So L.A. : a hoofer’s place in history : Before Popping, Posing, Breaking, Hip-Hop and Even Disco, There Was Locking. And Don Campbell Invented It.
Just about every day, people driving down Century Boulevard on their way to LAX see a muscular man on top of a narrow cinder-block wall, 10 feet above the sidewalk, doing what looks like jerky aerobics. He bends, bobs, swings his arms and clutches 15-pound weights in each hand. Oblivious to the traffic and the jets overhead, he is lost in a headphone rush of beats, bass notes and the euphoria of his dance.
It’s unlikely anyone recognizes him. But the dance--just about everyone has seen elements of the dance. Michael and Janet Jackson, Salt-N-Pepa, Madonna, Hammer, John Travolta--they all copped steps that can be traced back to one original source, now gyrating under the shadow of an arriving 747: Don Campbell, the original Locker.
Now 44 but looking like a fit middleweight contender, Don Campbell is relentlessly enthusiastic when he talks dance. He lives with his wife and three children in an apartment, not far from his stage, under the LAX flight path. And just about every day he comes down here, trying to limber up for the comeback of Locking.
He has reason to be hopeful. Two brothers, members of the Reseda-based dance group Chain Reaction, are finishing up a 105-minute feature documentary of L.A. street dance, which will feature Campbell prominently. After its release in the fall, the California Arts Council has promised to give the underground street-dance styles of Locking and Popping official recognition as original American art forms, similar to jazz and tap.
But more important, at least to Campbell, is what’s happening at Roxbury, on the Sunset Strip. Every other Tuesday night for the last year the club has been hosting dance contests again. Before wall-to-wall crowds, dancers of every ethnicity, every class, face off in circles, pulling out their best tricks. Old-school Lockers meet new-school Hip-Hoppers, Poppers back-slide up against down-to-the-floor Breakers. And when he can, Don Campbell is out there showing them where it all began.
While the Roxbury kids may not recognize Campbell, just about every working video choreographer does. The style of dance he originated led to the Lockers, the first street-dance troupe to have achieved mass success. They appeared frequently on TV, had their own BBC special, played everything from the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. “We opened for Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall and the Funkadelics at Radio City,” says choreographer Toni Basil, one of the original Lockers. “What other act could do that?”
Don Campbell sits underneath the giant tree in the courtyard outside the cafeteria of Trade Tech in South-Central. This is where he used to sit 25 years ago in between commercial art classes, sometimes picking up pocket change by sketching a portrait. He’s wearing baggy jeans shorts and a black tank top, and he says he has his knee pads along, “just like a track man always has his shoes in the car.”
Although Campbell was a track athlete at Trade Tech, when it came to dancing, “Frankenstein was better than me.” He’d sit in the cafeteria and draw in his sketch book, watching kids flirting and dancing around the juke box in the corner. Elroy Skiffer, one of his oldest friends, remembers trying to teach Campbell some steps after a track meet in the locker room, showing him the Alligator, the Cha-Cha, the Texas Hop. It wasn’t easy, but Skiffer remembers explaining: “As long as you can keep a beat--and count, and stay in step--you’re doing OK. You’re dancing.”
When Campbell finally got the nerve to show his stuff at one of the cafeteria dances, he threw everything together, sometimes stopping in the middle of a step to figure out what to do next. Sam Williams, one of the hot dancers of Trade Tech dubbed him Campbellock because of this hesitation, the locking of the limbs. He invited Campbell to come along to a dance contest at a club downtown. He came in fifth--out of 15--and was hooked. “If I had been the first one pulled off the floor, I swear I never would have danced again,” he says now.
And Locking would have never been for. The dance was so distinctive, so idiosyncratic, so accidental that only Campbell could have created it. As he often says, “ ‘I only know one dance.”
