On a recent Monday night in San Fernando, 40-year-old Rebeca Enriquez sat stretching inside the VFW on Hagar Street, donning comfortable sneakers, a T-shirt and colorful bike shorts … and, of course, knee pads – a must for an informal night of breakdancing, popping and locking with a small diverse group of fellow dancers.

The weekly gathering is hosted by the Hazze Hip Hop Culture Dream Center, a community nonprofit originally launched in 1999 with the goal of teaching the fundamentals of “true hip hop” dance and culture to people of all ages, backgrounds, sizes and skill levels.

(from left to right) Melba Gilkey, a.k.a. Mamma Hazze, Dance Coach Rudy, Gene Viloria, Rebeca Enriquez, Allan Suwito, Casandra Duarte and Carl Gilkey, a.k.a. DJ Hazze (Photo/Adriana Torres)

Over the years, there has always been a big welcome mat for anyone who wants to stop in to watch the instruction or to learn themselves and give it a try. Hundreds of kids and adults have learned the moves, developed their style and have become comfortable being center stage which has translated to being confident in other aspects of their lives.  

Part of the center’s original mission was to provide a safe haven for latchkey kids and local at-risk youth seeking a positive alternative to the lure of gangs, drugs, violence and other negative elements.

And that’s exactly what the center provided for Enriquez, who first met co-founder DJ Hazze when he was teaching breakdancing to kids at San Fernando Park 25 years ago. A self-described “rebellious” young teen, Enriquez said that having a “safe place” where she looked forward to hanging out with her friends after school made a positive difference in her life.

“Instead of hanging out on the streets and doing dumb things — because … when I was in high school, there were a lot of drugs and gangs and things like that around — going to [learn breakdancing] was something different and fun to do after school,” she recalled fondly.

The brainchild and zeal of Carl Gilkey, a.k.a. DJ Hazze, and the big kind heart of his mother Melba Gilkey, affectionately known as Mamma Hazze, the Hazze Center once welcomed a large crowd with a few dozen kids and adults on a typical day who they taught not only to breakdance but how to embrace the “true positive hip hop lifestyle.” “It’s about peace, unity, love and having fun,” said DJ Hazze.

They have generously taught largely through donations, sometimes to a fault, oftentimes putting the center first before their own personal needs. Not wanting to be pigeonholed to serve only one sector of the community the center has sometimes fallen through the cracks of funding opportunities.  

A range of challenges has caused the center to wax and wane over the past two decades — including funding difficulties, kids moving on to new interests and recruiting challenges — necessitating some location changes over the years, which at times reduced program offerings. 

The stay-at-home mandate during the pandemic also forced a standstill and caused them to cease operations at their last San Fernando location, explained the mother and son team.  

While they currently don’t have their own dedicated facility, they have creatively continued to keep the center’s positive presence in the community by starting anew at the VFW 3834 building in San Fernando and they are spreading the word that they’ve “never truly gone away.”  

They’re grateful for the support of the VFW to gear up with a small group of young adult hip-hop aficionados who get together at the new location to encourage and teach one another hip-hop moves on Monday nights (and salsa/cumbia/merengue dancing on Tuesdays). They plan to begin active recruiting efforts with the local chapters of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts via the VFW to bring kids back and are determined to regrow their program.  

For DJ Hazze and Mamma Hazze, working with the community is a lifelong passion, and DJ Hazze in particular remains devoted to living and sharing the tenets of the art of hip hop which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary year.

Hip Hop is Life

For DJ Hazze, hip-hop has virtually always been part of his life, and he began embracing the lifestyle as a young teen. His mother vividly recalls the day she arrived home to find him playing one of her beloved James Brown records and was appalled to hear high-pitched scratching sounds as he taught himself to deejay/turntable/scratch on their home stereo.

“When I opened the front door I heard, eeee eeee eeee!” said Mamma Hazze with a laugh, as she attempted to emulate the sound of the needle scratching back and forth across the record. As the scratching noises continued — interspersed with the music — she jokingly said she almost passed out. When she opened the door to his room, he just froze when he saw her face.

“And that was the beginning of hip hop in our home in my mind,” she said.

