The Hip-Hop Dance Craze Born in Fresno: Popping

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Timothy Solomon, aka Popin' Pete, being interviewed with The Electric Boogaloos on 'Soul Train' in 1979. (YouTube)

Remember "Soul Train"? The show billed itself as the "hippest trip in America, 60 non-stop minutes across the tracks of your mind."

Flashback to 1979, when the Electric Boogaloos made their first appearance dancing to the Bar-Kays.

Host Don Cornelius introduces the dance crew, saying: "These very creative young men have invented a dancing style that’s becoming very popular, and it's described as popping or boogaloo."

Sammy Solomon introduces himself as "Boogaloo Sam, specializing in boogaloo." His brother, Timothy Solomon, introduces himself as "Popin' Pete." To the audience’s delight, he demonstrates his moves, his body jerking robotically or popping.

The Solomon brothers hail from Fresno. Turns out, popping is a dance rooted not in the Bronx or Los Angeles, but in California’s Central Valley.

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"The Electric Boogaloos were pioneers," says Fresno State historian Sean Slusser. "They helped to popularize popping by getting on 'Soul Train' and working with artists like Michael Jackson." Popin' Pete worked with Jackson on "Thriller."

As a historian, Slusser is intrigued by the genesis of popping. Bigger cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Atlanta get a lot of credit for innovations in hip-hop. But what about smaller places like Fresno? Why aren't hip-hop artists' stories from these places told?

"They’re using hip-hop the same way, right? It’s a vehicle of expression, it’s a way to kind of get through economic depression, get through all the kinds of problems we associate with cities," says Slusser.

He and his colleague, Romeo Guzman, decided an oral history project was in order.

The project, "Straight Outta Fresno: Hip Hop Dance from Popping to B-Boying and B-Girling," will be archived at Fresno State as part of the university’s Valley Public History Initiative: Preserving Our Stories.

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B-boy Goku (Charles Montgomery) dances for an audience at the Fresno State 'What's Popping' event in November.

The historians and their students are hoping to build Fresno’s hip-hop narrative by interviewing anyone who identifies with the culture: graffiti artists, MCs, DJs and hip-hop dancers, including B-boys, B-girls, lockers and poppers.

"Hip-hop in general and dancers are protective of their history," Slusser says. "They're amazing in the sense that they're really into documenting 'this is where this move came from, this is the person who originated it, here’s how it evolved, here’s how it changed over time,' in this old-school oral history way. There’s this passing down of knowledge over dance moves, arguing over minute details."

And that includes popping. Its exact origins are still up for debate, Slusser says.

"One story that's kind of emerged around Boogaloo Sam was that he was in church, in a Baptist church in Fresno," says Slusser. Apparently, the dancer witnessed women catching the Holy Spirit and later mimicked those movements and spasms in his routine.

But there’s a competing origin story. It revolves around a kid named Tick’n Will, who danced with the Solomon brothers in Fresno and was a member of the original Boogaloo Lockers. Tick’n Will lived in Fresno's Tulare housing project and created moves like the "old man," imitating a man limping down the street.

"Whether it’s the church or referencing people you see day to day, that’s the beauty of hip-hop," says Slusser. "It's being able to take something that wasn’t meant to be a dance or wasn’t meant to be visual art and creating something new out of it. It makes perfect sense for populations that don’t have access to other resources like art and music classes."

Dancer Deborah McCoy gave her oral history as part of Fresno State’s “What’s Popping” event in November.
Dancer Deborah McCoy gave her oral history as part of Fresno State’s 'What’s Popping' event in November. (Valley Public History Initiative)

All of these origin stories will be part of the oral history archive. But it will also include stories from people like Deborah McCoy, who was one of the first to be interviewed for the ongoing project.

McCoy was dancing in West Fresno in the '70s just like Popin' Pete and Boogaloo Sam.

"All of those guys, we would see them in the community," she says in her oral history. "But we minded our own business. There were a lot of street dancers. We knew them all."

McCoy and her brother, Ken, were a dancing team. They traveled the state competing and winning contests everywhere they went.

"I remember we danced in an Armenian church," McCoy says. "They called us. At a church! Wow. We were like, OK. Back in the day, dance and church did not mix! I don’t care who you were, did not mix! You were going straight to hell!"

McCoy says her family didn’t have much money but they still managed to wear fabulous costumes. Her stepmom was a seamstress.

"We would go to thrift stores and buy material, so she would sew all of our clothes," she says.

As he records her oral history, Slusser asks her where she learned her dance styles.

"From the street, what you mean, what you mean where were we learning?" she says. "On the street. There was no. ... Are you kidding? I have to say it like this. 'You're black and you’re gonna go take dance lessons?' Come on, dude. It's on the street. It's right there. They were called battles. There's no fighting and all that. You wanna fight? OK, we're dancing."

Over the years, hip-hop in Fresno evolved. In the '90s, dance battles involved kids whose parents were refugees from Laos after the Vietnam War.

"Everybody talks about Fresno when it comes to B-boy and the Hmong community," says James Vang. He grew up in a rough area in the '90s and stayed away from gangs by breakin.' He says Hmong B-boys made a name for themselves in Fresno and then spread out to other states.

"So they brought that B-boy history over there to start dancing. So now you’ve got B-boys in Sacramento, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin."

That history and how it influenced future generations is just one of the chapters Fresno State hopes to document next for its oral history archive.

As for Popin' Pete and Boogaloo Sam, they're still dancing. They travel the world, teaching their dance moves.