Campbell was soon hitting the dance-contest circuit, roaming from Redondo Beach to the San Fernando Valley, from Long Beach to Hollywood. Contests were used as lure to fill clubs even though prizes rarely topped $100. Still someone in his growing posse would always win something, not enough to make the rent but enough to keep things interesting. At first reluctant to teach the style, Campbell would felt resentful if he saw a rival trying to copy his steps. But his mother told him that if other people didn’t copy him, the dance would never get known. His main hangout was a small club in Culver City called Maverick’s Flats. That’s where he met Fred (Rerun) Barry, then an overweight kid wearing a ‘40s-style zoot suit, complete with double-breasted vest and gold chain. “I snuck away from an all-night prayer meeting and went to Maverick’s,” says Barry, now a Baptist minister in Alabama. “That’s where all the hot dancers hung out. I saw this guy doing this crazy dance. In Locking, everything is overdone. You don’t just point, you twirl your wrist and then point; you don’t just look, you pop your neck and look. When you walk, you dip and walk. Everything came off the lock when you lock your joints, your upper body and knee. It was still but also very fluid. As long as you came back to that lock movement, you could do anything. I begged him to teach me. He asked me did I want to go on ‘Soul Train’?”
It’s impossible to tell the story of Don Campbell, or of any American street dance in the 1970s, without acknowledging the culture-shaping change brought about by Don Cornelius and “Soul Train.”
In the early ‘70s, the war in Vietnam was taking many young men out of the neighborhoods and sending them back either in body bags or maimed, bitter and strung out. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, Malcolm X was dead and the Panthers were under surveillance and overt attack. In Inglewood, South-Central and Watts, drugs and gangs were not yet pandemic, and confrontations at house parties were resolved on the dance floor, not in drive-bys. Then in 1971 newscaster Don Cornelius brought his daily dance program, “Soul Train,” from its Chicago home at WCUI-TV to KTTV in Los Angeles. Although the set lacked the production values of rival “American Bandstand,” Cornelius’ innovations made up for it. There was the “Soul Train” line when dancers got to solo for the camera, the interviews with almost every black performer of the day and the closing invocation from Cornelius, looking somber in his dark suit, his face framed by his glasses and Afro: Peace, Love and Soul.
Suddenly, there was a national context for African Americans, one that merged street-level music, dance and fashion in a format never before seen. Before “Soul Train,” dances would develop regionally and rarely cross state lines. According to Judy Spiegelman, a.k.a. Leah Davis, then managing editor of Soul! magazine, “A dance would start in New Orleans and another in New York, and you’d go to a party, and if somebody was there from out of town, they would bring the new steps from another city. But with “Soul Train,” dances became nation-wide. Whatever the rage, you saw it there first. It was the communication medium for dance, hairstyle and clothes.”
“I lived in Brooklyn,” says Nelson George, formerly the R&B; editor for Billboard magazine and now a novelist, “in an area called Brownsville, out in the projects. You would see moves or dances on “Soul Train,” and you could go to a house party or see little girls outside on a summer day, re-enacting stuff they saw. It was such a rarity to see black people on TV having a good time, not expressing any stereotype, just having fun and being sexy. “Soul Train” was part of the tapestry of being an African American back in those days. You took pride in the flair of the dancers.”
And nobody had more flair in those early shows than Don Campbell. Dancers gained admission to the set by winning “Soul Train” dance contests. Week after week, Campbell would win. He would leap off the stage in a swan dive, land in a split, pump himself up and then lock in a freeze. “No matter what I did wrong, I was doing right; people started clapping,” he says. As he talks he traces a scar on his knee, a scar from an operation to mend torn cartilage. “Don (Cornelius) asked me did I know anybody else that could dance. I got Charles Robot and all the guys I knew on the dance circuit. The whole show was full of Lockers.”
Toni Basil was living in Hollywood, studying ballet during the daytime, and roaming the clubs at night. She remembers the first time she saw “Soul Train” and dancers turning away from their partners and facing the camera. This wasn’t just a black version of “American Bandstand.” This was something new. “They knew they were performers. Finally, I saw Don and Fred Barry at the Citadel. They were flying off the ceiling, running up the side of the walls and doing back flips, jumping on and off tables. I had come to Hollywood to dance and found nothing as exciting as in the movies, like “West Side Story.” Nothing until that moment. They were taking dance to that movie level. And they were just in a club, dressed in striped socks and knickers and weird hats.”