According to DJ Hazze, the four primary elements of hip hop are deejaying (or turntabling), rapping, breakdancing and graffiti art. Other elements, such as historical knowledge of hip-hop, hip-hop fashion/style, hip-hop language and others, are often argued to be the fifth.

Because rap is a primary element, hip hop is often equated with gangs or gangster rap, but there is no equivalence, he stressed. Hip hop has been widely misrepresented in the media and pop culture, which mistakenly lump together all of the different styles of rap.

“Some people say that a lot of the hip hop that is being played right now is negative energy stuff [because] they confuse it with gangster rap, but there’s many types of rap,” explained DJ Hazze. “However, hip hop rap is about hip hop, and hip hop is positive.

“Rap is something that you do,” he continued, “but hip hop is something that you live.”

And live it he has.

“From the first day I started [break]dancing, I started teaching,” he recalled. Inspired by the then-new growing trend, as a young teen he enthusiastically began trying breakdancing moves outside of their house on Fox Street in San Fernando. Soon after, his friends started showing up, followed by neighborhood kids from near and far, all eager to watch, learn and dance.

“Watching him flip around on the concrete patio — that was amazing to me,” recalled Mamma Hazze with a laugh. “Parents started coming by to ask why their kids wanted to come over to breakdance, [and] later the kids started going to the San Fernando Mall in front of the JCPenney, where they would meet each other to challenge each other and battle.”

From those early days of breakdancing to the present, a lot has changed. Today, breakdancing (also referred to as “b-boying” or “b-girling”) is now an official Olympic sport; it will make its debut at the Paris Summer Games in 2024. The International Olympic Committee decided to add breakdancing to the roster as part of an overall effort to pursue urban events to help lure a younger audience. (Other newly added sports have included skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing, which all debuted at the Tokyo Games in 2021.)

Since dance is typically deemed an art, why is breakdancing now an Olympic sport? Many of today’s break dancers (also referred to as b-boys and b-girls) who participate on the competitive circuit perform at levels that rival (or, in some cases, may even surpass, according to DJ Hazze) certain comparable gymnastic moves, such as the Thomas flair (performed on pommel horse or floor routines), which is very similar in style, complexity and difficulty to the air flare in breakdancing. DJ Hazze explained that such physical feats require amazing athleticism, in particular developing acrobatic talents and strength.

Over the decades, DJ Hazze’s dedication to various artistic elements of hip hop, including his talents as a dancer, deejay and mix master, and performing artist, has provided numerous opportunities and has received global accolades — traveling to numerous countries as a celebrated dancer and deejay and as a deejay on the original KDAY radio station at the age of 15. 

Looking Ahead

As Mamma Hazze and her son relaunch the Hazze Center and begin recruiting efforts in the surrounding northeast San Fernando Valley community, they hope to eventually return to their former heights, she said. 

Several founding members of the GR818ERS, who launched the UNITE Cultural Center in Canoga Park, as well as the world-renowned dancer Ricardo “Boogie Frantick” Rodriquez Jr. came through the Hazze Center, both as students and coaches.

According to Mamma Hazze, they want the center to help serve the community as an “all-inclusive” natural positive alternative to the dangers and pitfalls facing kids today, and maybe even provide a training ground for potential future breakdancing Olympians.

“We aren’t focused on any one demographic; we want to serve everybody, from elementary school to college age,” she said. But, as always, anyone interested in learning will be welcome.

As a former Hazze Center kid, Enriquez said they always made her and her friends feel safe and supported, and she had nothing but words of praise about Mamma Hazze and DJ Hazze.

“He’s always been involved with the youth and has always been a very cool guy — very positive, very professional,” she said. “And Mamma Hazze is just awesome — very determined and supportive. She’s always the first one here, and is always here for everyone.”

Editor Diana Martinez contributed to this article

If you’re interested in learning how to breakdance or the hip hop culture: The VFW at 111 Hagar Street in San Fernando holds the Hazze Center hip hop/breakdancing gatherings on Mondays at 6 p.m., and basic salsa/cumbia/merengue lessons are held Tuesdays at 6 p.m. Donations are welcome. For more information, call (818) 941-7148.