Give us your name, basic introduction, where you’re from, years of dancing and what styles.
I am Emilio Austin Jr. PKA Buddha Stretch. Born and raised right here in Brooklyn not far from here. From Crown Heights. I’m a dancer, DJ, Emcee, Choreographer, Hip-Hop Student.
What is Hip-Hop? How do you define it?
What is Hip-Hop? Hip-Hop is the culture of oppressed Black and Latino people that has, I guess, kind of flipped the political end of music and art on its head. Hip-Hop is the opposite of politics. Politics separates people. Hip-Hop brings people together.
When were you first exposed to Hip-Hop?
My first exposure to Hip-Hop, I would say was in the 70’s when I was a kid living partially in Bushwick, Brooklyn. My grandmother lived in Bushwick and so every weekend as a child I spent the weekend at my grandmother’s house. And the precursor to Hip-Hop was Rocking. And I used to see the Rockers dance in Bushwick but I didn’t know what it was. And then later on, my introduction to the culture was through my best friend in high school, his older brother. His older brother was an emcee and he introduced us to a friend of his who was a DJ and they basically showed me what Hip-Hop was. Cause I had gotten into the dance side of it. I knew about emceeing and DJing but I didn’t know all of this was interconnected. And it was through them that I learned that this whole thing is Hip-Hop. You know the writers, the emcees, the DJs, the B-Boys, the electric boogie, Poppers, all of that was one thing. That was my introduction to it. Prior to that, it was just like for me, it was just black culture. Cause you know, music that I basically grew up in, the dances that I basically grew up in and watched either on TV or in house parties but I didn’t know that all of these things, when you put them together was one thing, and that’s when I learned it was Hip-Hop and that’s when, basically it took me by storm like “Oh okay, I need to be a part of this.”
What made you start dancing? When was that moment?
What made me start dancing was, well I’ve been dancing…dance is a part of my family culture from both sides of my family. My mother’s family is from the South. My father’s family is from the Caribbean, from Panama, Barbados, and Jamaica. So music and dance is a big part of our family traditions on both sides. My whole life everyone in my family knows how to move to music, but I got into street dance because I used to watch a TV show called Soul Train as a kid every weekend. I would watch the dancers and pretend like I’m coming down the Soul Train line. I saw, what I would later learn, what was known as Popping on Soul Train. But that didn’t make me want to do it. What got me into it was, I have a cousin we’re around the same age (I think he’s like a year or two older than me). We grew up every summer, I would travel down either to my father’s side of the family or to my mother’s side of the family. And so one summer, my mother’s family came up here and my cousins came here and we were at a block party and these guys were dancing. I saw them doing, they were popping or electric boogie as we called it back then. And I’m like that’s the dance from Soul Train. And out of nowhere, here’s my cousin, he jumps in the cypher and he’s Popping. He was the catalyst for me to want to do it because I said to myself “If he can do this, I can do this.” And I knew that everyone has seen the dance on Soul Train. And here I’m seeing these guys do it and there, here I’m seeing my cousin do it, and I know my cousin’s not really into dance. He’s just, you know… but he was my inspiration. He was the catalyst for me to get into it and once I saw him do it I was like “Okay, I want to try this!” And that was three decades ago.
Does your cousin still dance?
No. Not at all. He doesn’t dance. That’s what I mean, he dances but he’s not a dancer. And everyone in my family is like that but I was the one to pick up the mantle and run with it. Like okay, I’m going to see where this takes me with no intentions of it taking me anywhere. I just wanted to do it because I saw him do it and the attention that he got when he did it. Like, everybody was stunned like “Woah!” and I’m like “Wow, this is…I could do that.” And here I am years later doing an interview about it.
Before, I was never aware people can develop their skill, I thought they were just born with it. It’s an amazing moment when you realize you can do it
Well you can if you put your mind to it. That’s one of the things that hold people back, they overthink it and talk themselves out of it
Was is your first cypher?
