Episodes of a Muscle Memory: Hip Hop Music Videos and 00s Adolescence 

Ellen O’Donohue Oddy

Michael Joseph’s Episodes of a Hip Hop Memory set up a memory trail through Joseph’s career as a dancer, from watching Jeffrey Daniel on Top of the Pops, dancing on TV ads, and his b-boy practice after classes at Rambert, to his successful career choreographing for and performing with Contact Dance Company and Union Dance. If popular culture and hip hop dance can carve out shared memories, traceable across music shows and cereal adverts, then these memories are traceable within the viewers and listeners too. This piece starts 20 years on from Joseph’s, at the advent of digital streaming, where the choreographer was central to the output of 00s hip-hop, R&B and pop releases. Starting in 2004 and ending in 2019, it explores how Hip Hop in the mainstream left a dormant muscle memory in a generation of 00s teens in the UK, and across the world.

2004

Friday 12th March 2004. The film Honey is released in UK cinemas to a generation of 00s youth who dream of being in their local underground hip-hop crew and backing dancers in music videos. The film, starring Jessica Alba as aspiring choreographer Honey Daniels, is directed by Bille Woodruff, who also directed the videos for some of the biggest hits of the late 90s and 00s: Jazzy Belle by Outkast, You Make Me Wanna by Usher, Up Jumps Da' Boogie by Timbaland & Magoo feat. Missy Elliott & Aaliyah, Too Close by Next , What's Luv? by Fat Joe feat. Ashanti and Hot in Herre by Nelly. Whether you had MTV or made-do with Popworld, Honey articulated a moment in time where almost every hip-hop or R&B music video contained a tightly choreographed dance sequence that became as synonymous with the feeling of the song as the lyrics in the chorus.

 

Most of us never got close to being professional dancers, but the music video of the 00s alongside films like Honey, StreetDance, Stomp the Yard, Bring it On, Step Up helped us feel like we could be part of a moment. In Hull, East Yorkshire, where I spent my teenage years, the hip-hop scene was limited, yet the hip-hop music video allowed us to engage with a global dance movement and today, we share that nostalgia with anyone else that grew up during that time.

 

In 2004, I joined a street dance class, but there wasn’t enough contemporary music for my liking – our main routine was choreographed to the 80s classic Pump up the Jam which we performed in our dance school’s yearly showcase in the main hall at The University of Hull. Wearing green and purple glittery off-shoulder tops, we performed a sequence that featured in-time sidesteps, upward punches, and the helicopter. Secretly, though, I wanted to be wearing Nike cotton-stretch crops and low-rise tracksuit bottoms, dancing to the off-beat of freshly produced remixes. I wanted to be in Honey’s crew.

Beyoncé's Flash website (2003), captured by Web Design Museum, 2020

The rapid evolution of media at the time meant that contemporary hip-hop culture coming out of America was easier to access than ever. As home internet and mobile phones became affordable, American hip-hop wasn’t just available in HMV and on MTV, it was the personalised sound of our tinny £2 ringtones, the updates on artists’ flash websites (see above) that travelled through overworked modems onto bulky, grey computers. It didn’t matter how far away it was – it felt familiar. The choreography in the music videos we adored was difficult to execute but easy to remember, and my friend and I would spend hours with a CD on repeat, or a video tape recorded from TV, to get a particular move right.
 

A new wave of globalised youth culture was just beginning, and in less than a year YouTube would launch. Ciara’s Goodies album came out with videos for both the title track and the unforgettable 1, 2, Step featuring Missy Elliot – an innovator, musician and dancer, whose impact on hip-hop music and video is a different article altogether. Who can forget Ciara’s signature footwork that looked something like the moonwalk but was kept tight in position whilst her hips would wiggle and her elbows would raise, sharp, throwing up the energy from her small frame, her head nodding in their direction.


In 2004, Naughty Girl gave us the Beyoncé / Usher choreography collab we had all been waiting for; up on stage in the club, back turned, Beyoncé and her dancers raise their hands into 4th, put one foot back and drop slowly as Usher steps back and spins away. This slow drop would become synonymous in my mind with the body roll drop in Destiny’s Child’s Lose My Breath video, which was released months later. I cannot overestimate the hours my friend and I spent replicating, performing, perfecting the dance sequence to Lose my Breath. Battling with unstable internet connections and grainy VHS recordings of T4, we squeezed in the swag walk up against the bunk bed in our small bedrooms and practised the huh-huh moments, mimicking blowing dust from the palm of our hands.

