Smurfs, Wizards, and the History of Hmong B-Boy Culture in Southeast Fresno

Photo courtesy of Lue Vang

Hip-hop’s founding myth places the culture’s birth at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, where on a summer night in 1973 Clive Campbell, aka Dj Kool Herc, held a back-to-school party in his apartment complex’s recreation room. After Herc’s initial reggae offerings fell on deaf ears and, even worse, still feet, he did what any good DJ would do: break out the James Brown. From behind his turntables, Herc noticed that dancers got especially hype when one of Brown’s songs was stripped bare of everything but Clyde Stubblefield’s funky drums. Eventually, Herc engineered a set up consisting of two turntables and a homemade mixer that allowed him to isolated these “breaks” in the song by switching back-and-forth between duplicate records. Dancers immediately fell sway to Herc’s hypnotic break beats and began experimenting with new ways to embody this pure, distilled funk. Because they danced to the breaks, Herc’s followers took to calling themselves “break boys” or “break girls,” which was later simplified to b-boys and b-girls.

In reality, the history of b-boying[1] is more complex than a straight-forward origin story; indeed, the dance’s kinetic genealogy includes slave-era dance steps like the Juba, immigrant dances like the Irish Jig and the Russian Kazatsky, the acrobatics of 1930s Flash Dancing (most famously, the dancing of the Nicholas Brothers), James Brown’s dance moves, kung-fu movies, and Olympic gymnastics, to name a few.[2] In its most elemental form, b-boying blends toprocking, a mixture of jerks, cross steps, and drops and floor-rocking, the acrobatic spins and freezes on a dancer’s hands, knees, back, butt, and head.[3] While the spectacle of these latter “powermoves” are what capture most people’s attention, b-boying is better characterized by the balance between the athleticism of floor-rocking and the grace, agility, and style of toprocking.

Following a series of mid-1980s “breaksploitation” films like Breakin, Beat Street, Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, b-boying went from a regional (really, neighborhood) subculture to full-blown pop-culture fad. While some films were better than others at depicting Bronx style b-boying, many reduced the nuanced dance to its flashiest and most acrobatic moves like windmills and headspins; even worse, breakspoitation films blended b-boying with West Coast funk dances like popping and locking under a newly minted term, breakdancing. Almost overnight, suburban dance studies rushed to find anyone who could execute a backspin to teach “breakdancing” classes to hordes of kids in freshly bought parachute pants; breakdancing guidebooks promised to make you a genuine b-boy or b-girl through “easy-to-follow,” step-by-step instructions.

While the breakdancing fad largely depicted a watered down or one-dimensional version of the dance created by Bronx b-boys and b-girls, it is largely cited as an important influence to dancers outside metropolitan hubs like New York and Los Angeles. Long after films like Breakin left the theatres they circulated in neighborhoods across the country as VHS tapes of both the “legitimate” and bootleg variety. With these films as their ur-text, neighborhood kids began to emulate the moves both as individuals and, increasingly, in crews. One of those neighborhoods was Southeast Fresno.

Southeast Fresno

Southeast Fresno is a diverse working-class neighborhood with a large Latino and Hmong population. The Hmong began coming to Fresno in the 1970s as refugees from Richard Nixon’s secret war in Laos. The majority of Hmong refugees came from unskilled and largely agrarian backgrounds; as a result, many struggled to find consistent and well-paying work in the United States.Consequently, while Asian Americans as a whole are often portrayed as a “model minority,” the Hmong have some of the highest levels of poverty of any ethnic group in the United States. Not surprisingly, Hmong communities, including Southeast Fresno, are plagued by the same struggles of many other working-class communities, including few job opportunities, a lack of resources, and gang violence.

However, as was the case in the 1970s Bronx (and also West Fresno in the 1970s), Southeast Fresno was also a space of joy, community, and creativity. From the early 1990s to the early 2000s Southeast Fresno nurtured a thriving b-boy & b-girl scene that put Fresno, and the larger Central Valley, on the b-boy map as a caretaker of the culture that began with Kool Herc’s back-to-school jam. By the late 1990s, local b-boys made good, Charles “Goku” Montgomery and his mentor Pablo Flores, AKA b-boy Pable, were serving well-known b-boys up and down the state with their innovative power moves, including what Goku argues was the first continuous airflare in b-boy history.[4] While much of Montgomery and Flores’s success was a function of their individual talent and drive, they were also products of a large Fresno b-boy and b-girl network that included important nodes run by Hmong crews.

