Hanifa McQueen Hudson still gets phone calls from unknown callers around the world. Call her crazy, but she usually takes the time to answer.
Luckily, the calls don’t come from telemarketers or prerecorded messages soliciting money. They come from people who want to tell Hudson what they’re wearing.
It’s usually something red.
Hudson, a 41-year-old Wolverhampton resident, still can’t wrap her head around it.
“I’ll get b-girls phoning me if there’s a b-girl battle in, say, Germany, France, or America,” she says. “[They say,] ‘We’re about to go into a battle – got any tips for us?’ I say, ‘Who’s this?’ ‘I’m a b-girl, and we’re wearing red.’ I think, wow. And to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to think of it. It’s just something I need to get used to.”
The calls started about five years ago, when a friend happened to ask Hudson if she had ever Googled the phrase “B-girl Bubbles” – a name Hudson hadn’t heard in years.
As it turns out, b-boys, b-girls, and DJ’s were blowing up a UK-based b-boy forum asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of the legendary pioneer known as Bubbles. Intrigued, Hudson replied – that had been her b-girl name when she was a child.
After exchanging numbers with a few of the forum members, Hudson spoke to one of the b-girls who had been searching for her. The b-girl explained that b-girls around the world — especially those in the UK — wore red because they saw Hudson as an inspiration.
“Because of me? Why?” Hudson asked.
The b-girl’s answer was straightforward.
“Because of Electro Rock.”
Though not nearly as well known as Style Wars or Wild Style, Electro Rock is generally regarded as one of the UK’s seminal hip-hop films.
Taking a peek into the UK scene’s early days, the film revolves around the happenings of the homonymous festival at London’s Hippodrome in March of 1985. Radio personality Mike Allen hosted the showcase, which featured a cameo by hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa.
Electro Rock is better remembered, however, for highlighting some of the UK’s earliest hip-hop pioneers, including a group of kids from Wolverhampton introduced simply as “the b-boys.”
There were times we went to the club and couldn’t perform and couldn’t get in because we were black kids. They saw us as trouble kids, street kids, ghetto kids.
In the documentary, the scene plays out like a sequence from any young dancer’s dream: the crew, mostly clad in blue jumpsuits, steps on stage into the flashing lights and begins a popping routine.
As the dancers begin to uprock, Allen’s voice abruptly cuts in over the thumping Willesden Dodgers track.
“Hey – check the one in red. It’s a girl!”
The boys’ routine ends, their blue-clad bodies tangled in a knot of limbs. Bubbles steps toward the audience in a glow of red, arms outstretched to snatch the audience’s attention from the air.
And then she transforms into a buzzing red blur – a furious funnel of windmills and backspins.
Cut to audience members looking ecstatic – a response still echoed by YouTube commenters today:
This bgirl got some dope power mills. Is she still breakin? And this was 1986? Dopest i? have seen for bgirl windmills, as good as most top bboys i have ever seen. Wicked!
Anyone got more clips of her? Want to know more.
omg was that giirl wearing a skirt!!!??!? wowo that was crazy insane i never seen everythin happen sooooo fast wowo bet they were? definitly breathless..
And just like that, with a nine-word introduction and one run, Hudson effortlessly made the transition from being mistaken as some street boy to becoming a world-famed pioneer.
It’s an inspiring story. There’s just one problem: that’s not really how it happened.
History – especially hip-hop history – has a funny way of making everything seem like it was carefully organized and planned.
Except the experts say that Grand Wizard Theodore accidentally invented the scratch when he absentmindedly moved a record while his mother chastised him for his loud music. Supposedly, Don Campbell invented the entire style of locking when he failed at imitating his friends’ dance moves. And legend has it that Crazy Legs unintentionally rolled into a continuous backspin – a move that evolved into what is now called a windmill.
Hudson, too, had no intentions of becoming a legend or making any kind of statement. She just liked to dance.
The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Hudson didn’t expect for an American fad to place her in the annals of history. As an African Caribbean in England, she had enough of an identity crisis as it was.
“We didn’t fit in. Our parents told us we were from the UK. On the street, they called us Jamaicans. It was frustrating,” Hudson says. “There were times we went to the club and couldn’t perform and couldn’t get in because we were black kids. They saw us as trouble kids, street kids, ghetto kids. We had to go through barriers and boundaries.”
Hip-hop caused internal struggles as well. Growing up with idols who were more Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff than Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, Hudson had a hard time justifying the new culture to her peers – or to herself.
“For us to come into hip-hop, people from the Jamaican culture thought we were crazy,” Hudson says. “They couldn’t understand what we were doing. We used to call it space music. ‘Planet Rock’ – can you imagine how strange that was for us? We couldn’t understand those lyrics.”
Even the fashion was alluringly impractical.
