Old School, New Courses

Breaking it down.
From left to right: Static, Gonzalez and Isela Estrada in front of their NYC mural.

Hekter Gonzale looks a bit like a modern-day Che Guevara, with a big mane of shaggy hair, and a thick mustache and goatee framing his wide smile. But Gonzalez isn't involved in third-world revolutionary wars -- he runs the University of Hip-Hop in southwest Chicago so break dancers can practice their moves for upcoming b-boy battles. A breaker himself, his casted right arm is his current combat wound, but there are no uniforms or uniformity here; Gonzalez wears a plastic fork in his hair for most of the day.

Gonzalez's title at the school is Ambassador of Educational Joy, and though he might not think so, the 20-year-old would be an able spokesperson for a hip-hop nation. He preaches hip-hop as a lifestyle and a life story. Says Gonzalez, "Hip-hop isn't what you wear; it's not what music you like; Healthy Independent People Helping Other People, that's what it is to us."

Six years ago, Lavie Raven laid the groundwork for the university by giving break dancing lessons after school at Hubbard High School. With space provided by the Southwest Youth Collaborative in 1996, Raven obtained a permanent address to provide lessons, a practice space and a supportive atmosphere in the one-story building at 6400 Kedzie Avenue. Raven, 30, still runs the university and doubles as a teacher at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park.

The university's Sunday afternoon sessions are where some of the area's most buffed and ruthless body benders tear off their moves. The school is also open Monday, Wednesday and Friday after school for kids (once their homework is done) to come practice, or just relax and talk to some of the elders.

The university also runs summer programs in which Gonzalez gives lessons on radical political movements, such as the Young Lords and the Brown Berets; the intricacies of Chicago politics; and issues surrounding political prisoners. Gonzalez says the outcast status of political prisoners is similar to that of hip-hoppers -- even in modern-day Chicago.

"Tourists come here and buy something that says, 'Chicago, the Windy City'; but it's not windy here," Gonzalez says. "It's called the Windy City because the Daly machine is so corrupt."

The university has a sister organization named Higher Gliffs in Oakland, California, and is building up the resume necessary for classification as a hip-hop movement. A recent trip to New York by Gonzalez, Raven and others culminated in protests against the Rockefeller Laws, which sought to initiate stiffer sentencing laws for minors, with the painting of banners and a wall of fame. Other projects include "Graffiti Gardens," in which students plant flowers in front of Chicago murals to practice "beautification, not gentrification."

Gonzalez, like so many of the b-boys at the University this afternoon, uses the phrase "grew up in hip-hop", to describe his beginnings. Living in Uptown, he got into breaking from his cousins, and the enthusiasm spread throughout the family. His mom used to pay his cousin a dollar to pop lock. Gonzalez started graphing at 10 and breaking at 13, and credits his early frustrations in trying to practice his art for his emergence as a political activist.

Shadows, from the Unknown Spirits crew, does a hollow in Chicago's Marquette Park. Photo by Hekter Gonzalez

Under the city's Gang Ordinance Laws, police officers wouldn't allow him and his friends to put down their linoleums and practice on street corners by their house. Says Gonzalez: "We'd take our linoleums down to Oak Street beach and it would be O.K., because it's a richly populated area. But if we put our strips down two blocks from my house, they're trying to confiscate my radio. Because it's a multicultural neighborhood we can't do it? We weren't harming anyone. It's like telling the suits they can't hang around downtown."

What the university wants the public to understand is that breaking and hip-hop help prevent violence and negativity. According to Mark Anthony, a.k.a. T-Rock, a b-boy who did non-profit performances for communities with the Starburst Street Dance Team in LA, "It's an alternative to boredom. Once kids are bored, they go negative."

Or ask Epic, a 19-year-old who attends classes at Morton College and works for UPS, but used to gangbang before he started breaking. "I just used to hang out at corners and represent," he said. Now he recruits kids from Kelly High School to come to the university.

Isela Estrada, 23, whose title is Mother of Movement, chop steps over to the desk before being interviewed as if she is going to bust some moves. Instead, she breaks down her role in the university: "The title Mother of Movement is for being a female role model, getting youth organized, networking with other women, and keeping girls conscious of their environment."

She choreographed an environmental advocacy dance performance at NU Law School in November 2001 that featured 15 of her young students. It's a group of girls that began forming six years ago when the university was founded.

