Hip Hop at the Roxy — The Boom of the Room was the World Blowing Up

Everybody knows — or should — that hip hop came out of the Bronx. Not so many people know that hip hop passed from uptown to the rest of the world via the downtown scene, most essentially via the Roxy, a gigantic former roller skating rink on the far West Side of New York that two hipster Brits turned into a roiling vortex of movement and music every Friday night, a transformational explosion that changed everything.

I’m not here to give you the history of hip hop at the beginning of the 80s (for that, read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.) I’m here to tell you how it felt to be at the Roxy on a Friday night in 1982, about a moment when the culture shifted with a heave that cracked the surface of reality and opened it up to something so new that the newness itself sucked us in, something we could hardly comprehend because it was so different.

To walk into the Roxy on a Friday night was to dive into a sea of sound and motion and shifting possibility. The passage down a long tunnel to the vast room. The vortexes of movement, a break dancing circle here, and another one over there, forming and shifting and expanding as people crowded around, as the B-Boys whirled and darted and flowed and flipped in a tornado of action surrounded by banks of intently watching people, gathered around the maelstrom generated by the dancers. The DJ — Afrika Bambaattaa, Afrika Islam, D.ST — presiding from high up on a platform in the center of the dance floor, like some totemic god, summoning up the music and the beats and sending them out to envelop the great pulsing room. All of us dancing, driven by the beat and the rare but unmistakeable exhilaration of something that was disorientingly, wildly, irresistably new.

The boom of the room was the world blowing up.

I want to tell you about the sense of utter disorientation you felt seeing a B-Boy spin on his back or his head, because you were watching something that seemed physically impossible, that you thought could only exist in an animated cartoon, and yet here he was, an electric wheel of light, spinning up into a defiant stance that proclaimed that defying gravity and physics was nothing and watch me now, see that, don’t tell me I can’t because I can do the impossible and more.

The energy that ran up inside you when Bambaataa or Islam scratched and cut and layered and reassembled the beat into a torrent that didn’t just move your body but buzzed in your blood and jacked your mind because you had never heard music like that before. Which kept going and going, continually suspending you on the possibility of what would come next, and next, and next, so the music was like a wild sonic rapids, just go with it and let it take you. Because under the unpredictable stop/start, the lurching, jagged edge of scratching records, was the pulse, the groove that pulled the sounds together into an inexorable force that carried you along with it.

You have to understand how incomprehensible all this seemed. The disorientation you felt, the double-take you’d do because that kid could not have just spun on his head, that couldn’t be possible, how did I see that, how could that be? I couldn’t have seen that, because it’s impossible. But I did see it, it just didn’t register in my mind, because my mind couldn’t absorb something so never-seen-before. So you had to see it again, and again, and again. To prove to yourself that it was real. To re-imprint that impossible image on your optic nerve, that impossible, fantastic move on your mind. To feel that thrilling mental double-take all over again.

How the music upended your mind, pulsed in your body, taking you someplace you couldn’t expect because you’d never heard anything like it before, never heard sounds like that, never heard a record which was supposed to be a smooth pool of sound broken apart like that, as if someone was taking reality apart. And yet it was also inevitable, because all the sounds fed into the consuming drive of the beat.

Hip hop had been seeping into and lapping around the downtown scene for a few years by the time Roxy happened. Graffiti artists had been showing at Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery. Jean-Michel Basquiat had been tagging in Soho, Keith Haring was becoming known, Fab 5 Freddy was an icon of cool (Debbie Harry said so.) We’d been listening to rap. I saw Sugarhill Gang play the Ritz, the big concert club on 11th Street, while I was still in college. Funky 4 P+1 More’s stripped down funk fit our soundtrack. I first heard James Brown at the Mudd Club, and his shouts of uhhhh! His over-the-precipice downbeat, the tension of leaping forward only to pull back so exhilarated me I let loose on the dancefloor in a way I never had before. I’d grown up with Motown, Aretha, Sam and Dave, but this was something else, the edgy intensity of punk fused with something that was — to me — much more powerful; groove in hyperdrive.

But these were separate phenomena, a song here, a show there. Plus, we hadn’t seen B-Boys breaking or really heard DJ’s manipulating records live. The first time we did was at the Thursday parties that Ruza Blue (Fab 5 Freddy called her Kool Lady Blue), one of the British hipsters on the club scene, and Michael Holman, a buddy of Basquiat’s who was a key bridge between the hip hop and downtown art/club worlds, threw at Negril, a reggae club on Second Avenue, in late 1981. Blue called them the Wheels of Steel. The word went out person to person, like it did on everything then. I found out about Negril because my friend Susan knew Michael Holman. Even though the club was in the middle of the East Village, I didn’t know anyone who’d been there; reggae — the music and the scene — was too mellow 70’s for me.

Negril was in a basement, small and dark. By the second or third party the place was packed so tight you could hardly move, all of us pressing in on the vortex opened up by the Rock Steady Crew that Michael had brought downtown, those teenage boys whipping up so much energy you thought the room would explode. I remember being, literally, breathless.

I saw Crazy Legs, one of Rock Steady’s stars, for the first time at Negril, and instantly knew that his extraordinary combination of grace and unself-conscious, electric presence was that of a great dancer — a mover who imprinted himself on the space and your mind.

