The King of Compton
The crowd roared as Straw Mann cartwheeled across the room like a capoeira fighter. He popped up into a praying mantis pose and staggered around like a Kung Fu master practicing “drunken style.” There was a break in the action as he exited the circle. Nobody wanted to follow him. “Here’s my chance,” I thought, jumping into the middle. At first, I started “waving,” a fluid style of “poppin’.” Then I “floated” across the open space of the circle. I busted out all my best moves, hoping to win over the crowd.
But, Tick-a-Lott—an old-school popper from Compton— wasn’t impressed. He stood on the edge of the circle, hands on hips, and told everyone that I wasn’t poppin’. He laughed while covering his mouth. “That’s just tricks, man! You need to hit the beat!” he called out over the music.
Tick-a-Lott’s critiques stung. I had learned how to “pop” years before I ever showed up to Project Blowed. My teacher was Tron, a street performer in Berkeley. I had practiced and trained with Tron for years when I was an undergraduate at UC—Berkeley. He was like my Mr. Miyagi. I’d show up at his house and he’d tell me to put my arms through a tree in his front yard. The tree had a dense web of intertwined branches. “Now take them out,” he’d say. I’d scrape up my elbows extracting my limbs. “When you can do that without pain, you’ll know how to ‘wave’.” I also became a member of “Boogie Knights,” a mixed-styles dance crew comprised of poppers, lockers, B-boys, and house dancers from the East Bay. We battled crews from all over the Bay Area. And at the peak of my dancing days, I won an open-styles dance battle at “The Crackhouse,” an abandoned warehouse near Oakland’s Jack London Square.
But at Project Blowed, my moves and dance lineage were unimpressive. The poppin’ (or “pop-locking,” as it’s sometimes called in L.A.) scene was different: in L.A., poppers evaluated each other by how hard they could hit or violently contract their muscles to the beat. I had no clue how to hit. I didn’t fit into the local aesthetic.
Years later, Tick-a-Lott broke it down for me. He told me that hitting hard was an extension of local gang culture, in which young people work to present themselves as invulnerable on the streets. Once, watching me try to hit hard, he said, “We grew up in this gang shit. Even if you not into it, you gotta hit hard.” I looked at my reflection in the glass doors outside the Vision Theatre, a performing arts venue in the historic Leimert Park area of South Central. I wasn’t hitting hard. I looked like I was having a seizure. My body convulsed awkwardly, moving too quickly or too slowly, almost always missing the beat.
I got to know Tick-a-Lott as I worked on my book, Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central. During those five years, he taught me how to pop. But more importantly, his story showed me the web of people that came together to support his pathway into poppin’. As Howard Becker describes in his study of art worlds, artists are often at the center of dense, supportive social networks. Tick-a-Lott’s career was the result of support he received from peers at school, administrators, a marching band, and, perhaps most importantly, local gang members, who left him alone as he pursued dance. Dancing, like rapping or playing basketball, was a skill that young men like Tick-a-Lott could use to gain status and respect in their neighborhoods outside of gangs. It was another identity option in a world in which gangbanging was a familiar rite of passage.
When Poppin’ Blew Up
Michael Jackson moonwalking for the first time on TV
Years later, Michael Jackson would propel poppin’ into the limelight. He “unveiled” it in 1983 during the televised 25th anniversary show for Motown Records. Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever drew 34 million viewers and featured Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & The Supremes, and the long-anticipated reunion of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. But, in a night full of memorable performances, one stood out. When the beat dropped to “Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson—rocking a black sequined tuxedo—grabbed his crotch and thrust it to the beat. He spun, kicked his legs, and tossed his fedora off-stage in one singular motion. The crowd was mesmerized for three-and-a-half minutes. And then, just as his performance reached a fever pitch, the “King of Pop” glided across the stage, as if on an invisible walkway. The moonwalk was born.
The public fell in love with the moonwalk, and many believed that the King of Pop had invented the move. But dance legend has it that, like Boogaloo Sam, he learned it from dancers on Soul Train. Michael Jackson was mesmerized by what he saw on TV and had his management get the names of dancers who could teach him how to do that move and others. Jackson would bring the moonwalk and poppin’ to the masses.
Poppin’, much like Bboyin’ and Bgirlin’ (breakdancing), soon saturated popular media. Hollywood studios rushed to hire street dancers for upcoming films, and funk dancers like Shabba Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp starred in movies like Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2, further popularizing these styles of street dance.
