Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York
By Joseph G. Schloss. New York: Oxford University Press, March 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0195334050, $74; paper: ISBN 978-0195334067, $19.95. 192 pages.
Review by Tara Jabbaar-Gyambrah, State University of New York, Buffalo
Joseph G. Schloss’s Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York brings new, invigorating, exciting, and much-needed in-depth analysis of hip-hop culture’s ethnic origins specific to b-boying. By examining the historical and cultural elements of b-boying and b-girling in New York City between 2003 and 2008, Schloss highlights the significance of the transmission of cultural ideas from one place to another by mapping the experiences of dancers in the field . While hip-hop has been labeled a “problem” by mainstream popular culture, Schloss posits that one of its cultural forms, b-boying, embodies a plethora of cultural traditions such as Afro-diasporic competitive dance, battle tactics, acrobatic power moves, and martial arts that live in the Afro-Caribbean, African American, and Latino communities today. He posits that “hip-hop’s strength lies precisely in the diversity of its concepts and practices” (7). In other words, Schloss suggests that hip-hop cannot be understood in terms of “good” versus “bad,” but each of its components should be viewed as representing an artistic flair that should be examined more specifically through ethnographic methods. One of the reasons he cites that b-boying has been often overlooked in scholarship is because it operates “within the framework of literary analysis and culture studies” (8). It is not theory alone that assists in the full understanding of b-boying and b-girling culture, but it is the voices of the dancers themselves that should be a part of scholarship. Moreover, Schloss suggests that if scholars immerse themselves within the communities in which b-boying has emerged and continually transforms over time, they will be more engaged and create research that represents the reality of the culture itself. In the end, literary and culture studies alone cannot holistically represent the voices of the people; however, when it is combined with ethnographic methodology, the voices of the people shine through and create a remarkable presence.
The book’s title, Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, focuses on its core by illuminating the definition of foundation as “a term used by b-boys and b-girls to refer to an almost mystical set of notions about b-boying that is passed from teacher to student” (12). With a total of 8 chapters Schloss eloquently situates b-boying as its own unique cultural form within hip-hop by analyzing the philosophies, practices, and experiences of b-boys and b-girls. In chapter 2, “The Original Essence of the Dance: History, Community, and Classic B-Boy Records,” the author examines the relationship between music and dance. The premise is that a relationship between music and choreography exists that allows b-boys and b-girls to transfer historical associations of the music to their dance movements (38). One of the remarkably interesting ideas that materialize in this chapter is that b-boys and b-girls make almost spiritual connections to classic songs such as “Apache” and “Give It Up or Turnit Loose” as a principle that brings to light the bond shared between “modern proponents and the historical essence of the dance, giving strength, energy, and legitimacy to modern devotees” (39). Essentially, b-boying and b-girling becomes a venue by which culture and history meet, sort of like a spaceship traveling in time.
The next chapter, “Getting Your Foundation: Pedagogy,” builds on this idea by solidifying the foundation of b-boying as the combination of the artist’s mentorship, mental approaches, philosophies, attitude, rhythm, style, and character, as well as b-boys’ and b-girls’ ability to recognize another’s dance lineage from his/her style (51). Although it may be assumed that b-boys and b-girls are from a specific geographic area, they are not; b-boying is a collaborative culture that reaches across states and cities. In the words of Schloss, “a b-boy or b-girl is representing a relationship between dance and musical form (a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ who dances on the ‘break’ or to the ‘beat’ of a record), a reaction to the psychological stress of poverty (one who ‘breaks,’ emotionally), symbolism of the dance over commercialism (b-boy versus breakancers) a commitment to dance over other aspects of hip-hop (as in the Source Manifesto), and a sense of geographical and class pride (‘Bronx-boy’ versus, presumably, ‘Manhattan-boy’)” (64). Despite the fact that there are contradictions in the way that b-boying is defined, for example, “breakdancing” is not seen as “authentic” b-boying culture, as it is connected to commercialism. Furthermore, what is even more intriguing is the idea of b-boying as an expression of gender identity. One of the female artists, Seoulsonyk, describes what she does as b-boying; but male dancers will never call what they do “b-girling.” Schloss suggests that at times, this contradiction can force b-girls to be at odds with their identity. This brings up the idea of masculinity not just in b-boying but hip-hop in general as a representation of male standards. In his film Hip-Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Byron Hurt posits that hip-hop is a reflection of American society’s view on gender roles, wherein men’s roles are pushed to the forefront more often. Even though the author tackles the idea of masculinity and femininity somewhat in this chapter, I believe that there is room for a more focused study on gender roles within “b-girling” culture.
Chapter 4, “We Have to Be Exaggerated: Aesthetics,” integrates the aesthetic principles of b-boying as an art form that provides insight into the communities’ abstract understanding of, and approach to, those conditions. What I loved most about this is that it builds on the idea of locality and/or space, which is called by b-boys and b-girls “cipher” – a circle that encapsulates the dancers while they perform. Not only is this space a sacred entrance into the world of b-boying, but in many instances, it is a place where b-boys and b-girls are given their code names.By and large, Schloss’s book Foundation is a wonderful masterpiece that outlines the historical and cultural experiences of b-boys and b-girls in New York. I highly recommend this book as required reading for scholars in the field of popular culture (i.e., hip-hop) and for students in the classroom.