Edson "House" Magana is one of the more accomplished b-boy artists in the Valley, if not the entire state of Arizona. He's not only one of the founding members of the Furious Styles Crew, but has also beaten hundreds of other dancers in battles around the nation, and can bust out sick-looking steps from his arsenal of moves.
All of these feats, however, aren't as renowned as the 40-year-old's membership in the Mighty Zulu Kings, the legendary b-boy and urban art crew that was founded by hip-hop icon Afrika Bambaataa back in the early '70s.
"It's an honor to be part of the Zulu Kings because of its history alone," Magana says. "To be part of something that has preserved [street] culture and that was there at the beginnings of hip-hop and helping pioneer the b-boy movement is kind of a big deal. It's something I don't take lightly."
Bambaataa, a noted DJ and one of the pioneers of hip-hop culture, organized the Mighty Zulu Kings crew in the Bronx in 1973 as an offshoot of his landmark Zulu Nation movement. Both groups shared the same goal: To help steer youths away from violent street gangs that plagued the ghettos of New York City into something more positive.
B-boy dancing and breaking were quite embryonic in those days, having evolved from street kids on sidewalks trying to imitate the slick moves of James Brown. It was also popular amongst members of South Bronx street gangs, who often carried boomboxes and would occasionally stage dance battles instead of fighting to resolve turf wars or other disputes.
"At that point DJs like Bambaataa couldn't go into certain boroughs alone," Magana says. "They had to protect their equipment and themselves, so he needed people to roll with him for protection when he went to other jams and other boroughs. There's always safety in numbers. So he created the Zulu Kings crew as a chapter of the Zulu Nation to help keep himself and others safe and as an alternative to joining a street gang."
According to current MZK president Alien Ness, who has run the group since 2000, gang members would also sometime battle simply for respect. He explains that Bambaataa wanted to reclaim b-boy and urban culture from its association with street gangs and invited former gang members that would rather "dance than fight" into the crew, as well as graf artists and DJs.
"The Zulu Kings were the first really hip-hop crew. Bambaataa and the other founding five members all went on to become great DJs and great influences on hip-hop culture," Ness says. "So the concept of the b-boy crew started with Zulu Kings. Before that, you had nothing but street gangs. And the street gangs maybe had one or two members who were into dancing. There were also the first real b-boy dancers involved, the same kids who were trying to be like James Brown. And everyone was doing graffiti and writing their names on walls at the time, so that was part of it too."
Ness, who spoke with Jackalope Ranch by telephone from his home in the Bronx, says the Mighty Zulu Kings has evolved to include urban artists in many different mediums, including photographers, rappers, and turntablists in addition to b-boys and taggers.
Membership is very selective, however, and is an invite-only deal where only Ness extends invites to the most talented b-boys, graf scribes, turntablists, and other urban artists.
When asked exactly how many members of the Zulu Kings there are, Ness gets a little Yoda-like and says, "Those who say don't know and those that know don't say," before admitting there are members in 10 states nationwide and 14 countries around the world.
That includes four members in Arizona, such as Magana, as well as local hip-hop producer Chino D., Tucson turntablist Big Fenix, and graf artist Turtle Roc.
Magana, who has been dancing since his teens and currently co-owns Cyphers: The Center for Urban Arts in North Phoenix, was invited to join in 2005 after performing at a massive b-boy battle in the Bronx attended by Ness.
"I just happened to be battle crazy that weekend and I was battling all kinds of people that weekend," Magana says. "He was impressed and I got put down as a member. To be connected to something that Afrika Bambaataa started, is a definite honor. The Zulu Kings can be very hardcore as far as b-boying and carrying out tradition. They keep the essence of hip-hop going. [Ness] is very selective and the membership is very hardcore."
And as devoted as Magana is about b-boy and breaking, as well as urban art, he's still not as hardcore as other MZK members. For instance, he hasn't earned his patch. Much like such notorious motorcycle gangs as the Hells Angels, the Zulu Kings award patches worn on leather vests to only the most devoted and die-hard members.
Magana says that he hasn't earned his patch despite being a Zulu King for seven years since he "isn't as hardcore" as others and is also a member of other b-boy crews both locally and nationally.
"Just because you're an MZK member doesn't mean you automatically get a patch," Magana says. "You have to earn your patch, win a certain number of battles, and can't be part of other crews. If they see you walking around with a patch and you haven't earned it yet, it's a big deal. In MZK, you have to maintain a certain integrity."
That integrity includes possessing a major desire to teach and inspire others, passing on knowledge about their particular art form.
"The Zulu Kings have been about that since the beginning all the way up until now. They're still inspiring and still teaching, just like House is doing today at his school."
It's the same idea that's behind this weekend's Back to School Daze event at Cyphers and other locations around Phoenix, where Magana and several other members of the Mighty Zulu Kings plan on dishing out their knowledge to newbie artists and dancers this weekend as a part of the two-day extravaganza.
During First Friday art walk, Magana will oversee a live blackbook art session and dance exhibition outside of Think! on Fifth Street. Turntable trickster Dyps from California will also scratch up a storm and show off his skills on the record decks. An after-party takes place at the Hidden House featuring spin sessions by Al Page and other DJs.
On Saturday, however, and all-day affair will go down at Cyphers and will include a massive art show with work from numerous MZK members, such as Texas-based graf artists D.V.O.R. and Skew, as well as paintings from Oregon's Notes and Damet and Dair from California. A few Zulu Kings will also host a free grafitti workshop starting at noon and will set up several plywood sheets for newbies to practice their tagging skills.
Also planned for the event are massive open styles floor battles for b-boys, a DJ spinoff, and a blackbook art contest, all of which will offer a variety of cash, prizes, and shwag to the winners.
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"We're hoping that b-boys and artists and DJs all come out and can pick up some skills from us and learn about the Zulu Kings and our history," Magana says.
Back to School Daze takes place on Friday at 7 p.m. at THINK! Graphic and Printing Solutions, while the after-party at Hidden House starts at 10 p.m. Admission is free to both events. The second day of events takes place at noon at Cyphers: The Center for Urban Arts. Admission is $10.