Pretty much. Not my first but when I first saw my cousin dance, prior to that I had seen other people do the dance but now I’m seeing someone I can relate directly to do it and that was my inspiration. From that point on, I was just entering high school and then I started to meet other people that was into the dance, and that was another part of my inspiration. Once you meet other people that are into the same things you are, then you’re like “Okay, this is big. Let’s see what we can do together” and it’s just like, I was a kid, I was 14 years old at the time and I’m starting to meet people who are around my age and we’re traveling from school to school and then borough to borough and then state to state to meeting new people. From that point to now has taken me around the world.
Was there anything else you were into before dancing?
Before I was into dancing, I was into comics. Comics and drawing. I literally used to draw every superhero I used to have pictures like this on my wall. I would draw stuff and then my mother told me to put it up. I used to draw and tape my drawings to my wall in my room and then as I got more into school and learned how to color, paint, ink. I was heavy into art and the dance is what basically took me away from that. That was my focus. I loved to read, I was an avid reader. Comics really showed me, reading comics really improved my reading overall. Reading comics also got me to read other things but art was my main focus. That was all I did all day. I drew and I sculpted and as then, soon as I started dancing and the more I danced, I started clubbing and all of that stuff went away. If I had one regret that I would change, I would have never stopped drawing, painting, and sculpting.
Now is different for me because I feel like my hands are heavy and I’m like “Ahh.” I‘ve been trying over the last couple of years like, I’ll draw something, crumple it up and throw it away and be like “I suck!” But I know I can, I could draw, I could draw something as good as that. I don’t know I’m just lazy.
So, today we have Hip-Hop all over the internet, dance studios, and schools worldwide. How was Hip-Hop before all these changes? What about Jams?
Hip-Hop, before it went global, was more of a local thing. Like I said, for me, I learned of it in my neighborhood and I didn’t know that it was even a national thing or even a regional thing. I just knew about it in my neighborhood and in my borough. But because it’s so universal, I started to see that everyone was into it, and then when you start to meet people in other places, you want to go see how they live. So me being from Brooklyn, Brooklyn people, we go everywhere. And so I used to cut school and we would go everyday, we would meet and go to another school and then sometimes we would meet and go to other boroughs. We started to travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan, Manhattan to the Bronx, the Bronx to Queens, to Jersey so I was traveling all over the place and everywhere that I went, I met more people that were into the dance and the music and so that basically changed my perspective of my own surroundings. Now I’m seeing how everybody else’s perspective on it, it changed my perspective when I got home to my hood. And I started to tell people like well, “Uptown they do it like this. In the BX, they do it like this. What are y’all doing?” So I think when you look at that from a macro perspective, it’s like, okay Hip-Hop started here in New York but then it traveled to Boston and Philly, and the South, and then LA. Now it’s a global thing. And so everywhere that I traveled, I try to teach the people to really understand that you have to add your own perspective to it. Because when I go back home, the same thing, I want to tell the people. Like I just came back from Germany and Hungary, I want to discuss with the people here, this is how they do it in Germany and Hungary. You take a little bit of their experience and culture, bring it back. That’s the beauty of Hip-Hop, it’s a melting pot, literally, you keep throwing things and mixing, seeing what comes of up. That’s the beauty of it…to see what its become from the humble beginning here in the city and just when it was traveling back and forth from borough to borough. Now I’m traveling country to country, so it’s really a trip for me but I always look at it as a blessing.
What do you look for as a Judge for competitions?
Judging competitions. First and foremost, I judge based on a simple system that everybody can understand. Who, what, where, when, how, why. Those are the questions you have to ask. And from my perspective it breakdowns like this.
First and foremost is the why: why are you doing what you’re doing? Why are you here for the jam? Why are you into this? The why is the music. Without the music, there’s nothing. So the first thing that I look for is your connection with the music, which is rhythm. If you don’t have rhythm, you’re not connected to the music, therefore you’re offbeat. If you’re offbeat, you lost. Period. For me, the why is rhythm. Who, the who is you. Who are you? What are you trying to portray? What is your character? For me, the question of who is character. Those two are the most important things I’m looking for. Your rhythm and your character because who you are is what I’m looking to find out. In a competition, you have to stand out amongst the crowd. So your character has to carry you. For me, that is the second most important thing after the music, the rhythm. So that’s the why and the who. How: how is how are you going to do the dance? How are you approaching this? How is technique. The technique is how you pull off your choreography, how you pull off your dance, how you pull off your moves. That’s the how. What. What are you doing? What do you bring to the table? What are you trying to express? The what is your vocabulary. When you’re dancing, I need to see more than just your arms moving, or your feet moving, or your head nodding. Dance is all encompassing. You’re supposed to use your whole body and in every style, there’s a vocabulary. That’s how you identify what the style is. So that’s the what.