No one had trained Crazy Legs. No one had showed him what to do. There was no virtuoso for him to emulate, no gorgeous performing star to light his way. Crazy Legs and everyone else in Rock Steady invented everything they did by daring themselves into impossible moves that they made possible, summoning the head and back spins from another dimension, turning themselves into something that never existed before. Crowded into that tiny cave of a club, we were the first people outside their neighborhood to see them.

Negril was a flare-up, though — the crowds in the small space soon got the party shut down. The next summer, in 1982, Blue joined up with Jon Baker (we also called him Mole), another expatriate London scenester, to start Wheels of Steel on Fridays at the Roxy. Brits were the ultimate in cool to us — those accents! (A friend once said that New York girls had their libido in their inner ear.) Those clothes! Even as punks, they were elegant. Confident, too. So if Blue and Mole were doing this, it had to be cool. Still, it took a giant leap of faith and geography for them to start a radically new party at a space as big as the Roxy, on the other side of town from where we lived and hung out.

(Getting there was an odyssey. I lived on Avenue B, and usually didn’t have money for a taxi all the way to 10th Avenue. Or if I did, better to save it for going home at 2 or 3am. So I’d walk to 14th Street, take a bus across town, then walk up to the Roxy on 18th Street. The journey could take a good hour, adding to the sense that you were voyaging into the unknown.)

But we were ready. The subterranean sci-fi bass of Bambaataa’s Planet Rock was throbbing in the clubs. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message was thudding in the streets, coming out of every boom box, part of the air every time you went outside. Even if it was about struggles we never had to face we felt like those shattered streets and no-money troubles were ours too. Once I brought home a pretty English boy from the Roxy, who’d impressed me by boasting that he knew John Lydon, of Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited. The next morning, he was shocked by what he saw out my window, the blasted out buildings and abandoned gas station and clumps of people selling and buying drugs. “It’s like a war zone,” he said, and I knew I was cooler than he was because to me this was normal.

I took Steven Petronio to the Roxy once, dragging him away from a stale performance party. Told him that he had to see these dancers, he wouldn’t believe it. When we finally got inside, and I pulled him up to a B-Boy circle, I watched his face light up and shift. “I should take class with him,” he said, after seeing the youngest member of Rock Steady, a kid who must have been 11 or 12. And I knew I’d showed Steven, an astonishing dancer who represented everything I wanted to be, something he’d never imagined.

As popular as the Roxy was, the music was too radical for most outside our scene. Once I walked there from Danceteria, the club that was hipster nightlife central, with a grumpy, lumpy, arrogant music writer named Roger something. (I don’t remember who he wrote for, and maybe I never knew.) As we walked, he went on and on about how it was impossible for hip hop to ever be popular. He was impenetrably sure of himself. I don’t remember his reasoning — probably something to do with it not having any melody or song structure. I do remember that I tried to interrupt a couple times before resigning myself to nodding and listening, because he was a music critic. But while I couldn’t articulate the wonder that the Roxy aroused in me, in my gut I was sure that if the music and dancing there could compel me and everyone I knew was hip, there had to be something happening that would capture the rest of the world.

Friday’s at the Roxy became the place to be. I remember Madonna on the dance floor, deep in her sexy urchin phase, the Boy Toy belt and messily cascading hair. Pouty pretty Debi Mazar, cuddling with a B-Boy. The Clash, whom I worshiped, hung out the Friday during a sold out series of concerts at Pier 84, sending me into an ecstatic agony of groupie-dom, so that I danced in their vicinity for ages, hoping they’d notice me. At some point the Roxy got a VIP room, high up and walled off, which seemed to defeat the purpose of a place that had been all about the dancing and the music. We got used to break dancing, and B-Boys didn’t seem like miracle-makers anymore. We got used to DJ’s scratching and mixing records too, and waited to be impressed. By the summer of 1983, the thrill was gone.

There’s no footage of the real Roxy online. The B-Boy battle in the movie Beat Street (the first thing that comes up when you search Roxy on Youtube) comes closest, but that was staged, and while it shows the Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers facing off, it doesn’t capture the heaving, exhilarating chaos of the club. Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, the film that really shows the hip hop scene, was shot uptown. Now it’s hard to remember that back then only a few professionals with expensive equipment shot pictures or video, and by the time they showed up, that meant the thing which drew us in the first place was effectively over. Because once you became conscious that someone was watching, you weren’t enveloped in the experience anymore.

The mainstream interest in what was still called rap music took a dip when the Roxy closed, and people came to see break dancing as more trick than phenomenon. (It took years before B-Boying was reborn in a global underground circuit.) But once you’d heard hip hop, you couldn’t forget it, and anyways, pop music is saleable. Over the next few years, downtown labels and producers and entrepreneurs took hip hop music into the mainstream. Run DMC became stars, and so did the Beastie Boys (who used to hang out at the Pyramid Club.) The West Coast scene came up. And so on and on and on.

But it wouldn’t have happened without Fridays at the Roxy. When uptown and downtown came together in one big room, danced together to a new sound, and the world changed.

Writer, journalist, arts lover, mother of a teen daughter, veteran Miamian, bi-lingual, culturally fluid, former dancer, community rooted.

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