East Coast hip hop scene" by spotlighting "spray-can art," sponsoring B-boy "dance battles," and inviting New York hip-hop performers, including the Queens trio Run-DMC...