Aug 11, 2023 - News

Commemorating Philly's hip-hop dancers

Legendary B-Boy YNOT balances himself on a can of spray paint.

Legendary b-boy YNOT balances himself on a can of spray paint. Photo: Courtesy of YNOT

Philadelphia's hip-hop scene is immortalized in several murals, especially one in North Philly that features renowned b-boy YNOT and dancer-choreographer Michele Byrd-McPhee.

Why it matters: The "Know the Elements" mural threads together four key pieces of hip-hop — MC-ing, DJ-ing, break dancing and graffiti — in a way that's raw and gritty, clean and commemorative.

Zoom in: YNOT is a maelstrom of movement with the footwork of an NFL wide receiver, the swagger of a champion prizefighter and the sophistication of a philosopher.

  • His story is forged in the ultra-competitive crucible of the Bronx, where breakin' was born in the 1970s.
  • That's where he eventually met Crazy Legs of the legendary Rock Steady Crew and developed his breaker name, which came when he tagged "Tony" the wrong way on a subway pillar.
  • "I was like, 'Ah, s--t.' Then I looked at it and I said, 'Oooh, s--t," he tells Axios.

YNOT eventually moved to Philly around 2000 to attend college and helped develop a small enclave of breakers into the vibrant community it is today.

The "Know the Elements" hip-hop mural in North Philly.
The "Know the Elements" hip-hop mural in North Philly. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony S. Torcasio

Byrd-McPhee, on the other hand, was discouraged from pursuing dance as a young girl because she didn't fit into the so-called mold of a ballerina.

  • "I couldn't put my hair into a bun. I had an Afro puff. I didn't fit the body type. I wasn't the right skin color," she tells Axios.
  • So, the Temple and Drexel alum made her own lane. She's the founder of Ladies of Hip Hop, a New York-based nonprofit born out of a music festival now celebrating its 20th year.

Of note: For her work in the field, Byrd-McPhee was honored this year with a Bessie, dance's equivalent of an Oscar.

What they're saying: Christian "TAMEARTZ" Rodriguez, the North Philly mural's artist, tells Axios that "lineage was so important" in telling hip-hop's story, which is too often told exclusively through the lens of rap.

  • "When I saw it, I bust out in tears," said Byrd-McPhee.

The intrigue: YNOT says b-boying opened doors that he never imagined were possible when he first busted moves with a friend to Jellybean's "The Mexican" inside a hair salon called Headspins.

  • Since then, he has: traveled the world competing in and judging breakin' battles, obtained a master's degree, taught hip-hop classes at universities, and branched out into architecture.
  • His S-shaped chair design was influenced by graffiti futurism, a three-dimensional outgrowth of taggings that he saw growing up.

The bottom line: The creative thread through it all is breakin', YNOT says.

  • "When you meet a b-boy, that's so hip-hop. You can't deny it," he says. "You can see the graffiti in their body. You can see the music. You can feel the boom bass sound in their footsteps."

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