Lue Vang, member of the Wizards crew, featured in a 1996 newspaper article about a battle held at Fresno’s Buchanan High School. Photo Courtesy of Lue Vang

Hmong b-boy and b-girl crews

The vast majority of Fresno Hmong b-boy and b-girl history has yet to be written. Here is what we know so far: by most accounts the foundation for the Fresno Hmong b-boy and b-girl scene was laid by two well-respected crews, Bumz and Smurfs (in that order). As “OG” crews, Bumz and Smurfs were important in establishing a unique identity for Fresno Hmong b-boys and b-girls. Largely cut off from larger b-boy and b-girl scenes in Southern and Northern California (and, obviously, New York), Bumz and Smurfs emulated the moves that would have been most accessible to them, namely the acrobatic power moves like windmills, headspins, and airflares featured in movies and other pop culture representations of b-boying. What this meant, then, is that the next generation of Fresno b-boys and b-girls that either looked up to or hoped to overtake Bumz and Smurfs had to be familiar with, and ultimately improve upon, this power move canon. In short, Bumz and Smurfs set the standards that the next generation of b-boys and b-girls had to meet… or surpass.

By the mid-1990s a new wave of Fresno Hmong b-boy crews anchored by DIS (Dancing in Style) and Wizards crew took center stage in the scene. In many cases, these crews were populated by the younger siblings of Bumz and Smurfs b-boys and b-girls. While these crews were predominantly Hmong, they also included non-Hmong dancers. Indeed, both Montgomery and Flores got their start with DIS before forming their crew, Climax. Two common denominators connected Hmong and non-Hmong dancers: a love for b-boying and Southeast Fresno.

Scholar Joe Schloss argues that b-boying’s foundational movements and ethos are direct products of the working-class environments that gave them birth. For example, Schloss notes that the best b-boys and b-girls must be able to execute even the most acrobatic move in the tightest of spaces, a legacy of a dance mastered in cramped housing project apartments and city sidewalks and a function of a dance often performed in a cipher surrounded by onlookers.[5] In short, the spaces b-boys and b-girls dance in are as important as the specific moves performed. Like their Bronx counterparts, Fresno b-boys and b-girls were on a perpetual hunt for spaces with smooth surfaces and devoid of hostile authority figures. Often times this meant dancing for hours in a friend’s garage; just as often, this meant claiming space at local community spaces such as Holmes Playground, Roeding Park, and the Mosqueda center. DIS b-boy Yoshi Yang fondly remembers weekly dance sessions at the Roosevelt High School baseball yard that included a 5X5 slab of concrete heaven frequented by local b-boys and b-girls.[6]

Ultimately, the lack of any permanent space such as professional dance studios meant that Fresno b-boys and b-girls had to be skilled enough to adapt their moves to diverse environments. At the same time, gathering and dancing in public spaces posed the typical challenges faced by many working class youth of color, namely, the threat of police harassment and/or navigating the ever increasing web of gang-related neighborhood boundaries.\

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Fresno b-boy icons Charles “Goku” Montgomery and Pablo Flores, AKA b-boy Pablo helped put Fresno on the b-boying map with their innovative power moves. Photos course of Charles Montgomery

Eventually, these same community spaces became places where Fresno b-boy and b-girl crews battled for supremacy. As more crews popped up in Fresno, in particular Climax crew formed by Montgomery and Flores and Lunacy featuring b-boy Waldo, the frequency of battles increased. What were initially informal lunch-time battles at Roosevelt high school or “call out” battles at the park grew into organized events by the late-1990s. Some of the more notable examples include the “Hip-Hop in the Park” jams held at Holmes Playground, the Street Rock series held throughout the Central Valley (including Orchid Hall in Fresno’s “Asian Village”), and the Urban Kombat jams held at Fresno State’s Satellite Student Union.

Battles are an essential aspect of b-boying for a few reasons. First and foremost, constant competition is key to innovation. Fresno b-boy crews, for example, pushed each other to execute the ever-more-impressive power moves that the city is still known for including the groundbreaking continuous airflares first executed in Fresno by Pablo Flores. Second, battles are spaces of community where dancers and non-dancers gather, share resources, and build networks. By the early 2000s, the Urban Kombat jams at Fresno State were large-scale events that featured b-boys and b-girls, graffiti artists, DJs, and emcees, including nationally known recording artists; however, all of this was built on connections made during years of smaller battles.

As noted earlier, eventually Climax founders Montgomery and Flores entered a different stratosphere in the b-boy universe by competing in iconic events like Radiotron and Best of the Best and then in international competitions. However, by almost all accounts, Hmong crews more than held their own in the local battles. Yet, despite their skill not many beyond Fresno or the broader Hmong community know much about this history. In part, this is a reflection of what most describe as a fairly insular community. While some Hmong crews included non-Hmong members, Hmong crews have a reputation for being tight-knit and not always open to outsiders. In addition, it is not clear if, or how often, Hmong crews participated in battles outside of Fresno and/or the Hmong community that might have won them more recognition.

