[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
There are moments when I think that my life on the Westside of Chicago had no real relationship to the history of political struggle. I had not yet been born, the trophies of that era that hung around my house in the form of handmade protest signs, banners and buttons, not to mention Afro wigs, fake eyelashes and pleather had all become trunk filler or so dusty that they read as insignificant memorials to my eight sisters’ high school days. But there were moments in my youth when the cultural residue of ’68 makes itself very clear. James Brown for me was an extremely important part of how I understand and, in some ways, get to anachronistically connect to that moment when my sisters say Black folk had reasons to live and they weren’t just about making money, but uplift and cultural pride.
It’s the summer of 1987. Hot and the block is busy with a block club party. I’m fourteen years old and already a junior skate guard at the local rink. Hot Wheels Roller Rink on the Westside of Chicago has a line from Harding Street, damn near to Pulaski. It’s the Saturday afternoon Jam that attracts some of the best skaters in the city. I have my “Precisions,” high top roller skates with tall leather-backs, pink wheels and loose axles so that you can Rubberleg without looking too stiff on the floor. Rubberlegging was a specialty of mine, a move that you bust out at the end of a hot song in the corner of the rink where people tended to converge—coming to an abrupt stop using the sides of your wheels, not a toe stopper and simply gliding back and fourth in one place as if you were doing the moonwalk without moving forward. I was 14 and Hot Wheels was like church; you came to the rink to prove your skills, to see your people, to be restored, transfixed and reactivated. DJ Whiteboy (a very light skinned African American) was minister most Saturday afternoons and his method of healing was with the JB’s. Now JB’s are not just James Brown cuts. They are cuts that seemed designed in a conference between the Black Skaters Association of America, the King of Funk and the Gods and Goddesses of Soul. Of the most important cut from this moment was JB’s Monorail.
It’s clear that James Brown was thinking of a futuristic mode of transportation on the surface as one of the few stanzas from the song suggests, “If you don’t know what a monorail is…check out Seattle.” But that never registered as relevant with regard to my experience of the song. The Monorail, written in the mid 70s, at a time when James was moving from a very clear Black Pride agenda and extreme popularity, into a less clearly defined moment when his JBs were had not found their center. The mid 70’s were already a throwback to the intensity and cultural vivacity of the late 60’s. For many, it was the moment to rest from the fierce battles fought only a few years ago. In my family, it’s hard to talk about struggle openly. We talk about work and pride, not the nastiness that was so present in Chicago in ’68.
The monorail in many ways was a metaphoric anthem that united all the skaters in a ceremonial act and in what feels like a homage to an even earlier time; the dusty of dusties. The timing and the activities at play conspired together to bring about an unbelievable moment of reflection. The set would go something like this: The first hour of the afternoon would be filled with contemporary music; El Debarge, Prince, Kool and the Gang and Curtis Blow were all appropriate ushers that assisted in getting the juices flowing on the floor, acting as audio backdrops to the Westside dating rituals and people having an opportunity to practice their moves and impress the onlookers. Into the second hour you would have the “dusties” kick in. In this moment, you might notice a generational and cultural shift on the floor as old-schoolers would come out to groove. Besides being older, they had a kind of grace on the skate floor as if there were rules of engagement from a school long gone. If they were skating “couples,” there was a particular way to ask a lady to join you, a way to hold her hand and waist while dancing/skating and the moves seemed understood even between strangers. This is when the Maurice White and the Ojays would begin to cast their spell, transporting everyone back to a time when Black meant having an endowment of soul that seems rare when compared to what the Westside had become in the 80s. It was all very clear on the rink floor that to have lived during the time when the Ojays were first starting to jam, there were disciplines at play in the city for black people that solidified and maintained a vital cultural front that was important. But even the Ojays, Earth Wind and Fire and the Isley Brothers were acting as ushers. In the third hour, Whiteboy would tell everyone, “if you do not know how to do the Monorail, please get off the floor.” This moment would bring another set of skaters to the floor. The most rehearsed, usually a bit older than the second round, with Dashikis, thick goatees, beautiful Afros and the most amazing skates ever; these were the cultural emissaries of Hot Wheels who moved from rink to rink throughout the week, blessing people with their presence, style and skating ability. The song would begin with James Saying, “JB Monorail” as if it were a call to order. All one 150 to 200 participants on this frenzied skate floor would stop what they were doing and form a perfect circle around the perimeter of the floor| the horns would begin with two layers, one layer of trumpets underneath acting as the melodic structure for the saxophones and trumpets above that were more rhythmic and the court-like ritual would begin.
For an outsider, the monorail would look like modern day line dancing except everyone was wearing skates. Your skates would bounce up and down, left, right, left, right, left, right, left foot cross, right foot slide to the right, left, right, left, right. This simple combination of steps would move everyone through a spiritual procession, making the rink a sacred circle and allowing us all a moment of cultural reflection. As a fourteen-year-old, I was clear that this moment on the skate floor was not to be taken lightly. James Brown seemed most appropriated to be our spiritual guide as he had the battles won with songs like “Black and I’m Proud,” under his belt. As the monorail progressed, interesting anomalies would pop out, like a person would leave the circle and improvise a solo in the middle of the skate floor or a trio of skate guards would reveal a new routine that they undoubtedly worked on for several weeks in the corners of the skating rink. From time to time, Whiteboy himself, who was one of the most accomplished skaters, would come down from his DJ booth that sat just above the skating rink in the manner of a royal balcony, and do series of graceful leaps that would land him in a direction opposite the one he started. It was the mix of horn breaks and unified motion, smiles and nods from rival gang members who respected each other and the moment enough to continue to skate; it was James, living through three generations of skaters who all understood him a little differently, but his power impacted us all the same. JB stabilized things over and over again partly because his history was no different from our own, but his victory was so aspiring. JB’s monorail continues to feed me as does the complexity, variery and history of Soul music. James moved through the Jim Crow South, Civil Rights and the Black Panther Party, making significant cultural additions at every point while maintaining a complex relationship with the power constructs he sang in defiance of. I understand today that the JB’s monorail was a symbolic act of cultural resistance that needed no outside observers. It made everything okay on the Westside for at least 15 minutes. Even now that moment, every Saturday, continues to reverberate as the most soulful moment of the week. ◊