Swizz Beatz, Diddy, and others are paying attention, but can the songs that New York’s subway dancers move to become the next big thing out of the city?
Time and space, according to the theories of Albert Einstein, are models by which we think—not conditions in which we live. But to the Bronx’s W.A.F.F.L.E. crew, things are more absolute: A little more time and a little more space can make a big difference, especially when it comes to their dance routine.
That’s the case on a warm midsummer night in the empty parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum. The crew has formed a circle, with each member taking turns shaking, sliding and swerving in the middle. W.A.F.F.L.E. (We Are Family For Life Entertainment) is one of ten or so crews in New York City that have become infamous for dancing within the confined space of its subway cars and making “it’s showtime!” two of the most polarizing words in the city. With more time and space to perform, W.A.F.F.L.E.’s members are able to fit in a barrage of acrobatic flips and turns amid their go-to moves, like the “Needle and Thread,” a foot-grabbing jolt that requires some serious flexibility, and the “Thunder Clap,” a classic dancehall two-step. More ideal conditions are not the only reason they’re pulling out all the stops; they’re putting a special amount of effort forth tonight because on one end of the circle stands legendary hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, who just finished DJing a set in the museum’s ballroom. After hearing about the crew and what they stood for, Beatz, who was also raised in the Bronx, agreed to meet them after the show.
“All my little brothers, that’s all they listen to,” he told me earlier backstage. “They dance to nothing but [those] instrumentals.”
Exclusive: Stream “Supernatural,” from Hann’s upcoming project Unknown Genre, below:
The “instrumentals” Swizz is referring to are the ones that are backing the dancers as they perform. They were created by two of the W.A.F.F.L.E. members themselves; unbeknownst to many, all the beats that the “showtime!” crews dance to are made in-house as part of a genre called litefeet. The genre, which can also be used to describe the culture of dancing and art its associated with, is built on a sound that’s evolved from decades of New York music, from the early bounce of hip-hop to the freneticism of Swizz’s own production in the 2000s. It uses a clap and kick that generations of Harlem or Bronx residents were raised around. It’s also, thanks to a new wave of young dancers and beatmakers, one of the most unique sounds coming out of the city right now. Just ask Diddy, whose new Pharrell-produced single, “Finna Get Loose,” shares many of its characteristics.
In fact, some of the dancers featured in the recently released “Get Loose” video are the same ones performing for Swizz Beatz in the parking lot. Being the showmen they are, the members of W.A.F.F.L.E.—most around the age of 18 and dressed head-to-toe in Adidas gear—plopped down a boom box and hit play almost immediately after introducing themselves to him. Their movements, captured in bright frames by cell phone flashes in the dark, seem to impress Swizz, but you can tell it’s the beat, based on a warped vocal sample belting “I be in the cut,” that has him aggressively dipping his head back and forth. He’s hearing something that he helped create—and a sound that could potentially become the next big thing out of his hometown.
“I like what I just heard,” he says. “People might not know it, but it’s definitely here.”
Litefeet dancer John O
Strangely, it’s been “here” for a little while. Back in the late 2000s, an early incarnation of the genre broke into the mainstream with songs like DJ Webstar’s “Chicken Noodle Soup” and Ron Browz’s “Pop Champagne,” which both started as neighborhood party jams in Harlem. While New York MCs like 50 Cent began to struggle at the time with the increasing popularity of dance music, Webstar and Browz were able to introduce a fresh take on the city’s sound to the radio. With its arrival in the mainstream, however, the music had reached a peak and quickly fell off soon after. A new generation of dancers and beatmakers are now putting their own touch on the genre, speeding up the tempo, adding thicker bass lines and creating more developed songs steeped in the litefeet sound. These evolutions, they believe, will help the genre reach a wider audience and once again rise to the top.
About a week after the performance in the Brooklyn Museum parking lot, I’m sitting in the Bed-Stuy apartment of the manager of Chris Designs and Lil’ Live, who together form the litefeet production duo Hann and were responsible for the beat that probably caused Swizz a minor neck injury. Both only 18 years old, Designs and Live are doing what you can usually find them doing: making beats. Projected on the apartment’s big-screen TV, their music-generating software of choice, Fruity Loops, comes off like a complicated game of Tetris. Designs, real name Chirstopher Garcia, sits in deep concentration as he snaps blocks of sounds—a kick, a bass line, a snare—together like Legos. He and Live, a.k.a. Dylan Skyler, are working on a song for an Adidas ad and using a warped sample of a classic Run-DMC track as its backbone.
Chris Designs, left, and Lil’ Live, right, of production duo Hann
This is a formula often used by litefeet producers: adding heavy claps and kicks around a repeating vocal sample that’s either been pitched up or down. From there, they add the “hype,” which usually takes the form of chants (for those who have seen litefeet on the subway, it’s the audio form of the “hey!” and “let’s go!” cries yelled by the dancers), either also sampled or added in by the producers themselves. The end result can come off chaotic, but there’s a finesse behind the energy. No one understands this more than Garcia and Skyler, who pride themselves on crafting a more “clean” sound than their counterparts.
“We want to take it to the next level,” Garcia says. “We’re trying to have different structures and create builds-up in between.”
Both Garcia, who was raised in the Bronx, and Skyler, from Long Island, have been involved in the culture of litefeet since they were in middle school. They got into it for the same reason most middle school kids get into anything: because the cool kids were doing it. It’s what everyone talked about in the hallways; dance battles would occur over the weekend, and come Monday everyone would be buzzing about the moves that were pulled. Garcia, who now speaks with an eager confidence that coincides with his flattop haircut and the gold charm hanging around his neck in the shape of an AK-47, started dancing to be a part of something, he says.