The creative landscape is changing. Technologies like Pro Tools, the iPod, and peer-to-peer networks have become mainstream in the digital age, creating a wild frontier of sorts in music. Independent artists can reach mass audiences once forbidden to them. These technologies are fostering the rise of “semiotic democracy”—where more and more people are no longer passive consumers of mass media, but active participants in creating culture. Cops vs Lawyers, Issue 3

الأحد، تشرين الأول ١٠، ٢٠٠٤

Sisterz of the Underground


Pic By Mischief Media.
By Miz P

Right now, the California public school system is in chaos. The funding of city schools in particular are infamously under-funded. As a result, after-school activities like sports and art programs at these institutions have taken a major hit. That's where the Sisters of the Underground (SOTU) have stepped up to battle the decline in creative outlets for Bay Area kids.

As the morning fog burns off and rays of sun scratch through, a group of children, accompanied by two youthful counselors, board a MUNI bus from within Presidio to the depths of the Mission District. The bus comes to a grinding halt and the posse scuddles out towards the wide-open doors of the Cellspace: a bombed-up community center that sticks out like a sore thumb compared to its dulled brick and industrial metal neighbors.

What kind of activity would draw a group of young kids from Presidio to a tagged-up warehouse deep in the Mission? Simple: this is but one of the many workshops taught by the Sisterz of the Underground. By grooving to both old- and new-school jams, four hours every day for the next five days, this novice group of eager young students will be introduced to the world of breakdancing.

While sitting cross-legged, gathered in a school circle on the cold warehouse floor, a petite woman appears from around the corner; it’s their first glimpse of the instructor; she’s rocking baggy sweat pants, a pair of well-worn Adidas, and a fresh do-rag fitted to her dome. She introduces herself with a warm smile as Sarah; but at 5’ tall, she encourages the class to address her by her b-girl name, “Smalls”...


The Sisterz of the Underground understand that after school, children are often left with little resort than to roaming the streets once the three o’clock bell rings. So the Sisterz reach out to these kids where the government and other agencies will not.

With a firm belief in hip-hop as a culture and an appreciation of how impressionable kids are, the collaborators at SOTU use the elements of hip-hop to impress kids and so teach the importance of love and compassion for others.

The teachers roster, which at one point consisted of only two instructors, has since flourished to over 17 eager and qualified heads who, come this fall, will jive into hundreds of Bay Area classrooms to teach kids the four main elements of hip-hop; Deejaying, Emceeing, Breaking, and Graffiti.

...In the traditional first-day-of-class fashion, Smalls gets to know her students. With faces from diverse backgrounds with names from Albert to Zoe, she finds out that the class is a mix of fourth- and fifth-grade boys and girls; half of them are there because their parents signed them up, a few because they’ve seen breaking on TV and want to improve on their techniques. The rest seem to twiddle their thumbs and pick their noses quietly with no real answer to the question. Whether the children are there by choice or by force is irrelevant, because Smalls and the other two instructors—Machine and Crykit—are extremely passionate about their art. With the class in their hands, even students barley-coordinated enough to fall to down will leave with a little b-boy or b-girl spark inside of them.

Like any class, Smalls has a structured lesson plan for the students over the next few days. Her plan emphasizes fundamentals such as proper stretching, some basic top-rock moves, smooth transitions, and solid footwork. Using what they learn, these mini b-boys and b-girls will duke it out in a friendly battle for the most ill crew at the end of the week...


The Sisterz of the Underground started years ago as a collective of female expressionists and has since grown to incorporate both men and women of the hip-hop culture, spanning from the west coast to Australia. Their roster of teachers began with only two instructors, and has since grown to over seventeen motivated and qualified heads. The instructors range from breakers such as the all-female Extra Credit Crew, to emcees from Bay Area crews like Felonius and Greans, and on to deejays like Megatron from the East Bay...

...During a brief breaking history lesson, Smalls informs her now wide-awake students that the dance form took off in the late 60’s, developed by New York street gangs as an alternative to violence. When asked if there is any specific move they hope to learn, a few of the boys anxiously squeal that they want to spin on their heads. Sarah then cranks the volume on the ghetto blaster; the room floods with intoxicating break-beats, igniting a wave of head bobbing. Then, she begins the class with these words of wisdom: “Before you can windmill, you must learn your baby freeze and backspin, and you’ve got to learn to stand on your head before you spin on your head...”

The idea for the Sisterz was spawned after a monumental show in January of 2001 at the Justice League (now the Independent). Los Angeles native and recognized hip-hop promoter Sarah Saltzman, aka Smalls, had just relocated to the Bay Area and, to show love for the local scene, she threw an event like no other; Smalls hoped her party would pose an especially inviting gesture towards women to take a more active roll within the hip-hop community. With a line-up consisting of all-female acts ranging from poets, emcees and breakers, she called the event ‘Sisterz of the Underground’. Her “gesture” was praised so highly by the audience and by local heads in general, that there arose a need for a greater and more powerful force; thus the Sisterz of the Underground was born as an organization. By 2002, Smalls had forged a bold collective with an ambitious mission...

...During the course of the week, the students are taught the importance of rhythm and exposed to a variety of classic breaking maneuvers; they learn how to utilize each move effectively in their routines—using transitions like sleepers appropriately and maintaining proper footwork at all times. The kids grow familiar with breaking and its battle environment through the execution of creative exercises—like "B-R-E-A-K," a b-boy version of the basketball classic "H-O-R-S-E," and "Duck, Duck, Battle!," a modified version of the playground favorite "Duck, Duck, Goose!," where the “goose” must partake in a two-round b-boy/b-girl battle.

Although an obvious class objective is to give the children a greater knowledge of breaking, the instructors under SOTU emphasize far greater values: they advocate “battle skills” as a form of conflict resolution, just as the original breakers did—by imparting positive, more-conscientious forms of interaction and showing no tolerance for negativity or disrespect.

On the last day of class, before Smalls has even stepped foot in the classroom, half of the students are sporting do-rags—not for fashion, but for friction; one girl’s strapped with knee pads, and if there were anymore coffee grinders going on you’d think you were in Peet’s. The kids close with their battle partners and squeeze in a few last seconds of practice before the rounds kick off.

Once they’ve assembled in their school circle, Smalls drops the beat and a pair of b-girls under the alias The Breakettes comes with quick indian stepping, sleepers galore, head bobbing, and an in-your-face attitude. The girls’ opponents are two boys who call themselves Fantastic Elastic and are, for the most part, greatly lacking rhythm, but can baby freeze like there’s no tomorrow. The next few crews dance it off and the battle comes to a cordial close, with no declared winner, in the spirit of equality.


Unique workshops such as these continue to build support for the Sisterz of the Underground in the Bay Area and beyond. Those involved show no sign of slowing and strive towards one day constructing a Sisterz of the Underground community center as a safe haven for children to learn and practice the elements of hip-hop. SOTU always has several other projects in the works as well. This coming year is slated to be one of the most productive with solidified workshops with Mission Urban Arts, a twelve week program consisting of twelve weeks of deejay and breaking lessons, a choreography program at KITP Bayview Academy, and even a fourth-period class at a local high school.

Be sure to look out for an upcoming compilation the Sisterz have set for release soon through Outta Nowhere Entertainment entitled Queendom, featuring original tracks from immidiate members of the collective such as Neb Luv and heavyweights like Bahamadia, Apani B Fly, and the Concious Daughters. With soul and intensity, the Sisterz of the Underground will continue to deliver a message of equality, love, and positivity for as long as there are those who truly believe in the power of hip-hop.

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