Double Dutch's Forgotten Hip-Hop Origins
When hip-hop developed in New York, teams of girls would double dutch in the middle of dancing crowds at clubs, an element of the culture that has been lost along the way.
In November of 1982, the New York City Rap Tour came to Paris, bringing with it a culture that had never been seen in Europe— hip-hop. The group of young and black New Yorkers wore a variety of leathers, sneakers, jumpsuits, puffer coats, caps, and hoodies. And, according to a write-up by David Hershkovits for Sunday News Magazine, they "blindsided the Europeans [in the audience] with their burst of personality and freedom of creation."
Afrika Bambaataa DJed. The Infinity Rappers rhymed next to him. Futura 2000 and Fab 5 Freddy sprayed canvases and walls surrounding the performance space. And in the middle of the dance floor, right before theRock Steady Crew came out to breakdance, the Fantastic Four jumped rope, or more specifically double dutched.
The names of those DJs, rappers, and graffiti writers who performed that fateful day have become fixtures in hip-hop lore. The Fantastic Four are less well known, but at the time, the double dutch girls who defined the earliest incarnation of hip-hop.
"In France they were like, 'The American's are coming to town!' At this point, rap was coming into its own. We had Afrika Bambataa, the Rock Steady Crew, and us." says Delores Finlayson of the Fantastic Four. "We were a part of that trend."
"The tour in France was New York City rap, and [double dutch] was part of the street culture," Fab 5 Freddy says. Freddy was the original hip-hop impresario who organized that very first rap tour not long before he solidified the concept of hip-hop with his 1983 movie Wild Style. "[Double dutch] fit perfectly with the tour and it was a great element. That was the big bright moment regarding putting it all under the umbrella of hip-hop."
But today double dutch has disappeared from hip-hop consciousness. It pops up sporadically in creepy Angel Haze videos, during a Pharrell–Missy Elliott performances at the BET awards, or as a minor motif in movies dedicated to New York City like Top Five. But beyond those increasingly negligible roles, double dutch is no longer considered part of hip-hop. The oft-quoted four elements—MCing, DJing, graffiti, and breakdancing—that make hip-hop what it is, leave it out.
So what happened to double dutch?
Like no other hip-hop story ever, this one begins with the New York Police Department. Eleven years before the first New York rap tour, in 1971, NYPD detective Ulysses "Mike the Cop" Williams watched a police-organized one-mile cycling race in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park. There were races for boys and races for girls, but afterward, Mike says, there was one unanimous assessment: "'My God the girls did terrible!"
So Mike set out to make an event where the females could shine. He'd seen girls playing double dutch in parks and on street corners and figured he could take the street game to the next level. He called his friend and fellow cop David Walker and "from that point on David and I began to contrive the sport of double dutch."
David and Mike took rules from other sports and applied them to the game. Like track, they used speed testing: how many times players could jump over the rope in two minutes. Like gymnastics, they included compulsory tricks: two turns on the right foot, two turns on the left foot, two criss-crosses right over left, two criss-crosses left over right, ten high steps with knees to waist parallel to the floor. Finally, like ice-skating, the competition ended with a three-minute freestyle.
To systemize the sport they organized a police department–run league and reached out to public schools asking gym teachers to start spreading the sport. "This was an opportunity for young girls to be involved, and yes, an urban traditional sport to go onto a competitive level," says Lauren Walker, David's daughter and the current president of the National Double Dutch League.
Their initial dream was to make double dutch an Olympic sport and at the start it looked like an achievable goal. The first ever official double dutch tournament took place at Intermediate School 10 on West 149th Street in 1974. There was a sponsor, Royal Crown Cola, and the New Yorker even wrote an article about it.
From there, with David and Mike's commitment, the sport grew. They toured the country teaching double dutch in public schools. "It grew to the point where USA Jump tried to get on board," says Mike. "But it belonged to the streets of Harlem."
In 1974 David and Mike organized the first ever American Double Dutch League championship in Lincoln Center. (The league's name was later changed to the National Double Dutch League). Mayor Ed Koch was in attendance, and Mobile Oil, 7 Up and McDonalds eventually sponsored the event. By 1981, the tournament was a big enough deal that a documentary was made about it, called Pick Up Your Feet. It features the Fantastic Four's Delores Finlayson, Robin Watterson, Adrienne "Nicki" Howell, and De'Shone Goodson, who had joined as a team in seventh grade when they all tried out for the American Double Dutch League. In 1980, in their early teens, the Fantastic Four won the Lincoln Center tournament with never-before-seen tricks, including one where all four girls were jumping inside the rope at the same damn time. Soon after, they became famous around America for double dutching in two different McDonald's commercials.
"At the time, it was really just us," says Robin. "It was known that watching the Fantastic Four, if you blink your eye, you're gonna miss something."
Fab 5 Freddy agrees: "Every time you'd watch them it was astonishing."