Honey (trailer), 2004, directed by Bille Woodruff, Production Company - NuAmerica Entertainment

I don’t know if we first saw Honey in the cinema – perhaps we did. A bootleg was bought from the local market, a photocopy of the film poster wrapped around a DVD box that contained footage taken by a camcorder nestled in the front row of a cinema. Purchased on a Saturday morning and shared between friends, it gave early access to learn the moves to each routine and filled up a whole weekend. Eventually, after the Blockbuster release, a DVD was purchased with saved-up pocket money from ASDA, which now sits in a charity shop somewhere, waiting for another dancer to pick it up.
 

During these early teenage years, before social lives and social media took off, there was no better way to spend a weekend afternoon than firing off ‘brb’ on MSN messenger, running to whatever room had the telly in, and practising a routine. Often, if our internet was down or we wanted to dance to an album track, we would make a routine ourselves, blending learnt moves from music videos with our own imagination. Two young friends collaborating, teaching and learning each other’s bounces and spins, figuring out how to slide to the floor without getting caught out by a splinter or carpet burn.


Honey reflected that joy back at us. We watched again and again Honey Daniels teach her hip-hop class or come up with routines for music videos on the spot. The lesson scene where she develops a floor slide into a routine after one of the dancers slips on water seems cheesy but is memorable. That routine is part of my muscle memory, my body knows every step from the months spent watching, practising and dreaming of being in Honey’s dance class.


In the film, Honey is recognised by one of the biggest video producers in town – a white man who parachutes into hip-hop culture with selfish, abusive values. She stands for her rights – alongside the talent embedded within her local community – and he cuts her out of the industry, firing her as the choreographer in a Missy Elliot video (we will see parallels in the representation of dance and choreography with Miley Cyrus in 2013 and Addison Rae 2021, but more on that later)


Although I would continue to attend dance classes until adulthood, my joy of dance would always remain amateur. Somewhere in my urge to be Honey I discovered that I didn’t need to be a professional dancer, I just needed to dance. Teenage self-consciousness would eventually evaporate, and I would find myself dancing freely in a club to music from hip hop to garage to techno, it didn’t matter the genre, my body always knew the moves.

2019

15 years later, I am on a bus riding through London when I receive a message from a friend that I met in my early 20s, on a dancefloor in East London. We immediately bonded through the joy of dancing, and some months later we spent a Sunday afternoon streaming Honey, realising we had a shared experience from before we even knew each other (a moment that would plant the seed for this piece of writing).


“Have you seen this?” her text read, hovering below a YouTube thumbnail with the heading Normani – Motivation. I clicked.

Motivation (music video) by Normani, 2019, directed by Dave Meyers & Daniel Russell, Keep Cool - RCA Records

The video is set in the early 00s, where a young Normani runs into the living room to watch BET 106 & Park, a music video chart show for American hip-hop and R&B that ran from 2000 to 2014. Her grandmother tells her to stop making noise, and she rolls her eyes. But then, as the hosts announce one of the fastest-growing music videos, the moment switches to fantasy: it’s Motivation by Normani. Her eyes widen, the studio crowd goes wild as the video starts on the screen, she jumps up and dances the moves to the song with joy, before the camera turns to the television, and we switch to the video.

Motivation is filled with homages to music videos of the late 90s/early 00s – Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love, Ciara’s 1, 2, Step, JLo’s I’m Real – which are fun, but the real homage is in the choreography. The moves are heavy with nostalgia and despite the fact that Normani is five years younger than me and grew up in Atlanta, my friend grew up in London and I grew up in Hull, practicing these dance moves from our televisions was a shared experience.
 

Whilst we see references to heavyweights of the 00s dotted throughout, Sean Bankhead’s choreography is Motivation’s own and even after the first watch, you will forever feel the steps and the song as one. Pirouettes, lifts, back-flips are dotted amongst double hip locks from a plié squat, and a stompier, faster version of the Check on It twerk-walk.


Normani’s insane ball control on a basketball court initiated the #motivationchallenge where people would (often hilariously) try to reattempt bouncing the ball off a knee in a pirouette and then twerk the ball away on the second bounce. This was only just safer than the Drake In My Feelings challenge which saw young people jump out of a slow-moving car and dance in step with the 5mph pace of the camera.


Although I hadn’t attended a dance class since the age of 18, I was still performing dance routines in front of my mirror, incorporating them somewhat freestyle on the dancefloor (depending on the music and company) but it had been a while since I learnt a routine. Watching Motivation, I had the desire to break down and learn every step, though I would have a hard time replicating the back-flips, or what Normani describes as a “cat-and-mouse” duet with dancer Christopher Owens.


Motivation stood out not just for its nostalgic choreography, it also showed that music video choreography had become nostalgic. The dance routines of chart hits were shifting away from the artist and being placed within the control of the fans – a viral TikTok routine was becoming the new number 1. These routines came from the fans, as artists turned to TikTok users to produce short dance routines, often covering the length of a hook or chorus, which would be learnt and reposted across the TikTok community. The teenagers making up their own routine in their bedroom might now become the song’s choreographers.