The where is where are you doing it. Where everything comes together, you have to put all of these things together. You have to perform them. You have to show what you have so for me the where is where you put everything together That’s where your creativity comes from. You’re creating by putting all these things together and showing what you have. That’s your expression.
And when. When the music moves you, this is what you do. If the music doesn’t move you, none of this other stuff happens. The when is performance, the where is creativity, the who is character, the what – vocabulary, the how – technique, and the why – rhythm.
What are your favorite aspects about the dance? (community, sessions, battles, partying)
My favorite aspects of the dance, I would have to say it starts from the feeling. How does the music make you feel? A good dancer will make you want to watch. A great dancer will make you want to dance. An incredible dancer will not only inspire you, but everybody else watching every time. So for me, that’s the aspect of dance I like the most is how the dancer translate the music. For me, dance is the physical manifestation of the music. You’re no longer hearing the music. When you see a great dancer the dance is now in 3 dimensions. You’re watching the music.
As far as community sessions and battles and stuff, for me that’s the difference, it’s a generational difference now as far as the community thing because the community now seems to be a community based on the dance. Where as, my generation the community is based on the music. You don’t care about the dance without the music. Now a lot of the dancers are so into the dance that they forget that it’s tied to the music. So they’re so into, I want to learn this and do this move and that, not understanding that all of that stuff is applied to the music. You can’t have a community. The community should always be based on the music because the music is what brings it all together. Can you have a session with no music? Can you have a battle with no music? Exactly. So there’s no community without the music. And that is for me, what’s missing for this generation
Now it’s missing primarily because of the change in the time. We had clubs, nightclubs, discos. These are the places that built the community. So the music, the community is a natural outgrowth of that. You’re meeting new people in these places all the time and that’s how you build. Your conversations are though the music and through the dance and the art. You’re there for that. Now they don’t have that. The sessions to me are important for that reason because that’s this generation’s club setting. But the problem is, again, the detachment from the music. A lot of people go to the sessions and they practice the same way. You go to a session, and if you’re going to practice you should practice what you’re not already good at. You don’t practice what you’re good at. You practice what you’re not good at. You take your weaknesses and you strengthen them. That in turn will make your strengths even stronger. But when I go and I see these sessions, a lot of people are just doing the same things over and over again. And I try to encourage them to cypher together. Dance together, don’t just dance in the mirror or dance in the corner by yourself. You’re never going to learn because dancing by yourself is only going to take you so far. You need that interaction. The communal energy starts with you dancing with someone else. I think that that’s why the sessions are important. For me, the sessions are more important than the battles. Now the battles are important too because that’s another communal element. It brings people together even from competitive nature but the drawback is that now you have dancers that are training just for battles. And for me you’re dancers are athletes but you don’t train for battles. You train your mind for the battle. You train your dance for the music. And that’s the difference, that’s the missing link that’s the generational gap between us is we didn’t train. We danced. Everything we did, revolved around the music. And for us, you can’t get away from that. Because again, if you remove the music, you’ve lost everything. I think that that needs to be stressed to this generation of dancers and the next generation of dancers. Because once you lose the music, you’ve lost the entire essence of everything. And now you’ve got to try to find a way to get it back and it’s no longer natural phenomenon. Because you’re trying to recreate and it’s not in harmony. It’s so much easier if you build from the music instead of trying to build and attach to the music and I think that’s the disconnect.
