Described by many (and disputed by few) as the epitomy of a b-boy, Ken Swift is known worldwide as a pioneer. Two years ago Ken Swift came to the UK to educate and promote the dance style of rocking with his division of the Rock Steady Crew, VII Gems.
Although it seems a lot of dancers know of rocking by incorporating it into their top rock, Ken Swift has dedicated his time to learn and document the history of the dance, through a documentary short called The Rock which features the VII Gems (Seven Gems), who between themselves have a history that goes way back with the rock dance.
“Seven Gems encompasses many different neighbourhoods in New York City, the members, all have different types of styles, and what makes Seven Gems so interesting is everybody has their own kind of identity with the dance itself, and that mixture is a great mixture,” he explained. “Hopefully in the next few years rocking will be accepted as a dance that could be in all the world championships. Just now we have popping, we have locking, we have waacking, strutting, breaking, so I mean, rocking is just as legitimate a dance as all of it – it’s the second traditional dance that came out of New York City in the 1970s.”
In his own words, B-Boy Ken Swift spoke to us about the origins of the rock dance and his role in its history.
Ken Swift Interview – ORIGINAL Rock Stead Crew B-Boy – 7 Gems Rock Division
Tell us a about VII Gems – how did they come about?
Ken Swift: Seven Gems: Seven Gems is a hip hop movement. In 1996 I started the Seven Grandmasters which was a chapter of the Rock Steady Crew. I had always wanted to have my own division, so I started the RSC Seven Gems and it was me, Mr Wiggles, Flowmaster, Honey Rockwell, Orco, Morizio, a lot of the fellas out which was running with me. It was based upon the film The Seven Grand Masters, which was a kung fu film from the 1970s. In the film these guys would go around and compete and challenge each other with all these different styles. Starting Seven Gems, Seven Grandmasters, was like we were living a similar type of thing, you know? The name was cool.
We shortened it at first an acronym of GMS, Seven Grandmasters. Then Axis said “Well, we got gems, we got information, and we’re pioneers and we know a lot about our art form.” Seven Gems was what I finally named it.
You explore the origins of the style of “rocking” on the videos on your website, www.BreakLife.com – Why did you do that?
Ken Swift: Well I’ve always been interested in “rocking,” I mean, I’ve been rocking since I first started dancing. I’m known around the world as a b-boy of course, because I break, but with rocking there’s a lot of different names for that dance. I’ve always been doing it (rocking), it’s just that my main thing is breaking and I’ve always had a trist since ‘79/’80 when I first saw it and my older brother used to hang out with a group called the Number One Sure Shock Boys. When I saw the floor movement and the stuff on the floor I was more interested in that, but when a sick song comes on I’ll rock it. Me and Doze used to rock back in the days, when we were travelling with Rock Steady Crew, when we were doing our version of rocking.
What I had in the last six years was the opportunity to link up with some really genuine cats from the era. Burn One, Mr Loose, Clarkey, Knocko, Pageroll, Little Star, there’s tons of guys that I been meeting in Brooklyn that have a deep history, and through the research just really saw how rocking has never really been truly exposed properly.
Video: Mr Loose & Ken Swift present The Original Rock Dance (YouTube)
Is the rock dance still alive?
Ken Swift: Yes, it’s the rocking movement, but rocking is all a separate dance, it’s a dance that’s different than breaking. But if you see it now, you see a lot of breakers take one or two aspects of it and then continue to break. So the opportunity [of Break Life] was perfect, it was more of an educational type of outreach initially, ’cause we’re still [rocking]. The guys I was running with were really interested in knowing as much about it and sharing it with people.
Then at the same time, we enjoyed doing it, and the guys we knew for a while they never really got the opportunity back in the days to do these things, so 85, 90% of the cast was over 40 years old – but we’re authentic (!), we’re authentic from the era, from the 1970s. So that’s what makes it really official, and, you know, just having the opportunity’s a great thing.
You say you have project behind this, an independent film?
Ken Swift: Yeah, we did a film called The Rock, we did it three years ago, and it was based upon the journey of us meeting with each other and starting to collaborate and talk our ideas around and just tell the story of what we were doing and it was based on a club that we opened up in 2004 called Brooklyn Soul, and it just breaks it down what we were doing and our vision. We’re not the dinosaurs of rocking or hip hop, we’re not the architects of anything, we’re just telling our story, you know, the way it is, and sharing information from all our visions, and any information that we can get so that people get an idea. There’s many people in New York and other places that are trying to expose the rock dance, you know, but we’re just another group that’s doing it too. But in the mean time, we’re gonna just keep on going over it without doing the dance itself, sharing it, because it’s an incredible dance.
Video: VII GEMS ROCK DANCE DIVISION PRO AM MIAMI SHOW 2010
Describe the rock dance for us
If I was to describe the rock dance to you, what I would say is that the difference between a rocker and a breaker is the rocker doesn’t anticipate the break as much as the whole song itself, the rocker uses every part of his song. The breaker waits for that break moment, the break section of the song, and then they rest. The difference is that it was the count on the DJs that was spinning the music and the songs that came on. The main elements of rocking are definite dance freestyle steps and improvised dance steps that are on top, then there is an aspect called the “burn,” which is the moment that you take to kinda humiliate your opponent, or do something cool to your opponent.