Ruza Blue didn't want to risk missing them. She had just started organizing a hip-hop night at a Chelsea nightclub called the Roxy and, with Fab 5 Freddy's help, she transformed it from a roller rink to a hip-hop breeding ground. Kool Lady Blue, as she's also known, brought rappers, DJs, MCs, and breakers from way up in the Bronx and introduced them to downtown New York's punks and artists. (Later, as their manager, Blue introduced the Rock Steady Crew to the queen of England.)
"The word hip-hop was not even in the lexicon," Freddie says. "It was the first time when you had this whole example of New York street culture that we now know of as hip-hop." Much of the city heard rap for the very first time at the Roxy, and double dutch was part of the same milieu.
Blue remembers the exact day in September 1981 when she saw the Fantastic Four in that first McDonald's commercial. Almost immediately she "went on a mission to find the girls."
"The hip-hop scene was so male-dominated and I wanted to infuse some female energy," she says. Blue worked hard to make it happen, sifting through David and Mike's bureaucratic, police-approved maze to find the girls and get permission for them to perform.
"There was a lot of ownership involved," Blue says, but once they made it in, the double dutch girls performed speed and freestyle routines like the breakers, right in the middle of the dancing crowd,
"We started to get to know the Rock Steady Crew and familiarize ourselves with everyone," Nicki says of their entrance into the scene. Double dutch's rhyming chants fit with those of the MCs, and the sport demanded a physical dexterity not too far removed from breakdancing. Soon, Blue was showing double dutch to British impresario and musician Malcolm McLaren—he immediately fell in love and wrote a song about the Ebonettes, another New York double dutch team, for his 1983 Duck Rock album. It quickly became McLaren's most popular song, reaching third place on UK singles charts.
By then Freddy had already traveled to France and recordeda partly French track called "Change the Beat" with Celluloid Records. Following the success of that song (it has since been sampled in over 700 other songs), he partnered with Blue, the radio stations Europe 1 and FNAC, and French journalist Bernard Zekrit, to bring his entire presentation of hip-hop culture abroad in what became known as the New York City Rap Tour. Blue suggested they bring along the double dutch girls, and Freddy agreed. Together with the MCs, DJs, breakers, and graffiti artists they traveled across the Atlantic to demonstrate exactly what New York hip-hop was.
"The double dutch girls got a great look at the right time," Freddy says. "It came together for that one moment when we toured France and it was a great addition."
But it was at its peak that double dutch began disappearing from hip-hop. In March of 1983 Freddy and his partner Charlie Ahearn released Wild Style, the definitive hip-hop movie about a lovelorn graffiti artist in the Bronx, to worldwide acclaim. This was the official introduction of hip-hop for all the world to see not just as an idea, but an active and thriving culture. In the movie's world of DJs, MCs, breakers, and graffiti artists, the double dutch girls were nowhere to be found. Blue had "dipped out of the scene" and Freddy forgot about the girls. "Unfortunately, it was not an idea that I had to further develop," he says.
From there, the separation was swift and complete. The Fantastic Four went off to college the same year Freddy released Wild Style and no one took their place in the scene. "Arguably, if the idea to incorporate these girls doing double dutch had hit me when we were making Wild Style, it might've been further put in the context of hip-hop. Who knows?" Freddy says.
Instead, as hip-hop grew more commercialized, double dutch turned into an oddball sport, removed from its former roots. David and Mike continued to pursue their dream of getting double dutch into the Olympics by creating a strict and structured competition circuit that took it off the streets, even as music officially entered double dutch competitions in the form of "fusion," an evolution of the original freestyle component, in 1991.
In an even broader sense, as crime in New York reached its highest rates in the late 1980s and video games entered the picture, fewer children were interested in playing together on the street. "Kids don't even want to play outside anymore," Nicki laments.
"A lot of hip-hop's core brownie elements dissipated and transmuted," says Freddy. Breakdancing became huge in Asia. Similarly, Japan has a massive, thriving double dutch community.
"If the idea to incorporate these girls doing double dutch had hit me when we were making Wild Style, it might've been further put in the context of hip-hop. Who knows?" –Fab 5 Freddy
In the US, Red Bull has taken on a revival mission with its Red Bull Rope Masters, but the sport remains absent from the hip-hop radar. If double dutch's early hip-hop presence had been well documented, America's Best Dance Crew could have easily been a Mario Lopez–hosted MTV show about double dutch. In 2010, Saltare, a team on that show, featured double dutch in their dance routine, harking back to the long-forgotten time when double dutch and breakdancing were intertwined, but that was just one brief moment.
Every member of the Fantastic Four is still involved with double dutch, with many judging competitions for the National Double Dutch League. They've watched the sport's evolution firsthand and have tried to maintain its status as the primarily female urban street game that hit it big. But when Robin, who has since moved to Virginia, tried to expand her town's double dutch league she ran into opposition. "They kept mentioning that movie Jump In! with Corbin Bleu," she says. "No one knows what it is here."
"It's kind of a drag hearing about this," says Freddy, "because we could've incorporated double dutch more and put it further in the context of hip-hop or just New York street culture. It could've been developed more. But then again, I never thought that this stuff was going to have the effect it did around the world."