What was it like growing up in the Bronx in the '70s?
I grew up around music. All three of my brother's were DJs. Where we lived in the Bronx just so happened to be the party spot! My uncles would have these jam sessions on the weekends where someone would show up with an upright bass, someone would bring an organ, timbales, guitar, congas, bongos... the works, man!
What kind of music did you listen to as a kid?
There was a deep love for all kinds of music in my family. Whether it was latin soul, funk, regular soul, salsa, mambo or a doo wop there was always a record playing. I grew up surrounded by soulful music and vibes. If you lived in a Puerto Rican house the radio was always on, music was always playing.
Looking back, is there a song that sums up the vibe of that time?
Ah, yeah, for sure... To Be With You by Joe Cuba. Do you know it? It's a beautiful song. It's a ballad. Check it out!
When breaking first exploded, you had a lot of B-boys who were mixing with graffiti and jumping on the mic or behind the decks. Was that something you experimented with?
When I started dancing there was no prerequisite to be part of any other element, but it just so happened and came to be that these things were happening in the 'hood and some people took to like graffiti and turntables and breaking, and some people didn't and just mastered that one craft.
For me, when I first started getting into the scene, I was trying everything! I tried to DJ because my three older brothers were DJs. When they'd leave the house I'd sneak on the turntables, until one day they rewired them and I didn't know what I was doing! Haha! I wrote graffiti, I wrote rhymes and then... when I went to my first jam I started becoming a B-boy.
At what point did you know being a B-boy was going to be the one that you stuck with?
I went to a jam in 1977 on Katonah Avenue in the Bronx. I saw the dance before and I didn't really know what it was, you know. I thought it was kinda weird. I saw my brother throwing himself on the floor and I was like "Oh my god! What's he doing? He's embarrassing my family!"
But then I went to this jam... I saw everything!! Writers tagging up on the wall, B-boys and B-girls all throwing down, DJs and MCs on the mic and I came alive that day! As soon as I saw it. I knew it was going to be it for me. I tried to dance that day too! I know I was wack and I know my clothing was really off!
Do you remember the first track you battled to?
Wow. That's taking me back! When I went to that first jam, the difference in the music for me was that the main focus being on the percussive parts of the songs. I realised I was entering a new world and I was about to dive deeper into this new collection of music to learn. Battle-wise I don't know the exact song, but there were definitely certain anthems that DJs and B-boys were rocking non-stop like Apache, Give It Up and Turn it Loose, 7 Minutes of Funk, Dance to the Drummers Beat...
What about the war between hip-hop and disco?
When I started dancing this was a war of words. Disco DJs used to make fun of the hip-hop DJs because a lot of the hip-hop DJs didn't know how to blend. Then the hip-hop DJs would make fun of the disco DJs because the music they were playing was the same 4/4 beat all the time.
Because of the differences in the scenes, we didn't really recognise at the time that a lot of the music we were both listening to had a lot of the same flavour and even the same breaks. Like if you look at songsl ike Turn the Beat Around there's a percussive break in there that's so, so dope – but that's a disco record. Both sides were hypocrites really and it was more a battle of whose side shined the most... and at the time hip-hop... we were the new scene.
If you could go back and break to a disco track, what would it be?
Probably Turn the Beat Around. Like I said that's a disco record and it's fast-paced, like maybe 127 beats per minute, but you could still make that funky by using certain beats and half timing and knowing how to play with certain hits and elements. The bongos in that track?! The congas are incredible in that song!
Do you think the music B-boys and B-girls are breaking to has evolved for better or worse?
I think it goes through its ups and downs. I think music-wise B-boys and some B-girls right now get caught up in the idea that it has to be 122bpm and faster, and that you can only rock out if the music is extremely fast. They forget the fact that the dance comes from a funk and a soul. If the music changes from fast to slow, you should still be able to rock to it just as hard.
Do you think there's still a strong focus on musicality among dancers on the scene today?
I think it's more of a level playing field now when its comes to the diversity of the dancers. There's a strong focus to have your foundation and really allow yourself to be taken away with the music, so that your style can kick in, flex your confidence and still have those blow-up moves, your freezes. I think there's a better balance than there ever has been.
You have a lot of latin samples laced with the breakbeats out there, were you surprised, being a B-boy and Puerto Rican, to hear that coming from the music?
For a lot of us, we grew up on that music, you know. It felt like it was only a matter of time before we started mixing those samples into break music. So when DJs started mixing in Ray Baretto and these latin flavours from the block, we were like "I already know that, I can get down to that." If it's funky, its funky! And it's always gonna be dope.
How important was the birth of hip-hop to you as a B-boy?
You know, I started dancing in 1977. The word hip-hop as a label didn't come out until 1982. So I've never really looked at hip-hop like that. It was just music when I started, there was no genre for it. Hip-hop music could have been anything. In 1979 when Flash started cutting up tracks, you had everything as long as there was a funky break in there. You had Back in Black by ACDC, you know, then you had MCs jumping on the mic to do their performances but it wasn't rap yet or hip-hop as a genre... it was a mood and a feeling, and more than anything a scene.
What's been the worst track you've ever had to battle to?
I dont have one because if I didn't like a track I would stop and tell the DJ, "Yo, I'm not dancing to that shit!" Haha! Sometimes you have DJs playing a track that they're breaking, or that they think you need to be dancing to and it's like, "Come on that shit is wack. I'm not dancing to that. I don't care how good of a DJ you think you are, you gotta change that record!" If I don't like it, and the crowd doesn't like it, I've always been lucky enough to be able to get my way.
What's your favorite song to battle to?
I mean the first one that comes to mind is Mambo No 5.
Hold up... As in 'the' Mambo No.5 ?!
Haha, give me a minute! Not the Vega commercial version... I'm talking the original by Samba Soul. That break at the beginning man... Wow! And I mean that's a fast-paced record... that's a really fast tempo! But that one gets me hyped!
(interview by Tracy Kawalik & Crazy Legs. Photos by Dean Treml, Carlo Cruz, Markus Berger and Little Shao)