There’s the jerk. The jerk is the pushing and pulling moment of the dance, the most dynamic aspect of the dance. You push and pull backwards and you drop, and then there’s other elements like spin downs, there’s sleepers, there’s terminologies for the dance, and then of course, the aspect of miming the song and the lyrics as you dance it. That would be the best way to kind of describe the rock dance. It would be a combination of all the things I just mentioned.
A lot of people will say that you were / you have been credited as the guy that created a lot of the moves that we now see in b-boying – how do you feel about that sentiment?
Ken Swift: Well I mean, that’s flattering, I don’t see myself as really a creator (laughs), I see this planet as a huge, huge, broad planet, but you know, it’s exciting. I know for a fact that I’ve put specific things on the map at the specific time that it became popular, and I can deal with that, but as far as saying this or that, I’m not gonna go there because that would be silly. There could be some guy in England, there could be some guy in Bangladesh, maybe, doing an incredible move, right, and some guy in New York doing it at the same time, you know, so who really made what?
After speaking to Alien Ness and he said that a lot of the moves back in the day were sort of done, someone saw that move, then they modified it, and that person went travelling to spread the b-boy movement, and then the newer movements developed from that – a lot of people are very interested or have a bit of an obsession with finding out where the foundations of the foundations were.
Ken Swift: There’s people that have their foundation, their version, and I’m one of those people. I mean, I started dancing in 1978, but I started dancing by just watching and picking it up as I went along. The people I danced with, the new terminology that existed, we shared. We’d say a chair freeze, or a baby freeze, “let me see your turtles,” we communicated with our own terminologies and our own language. It was dance. But that dancers always had vocabulary. I lived what I share. I don’t take what someone says to me, no, I take what I know, which would be my version of fundamentals.
And it’s fine and it’s safe, this way I don’t have people coming up and debating me ‘cause there’s no one that’s going to be able to debate me over my life, I refuse to have somebody tell me what it is with me, I know what it is. So that’s the safe aspect, but have to always give respect to the dancers that paved the way so that people like myself could see the dance. I’m not someone quick to pat myself on the back and dictate anything, because I know that the dance existed for maybe five years before I even did it.
That’s a good philosophy to have.
Ken Swift: Yeah, but at the same time, the legacy I am keeping is real. It’s from guys like Sundance, Frin, Spidey, Grego, Frosty Freeze, you know, these are the people that I know for a fact knew the raw b-boying dance. And like I mentioned before, things being regional, it’s a very interesting point, because in the Bronx and in Harlem and the different places in New York City, that music smashed off and people went crazy, everybody did they thing, it wasn’t like one person went to every borough and said “here, check out this b-boying dance(!),” you know? So it’s all opinionated. All we have left is what we know.
And just because you’re in the 70s and you saw it don’t mean that you was about it (laughs). It’s a very big deal too, ‘cause a lot of people from the 70s will get an opportunity when someone says “yo, you remember that?” and some people will take the ball and run with it! What that means is just ‘cause you did a little footwork in the 70s, that don’t make you like a b-boy pioneer, ‘cause you had to make a name(!). If you didn’t make a name… who? Everybody and their mother b-boyed or b-girled at least once, either by ridiculing it or practising it. Everybody said “damn, let me try that windmill!” But that don’t make you a b-boy. It was about getting the respect of your peers, of your homeboys. You know what I mean? B-boy is a lost art and it’s not lost completely but there’s not that many real b-boys out here, trust me.
New York or worldwide?
Ken Swift: Worldwide.
Finally: “What does it take to unlock creativity and never repeat?”
Ken Swift: Music! Music is the key! See, with fundamental breaking you have to let the music take you. You know what I’m saying? The music defines everything you do and the way you feel when you do it. You can’t look for creativity or look for flavour, you have it, there has to be something that pulls it out, and usually it’s that song, that dope song that you love. You got tons of DVDs to look at, right? So there’s tons of inspiration in visuals, and there’s incredible dancers around the world, and when it comes to creativity, the creative way that you move or the creative moves you make up, all those aspects to me personally, in my opinion, are directly related to the song. The song should bring out that… creativity. ‘Cause when I share fundamentals I talk about, I play different types of songs. I play a song that’s a real funky smooth song, do some examples then I’ll put a really aggressive song on, just to show the difference of how the sound can change the way you feel.
A lot of car chase theme music is really popular right now with in breaking competitions, stuff that’s like movie theme music. Why is it great music? ‘Cause it gets you charged up! It makes you wanna just go off!
So I mean, if I see a dancer and the song is real funky and smooth, and my man is attacking somebody, it shows me that he doesn’t understand the dance. He doesn’t understand that he’s not supposed to over dance the song, or under dance the song, he’s supposed to dance the song the way the energy holds itself from the song.