“Soul Train” dancers became mini-celebrities, thanks largely to magazines like Soul and Right On! that hyped the show. They were no longer merely anonymous members of a dance audience but rather personalities, characters. When a Locker came into a club, an automatic challenge was thrown down. If you wore the clothes--knickers, suspenders, big hats, striped socks--you’d better be able to dance the dance. It was a lifestyle, a mode of dress, speech and walk. “Don took me to every dance contest in L.A.,” says Barry. “He had won them all. He was so good. They’d just give him the money because no one would dance against him. I’d come out in full regalia: Purple knickers; purple, black and white socks; purple, black and white shirt; purple suspenders, and a big purple Apple cap. There was no doubt who I was. And I wasn’t taking any prisoners. Don taught me how to use the light, to dance in front of the judges, to slap the floor like you’re trying to break the wood, the showmanship. Once you did that, you couldn’t help but win.”
Don Campbell remembers when he first started wondering if there was something more than “Soul Train.” He was on a promotional tour for the show, playing Charlotte, N.C., and “kids would ask me, ‘Hey, you’re rich, aren’t you?’ You know how kids are. I wasn’t making anything except on the road trip, like $100 a show. When I came back to L.A., I started thinking, we should get something.”
“We knew that our style of dancing was making good ratings, so some of us went to Don Cornelius and asked him to pay us $50 each per show,” says Fred Barry. “And they kicked us off the show. They didn’t say, ‘You’re off the show.’ They said, ‘no more Locking.’ And that was the only style we did. We were no longer able to go on ‘Soul Train’ so we formed the Lockers.”
The seven Lockers, originally the Campbellock Dancers, became the first professional street-dance group. The Electric Boogaloo came down from Fresno in the mid-'70s in the form of Poppin’ Pete and his brother, Boogaloo Sam, and their dance group. From their home in Long Beach, Electric Boogaloo (also the name of the group) perfected two new styles: the Boogaloo and Popping. “Popping is where you hit your muscles and joints so hard it’s like your whole body is going into convulsions,” says Pete. “Boogaloo is a term my brother got from a James Brown song called ‘Doing the Boogaloo.’ It’s making the body look like water, like your legs don’t have any bones. The Moonwalk, the Back Slide--we were doing this stuff years before Michael. That going-backward step is actually the Back Slide. The Moonwalk, Sam got from walking on the moon, you have no gravity. People got confused and called it Pop-Locking but you can’t pop and lock at the same time. It’s two different dances. The Lockers, they paved the way.”
When the Electric Boogaloo hit Long Beach, the Lockers were already fragmenting. Toni Basil was moving into music with her hit “Mickey (You’re So Fine)”; Fred Barry had left to join the hit sitcom “What’s Happening” as Rerun, and three of those remaining became Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the point had been made. Street dancers could make a living and the energy began shifting south to Orange County, north to the San Fernando Valley, to the beach cities. Uncle Jam’s Army, a dance-promotion company hosted huge contests at the Palladium and at the Long Beach arena, an open invitation to up-and-coming dance groups like Captain Crunch and Funky Bunch and the Electric Boogaloo to strut their stuff. The Electric Boogaloo would hit neighborhood parties and dance contests from Disneyland to Glendale. They were the new kids on the block, the ones to beat. They’d arrive as a posse, dressed in “old man” style: 1940s gangster-type suits they’d get at thrift stores, for a dollar, and hard-soled Stacey Adams shoes.
“When you hear someone has a name, we’d go to a spot to see him, see how good he is.” says Poppin’ Pete, (real name, Timothy Solomon) now a music producer. Then we’d just put it on the table. It was like the OK Corral. Everybody just squares off, makes a circle, and you get out there. We had a dance room in our garage in Long Beach, and people would come and knock on the door, come to call us out.”
