Pulitzer Reset: Mr. Freeze Talks Hip-Hop, Graffiti Tagging and Hugging Michael Jackson in Budapest

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

In the early 1980s, when hip-hop culture was still in its earliest stages of development, a group of young B-boy dancers from Brooklyn, N.Y. calling themselves the Rock Steady Crew were asked to appear in “Flashdance,” a film that would come to have a profound impact throughout the world. Initially, the crew—which also included Mr. Freeze—had little interest in appearing in the film, but the $1,000 plus paycheck proved too hard to resist. The rest, as Mr. Freeze would say, is history.

Mr. Freeze (w/ umbrella) in the film Flashdance. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Mr. Freeze (with umbrella) in the film “Flashdance.”
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Following the film, Mr. Freeze and the Rock Steady Crew began appearing throughout the world and became somewhat ubiquitous. If you needed B-boy dancers for your film, video or for personal appearances, you called the Rock Steady Crew. Mr. Freeze would rise from the pack to found the Ultimate B-boy World Championships and become the foremost expert on hip-hop culture, about which he now lectures globally. And why not? He was instrumental in creating hip-hop culture as we know it today, and he’ll be bringing his knowledge and talents to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts’ Reset program this Sunday, Jan. 19.

Mr. Freeze Courtesy of Ultimate B-boy Championships

Mr. Freeze
Courtesy of Ultimate B-boy Championships

ALIVE caught up with Mr. Freeze where—in between feeding his daughter and riding in elevators—he filled us in on hip-hop culture, graffiti tagging and hugging Michael Jackson.

ALIVE: What is hip hop culture?

MF: Within the culture of hip-hop there are four elements: The B-boy, the MC, the DJ and the graffiti artist.

ALIVE: Where did hip-hop begin?

MF: It started in the Bronx in 1970.

ALIVE: Your appearance in the movie “Flashdance” launched your and the Rock Steady Crew’s careers, right?

MF: Our big break definitely came with “Flashdance.” After the movie was all over, everyone was coming to us. From that day on, with the Daily News writing about it, we started getting asked to perform everywhere, so we started to get exploited for a while. We did make money though, and the rest is history. We were the first to show break dancing— of which, the correct wording is B-boying—to the world. That’s pretty much how it happened.

ALIVE: How did you meet Michael Jackson?

MF: I met him in Budapest, Hungary. He was doing the choreography for a video and his bodyguards came over and said, “Mike would like to meet you.” He came out of his trailer and I put my arms out and asked, “Can I please just hold you?” cause it was so wonderful to meet him. I had brought my radio and my tape, so I put it in and we just started to get down.

ALIVE: You then became Jackson’s street dance teacher. How did that come about?

MF: We finished up the video after a couple of weeks. I got back to New York and I got a phone call from his people saying “Michael would like you to teach him some dance moves. We’ll pay you X amount of dollars. The contract? We don’t know how long it’s gonna go. Seven-hundred fifty dollars a week at that time?” Even at this time, it’s good money. It was great. I’d get called sometimes at six o’clock at night and sometimes I’d get called at four in the morning. I’d teach him some dance moves and we’d just talk and talk. It was amazing. I was showing him things that I would do. He was more of a watcher. He would watch what was going on. Everything was videotaped. It was very exciting.

ALIVE: How did you come to create the ultimate B-boy Championships?

MF: I had put together a really nice proposal. A fellow contacted me through Facebook and wanted to do a World Championship. He kept calling me and I kept telling him “I’m not interested.” I mean, if you get paid a thousand dollars to judge a competition—it just didn’t interest me. But I finally met him and gave him my proposal that showed him what I wanted to do. He said it was the same thing he wanted to do. So the man funded—14 million dollars worth—the Ultimate B-boy Championship at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. And that started everything.

ALIVE: Aren’t there championships held throughout the world?

MF: There are a number of competitions around the world, sponsored and funded by their governments. They spend more money on the event itself rather than focusing on the dance competition. Same thing with the Battle of the Year in Berlin, Germany. Millions of dollars are pumped into it and the B-boys split only 25,000 Euros between six of them. I have nothing to do with any of that. I try to stand alone, because the way I feel is we created this culture, we’ll be the judge of who is the best. I’m pretty much the outcast, but I have a right because we created it.

ALIVE: If you could sum up, what’s significant about B-boy culture?

MF: The challenge. Who is the best and what each B-boy does. They train, they battle, they walk, they talk—it’s a battle. The culture of hip-hop has always been like that. Graffiti artists want to be the best graffiti artist. They compete for that. Who has the most tags and who becomes all-city.

ALIVE: What is “all city?”

MF: Graffiti artists write graffiti and tag their name as many places as they can in New York throughout the Tri-state area. If wherever you turn, you see your name—you become all city. Likewise the DJ competes with the other DJs—who can mix the best, who can scratch the fastest—same thing with the MC; who has the better rhyme. Same thing with a B-boy—who is a better dancer.

ALIVE: What will you be doing at the Pulitzer?

MF: People who come to see me will hear a lecture and see videos. It will be a history lesson on how the culture was born: The history of the culture called hip-hop. They’ll learn about how it started, why, what it’s evolving into—pretty much all that. And photos that document everything—not just stories someone’s making up. I can give you a story that Christopher Columbus discovered America, but meanwhile there were people living in America already. This is not just a story. It’s things that have been documented, that you can back up. And people are interested in finding out who was the first one to do this. Why did they do this? How did it happen? How has it affected a whole community? Did it affect it positively or negatively? Why do people do this all over the world? Those are the things I’ll be talking about.

Below is  schedule for the hip-hop program at the Pulitzer on Sunday, Jan. 19

History of a Culture: The Real Hip Hop
10am — Doors open and registration begins
11am — Film Screening: The Universe of Keith Haring
1pm — Break Styles Dance Class
2pm — Ultimate B-boy Championship Open: Preliminary Round
3pm — Film Screening: The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy and Q&A with Mr. Freeze
5pm — Ultimate B-boy Championship Open: Final Four
6pm — Ultimate B-boy Championship Open: Winners Announced

For more information, visit the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts website.

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