Estrada's inspiration comes from an earlier generation of hip-hop organizers and activists. "I saw the most powerful people; they were radicals," she said. "Who else has the balls to go around the city and resist the way they did? Graffiti itself is a redefinition of property, of capitalism."

Currently, she preaches resistance to the "institutionalization" of youth -- whether it be in failing inner-city schools or in the flailing suburbs. Estrada's instructional programs are free and focused on "keeping hip-hop in the hands of those who create it."

Inside the mural-encased building on Kedzie, the main room pumps with thick beats, sharp spins and a cooperative spirit. The scene is the antithesis of the posturing and elitism that drain the life out of your average hip-hop concert. Approximately 20 guys, from young teenagers to 30-somethings take turns working out their uprocks, flares and headspins to yelps and handclaps of support.

Chinaman is one of break dancing's elder statesmen and one of its local living legends; he started breaking in 1980 with partners Popcorn and Gordo. Older and calmer than most of the stringy teenagers, he has been coming to the university for five years. His early inspirations include the Chicago b-boy great Crazy Legs as well as Powerful Peckster from the NYC breakers, and Afrika Bambaataa, to whom he started listening in 7th grade.

Chinaman's hip-hop life has run the usual course of chaos. He has been arrested for trespassing while filming his routines in abandoned buildings. His friend was assassinated in front of Chinaman's house, which caused him to stop dancing for eight months. He has performed shows at the Chicago Cultural Center and the House of Blues. Hip-hop's transition to the mainstream is epitomized in his story; now, instead of hiding hip-hop in abandoned buildings, he's trying to make breaking an event in the Extreme Games or the Olympics.

Naomi Vasquez's story illuminates the increasing professionalism of break dancing, an art form rappers and DJs have mastered for more than a decade. Raised on hip-hop in Harlem and trained as a licensed practical nurse, she serves as manager, producer, publicist and historian for the breaking crew Brickheadz, of which her boyfriend, Waka, is a member.

Vasquez books the 20-person crew for competitions, arranges travel itineraries, patches them up if they get injured during competitions and photographs and catalogues their ever-changing portfolio of moves. In such a dynamic art form, she says cataloguing is important.

"There's some old moves they'll bring back out," Vasquez says. "But they'll forget, so they'll be like 'How'd I do that?' and they'll look back at the book. Some guys do moves, they'll be like, 'Wow, I never done that before,' so we have to name them."

Vasquez helps negotiate the crew's personal histories as well. During practices at Waka's house, they frequently discuss their personal lives. "We're a family," she says. "We talk about what's going on, about our life stories, if they need help."

Professionally, the Brickheadz are rocking on the right track. In February they have a competition in Oklahoma against that state's preeminent crew, The Jive Turkeys. It's a team they've beaten before, but one whom Vasquez is eager to "take out in their own state."

With videos, t-shirts, and past-sponsorship from Sprite and skateboarding company Uprise in the Brickheadz' professional portfolio, they seem well on their way to achieving Vasquez's goal of blowing up.

Although Gonzalez, Estrada, Chinaman and Vasquez were practically born onto turntables and had their umbilical cords cut by record needles, not everyone at the university grew up shaking microphones instead of rattles. Lewis Castro, at 14 years old, is the youngest member of the Brickheadz, and one of its most promising. "Lewis has power, flavor, style, everything!" Vasquez says.

Castro began breaking on a whim only two years ago. "My sister went into the corner store across the street [from the university] to get a drink," he recalled. "I said, 'I'll wait outside,' but she was taking too long, and I heard the music so I came in. My first time I tried to do a headspin, Hekter's like, 'Hey, you're going to break your neck.' "

Breaking runs in Castro's family. Years back, when his father told him about his own breaking career, Lewis said he "thought it was old already."

Gonzalez and Estrada were receiving a small salary up until September 11, when the university's funding was cut off. The police grant they had been receiving was redistributed to other groups on the city's southwest side. Now, the university gets by on private donations, and the dedication of people like Gonzalez and Estrada. They dream of making the University of Hip-Hop a fully-accredited school from "zero to high school" that stresses "learning through expression."

"Hip-hop is not something from block to block," Gonzalez says. "It's something for the masses."

With visionaries like this leading the charge, it's hard to conceive of any barriers a hip-hop movement can't break.

Dan Hoyle vends malts. You can reach him at maltshere@yahoo.com. If you're interested in finding out more about the University of Hip-Hop, call 773-476-3534. This article originally appeared on NuComment.

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