While Hudson and her brothers sought to emulate the fashion of American hip-hoppers – with goose down jackets, flashy belt buckles, Kangol hats, sports tracksuits, and Cazal glasses – they’d change in the bathrooms once it came time to dance. The clothes they wore to impress were too uncomfortable and, except for knock-offs, too expensive to justify ruining.
“We weren’t used to these fat laces because they didn’t keep the trainers firm on our feet,” Hudson says. “Adidas are the most uncomfortable trainers I’ve ever worn.”
Over time, Hudson and her crewmates – many of whom were her brothers – did manage to win sponsorships and gigs. But, like the clothes she had her brothers wore to clubs, the prospect of being a big-time b-girl was more a persona than a reality.
At performances, Hudson and her brothers rarely made over a few pounds each. Since she was under 18 for most of her dancing career, Hudson was lucky to even enter most of the venues where she performed. When she did, she worried that her parents would get in trouble for negligence.
Even Electro Rock was supposed to be just another smalltime gig – a chance to have some fun and make a few pounds.
Hudson was only 14 when she and her brothers auditioned for a music video. But the fateful shoot ended up being something entirely different.
“I just went thinking me and my brothers were gonna do some filming for a pop video, not knowing I was coming to some big nightclub with thousands of people there,” Hudson says. “I was nervous because I had never seen so much hip-hop in my life. You’re talking a little girl at the time who didn’t have no idea about the hip-hop culture. All I wanted to do was dance … We were street kids. We wasn’t professional performers.”
So, hearts racing, they danced. They were introduced as the Wolverhampton B-Boys (not “the b-boys”). They danced for 15 minutes to a Newcleus song (which was later parsed down to a little over two minutes, then dubbed with the Willesden Dodgers song).
And those legendary nine words?
Hudson didn’t hear them during the performance, or at any time that night.
I don’t see myself as a legend or a pioneer. I’m only focused on raising my family.
“At the time, people thought I was a little boy,” Hudson says. “It was only after when they was editing the Electro Rock music video, when I signed a contract, I signed a female name. It was only then they realized I was a girl.”
The adrenaline flow slowing after the show, Hudson and her brothers rushed straight home. Big as the performance was, it was still just another performance. It was late, and they were still young.
Hudson continued to dance until she actually became old enough to enter those same clubs legally.
Then, after only four years of dancing, she quit.
Over the course of the next two decades, responsibilities like school and parenthood slowly blanketed memories of red tracksuits and windmills.
For a hip-hop and b-girl pioneer, Hudson still doesn’t listen to much hip-hop. She does not live the “break life.”
The b-boy anthems have long since faded away to make room for classic reggae – or the sound of her son playing Playstation 3. Hudson prefers to stay in, even when there are b-boy events taking place nearby.
In her free time, she trains as a martial artist with a focus on Thai boxing. (“I love dancing around the ring – fool can never figure me out or catch me,” she says. “It gives me the same energy as b-boying but with more contact with your opponent.”)
But the bulk of Hudson’s time goes towards being a mother and working or studying to become a medical scientist.
“I don’t see myself as a legend or a pioneer,” Hudson says via a Skype call. “I’m only focused on raising my family. I’m just a career woman. I’m a mother. I think that’s how it is – just fitting in. I quite enjoy going to work, meeting people, meeting patients. I’ve never seen myself as a b-girl.”
Hudson’s fans across the globe, however, beg to differ.
After her twenty-year hiatus from dancing, Hudson learned that she had a fanbase that didn’t just think of her as a b-girl pioneer. Somewhere along the line, people had begun to call her the UK’s first b-girl.
It was like Electro Rock all over again – it wasn’t what she thought she had had signed up for, but she rolled with it anyway. Except this time, it was on a much larger scale.
“Many pioneers come to me, saying, ‘You are the first; you are the queen.’ I just take it on board and get on with it,” Hudson admits. “No one’s really ever said, ‘You’re not the first.’ It’d be difficult to find out who was the first. Normally, if [a craze] hits London first, it’ll hit in Wolverhampton in maybe two weeks. So I can say I was the first b-girl who rocked windmills the way I did. Or is it because I’m the first to hit the media like this?”
Her MySpace page is a little blunter:
“MY LIFE IS NOT ABOUT BEEN THE FIRST UK B GIRL ANYMORE. ITS ABOUT ME EDUCATING MY SON TO BE A STRONG BLACK MAN…AND NOT A VICTIM TO THIS SYSTEM!!! THIS IS WHAT I AM ABOUT!”
Luckily for those who seek advice, Hudson doesn’t dismiss fans with a “Sorry, I don’t really care about being the first b-girl. In fact, I don’t really care about being a b-girl, period.”
In person, she lacks much of the pretense and jadedness that can creep into the voices of established dancers.
Unlike many b-boys and b-girls from generations past, Hudson doesn’t have any problems with the new generation of YouTube dancers. She feels that b-boying is on the right path with the media attention it’s getting – though she believes it remains the individual dancer’s responsibility to protect the culture from exploitation.
