Of Hip Hop and Fisticuffs

I have had a life-long love affair with both martial arts and hip hop. From daily break battles in the schoolyard to spitting rhymes on the walk home with my closest friends, the 80’s was an embryonic and formative time for both myself and b-boy culture.

I remember the way Planet Rock made my body almost involuntarily and organically move, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, daily practice of martial arts coupled with a passion for breakdance would consequently create a natural marriage for me. It would be decades before I found that their union was intentional and by design because pseudo-combative “up-rocking” had grew out of the expression of the 52 hand-blocks of 70’s era New York.

Break battles eventually turned into rap battles for me, along with an eventual career in hip hop radio, but always there remained for me, a love for the b-boy culture and practice of the warrior ways.

Linking the Elements

As a coach of both elite level athletes and inner-city youth, I often use hip hop as a vessel for understanding rhythm and timing, beginning first with learning how to mark time and stay on beat no matter how the tempo shifts. I am a huge proponent of movement and footwork drills, especially when set to music and most notably, hip hop.

Now, in a standard percussion staff of sheet music, the bassline rhythm is equivalent to one full count and offensively, this one beat timing is found in any power shot or technique that requires you to “set.” This means that the loose and snappy jab, which shoots out and retracts quickly, would be equal to a half beat of timing, and if countered by a “parry and return”, prior to full extension it is then relegated to a ¼ beat of timing.

Additionally, of importance is the marriage of hand and foot / top and bottom moving together in a coordinated effort. This is true for dancing as well as fighting, and for boxing this might be called foot loading or shoulder popping in head movement or slipping. The Cuban Olympic team has long been known for its dancelike (called Mani) approach to training, and boxing rhythm is a natural byproduct of its cultural expression. Similarly, indicative of this dance/boxing outgrowth is Cuba’s neighbor Puerto Rico and many other islands influenced by the afro-Caribbean diaspora.

Practical Application

I cannot stress enough the importance of shadowboxing and freestyle movement, learning to feel and break rhythm and change tempo or timing when needed.

When it comes to actually compete, I offer the following: Rather than rush haphazardly into an exchange, take the time, move, adjust, jab and gather information. This is often referred to as the “feeling out” portion of the round.

Observe his bassline rhythm and look for patterns in his movement. As you begin to figure out his timing, match his rhythm and start to move with him. If his count is one two, one two, look to exploit the third beat unexpectedly by interrupting him mid-motion with an initial jab allowing you to enter, setting him momentarily on his heels and regaining combative control.

Once you are inside, play your sweet little solo and drop him an eight-bar freestyle.