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

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 … [Read more...]

Remembering Denis Gainty, Bluegrass Virtuoso and Beloved Historian of Japan

With a weary and heavy heart, Tropics of Meta marks the loss of yet another great historian, having meditated on the tragic passing of Cliff Kuhn less than a year and a half ago. Georgia State's Jeffrey Young offers this celebration of Denis's rich, vivid, and too-short life. Denis Charles Gainty was born in Saranac Lake, New York, on August 31, 1970 to Clement Joseph Gainty and Mary Kate Gainty.  He grew up in Western and Central Massachusetts spending especially joyful years in Shelburne, MA.  His close relationships with his brother Chris and his sister Caitjan were the anchors of a wonderful childhood much of which was spent exploring the outdoors.  As a boy, he excelled at his studies … [Read more...]

How the Labor Movement Shot Itself in the Foot: Rock Edition

“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” Thom Yorke sneered on Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album OK Computer. He did not mean aesthetic ambition, of course—the band had that in spades—but the crass materialism of a yuppie careerist, the proverbial “kicking, screaming Gucci little piggy.” The next year, rapper Amil made a very different declaration on a classic Jay-Z track: “Ambition makes me so horny… My hoochie remains in a Gucci name.”  Their two perspectives on material aspiration could not be more different—the art-rocker disdains the trappings of consumerism, while Amil is totally frank about the fact that she wanted her art to succeed commercially, to bring the comforts that upward mobility … [Read more...]

When Prince Met Spotify

This blog has never made a secret of its furtive love for the Purple One. He was one of the few cultural figures that we rushed an immediate retrospective about—the Beastie Boys being another, upon the death of MCA in 2012. For the Gen Xers and millennials who make up most of the writing team at Tropics of Meta, these artists meant enough to us in our formative years to merit instant assessment and reflection. Prince was also one of those unusual—and increasingly rare—characters in popular culture who boasted such universal appeal, across races, classes, and genders, that their death left a blast crater in the public consciousness, noticeable to those who hadn’t even heard the news. I … [Read more...]

It Started Here: Jean Vang’s Journey into Fresno’s Hip Hop Past

Popping is a dance style that originated in Fresno and is characterized by abrupt spastic movements. The dancers pop their limbs in sudden drastic motions while incorporating subtle pauses to accentuate these popping gestures. The origins are often credited to brothers Popp’ in Pete and Sam Solomon who helped create the dance stylings in the 1970’s.[1] The Solomon brothers grew up in West Fresno which was predominantly African American. Latinos and African Americans were often segregated to this region of Fresno, which suffered from widespread unemployment and poverty. The schools in this region were neglected and housing was dilapidated.[2] It was under these difficult conditions that the … [Read more...]

A Blaxican’s Journey through Fresno’s Racial Landscape

In the summer of 1973, DJ Kool Herc tried something new on the turntables: by extending the beat, breaking and scratching the record, he allowed people to dance longer and entertained them with his rhymes as an MC. After that moment, everything changed. The sound that emerged out of the South Bronx in New York City led to a cultural movement that changed the lives of generations around the world.[1] For Phillip Walker, a mixed race kid from Fresno, California, hip-hop not only served as the soundtrack of his youth, but provided a way to understand his neighborhood and build a multiethnic community. Phillip Ernest Walker Jr. was born on January 28, 1976 in Fresno, California. He is the son … [Read more...]

The Best Film and Music of 2016

Our end-of-last-year series rolls on with a look at the sights and sounds of 2016. In this case, we actually did watch/hear things that came out in 2016.  Our recommendations for reading material from the last year can be found here. Best Film ASC: Moonlight, obviously--to my mind the undisputed champ of 2016 cinema. And Arrival, the best portrayal of human-alien contact I've seen, and a plea for sanity in an increasingly insane world. Then there was Anna Rose Holmer's criminally overlooked The Fits, a tense study of gender and sexual awakening, urban poverty and environmental racism that only now seems to be getting the attention it deserves: a compact gem of a film. Finally, Whit … [Read more...]

The Story of Boogaloo Sam as Told by Izel Gaye

We all have that one piece of clothing, be it a fresh new hat or a favorite pair of jeans, that when we slip it on it makes us feel like a million bucks.  You walk a little taller and feel as though your outlook for the day may be brighter simply by adorning yourself in this one item.  For Izel Gaye, a 58-year-old man who has lived most of his life on the west side of Fresno California, that special item is a pair of dancing shoes that were given to him by his friend, Poppin’ and Boogaloo icon Sam Solomon. “When he gave you something,” Mr. Gaye reflected in a recent oral history, “It was like oh boy you better hang on to this… it's got the magic touch.  Then when I put ‘em on I feel like I’m … [Read more...]

Straight Outta Fresno: Hip Hop Dance from Popping to B-Boying and B-Girling

In 1979, Soul Train host Don Cornelius introduced the nation to five dancers who called themselves the Electric Boogaloos. “As you may know, these very creative young men have invented a dancing style that’s becoming very popular, and it’s described as ‘popping,’” Cornelius announced to the cameras. Shortly after their 1979 performance, Hollywood produced a series of breakdancing films that featured actual poppers like Bruno “Pop N' Taco” Falcon and Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers showing off the dance’s characteristic pops, ticks, jerks, and spasms.  By the time kids in Kenosha, Wisconsin marveled at Pop N’ Taco’s spastic, yet simultaneously fluid, dance routines in the film “Breakin’” … [Read more...]

The Other Freestyle: Recovering 80s Latin Dance Music

I was wandering through a street fair off Canal Street a few years ago when I came across a stand selling bootleg CDs of hip-hop, rock, and many other genres.  The discs were mixes, rather than outright copies of already-released albums.  I had, of course, seen both in Manhattan, having picked up a $6 copy of Beck’s Guero on Varick Street and some amazing, educational anthologies of bossa nova and Americana near St. Mark’s Place in years past.  I did not know what I was in for when I visited this vendor, though. One CD was labeled Best of Freestyle.  Though I did not recognize the names – Nice N Wild, Sa Fire, Freeze – I assumed they must be old-school rappers of hip-hop’s golden age, … [Read more...]