MJ’s iconic performance and the popular attention it brought to poppin’ and funk styles also changed how underground dancers thought about their craft. Tick-a-Lott and his crew, Mysterious Waves, tried to capitalize on the mainstream emergence of poppin’ and got headshots taken. They auditioned for roles in films, TV shows, and commercials. They got rejected most of the time, but Mysterious Waves got what felt like a mini-break after a call-back for Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Tick was excited, even if he and his crew weren’t a featured act. He got to work with rapper Ice-T and other dancers performing at Radiotron, a community center in L.A.’s MacArthur Park. It felt momentous, like Tick-a-Lott and the other dancers were on the cusp of something big. Success felt within reach.
Poppin’ continued to grow in popularity during the 1980s. Like Bboyin’ and Bgirlin’ before it, poppin’ was eventually appropriated and commodified. In 1985, Mr. Rogers invited a 12-year-old street dancer named Jermaine Vaughn to teach him how to moonwalk and pop, right there in his neighborhood.
All of this was happening during a time of massive deindustrialization and job loss in Compton and other urban areas across the country. Poppin’, to put it succinctly, was what Robin Kelley calls “play labor.” When youth lack attractive work options in the formal labor market, they often turn to skills and talents that present them with opportunities—however fleeting—that don’t appear possible in the given market. Much like hoop and rap dreams, poppin’ (and Hip Hop dance more broadly) seemed to offer youth from places like Compton a similar springboard to upward mobility. Dancers like Tick-a-Lott hoped their skills would propel them into the movies, music videos, and other popular media.
Killer Dance Moves
Tick-a-Lott was first drawn to poppin’ in middle school. Back then, he was considered a locker or a “Campbell-locker.” A 1970s dance, locking was created by Don Campbell and the Lockers in Los Angeles. Lockers pointed and froze their bodies, cocked their shoulders up and down, turned their hats, and jumped into the air, landing in the splits. They danced rhythmically to uptempo funk and soul records like James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing.”
Tick-a-Lott reminisced about the dramatic scene one night, telling me he had been at a school dance when some kids formed a huge dance circle. The circle was humming along until someone jumped into the circle and started poppin’. He said, “And then, this one kid he came out and starts hittin’, like bam, bam, bam, bam!” He mimicked the other kids, wide-eyed and jaws dropped at the sight of this new dance style. Tick-a-Lott remembered, “I went right to the bathroom to practice what I seen.”
Tick-a-Lott was obsessed and practiced religiously. He often practiced in front of the bathroom mirror, while walking around the neighborhood, at school, or doing chores at home. He danced with a broomstick, pantomiming as he swept, and in front of the TV, watching the small reflection of his body move across the screen. The moves became second nature through repetition and practice.
Other people recognized and supported his talents. Classmates were impressed and his popularity grew: “Everybody knew that whenever I showed up, I was gonna shut it down. People wouldn’t wanna dance after me!” Teachers and administrators took note and offered him a spot on the high school marching band. At first, Tick-a-Lott wasn’t sure, but performing at parades, pep rallies, and football games would bring his moves to larger audiences. He was made a special drum major, left to improvise dance moves along with the band procession.
Tick-a-Lott also enjoyed attention from young women. Poppin’ was a source of identity and status. Once, outside Project Blowed, Tick-a-Lott told us a story about a time when he danced at his high school football team’s halftime show. He said a cheerleader from the visiting high school noticed his electric dance moves and started flirting: “Her boyfriend didn’t like this! He was finna beat my ass!” Tick-a-Lott laughed as he recalled being chased by the girl’s boyfriend and how he narrowly escaped, jumping over a fence to safety.
On another night, he showed us pictures from the many battles he won during his heyday. He fished around in his backpack and pulled out an old headshot. It was black-and-white and had veiny creases running through it. He was much younger in the photo and had a full head of glistening jheri curls. “All the ladies loved my hair!” he said. The next photo was from an “open styles” dance battle in Compton. He stood behind a 4-foot trophy in a white tracksuit and Adidas Shell Toes. He had been one of the only poppers in that battle. After defeating a bunch of dancers in the early rounds, he went on to beat a Bboy in the finals. “That day, I served everybody. I was the King of Compton!”
