“I was battling this guy, and we were dancing and what I did was–wait, I’ll show you right here,” he says, dropping a backpack and putting his arms out to create space for a virtuoso popping-and-locking demonstration.
The 50-year-old choreographer, documentary filmmaker and teacher at NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing has been dancing for decades, since his youth in New York City as a leader of Rock Steady Crew, the pioneering group of breakdancers who paved the way for hip-hop with cardboard and linoleum (as any b-boy knows, the slippery surfaces made for better backspins).
In the parks and housing projects of New York in the 1970s and 80s, and now for hip-hop historians world-wide, the Rock Steady name carries a weight that many Americans reserve for the nation’s Founding Fathers. So Fabel, as he is known, is something of a Thomas Jefferson–an ambassador traveling the world to promote hip-hop and teach young people the roots of a cultural language that he says has been co-opted and corrupted by the music industry.
Fabel grew up in Spanish Harlem in the 1970s, becoming part of the gang culture that was prominent in the city at the time. But groups like Rock Steady, along with the Universal Zulu Nation, a collective founded in the Bronx by DJ Afrika Bambaataa, helped shift the gang culture away from violence and toward nascent art forms. The founding of hip-hop culture as a positive force in such trying times coalesced in four elements: DJing, MCing, breakdancing and graffiti.
As the movement took hold in mainstream culture in the 1970s and 80s, the musical production elements–DJing and MCing–proved lucrative for the recording industry. Rap music, or “crap rap,” as Fabel refers to it, redefined the word hip-hop for a global marketplace, ignoring the community-focused approach that its leaders had devised a decade prior.
“It was the stripping of a culture,” he says, and for a moment his sunny demeanor turns fiery.
Undeterred, Fabel and his brethren continue to take the message to young people–in lecture halls and museum exhibits, dance studios and community centers–that while the commercial face of hip-hop appears to have forgotten its roots as a multifaceted art form of the underclass, its message to the disaffected still holds power.
“Funk it up!” Fabel calls out in a small studio in Hong Kong’s residential Sai Wan Ho district. He claps and smiles at the 10 young Chinese dancers learning moves such as the Patty Duke, the Smurf and the Gigolo–dances made popular in New York clubs like the Roxy 35 years earlier. “The Roxy was a roller-skating rink, but some nights it was a dance club, and we would all be there,” he says.
He is jet-lagged and sweat-soaked but still crackling with energy after three hours of dance workshops at the Youth Outreach center, a building more than 30 years old that’s adorned with colorful graffiti by students and guest artists. Fabel offers tips on footwork and balance even as he shares details of the origins of the routines. “This is a dance I created with Mr. Wiggles,” he says, referring to a Rock Steady colleague known for his popping prowess.
He is in Hong Kong as a guest instructor at the School of Hip-Hop, a nonprofit organization that is part of the Hong Kong social work group Youth Outreach. The group began offering 24-hour counseling and shelter to runaways and at-risk youth in Hong Kong in 1991, and since 2002 has made hip-hop a pillar of its mission to engage thousands of otherwise disaffected young people with a constructive outlet for their energy.
Dance is the most popular aspect of the program, says Chacha Kong, the School of Hip-Hop’s senior instructor, but DJing, MCing and graffiti have their places as well. It isn’t lost on the group that the dynamic in the U.S. that prompted the development in hip-hop applies to young people elsewhere, decades later.
“Young people like hip-hop not just because it is ‘fashionable’ or ‘cool’ but because it encapsulates many disparate, deeper meanings,” writes Chan Ka Ling, Youth Outreach senior supervisor, in a monograph about the social group’s work. “Subscribing to and promoting hip-hop culture implies challenging the status quo of the mainstream culture because it is precisely this mainstream culture which created this alienation in the first place.”
Fabel, who has previously been to Japan, Taiwan and mainland China, along with many other stops around the world, says the magnitude of hip-hop’s global spread from its humble origins rarely registers with him. He just keeps bouncing, from one place to another, wherever his dancing takes him.
“The music is always the truth,” he tells his students. “Don’t go ahead of it, don’t go behind it, stay in the pocket.”
by Miguel Gonzalez Jr. (Wall Street Journal)