And it’s not a rare occasion that Hudson herself will browse the Internet for new b-boy styles, occasionally even giving tips to new dancers seeking help.
“I love watching footage of people [dancing] in their houses,” she says. “It reminds me of my days when we were doing it in my house.”
Hudson first learned to dance from her brothers, adopting bits of their style and moves into her own flavor. With the Internet, she says younger dancers have the advantage of being able to learn directly from the active founders of the dance.
“Don’t just go on the Internet and find an article and believe that article,” she says. “There’s a saying that a man without knowledge is a tree without roots. If a tree don’t have roots, it cannot bear fruit – it cannot grow and blossom and reach out its branches. If the b-boy don’t have this information, he can’t reach out, he can’t blossom, he can’t grow in a b-boy culture. He has to go to the founders. The true pioneers that still love the culture – they are still there.”
As it turns out, Hudson even has a number of nephews, nieces, and cousins of her own who are getting into b-boying. They know her as their auntie rather than as Bubbles the pioneer. She laughs as she points out that she’s more likely to learn moves from them than to teach them.
But if they were to ask for advice, she’d first give them the same, borderline-off-putting tip she gives to any b-boys and b-girls who take the time to ask:
Get a profession you can fall back on. Go to university and train in a profession where you know if b-boying and the art world don’t work for you, you have something else you can fall back on.
“Get a profession you can fall back on,” Hudson says. “Go to university and train in a profession where you know if b-boying and the art world don’t work for you, you have something else you can fall back on.
“I thought was gonna be a dancer for the rest of my life,” she explains. “We have dreams as young people. I’ve always been involved in the medical field, and I look back now and wonder, why didn’t I finish it? I was so caught up in the dance.
“Take three years out. Get a degree, a diploma, a profession — one that you can take anywhere in this world,” Hudson continues. “When I made a comeback in 2005, b-boys and b-girls was telling me their profession was b-boying. Now, b-boys and b-girls are business people. I had never heard that before. I’d come to a new culture. A profession is something where you are trained to be an expert at what you do. You can take it anywhere in the world. I’m not saying they can’t be professional b-boys and b-girls – what I want to say to them now is, get a profession that you’ll have when you’re 70.”
Hudson doesn’t seem to intend for her advice to be pessimistic or discouraging. She’s just recommending what seemed most practical in her situation. Though she doesn’t consider herself to be very “hip-hop,” she manifests its unofficial motto – take what you have, however limited it may be, and use it to express yourself.
It’s no different than the perspective she has when it comes to b-girls standing at a crossroads of dancing like a guy or a girl. Again, Hudson’s advice is a little bit out of left field.
“How I see the dance is you perform to your ability and how your body responds to how it moves,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a boy. I didn’t think I was a boy. I was just dancing, and people thought I was a little boy. It’s just the energy and movements I had. I put all that aside and say, just dance and enjoy it. And whatever category people put you in, so be it.”
She backpedals a bit and gives herself a little credit.
“When I see b-girls now, and they look like b-boys in how they move, I have to give credit there,” she says. “If you move like a b-boy, you’ve got energy, power, structure, and control. That, for me, is the definition of b-boying.”
Even with her busy schedule, Hudson occasionally comes back to the video that made her famous.
When she encounters fans asking for windmill help, she’ll refer to the clip to demonstrate her technique (the secret to getting power is in the hips, she says). But it’s still a bit disorienting for her to watch.
“When I look back at this clip of Electro Rock, it really doesn’t seem like I’m looking at myself dancing at all,” she says. “I’m trying to get used to the idea of what it all means. I just see a little girl in a red tracksuit. I don’t see myself as B-Girl Bubbles no more. She was from the ‘80s. This is Hanifa today. This is Hanifa.”
It’s not to say that Hudson has lost her passion for dance. She still counts dancing as one of her favorite hobbies. Hudson says she and her son enjoy having b-boy sessions at their home.
She just no longer identifies with the “b-girl” title. Her body no longer moves the way it used to; her knees hurt sometimes. Passing years and having a kid have limited her flexibility and her arsenal of moves.
“The first thing [people] ask me is, ‘Can you still do your windmills?’ I say, ‘Yeah, but they’re not as fast as they used to be,’” Hudson says. “Even when I do windmills, I get dizzy. But I can still hold my private parts and do windmills.”
She laughs. “Somebody’s gotta hold them.”
And for the most part, the footage makes up the majority of small pool of remnants that document her legendary past.
She still keeps a small gallery of the clothes she wore over 20 years ago: her infamous tennis skirt, her Nike Impax (or her Toprocks, as she calls them), and her blue jumpsuit.
And, of course, there’s her red jumpsuit from Electro Rock – the one that’s still spurring b-girls to call her, asking her for advice and telling her that they want to pay tribute.
“Wear what you feel comfortable in,” Hudson tells them. “It’s nice of you to do that, man, it’s good – but make sure you’re comfortable in what you’re wearing.”