While the tight-knit nature of Hmong crews might be an obstacle to recognition in the broader b-boy and b-girl community, it also hints at the importance of b-boy and b-girl crews as sites where Hmong youth negotiated what it means to be both Hmong and American. Clearly, predominantly Hmong crews were safe spaces where like-minded peers with a unique shared history could congregate and bond. In this sense, Hmong b-boy and b-girl crews fulfilled the same function as more traditional community organizations or even gangs. Yet, these bonds were forged through the quintessentially American expression and language of hip-hop. Ultimately, b-boying was at once a form of self-expression, a way to cope with high levels of poverty, and a tool for refugees and the children of refugees to build community among each other while simultaneously establishing roots in a new land.

Straight Outta Southeast Fresno

The history sketched out in this article is just that, a sketch. At best, this is a skeletal frame to understand a complicated story of a diverse community drawing from multiple references. Specifically, we need to learn more about why Hmong youth were attracted to hip-hop culture in the first place and how that attraction was shaped by their experiences in multi-ethnic Southeast Fresno and the way it was received in the Hmong community. In addition, there is much to be learned about the breadth and depth of the Hmong b-boy and b-girl scene; among other things, this means learning more about the experiences of women, both b-girls and non b-girls alike, the structure of Hmong crews, and the relationship between Fresno Hmong b-boy and b-girl crews and the broader b-boy and b-girl culture.

In conjunction with Fresno State’s Valley Public History Initiative, Dr. Romeo Guzmán and I co-created the Straight Outta Fresno research project to try and answer some of these questions as part of a broader goal of understanding and documenting Fresno’s hip-hop history. On April 1st, we are hosting “Straight Outta Southeast Fresno” to further document and discuss the history of Fresno Hmong b-boys and b-girls. “Straight Outta Southeast Fresno” will include a variety of activities, including walk-in oral histories, a panel discussion, dance performances, and battles designed to collect, analyze, and disseminate narratives and material related to Hmong participation in Fresno hip-hop dance.

We encourage anybody who participated in the Hmong b-boy and b-girl scene to show up between 9:30am-12:00pm at the Henry Madden Library, where Fresno State historians will conduct oral histories and digitize photos; all information collected will eventually be housed in a public archive on the Henry Madden Library website. In addition, “Straight Outta Southeast Fresno” will include a panel discussion between myself and Ville Thao (Smurfs Crew), Yoshi Yang (DIS and Climax), and Gary Yang (Wizards Crew) who will discuss their participation in 1990s Fresno b-boy & b-girl culture and the ways that participation was shaped by their experiences in the Fresno Hmong community. “Straight Outta Southeast Fresno” will culminate with free lunch and a showcase performance featuring multiple generations of Hmong b-boys & b-girls, followed by an open dance battle with prizes for the best dancers.

Sean Slusser is a PhD candidate in History at University of California, Riverside and an adjunct at California State University, Fresno. He is co-founder and co-director of Straight Outta Fresno, a public history project that seeks to document and showcase the multi-ethinc history of hip hop in Fresno.

References

[1] Scholar Joseph Schloss  points out that while it is accurate and important to distinguish between the contributions made by b-boys and b-girls, b-boying is commonly accepted as a gender-neutral descriptor of the culture practiced by b-boys and b-girls. In this article, I use b-boying in the same way.  See:

Schloss, Joseph, G. ‘“Like Old Folks Songs Handed Down from Generation to Generation”:History, Canon, and Community in B-boy culture.” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 50, No.3, Fall 2006. PP. 411-432.

[2] Holman, Michael. “Breaking: The History.” That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, Ed. Murrary Forman and Mart Anthony Neal. New York: Routledge, 2004, pp.31-39.

[3] Ibid. and Schloss,Joseph G. Foundation: B-Boys,B-Girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, PP 125-154.  

Michael Holmon’s classic essay has a nice rundown of the various historical dances that live on in contemporary b-boying. Joeseph Schloss’ excellent book gives a detailed explanation of how b-boying was influenced by a variety of New York dances.

[4] Airflares are an iconic move in the powermove b-boy cannon. When executing an airflare a b-boy or b-girl rotates on their hands in a circular motion with their head pointed down and their legs in a “v” formation. Variations of airflares trace back to the 1980s, however, they consisted of a single rotation. Montgomery has made a convincing cast that the first continuous airflare, as in the first time a b-boy was able to execute two airflares, back-to-back, was executed in 1998 by b-boy Pablo (Pablo Flores) in Fresno, CA. Olympic gymnast Paul Hamm is on record acknowledging that his own use of the continuous airflare in Olympic competition was inspired by seeing b-boys execute the move.

[5] Schloss, Joseph G. Foundation: B-Boys,B-Girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.  PP. 94-106.

[6] Yang, Yoshi. Personal interview. 22 March 2017.

Trackbacks

  1. […] writes in “Tropics of Meta” that the b-boy and b-girl crews “fulfilled the same function as more traditional community […]

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