by Shannon J. Effinger
July 7, 2008
My journey with hip-hop began when I was four or five years old. I lived in a rundown tenement house on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn, with Tara, my older sister, and my mother and father. I do not remember very much about growing up in Coney Island. Most of my memories from back then are of my parents. I remember sitting on the floor and watching my father fix old television sets for neighbors in our living room and how nice it felt when the sunlight from the windows would hit my legs. I remember the smells of Royal Crown hair grease and burning hair from my mother’s hot comb on top of the stove and how those smells coming from our kitchen always showed up on Saturday mornings. I have faint memories of shiny bits of glass on black-tarred streets that my mom had to stop me from picking up, and the fact that we lived next to a vacant lot that was home to garbage, rats, and old sofas with springs bursting through. I hated it. None of the other houses had vacant lots sitting right next door to them. But at nights and on the weekends, the vacant lot was transformed into something else, something magical.
With the power of the neighborhood’s street lamp, djs were able to get enough “juice” to test out their speakers and turntables. I remember the first time Tara walked with me over to the vacant lot to watch the breakers—the dancers—flatten out cardboard boxes and find smooth surfaces in the lot to lay them on. I was nervous and excited about being there at the same time. Although I was quite young, I knew that something phenomenal was about to happen.
The breakers began with simple hand stands, then they would hand walk back and forth. They tested out a few turns and spins to warm up. Tara grabbed my arm and pulled us both as close as possible, as the crowds would eventually double, even triple, in size. When the djs began to scratch and Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation’s classic song “Planet Rock” began to play, people ran over in droves and the break dancing challenge would begin. Whichever dancer received the most applause would unofficially be proclaimed the best breaker on the block. The breakers would kick it out and then defy all laws of gravity; their bodies flew effortlessly into the air and they would spin on their heads at record speeds just to please the crowd. And they did. I was in awe.
One night, I was so eager to learn how to breakdance and enthrall the crowd like the breakers did that I attempted a hand stand and tried to spin on top of my head. My tucked-in shirt fell out of my pants, exposing my stomach, and I fell all over myself. My sister stood watching and laughed at me. And I have been in love with hip-hop ever since.