KEN SWIFT (ROCK STEADY CREW / NYC)
Interview done by M.Sinckler (Graphotism Magazine)
(This article was published in Graphotism Magazine Issue 14 – 1999.
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Due to his original style and technique, Ken Swift is one of the most respected and rated B-Boys ever to walk this earth. An architect and master of original style, Ken Swift is one of the fast flowing sources from which this amazing dance style sprung. Get your cups ready ‘cus the source is about to flow once more.
A lil’ history about who I am?
A lil’ history of Ken Swift.
Firstly, my name was Kid Zoom, when I was with the Young City Boys. Then it was Ken Rok, Ken Ski for the Rock Steady Crew battle at the Lincoln Center, when I was partners with Lil’ Lep. Then after that it was Prince Ken Swift, and now it’s just Ken Swift.
My history dates back to ‘78 at a time when you didn’t really see it. And when you did see it, you’d be walking down the street and you wouldn’t know what was happening, nobody on the outside world knew what was happening in that park, in that lil’ circle next to a lil’ sandpit, next to a monkey bars. They had loud music, but they didn’t know why people was standing in that circle. Well the masses didn’t, but in that circle, there was people getting busy, there was people doing stuff on the concrete, to the beat of the music, acting like clowns, acting like stick-up kids, acting like machines, acting like…B-Boys.
It was about being the best. Better than the other dancers. Dancing to the beat, and making the crowd respond. But it was about playing with the crowd, doing crazy shit.
The black kids were the ones that I learnt from but you never learned by asking somebody. Back in the days, it was machoism, it was about that street attitude, that attribute like you ain’t gonna sweat nobody.
Who ever had the nerve to say “teach me”, was considered a sucker, a lil’ bitch-ass punk. So you never asked no one to teach you, you never clapped when a nigga did a good move, you just stood there and acted hard, like it didn’t phase you. It was all about attitude, everyone else did the clapping, not the B-Boys.
Because it wasn’t about clapping, it wasn’t no fucking show, it was dancing, “I’m doing what I do”. So you had to hold your own, you had to learn on your own from what you saw, and you had to be original, ‘cos if you did what you saw you’d be disrespected. You could even get smacked sometimes if you did someone else’s move back in the day. So you had to do your own shit and you had to learn the foundation, and flipping it right.
For me it wasn’t about making the crowd happy, ‘cos they didn’t know what I was doing anyway. I wanted the B-Boys to say “alright”. For me it was like I wanted to please my crew, I wanted my crew to say “Ohhhhh”. So I didn’t show them none of my shit until a party, or until the jam or until the battle, and I pulled off some crazy shit and I gave confidence to them and they didn’t know it because I would do something in front of them and hype them up to do something. You know I was a beginner and I had a lot to prove you know. I wanted to be up there with the best kids, and I wasn’t as good as them, that’s all there was to it. So you know, it took me a while, but I started feeling it, and I really started loving it you know. I really loved Breaking man.
Who would you say is your main influence?
There is no main influence. The main influence for me is the music. OK now, as far as persons are concerned there are a whole number of people who influenced me. Some of the main ones were a kid named Grego, from the Executioners, a crew from East Harlem, there was a kid named Shaky, a Puerto Rican kid from Amsterdam Projects, 61st St. There was also the Number One Sure Shot Crew, with Kid Terrific, he’s a Puerto Rican B-Boy and they inspired me more ‘cos all I saw was brothers, but when I saw Puerto Ricans I felt more comfortable about Breaking.
My old brother Speedy, my middle brother Tumir, he’s a Graffiti artist from the mid 70’s to 80’s and he also put me onto the underground scene. Then there was Eddy Ed, Kid Spark, who was down with Rock Steady back in ‘83, he was my inspiration for Brooklyn Rock.
Later on down the line, there was Maurizio, who was like the second wind. He inspired me. Not only ‘cos I liked what I saw, but I felt like…tarnished. Like “I’m bad too!”. So he pushed me more to get better.
He got down with Rock Steady. He got busy, made his appearance in New York, and fucking blew everybody out of the water, and I felt that I was so wack, that day. But I knew what I had to do. After seeing him, I knew what the journey was gonna be. I said it’s gonna be a hard and long journey, but I’ll do it. It took me three years, and I did it. It took me three years to find my swerve, my feel.
Why are you retiring, and from what?
I’m retiring from performing on stage.
I don’t think that my dance gets the respect that it deserves, I’ve tried for many years to educate people, and I’ve tried in the scene to educate people. A lot of young kids are pretty ignorant.
There’s certain people out here that don’t know how to pioneer things, and they feed distorted messages to young people. Then there’s people who are jealous of pioneers, original dancers, so that then they try to send fucking mixed messages and rumors…and it’s corny.
