It's a short drive from the buttery glow of the Chateau Marmont hotel above the Sunset Strip, where the fashion photographer David LaChapelle sips his pale green tea, to the True Workers of the Holy Trinity House of Prayer down in South Central, where the light is harsh, and so is life -- and where two young men, dancers named Dragon and Tight Eyez, hunker down beneath a mural depicting a black Christ.
"Might as well be another country," says LaChapelle, sprawled on a chair at the Marmont, talking about the South Central 'hood just a dozen miles down the road, where he filmed his first movie. "It's so segregated. I mean, nobody from here goes there. Why would they? Or, you know, that's what people here would say."
LaChapelle -- gay, white, rich, flamboyant, obsessed, product of the best art schools -- made the trip from the Strip down to South Central. He spent $500,000 of his own money, he says, and almost three years of weekends and days off from his work as a high-end fashion photographer and music video director (for Jennifer Lopez and Elton John and Britney Spears) to make his new hybrid documentary-musical, "Rize." The film opened in Washington and select cities Friday. LaChapelle says nobody -- not even his agent -- understood until they saw the film. "They wanted me to put movie stars in it," he says.
The critics are happy he did not. The film has gotten raves. It is about pure joy and raw rage, about a hip-hop dance style sired by a former drug dealer named Tommy the Clown, and transformed into "krumping," which is kind of like break dancing on fast-forward.
"The krump? You know when you see it," says Tight Eyez, whose real name is Ceasare Willis, one of the "Rize" subjects and an established master of the dance form, 20 years old now, with a bullet hole through his elbow from when he was shot by his grandfather while he was protecting his mother in a house brawl.
The interview with first-time director LaChapelle was at the Chateau Marmont, where he sighed, "Publicists are the bane of my existence." Later, Hilary Swank walked through the lobby.
A few hours earlier, the interview with Tight Eyez and Dragon took place at a storefront church, in a small room, with folding chairs and a simple altar, on a block of inner-city blight, with little left but barbershops, chicken joints, liquor stores and churches.
Krumpitude? "It's the power of the warrior unleashed," says Tight Eyez, under the Jesus mural.
In the film and in the interviews, krump is variously described as "ghetto ballet" and advanced "clown dancing." The movements -- the thrusts and pops -- are super-fast and in-your-face, and the dancers sometimes seem lost in an ecstatic, almost trancelike state, as if "a depth charge is exploding inside of them," LaChapelle says, like "they have something inside them they need to exorcise." (The film cuts to footage of African tribal dancing to make its point that krump's roots are Old World; and audiences, too, might see the similarities between the South Central form and Santeria and voodoo religious ritual dance in Cuba and Haiti.)
In some scenes, the krump resembles wrestling, with dancers of both sexes facing off in mock combat in the ring, or in more formal "Battle Zones," taunting each other, grabbing and pulling their shirts. "It's like two Siamese fighting fish," says Tight Eyez. "You put them in the same tank and they'll go after it."
The krump is nasty, and it's not. There's booty-popping -- a play on the "stripper dancing" done by topless acts at gentlemen's clubs -- but it is much more electric and frenzied, as if the dancer has been plugged into a 120-volt socket.
In its earliest phase, it was called "wilding out." Dragon and Tight Eyez are ripped and cut with muscle, and in the film their six-pack abs are oiled and on display -- adored by LaChapelle's close camera work, they look like the male models in one of the photographer's Vogue shoots.
But they insist it is not just a new dance trend. "It's not like, 'Oh, let's teach Regis and Kelly the new moves,' " says LaChapelle, though Dragon and the crew went on their morning TV show earlier this month. The dozen dancers in "Rize" have been doing the publicity tour. The buzz has been building for this film ever since LaChapelle screened it at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it commanded standing ovations.
The krump, they insist, is not the hustle. "It's not a craze, it's deeper, more beautiful, and darker and more aggressive, with more meaning," the director says.
That is what the dancers keep saying, too. "It's not some commercial hip-hop bling-bling booty thing," explains Dragon, whose real name is Jason Green, 23, now studying to be a minister, he says. "It's something inside you that came out of our world, out of our neighborhood." In fact, Dragon and his friends disparage the popular rap videos that feature faux gangbangers and pretenders draped in gold jewelry, curvy women hanging all over them and their rimmed-out rides, drinking Cristal. "That's about self-glorification," Dragon says. "All that doesn't mean crap. Because they're going to Hell."
