The Face of Krump?

by thebradmiskell

Underground Diaries, Part 31

Tommy the Clown, the undisputed father of clown dancing and the de facto face of krump, is no Bozo. Risen from the mean streets of South Los Angeles, his self-reinvention from young drug thug to beloved community role model is classic Americana…just like his rainbow wig.

The Face of Krump

If you’ve ever seen or read anything about krumping, chances are you recognize Tommy the Clown. His trademark, day-glo, rainbow ‘fro has a way of standing out in a crowd. And since the 2005 release of Rize, David LaChapelle’s acclaimed krumping documentary, Tommy and ‘fro seem to turn up most every time krumping comes up. He’s been cited in the national media as krump’s creator and has become in many ways the face of krump.

This is odd only in that Tommy doesn’t really krump and, though he refers to himself as “the father of clowning and krump” on MySpace, he wouldn’t claim credit for actually having invented krumping. At least he wouldn’t claim credit to me. Which is not to say he wasn’t central to the creation and popularity of krump, because he was.

But what Tommy really did was inspire an entire generation of young dancers with his creation of clown dancing. He then created an environment in which phenomenal dancers like Lil C, Tight Eyes, Miss Prissy and his own “hip-hop clowns” could take their dancing to the next level. And they did, in the process evolving what eventually got named krump.

That the face of krump still belongs to the clown who set the stage for these and so many other dancers to rise doesn’t strike me as such a bad thing. Krumping wouldn’t be the same without Tommy. He’s good at making people rise; I’ve watched him send crowds of kids and adults through the roof.

Tommy the Clown, aka Thomas Johnson of Inglewood, Calif., single-handedly reinvented clowning in the African American community of South Los Angeles in the early 1990’s. He started the revamp by reinventing himself. Tommy got into trouble as a young man for dealing drugs. That youthful indiscretion cost him more than do the youthful indiscretions of some in our society: Tommy did jail time. But he got out, and instead of getting bitter, got his act together… his clowning act.

Tommy worked in an office in the early nineties when, on a whim, he agreed to clown at the birthday party of a friend’s kid. He rolled up to the party in a green Mustang bumping the latest beats and jumped out gyrating like a crazy person. Kids loved the funk he brought and so did their folks. Everyone danced with Tommy in the house. The krusty, old-timey clowns at the time must’ve hated him. As Tommy puts it: “I think I put a lot of other clowns out of business.” And he’s still clowning. Tommy seems like maybe the hardest working clown in clownbiz.

I hung out with him one day in San Diego when he roused his young clown crew at 4 a.m., put on makeup, went on a 7 o’clock radio show before doing no-holds-barred performances at two schools and a YMCA — in between which he promoted his upcoming San Diego show in the streets of San Diego literally car door-to-car door. He followed that by picking up his clown truck from the repairman and driving an hour-plus to his manager’s house before answering questions from this clown for another couple hours.

That night, I kept trying to give him credit for being behind an awesome dance movement or three. All he could talk about was getting his academy back for the kids in South L.A. It was a place that a lot of appreciative kids came to clown and later, krump. He lost that academy four years ago due to financial misfortune.

“It’s all about the kids,” he just kept saying, which actually means something when he says it. Though his crew now travels to Italy and Iceland and Germany for work, they still do lots of birthday parties. Not to mention the program he’ll be running for kids in Los Angeles Unified School District this fall. Despite appearances on Dancing with the Stars and in Rize, his life is more grind than glamour.

You hear a lot of lip service paid to helping inner city kids avoid drugs and gangbanging. Tommy’s done it for over a decade, providing the likes of Bug and Rocco and Lil Tight and Smurf and Tiny Mite — among his current crop of clowns — a setting in which to thrive.

Getting that academy up and running again strikes me as a good idea — but not only for the kids of South L.A. The former academy was, by all accounts, a full-on dance R&D hothouse. The world can always use more dance crazes.

The world could probably also use more faces of krump, not because Tommy doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged for his contributions, but because others deserve credit for krump, as well. Here’s to hoping they get it… and can have the kind of impact on the movement Tommy has.


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