You know I’m 32 years old, I’m not a lil’ kid any more. I could put up with that when I was 17 or 18, ‘cos I was part of it, but as you get older, you see it, and you try to tell the kids, you know? Teach them about self respect, as a person, not as a B-Boy. Because you can’t be a respectable B-Boy, if you’re not a respectable person. I think I got a good rapport with people in the scene because I try to be respectful. That’s because I learned how to respect myself in the last 7 to 8 years, I learned a lot about myself and I’m still learning. To me it’s about self-respect, and treating people right. And even if niggas shit on you and fuck you over, it’s about staying righteous. Because everybody has their days. Me and you and everything we do in our life, we gonna pay for it some way or another, good and bad.
So my choice, it’s not everybody’s choice, I choose to do the right thing. I wanna do the right thing, for me, first. It may sound selfish, but that’s the way I look at it, ‘cos I need to be happy. And this decision for me, is not bad, it’s for a variety of reasons, but I think it’s a celebration. It’s beautiful that I had a career 20 years long, and it’s beautiful that I went up and down on the street, through trials and tribulations and work, blood, sweat and years, and I can say right now, that I’m performing on stage with some of the top dancers in the world, and I’m getting the applause and getting the respect, as a B-Boy, in the scene now, not just a pioneer from Wildstyle. I’m getting the respect ‘cos I’m showing that I still got a lil’ something under my sleeve, and to me, that means more than anything.
As a B-Boy, you gotta deal with the good and the bad in this game. You can have a great day in physical shape, and a fucked up floor, and if you don’t know how to adjust to the medium, forget about it.
I’m happy ‘cos I’m here, I’m not hurt, I had fun with the fellas. I think every B-Boy isn’t satisfied. You’ll always feel you could do better, but I had fun tonight, and I think it’s beautiful. People should learn, and try to have a vision for the future of my career. They can say he’s not only a dancer that got a lil’ fame, but he also was a person that went through the street, and dealt with human things; family, peer group, corporation, anything. I’m a father also and I think it’s beautiful that after 20 years, I stop.
I’m not gonna perform on stage no more, but I’ll always be a B-Boy, and there’s always gonna be someone out there that could push my buttons, or some music that can push my buttons, and there’s a time when I have no control of myself, and I need to break. Not that I plan it, it’s like yo, I hear shit, I don’t give a fuck where I’m at. If I feel like spinning on my head, or doing a swipe or a 90 or freeze, I’ll do it. But it’s just that I’m making a transition in my life, and do something different.
Can you tell me what the “respect” is, that you think the dance is not getting?
There are so many negative connotations surrounding Hip Hop in general, first of all, with the gangster thing, and the drugs and the misogyny of women, and there’s mixed messages going around. You know, out of all the original Hip Hop dances, and Funk dances like Locking, Popping and Boogaloo, I believe that Breaking is very aggressive, and very hard-edged, and I think that people are scared of you. I think that people who don’t understand, when they see it, most of the time they’re only seeing certain elements of it, so they don’t respect it as a dance. They’re looking at it as a fucking clown act, or a monkey, or a fucking court jester bouncing on his fucking head. And to me, that’s has a lot to do with us, and the media, all combined, because it’s about education.
Breaking involves powermoves, to acrobatics, to flips, footwork, freezes, toprock. These are all the ingredients that I think are integral to B-Boying. They all have to be there, I don’t dislike any one of them. And the more you have, the better you are.
But what I think is that, you know sometimes people be spinning, and some guy’s throwing himself in the fucking air on his back or something. And they look at it like…I don’t think they wanna see the essence of what’s happening. The person’s actually hearing a beat, and expressing himself. I think it’s saying, these people have this fucking energy, and they’re just going crazy.
Is this negative view (of Breaking) there because there are very few masters or people who really feel the spirit when they break?
I think there’s a lot of ignorance. I feel there’s a lot of people that even know, but they’re so fucking jealous of the original style. The original style is so beautiful, and so funky that it don’t make the crowd go crazy but half of them fucking people don’t know how to find their flavor.
They don’t know how to really feel the beat. And I think, inside it bothers them, and they feel proud because maybe they can do something physically that’s most probably gonna get the better crowd response because you got 500 ignorant people that don’t know what real, true B-Boying is.
So they feel this power, and then when they educate the children, they’re gonna tell’em about that (original style). They don’t say listen, “before you learn how to walk, you need to crawl”. They don’t tell’em they should learn the foundation and learn all that bullshit, then that will prepare you, to go into the fucking next level; powermoves and airmoves and flips.