The moves of a successful viral TikTok routine has to tread the line between visually enthralling and easy-to-do – people have to both want to do it, and be able to do it. These routines are learnt from performance – there’s rarely any step-by-step breakdown, no mirroring or counting in – and the camera is static and in a 9x16 ratio. As a result, we don’t see the floor routines, the foot work or crew dances that we see in Motivation and its predecessors. Instead, routines are forward-facing and standing, often staying within the same two-step space, using easy to follow gestures for arms and legs, that build from repeats, reverses and replays. As each TikTok user takes on the routine, it translates through styles of modern, hip-hop, jazz, or sometimes without genre at all.

 

The politics of genre have become a central talking point when it comes to viral dances. This was encapsulated with Miley Cyrus’ twerking in 2013. When she posted a video of herself twerking in a unicorn onesie, and then performed at the VMAs with Robin Thicke twerking in skin-coloured latex underwear, Miley became known for twerking. To this day, there are still Google searches that ask “Did Miley Cyrus invent twerking?”

The cultural theft of relocating twerking within the ingenuity of Cyrus proved the harmful positionality of a white person “doing a Beyoncé dance” at a club. This was not just a Cyrus issue either. In 2019, TikTok was only three years old, and despite the significant creative output of Black creators on TikTok, white creators were still the most popular and therefore the most paid.

Addison Rae on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, 26 March 2021

Years of white TikTokers lifting the work of Black creators without giving credit would lead to the #BlackTikTokStrike two years later in 2021, which demanded that the platform and its users give credit where due. A very public example of this occurred when Addison Rae, TikTok influencer, dancer and actress, performed routines on Jimmy Fallon, with no credit to the creators. Following public outcry, producers referenced the creators – Mya Nicole Johnson, Chris Cotter, Dorien Scott, Fur-Quan Powell, Camyra Franklin, Adam Snyder, Nate Nale, Greg Dahl and Keara Wilson – in the bio of the YouTube of Rae’s performance (which they took down in 2022) and invited them on the show to discuss and perform their routines.

Mya Nicole Johnson, Chris Cotter, Dorien Scott, Fur-Quan Powell, Camyra Franklin, Adam Snyder, Nate Nale, Greg Dahl and Keara Wilson on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, 6 April 2021

Choreography is made to be performed, shared and adapted on what Michael Joseph names ‘that turntable of movement’. Accreditation has become a vital modulation in the age of daily lucrative content, where the process is as profitable as the result. Whereas most teens back in 2004 wouldn’t have known the choreographer for Ciara’s or Missy’s music videos, now, not only can we easily follow their career online, but we can also directly learn from them.

 

Motivation’s choreographer Sean Bankhead has been credited as one of the forerunners in developing his choreography career through social media and described by Lil Nas X as ‘shaping the new generation’. In 2006, when he was still a teenager, a grainy video shot on a mobile phone of his Hip-Hop advanced class went viral on YouTube and gained 1.5million views within days. He continued to produce concept choreography videos on YouTube, and now with his TikTok following of 35k followers, Bankhead is highly sought after for his choreography that speaks to both the dancer and the internet. After Motivation, Bankhead went on to choreograph videos such as Lil Nas X’s Industry Baby, Cardi B’s Up and Normani’s Wild Side – viral challenges of the latter two kept their position in the charts high. He also teaches his work across Instagram and TikTok tutorials, replicating the #UpChallenge, breaking down the Wild Side routine, and teaching Missy Elliot’s live performance of She’s A Bitch at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors during lockdown on Instagram Live. Bankhead was never trained and learnt to dance by emulating his favourite music videos. The memory of these emulations is likely the reason why his choreography goes viral. His movement is a continuation of his own learning.

 

The mainstream following of the hip-hop music video in the 00s had the potential to reach kids across the globe with an introduction to technique and narrative. Now, we are seeing a future of direct learning from the creatives, where choreographers take centre stage. If Hip-Hop music videos and their choreographers created a shared joy for my generation, then TikTok allows global participation in real terms, shifting up the gears of conversation between the moves. Hip Hop dance came from the magic of innovation outside of tradition and big budgets, but the million-dollar music video gave it expanse and reach, so that it remains in our muscle memory forever.

Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022

A response to Episodes of a Hip Hop Memory by Michael Joseph

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Ellen O’Donohue Oddy


Ellen is a writer, speaker and radio host. Ellen hosts Talking Notes, a monthly radio show on Dublin Digital Radio that explores the intersection between music and literature. She is currently writing her first manuscript of short stories. She has previously published work in Radical Art Review, Maraav Magazin, Jazz Research Journal and Dazed.
 

https://www.ellenodonohueoddy.com/

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Ellen O'Donohue Oddy