One of the kids who knocked on their garage door was Bruno Falcon, Pop ‘n’ Taco, one of the few Hispanic dancers with a name. He was born in East L.A. but was going to school at Poly High School in Long Beach and was getting called out all the time. “People couldn’t believe there was a Mexican who could pop. They would challenge me in front of the school or a party or a high school dance. They’d come out, right at you, right in front of your face.”
Falcon has in fact danced his way into a lucrative career as a low-profile choreographer. He’s worked with La Toya, Janet and Michael Jackson as the creative consultant on Michael’s “Dangerous” tour and is now putting together a show of street dance for the House of Blues. And while street dance is full of braggadocio and false claims, Falcon is quick to give a nod to Don Campbell: “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think street dancing would have come along. He opened the door for it.”
“Creating a dance is like coming up with a Chuck Berry riff,” says Toni Basil. “You always hear it--even when the Beatles do it--and it’s recognizable. Steps come up all the time, but not dances.” But creating a dance, as Campbell now knows, doesn’t necessarily mean recognition--unless you’re in New York. “New York also makes up dances,” says Basil, “like Breaking and Hip-Hop, but the media, which come out of New York, embraces that kind of art, street art, whereas California doesn’t give a damn.”
Basil has tried to do something about that. Two years ago, she staged “Shockin’ the House: Two Decades of L.A. Street Dance” for the 1993 L.A. Festival. The show represented the first mainstream recognition of the richness of L.A.'s dance scene, and she’s hoping to take it to Broadway. Now, with “Underground Dance Masters,” L.A. dance is about to get another revival look. The film, currently being edited at Columbia by Tom and Paul Sanchez of Chain Reaction, chronicles street-dance history through archival footage interspersed with current interviews with various dance innovators like Campbell. Concurrent with the film’s release in the fall, Tom Sanchez hopes to have Locking and Popping designated traditional American art forms, on a par with jazz and tap, all with the blessing and backing of the Choreographers Union of America as well as the California Arts Council. If that happens--and it depends on the success of the film--it will represent the end of a feud, a recognition of the validity of street-dance styles.
“There was incredible rivalry between trained dancers and underground dancers,” he says. “We (as street dancers) used to receive terrible treatment. It’s important to show where it all came from, that it does have a history.”
At the Roxbury tonight, a history lesson is going on. The crowd is a microcosm of Los Angeles: Asian, Anglo, Latino, African American. Hip Japanese club kids stand near the stage, watching intently as a circle forms and dancers are called out. There’s a contest later on, but it’s not yet midnight, and people are still getting warmed up. Don Campbell is here, roaming through the crowd, stepping into the circle every once in a while to try a step, flipping his hat, bouncing a napkin off his knee. He’s resplendent in a flowing red outfit, baggy trousers hiding his knee pads. His hat spends as much time in the air as it does on his head, and even though he’s clearly not as limber as the kids, he is having a good time.
Before the contest begins (with Campbell as one of the judges), the emcee calls him to the stage to engage in a little basic education. “Here is the man who started it all, Locking, Popping, Hip-Hop. Don Campbellock.”
Campbell climbs up on the stage and goes through a few short routines but doesn’t really get into the groove. That happens later, after the contest, with the dance floor crowded again and a circle formed. He faces off with a new school Locker, one of the kids he’s hoping to recruit for a new Locking group. Nothing is said, but there is instant communication. There’s no melding of styles, no Hip-Hop-Pop-Boogaloo salad. This is the original stuff, coming out of the original bottle, and the crowd grows silent. The pair are in unison, and for the length of the routine, doing the Locker Handshake, Campbell is 22 again, at the top of his form, in the middle of the circle. Who cares that tomorrow he’ll be dancing on an eight-inch cinder-block stage on Century Boulevard? Right now he’s Don Campbell, the Nureyev of Lock.