What Dr. Dre is to hip-hop's layered production and Notorious B.I.G. is to its lyrical flow, Philadelphia choreographer Rennie Harris is to its dance - an innovator.
He's not just an interpreter who disseminates hip-hop culture and shows off the attitude: Harris is the attitude, walking the talk, winning fans around the world and accolades from the always-picayune dance press elite.
In fact, he's so used to talking about hip-hop as a dance form that it's almost as if he were speaking with break beats behind him. His cadences are soft and bouncing. His flow is a rolling one.
"We've held fast and continue to do what we do," he says of those things his pioneering dance company Puremovement has done to better itself since its start 17 years ago. "There have been awards and such, and those are good for the company. . . ." He trails off.
Harris, 45, could be beat from rehearsing the future-forward piece, 100NakedLocks, he'll premiere at the Kimmel Center this weekend.
Or is it more likely that he simply doesn't care about awards or accolades?
"No, not really," he says, repressing a laugh. He's unsure of how we got onto the topic. "It's cool in the moment, but right afterwards . . . nah."
But the beat truly does go on when Harris turns to talking about the meat of the matter, like the syncopated mix of exaggerated rapid-fire hand-to-arm movement and relaxed hips that is "locking" or the muscle-contracting jerks of "popping."
Now he's psyched.
According to 100NakedLocks, the future of hip-hop dance looks bright, kinetic, and highly charged, despite its ruminations on sociocultural conflict and disasters political, natural and beyond.
"The future isn't about the change in dance," Harris says of the piece's sci-fi landscape, in which an eroded planet leaves 100 survivors to fend (and funk) for themselves. "It's about who we are and how we interact. That's as much about the future as it is the present and the past."
It's about how we got to the future from the past. And Harris' past speaks volumes.
What he learned growing up in North Philly was something that defines every move Rennie Harris has made as a dancer, a choreographer, a man: He learned the hustle. Not the disco dance - his hustle was about getting what you wanted on your own.
"Nobody gives you what you get or what you need for free," he says. "Philly at the time, North Philly in particular, people were brawlers. They boxed. They hit. They found how to survive."
That was a big lesson throughout the '70s and early '80s, and "it still is." Fending for himself left Harris with a swagger that marks each move with potent fury. Even his most casual sways have a flourish of machismo.
Harris danced everywhere he could throughout the '80s, appearing on local TV's Dancin' on Air and making a name in New York as a locker and popper in videos for rap acts like Kurtis Blow and Run DMC. He was a Swatch Watch Breaker, break-dancing in its ads and performing at youth-oriented Swatch-sponsored benefits with Bill Cosby.
By 1987 Dancin' on Air had became a national show (Dance Party USA) that he choreographed. He even had his own show on Channel 57, One House Street, where he argued with directors about having to hide his dreads under a hat.
Hip-hop dance in the early to mid-'80s was in transition, he says - community based but increasingly commercial: "Before Puremovement, hip-hop dance had been incubating, progressing fast but with no notion of where it was going."
And the more commercial it grew, the more mainstream its original dances became.
"The paradigm shift found dancers moving from the front of the stage to the back with smaller crews," Harris says of hip-hop dance's sad transition in the early '90s - the time of hip-hop music's greatest commercial success.
"Breaking and locking took a back seat to less dynamic party dances like the Kid 'n Play kick step," he says of the genre's friendliest social aspects' being pushed to the fore.
But Harris' moves stayed dynamic - combative, propelled by his mean-streets brand of ballet. And when, after a period of eclipse, hip-hop dance reemerged, Harris led the charge, starting Puremovement in 1992 and transforming hip-hop for the theater.
"My company's mission was to lift the underground to the forefront again," he says. He never left it, never stopped doing the old steps, and "when time became right, I just applied that to the theater."
Harris plays down his role. "I shouldn't credit myself with so much foresight. I was getting paid so I did it," he says, laughing. "It could have been anybody from my neighborhood. There were a lot of great dancers who could lead. I just stood out a little."
He stood out enough to create a company that crisscrossed the globe; won Bessie Awards for 2000's Rome & Jewels, a groovy retelling of Romeo and Juliet; portrayed hip-hop's tender side with the semiautobiographical Facing Mekka (2003); won the artist of the year prize in the 2007 Pennsylvania Governor's Awards for the Arts; and won a United States Artists Fellowship grant the same year.
"Hip-hop is the only vocabulary I know," he says. And pure movement - the aesthetic ideal that guides his eight-member company - means all movement is fair game. If in 100NakedLocks Harris takes something from kung fu and martial arts or belly or ballet dancing, it automatically becomes his, and therefore becomes hip-hop - "Anything I take transfers to my aesthetic and my attitude."
"Refinement is a goal," he continues. "See, the aesthetic is always pure. So are the rules of engagement. Those rules make change necessary. That's because hip-hop in every sense of the word is about innovating."
Innovation and change come with new beats, clothes, and flows; if you don't stay fresh you come across as dated. Harris laughs at the mention of dance steps audiences see in current hip-hop videos.
"It's not how I remember it," he says, giggling. "It's so derivative now. But that's probably no different than when hoofing became tapping and when [Bob] Fosse and those Broadway cats jacked the street dancers and made it their jazz."
What Harris looks for in dancers for his company is originality, certainly, but professionalism is the key: "Right now, because dance is defined by Hollywood, there are few great dancers and companies," he says. "So I'm looking for a work ethic."
During final rehearsals for 100NakedLocks, he was still uncovering new meaning in hip-hop's future, its impact on social discourse, and how to apply that to the piece.
"The future is about who we are and how we interact with people," Harris says, shaking his head. "I don't know if that's conveyed yet in this piece. It's still a little corny to say this, but I'm trying to deal with my comic-book fantasy of the future.
"Things like war and a lousy economy are things we dealt with in the 1940s. My job is to project how it changes."
Rennie Harris Puremovement