Man Among B-boys

Rennie Harris reaches out to hip-hop's next generation.

Legends of Hip-Hop Performing Arts Center at Tri-C East, 4250 Richmond Road in Highland Hills 8 p.m. Friday, July 25. $22; call 216-241-6000.
Hip-hop legend Rennie Harris.
Hip-hop legend Rennie Harris.

Rennie Harris doesn't think of himself as one of the Legends of Hip-Hop, even though dance historians call him the 21st-century Alvin Ailey. To them, he's a hip-hop savior who brought locking, popping, and B-boy dance styles to mainstream culture. In 1991, he founded Rennie Harris Puremovement, a Philadelphia dance troupe that thrives on breaking down media-exploited stereotypes about hip-hop. "People think it's a fad, and it has no merit or artistic form," Harris says. "If it's not on their radar screen, they don't think it's valid."

Even the street talk is often mangled. Take "breakdancing," a phrase Harris calls a media-contrived misnomer. Streetwise folks call it "B-boying" -- named after the dancers who groove to breakbeat music on the streets of the Bronx. "It was the B-boy culture that developed [the dance style]," Harris explains. "It's the way you talk, the way you dress, the way you walk, your posture. None of the B-boys or B-girls ever call themselves breakdancers."

To dispel the myths, Harris and his troupe spend 11 months of each year on the road, taking their hip-hop history lesson to concert venues and college campuses around the country. He calls Legends of Hip-Hop a "live documentary" that celebrates the culture's growth over the past two decades. "If you stop the evolution, [hip-hop] will become institutionalized," he says. "If you want to get in touch with youth culture, you have to get back into the grass-roots community, and that's hip-hop right now."

But reaching the next hip-hop generation takes money. And Harris, a 39-year-old with an uncanny business sense, secures state and federal grants to keep the troupe running. In 12 years, Puremovement has become Philadelphia's third-largest dance company.

Friday's event at Tri-C's Eastern Campus will include such hip-hop legends as locking pioneer Don Campbell, popping inventors Boogaloo Sam & the Electric Boogaloos, and B-boy faves Skilled Methods. Their show is the finale to the college's Community Hip-Hop Festival 2003, an 11-day B-boy battle and summer camp of classes, workshops, and performances. "It's not new to me," Harris says of the festival crowds. "Hip-hop has been in the theater for a long time. It's kind of like knowing it [would grow in popularity]. It gives the illusion it evolved, but I think [the interest] was already there."

Harris's touring schedule proves it. In 1984, he teamed up with Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow, and Whodini to stage what Harris calls the first-ever hip-hop concert. (Harris and Puremovement have also opened for rap artists Kool Moe Dee, West Street Mob, and Salt-N-Pepa.) Harris is getting older, but he's not slowing down.

"Don Campbell's fiftysomething, and he's still doing it," he says. "I just move forward, without projecting who I want to be or what I want to be, and I'm going to keep on moving on forward."

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