Mop Top is less of a crew and more of a community. It started off…Mop Top is actually a mantra. It’s something that my dad had said to me years ago when I was making the transition from backup/background dancer, choreographer, to artist. We were at a listening party for a particular artist I was signed to the same label with. And at this listening party, my father was so intrigued by the artist and how his music sound, his delivery, his mindset that he told me at that time “Listen to this guy, I can hear his motivation. His delivery, and his performance is top notch. He’s giving you 1000% percent every time.” And my father, at this time…this is when Hip-Hop was just making this transition from the classic style of Hip-Hop with musicians to sampling and all of that. And so my father was one of the few adults at the time that actually loved the music. My father loved rap music from the very first rap record. He loved Rapper’s Delight and so he was always into the music and when we were at this party he’s telling me about the sound and everything about this artist I need to take this seriously. He said that “This guy is precise. I can hear his motivation. His performance is excellent. The musicianship is outstanding.” I’m listening to him and he’s basically bombarding me with this because now I’m signed to a label. And he expects me to do my best. He told me “Do it as best as you can, or don’t do it at all” And so from that, I took words that he said and created a saying and that was Mop Top. Motivated On Precision Towards Outstanding Performance. That was something that I kept to myself in my head. And I told him about it and he just laughed and he was like “That’s nice, but apply that! Don’t just make this thing up. Apply what it means.” At the time, I had just met Link and Caleaf and I had a rap group at the time. And I then I told Caleaf about my dad and this whole thing and so it was Caleaf’s idea like no we all gotta move like this. Like this is serious and he wanted everybody to be a part of it. So we started a clique with just me him Link and Ejoe. But as we moved forward, everybody became a part of our click. We had three different groups of dancers and artists. We had the Misfits, we had us, and what would eventually become dance fusion. And so that became the Mop Top family because now we’re all interconnected through music and art. That was the whole idea behind it is, basically, go hard or go home. Either do it to the best of your ability or don’t do it at all. No half assing. That’s where the whole idea of Mop Top came from and that’s how we still go about what we do now. I don’t half ass anything, and I dont allow my team to half-ass, and they don’t allow me to half-ass. When we’re half-assing we call each other out on that.
Elite Force & Remember the Time
Well, Elite Force Crew is an offshoot. That’s what I mean about Mop Top. Mop Top is our mantra. That’s why we say, when I do my introduction I always say “Elite Force is the crew, Mop Top is the foundation” because that’s the foundation of what we do. Now Elite Force started with myself, Link, and my other partner Loose Joint. We were already friends, we were already working together. But we did a music video for Michael Jackson called, Remember the Time. And God bless him, sleep in peace. John Singleton, just passed away yesterday, he was the director of this video and this video is where we came together as a team. It came about because we had the auditions and I was one of the choreographers with another lady by the name of Fatima Robinson. And we had the audition in LA and of course I had told all of my friends to come out. And these two, Link and Loose got on the plane and they came. Now they auditioned, I made them audition, and they made the video on their own. I didn’t pick them. I had them audition and John picked them. You know I could have just said “This is my clique” and they would’ve got the job, but I wanted them to make it on their own two feet on their own merits – not by hook up. And so what happened was, during the audition, they actually didn’t come to the audition. The audition was that Saturday. They came to the call back which was on Monday. They flew in, I think it was Saturday night or Sunday morning, something like that. I taught them the choreography that we had made up to that point and we had rehearsed all Sunday day and night so that Monday for the audition they would be prepared. But Link couldn’t do the choreography. He was sick at that time, he had the flu. So he was having all kinds of problems doing the choreography. So when it came to the audition, we were kinda worried like, “Man, I might have to pull the hook-up card.” But God bless him again, rest in peace, John Singleton at the callback said okay, at the callback “I want to see you do the choreography routine, and then you have to freestyle.” And once he said that, we knew it was over. We was like ‘Okay, we good.” So Loose Joint auditioned. He rocked the choreography. He rocked his freestyle. He got picked. So, Link, came time for him. He screwed up the choreography, but when they said freestyle…now we had groups, we auditioned them in like groups at like 20 at a time. Cause there were like 20 or 15 people at a time. The first audition was something like 3,000 people showed up and for the callback it was like 1,000 people. We auditioned them at a bunch of people at a time. And in Link’s group, everybody did the choreography but when it came time to freestyle – everybody stopped dancing to watch him. That’s how good he was. And so he got picked. But the problem was, it’s a music video. We’re doing choreography. So the freestyle doesn’t matter if you can’t do the choreography.