Really, sitting in the humble storefront church, sometimes Dragon and Tight Eyez sound like Christian conservatives, warning that the nation has strayed from God, and that the youth -- and everybody else just chasing the dollar -- are losing their souls in a material, oversexed culture running amok. "Krump led us to Jesus and got us saved," says Tight Eyez, who sounds like an urban war veteran, just out of high school.
The movie details the rise of krump in South Central, coming up under the pop culture radar in back yards and parties. "Even the hip-hop aficionados didn't see it," LaChapelle says.
The phenomenon started with Tommy the Clown, Thomas Johnson, a reformed crack dealer who, upon release from jail in 1992, got a phone call from a friend asking him to dress up as a clown and perform at a kid's birthday party, where he could make a few hundred bucks, legit. Over time, Johnson -- dolled up like a ghetto fabulous Bozo -- began to entertain the munchkins at parties not just with balloons and tricks but with dancing, taking standard hip-hop moves and making them more outrageous and antic. The kids dug it, and so did their elders, who saw the minstrel show theatrics as the inside joke it was.
In time, Johnson attracted a retinue of young performers who painted their faces and wore crazy florid T-shirts and came to dance at the birthday parties alongside him, and to attend his Tommy the Clown hip-hop dance academy and later his Battle Zone contests at the Great Western Forum. At first, it was known as "clown dancing," and there rose up dozens of crews and cliques -- the Home Boyz, the True Clowns, Just Clowning, the Platinum Clowns -- to compete at the Battle Zones and birthday party gigs.
But the young dancers eventually found the Tommy the Clown style too tame. "We were vicious dancers," Dragon says. "Too rough and aggressive for the birthday parties."
Says Tight Eyez, "I wasn't an entertainer, I was a raw dancer."
The krumpers were taking the dance to another place -- more pushing and shoving, more pelvic and hot, with the krump looking more like fight night than prom night. Dragon explains that the evolving krump was "for mature audiences only," while the clown dancing was more PG-rated.
"We'd be like anywhere," Dragon says, "and two krumpers would see each other, at the McDonald's or on the street, and it'd be off, let's battle, let's see who's got it," and somebody would crank up a stereo or boombox, and sometimes onlookers would just clap and holler, and the krumpsters would go at it. "Like there was gasoline on the ground, and all you needed was the spark," Dragon says.
In the LaChapelle film, krumping is portrayed by the director and cast as an antidote to gangbanging and crime, and an outlet for athletes who don't play basketball or football, a physical catharsis to free the pain of being raised in households where the kids dragged their mamas out of crack houses and fathers were nowhere to be seen.
"What I learned," LaChapelle says, "is that, yes, there's poverty and oppression in the 'hood, it's dangerous and there's murders -- but there's poverty here, too," meaning the wealthy side of L.A., "but down there, they're dancing, joyfully dancing, on the streets, and why is that?" He says that for all the challenges of life in the ghetto, maybe his krumpers are living a life more full, more real. "I'm in the presence of heroes," he says.
What will happen to the krump scene? There are already crews of Latinos, Asians and white kids, and it has spread around L.A. to Lancaster, the Moreno Valley, Long Beach, Las Vegas and now up in Oakland, where the dance is called "hyphy."
The young dancers themselves? Tight Eyez still lives in a house with seven people, 18 blocks from the storefront church where he sits down with Dragon, who hopes to use the film notoriety to start a fashion line for spray-painted T-shirts, to make gospel records, and pursue a youth ministry using krump as the bait. Lil C, another dancer, has appeared now in videos for Gwen Stefani and Blink-182 and wants to be a choreographer. Ms. Prissy, born Marquissa Gardner, is on tour with the Game, protege of rapper Dr. Dre. She is a professional dancer. Baby Tight Eyez, the youngster Christian Jones, wants to start a krump school and buy his pastor a new church.
"I don't know," LaChapelle says, "what's going to happen to them. I do know this: Will success ruin them? No. But I know failure will."