I never doubted Tick-a-Lott, but a part of me always wondered if he was exaggerating his acclaim. These doubts were put to rest one afternoon at a Compton barbershop. When we walked in, a couple of the barbers—high school friends of Tick’s—yelled, “Uh oh! Look who it is!” Tick-a-Lott started “tickin’,” a style of rapid-fire stop motion that makes a dancer look like he’s beneath a strobe light. His friends cracked up laughing, and they all exchanged handshakes. Tick-a-Lott introduced me, “This is J. He in school writing about me and my dancing.” One of his friends beamed as he started telling his own tales of Tick-a-Lott’s many battles and performances in Compton. Imitating Tick’s dance moves, the barber told me, “He be out there getting down and people knew he would set it off. Everybody knew Tick.” Tick-a-Lott said, “People used to go crazy when they saw me out there. They be like ‘Do it again, do it again!’”
Gang members also recognized his talents, leaving him
alone to “do his thing.” Hanging out by the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in downtown Compton, Tick-a-Lott told me about his experience growing up around gangs. “They start buggin’ out every time I come around,” he said. “Did they ever ask you to join up?” “Nah. They knew what I was doing. Everybody knew I was popping.”
There are probably many reasons for why Tick-a-Lott never got into the gang lifestyle. He may not have been drawn to it. Whenever the topic came up, he would shrug and laugh off the notion of being in a gang. Or, he’d say that being in a gang was for “little kids.” Also, local gangs may not have seen him as a good recruit. There is a popular assumption that young people of color are drawn to gangs because they offer them a sense of family or belonging. While this rings true for some, it is not a universal explanation of what it is like to come of age in the shadows of gangs.
But, importantly, Tick-a-Lott was immersed in a social world that supported his passion for dancing. Poppin’ gave him a respectable “pass” and an unimpeded path outside of gangs. In addition to friends who knew him as a killer on the dance floor, Tick-a-Lott was surrounded by peers, teachers, and administrators who endorsed his talents and provided him with support and a venue to show off his moves. All of this made a lifestyle and identity as a dancer attractive and, more importantly, possible.
Ultimately, our identities are a mix of how we see ourselves and how others see us. Self and social appraisals are complementary parts of a whole identity. For Tick-a-Lott, his identity as a dancer gave him an alternative way to become known and gain respect in his social world.
These days, you can find Tick-a-Lott performing out on Hollywood Boulevard, decked out in Locs, a Chinese Tuxedo, and a black porkpie hat. Sometimes he’ll even set up shop along the Hollywood “Walk of Fame.”
Even though he sometimes still entertains the possibility of a lucrative career as a dancer, he knows that this is probably a pipe dream. But Tick-a-Lott and other poppers aren’t just motivated by a glimpse of fame or fortune. Poppin’ is a fun, creative outlet that forms a core part of their identity. When social scientists write about art, music, and dance, we often lose sight of these non-material attractions to creativity. Artists experience joy, camaraderie, and a sense of mastery while creating art. These experiences are intrinsically rewarding.
Poppin’ also helped Tick-a-Lott avoid a path that swallows up so many other young people from his hometown, Compton. It was a creative intervention. In a recent interview for Noisey, mainstream Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar reflected on his own journey into Hip Hop. He talked about his friends who had grown up in gangs and how his love for rhyming gave him a way out of that world. Tick-a-Lott’s story was strikingly similar. Even though he never blew up like Kendrick Lamar, Tick still found a way to avoid a violent world that injures and ends the lives of so many of his peers.
Years after finishing my book, I met up with Tick-a-Lott on Hollywood Boulevard. He was there with old-school poppers like Scorpio and Midnight. They were performing along the Walk of Fame as crowds of people came and went between the restaurants, bars, and clubs outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Tick was dusting off a sweaty rubber mask he had spray-painted silver and black—Oakland Raiders colors. I asked about his upcoming performance, and he smiled. “When I’m pop-lockin’, I feel like I’m in a zone, I’m just in it.”
Howard Becker. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press. How artists produce their work with the help of others.
Robin Kelley. 1997. Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Explores Hip Hop culture as a perceived pathway to upward mobility for urban African-American men.
Marcyliena Morgan. 2009. The Real HipHop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the LA Underground. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. The early history of American emcees and Project Blowed.
Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon. 2006. “Physical Graffiti: The History of Hip-Hop Dance.” In Jeff Chang (ed), Total Chaos. New York: Basic Civitas. Popper and Hip Hop historian Pabon breaks down the origins of popping and locking.
Joseph Schloss. 2009. Foundation: B-boys, B-girls, and Hip-hop Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press. An ethnographic look at how dancers compete for respect.