A lot of people just wanna say “fuck that, that shit is old school, it’s wack, it’s about this and that”. Calling it whatever they wanna call it. Some of ‘em call it, they started coming up with some corny shit. Buckling up with fucking helmets, running everywhere with helmets strapped to their fucking backpacks. To me, it’s straight fucking corny, and you can put it in the magazine like that. What happened to putting a lil’ style, you know? If you cut the fucking very top off the helmet and stuck it in your baseball cap, maybe I’d respect you a lil’ bit more. But hide this shit. Don’t be flagrant. They just flagrant to put on a fucking helmet and buckle up! Now the helmet to me, is very good for breakdancers that wanna learn headspins, because if you do it in the “lab” and use the helmet, it’s gonna let you find your balance, it’s gonna protect your scalp, and it may protect your fucking skull, who know’s? I recommend the helmet in the lab.
But you go to a circle, and you got a community of people that are looking jiggy, and even the B-Boys wanna look fly, and you jump in a circle and you stop, and you buckle your shit, and then you just drop yourself right on to your fucking head and start spinning. To me, it’s obvious that you either haven’t been told, so I give ya the benefit of the doubt, or, you don’t give a fuck what you heard, and you say “fuck all that other shit, I’m gonna do my thing.”
And this is what I’m up against a lot. I’m up against people that come to me just because I like footwork, and try to ask me why do I dislike powermoves, and I’m like, “what!? I love powermoves, they’re an important part of B-Boying. But I’m about C.B.S; Complete Breaking Style, you knowa’i’msayin?”
It’s a complete style. Like you know if you gonna learn about throwing the pitch, you better learn to curve the knuckle, and all the fucking shit that goes into it, so you can throw everything. You know, why do you just wanna learn the fastball? You can get away with that shit half the time, but someones gonna smack the shit out the park when they catch it. If you’re into challenging a drum to try to find that fucking connection with the record; That’s B-Boying.
Rock Steady is a pioneering crew, we’ve laid the foundation whether people wanna accept it or not, people gotta give it up, move on and do their part for the hip hop world. We did our fucking part and still are, and there’s still people complaining. Challenge yourself. To me, the main challenge, is no opponent. I’m the best challenge for me. To me now, I could win or lose, and that means nothing in a battle with an opponent. But winning to me is, dancing to the beat, in a circle, and leaving the circle saying, “I fucking ripped that record”. That to me, is winning. The last year, I’ve been competing with myself. I’ve been competing with my ego, which is not good. Sometimes when I really have an ego, I try to compete with my ego to calm myself down and realize, I think I’m good, but there’s mad motherfuckers out here that are incredible, and to accept that. But also know that, I got a lot of experience man. I may not be the most aggressive guy attacking people, but I can do a lil’ battling knowa’i’msayin? I know how to hold mine’s. This is the game of life. It’s like, you could fucking be the baddest nigga in the world in the boxing ring, but if you get caught with that punch, you’re our cold, and it’s like Breaking. I like to be a lil’ bit confident. Everybody had that thing inside of them that makes them feel like, “I can fuck with him, I can deal with him.” And that’s what kept me hungry, but I’d rather stop now. I wouldn’t wanna stop when I get wack.
But are there enough forums for people to express themselves with that true spirit, and feel that original style? No one breaks on the street no more.
There’s not a forum, there’s community centers and all that shit, never mind that, ‘cos there’s no better feeling than being in a club. Fucking lights dim, going in there and just having people look at you, and that energy is like a forcefield. In the practice hall you’re not really gonna feel that adrenaline, and we need more clubs that allow people to break. They don’t allow it ‘cos they think it’s violent. But it’s all in good fun, it’s competition. You gonna learn a lot in life about winning and losing. And the B-Boy in the street battling and everything, it keeps you occupied, and it teaches you how to lose. You can’t win until you know how to lose. When you can lose, take it, and go back to the drawing board, that’s when you learn how to win.
How can Breaking in it’s true form survive in this era? Surely the social, political and economic situation of the environment was important to it’s coming about in the first place?
If you look at the social/economic situation in the late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in New York City. There were a lot of people migrating from Puerto Rico, and also coming from South America, Haiti, Jamaica, to the city. The Bronx was the ideal place, with lower rent, but then at the same time, there was a lot of people moving up there. There was 149th St., around 3rd Avenue, it was called Little Bronx, and at that time there was a whole situation where funding was really bad in the neighborhoods. I think there was this landlord scheme where landlords were having people burn buildings down to get the money, and you would see rows and rows of blocks of all burnt buildings. These environments were things that kids came out to look at everyday. How you gonna be inspired? And when they heard the music, I think it kinda took’em away from that for that lil’ moment, where they can enjoy a song or something. So you’re looking at, no outreach programs, no community programs, later for you. So you’re looking at kids that didn’t have much to do. And the blessing of creativity, from the Almighty was bestowed upon all these people, not only in New York, but worldwide, to really find a way to make the day, try to occupy your time…And look what we did. It’s incredible. Hip Hop alone is so powerful and we don’t even recognize the power and energy that we trade with each other…and the world.