So we basically had 30 dancers and we had 6 rows. In the front row you have Michael here, Michael and Fatima. And then the front row was, you know, myself Loose and the best dancers. Second group, third group, fourth group, fifth group. Link is in the last group, because he doesn’t have the choreography. And he’s..as soon as we started the rehearsals he’s like “I can’t be in the back. I’m not going to be the one in the back. I gotta make it to the front. I got to be a part of the Elite. You guys are the Elite.” So talked with Fatima and she said “Yeah okay.” Cause she knew him. I mean I met Fatima though Link. She said “Okay, if you do the choreography better, we’ll move you up.” So he said “Bet.” So basically every two or three days we moved him up a slot. And just before we started shooting, he made it to the very front line with myself and Loose. And he said, “I’m in the Elite. We are the Elite force.” That’s how the whole name came about. And that’s when we decided “Okay, we’re going to be a team from here on out. Just us three. We’re gonna attack this for real.” And at that time, we had done that music video like we were doing the choreography and then we had another section that they didn’t get to shoot that was just us. Us three with Michael. So we were so hyped like okay it’s about us we gotta be a team” and then during that month of shooting Warner Brothers shoot days that we didn’t shoot other work TV soul train with Mariah Carey that whole time after that we just we became a team everything us three and then we added Ejoe my brother god bless Voodoo Ray Brooklyn Terry Bobby Mileage we always added own thing to bring to the squad and that’s where Elite
But it’s again, a branch off of Mop Top.
Man I was on Soul Train a couple times, but it was such a disappointment. Cause soul Train/TV isn’t what you think it is. The first time I did Soul Train, I was on a rap tour called the Def Jam Tour. I was dancing with a group called Houdini at the time. Touring Houdini, LL Cool J, Pubic Enemy, Eric B Rakim. And so the entire tour did Soul Train. And when we got there, it’s in this small sound stage. And it was tiny. You know on TV, it looks huge. The stage looks huge and it’s like the Soul Train line! When I got there I was so disappointed and underwhelmed. And then I found out that they didn’t even pay the dancers. So it kind of like completely, it destroyed the dream of what it was. It basically and not even just destroyed the dream, it pissed me off! Because I was just like “Man it can’t be this! I built it up in my mind and it was this glamorous amazing thing and when I get there I’m like…get the f*…i’m like are y’all serious?” Like I couldn’t do it at that point. And I did it that time and years later I did it again with Mariah the same thing. I was on Soul Train twice and I never went down the Soul Train line cause that’s how disappointed I was. I was like “I don’t wanna do this shit!” For me it was like “This is what it is? Nah I’m mad.” It pissed me off. I was jaded after that. So I’m just like I should’ve been…it just wasn’t what I thought it was…and even to this day now I’m still disappointed. It was a trip. But I was thankful that this is something that I watched on TV and I got to do it. That was a thing for me but I was trippin when I got there like are you kidding me, this is Soul Train? I was so pissed off like so underwhelmed and disappointed.
So, you have so many years dancing, as a dancer with a wealth of knowledge & experiences, what will you and your peers do to keep this momentum going and help the youth seize these new opportunities you all worked hard for?
The things that we’re doing and trying to do for the youth and the next generation and the generations that come for me personally is to educate them with the understanding that if you’re going to do this, not as a hobby, but as a lifestyle, again it goes back to what my father said, “Either 100%, 110%, or not at all.” There is no middle ground. Because dancers are always at the bottom of the totem pole. And the reason for that is because dancers don’t take their dance seriously. One of the things that my dad taught us all, specifically me, that I’ve never forgotten is that “If you do not put a value to what you do, then who will?” And so that’s what, to me, that most important thing that I like to share and try to give leave for the generations to come is to value yourself. You are the commodity. What you do, your skills, your skill set, your mindset is a commodity. You have to put a value to it. And you have to always remember that what you do is valuable. But in order for it to be valuable to anyone else, it has to be valuable to you first. And you have to believe in what you’re doing because if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, then how can anyone else.