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Hip-hop legends Furious Styles Crew from Phoenix tell their story on stage

When J. Edson “House” Magaña moved to Phoenix in 1990, he was seventeen, alone and hoping for a fresh start away from the gang violence that engulfed his Chicago neighborhood.

At first he hated Phoenix. All he saw was a barren desert landscape where people “still parked their horses at Circle K.” He was so desperate to find “hip-hop heads” like his friends in Chicago that he strung a can of spray paint on a shoelace and wore it as a necklace, hoping it would appeal to other graffiti writers.

Although the only attention the paint brought him was from the police, he eventually came into contact with other people who understood hip hop. In 1993, he and two brothers from Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood founded Furious Styles Crew.

They didn’t know it at the time, but their crew would come to define the Arizona hip-hop scene. They would fight in battles around the world, opening chapters in Spain and Denmark and hosting an anniversary celebration in 1996 and every year thereafter.

“House and Furious Styles Crew put hip-hop on the map,” says Sofia “Pinky” Magaña, House’s younger sister. “Especially here in Arizona, it was just very unheard of.”

Now Magaña and Furious Styles are teaming up with the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix to produce a play about Magaña’s life, culminating in the creation of the crew. The piece, titled ’93 Til’ Infinity: Furious Styles: A Journey of Brotherhood, Beats and Dreams’, will be presented on select days from June 17 to 27.

Hip hop is “we are all looking for ourselves”

Edson Magaña was born in Mexico City. When he was a baby, his family moved to Chicago.

They traveled back to Mexico regularly. A year later, his family returned to Chicago after the school year had started, only to find that Magaña had lost his spot at a prestigious magnet school with a long waiting list.

He transferred to the primary school in his neighborhood. On his first day of school, he walked into class and saw a group of boys breaking into the dance style of hip-hop.

“They did like that eight-man centipede worm thing,” Magaña said. “I’m like, ‘These kids are weird! They listen to crazy music. ”

Shortly after that introduction, Magaña saw a groundbreaking performance at his local park, and he was hooked.

He also started noticing roofs painted with graffiti when he went into town with his mother to pick up the jewelry she was selling. He realized the common thread between graffiti and breaking: hip-hop culture, which traditionally also includes DJing and rapping.

“The way we’ll see it is through music and art and the DJs, and that’s how it manifests. But what is it actually? We’re just all looking for ourselves,” he said.

Going on midnight graffiti missions was exciting and allowed him to express himself artistically. But as he grew older, it became harder to avoid the violence he saw around him. One day, shortly after graduating from high school, he woke up and knew he had to leave Chicago.

“I was invited to do drive-bys on people,” he said. “I thought, OK, this is getting a little too violent.”

Ever since their car broke down in Arizona while they were on vacation, Magaña’s parents had told him what a great place it was.

So in 1990, when he was 17, he moved here on his own and started community college. His father, younger sister and younger brother joined him a few years later, while his mother remained in Chicago to work.

He immediately tried to emulate his Chicago graffiti crew called Chicago’s Most Wanted. But he soon realized there was no point, because people in Phoenix didn’t relate to Chicago the way he did.

Ultimately he chose Styles Upon Styles, a text from a song by A Tribe Called Quest.

Magaña met John and Mike Rincon, brothers who attended Maryvale High School and were graffiti artists. He discovered they could dance too, and Furious Styles Crew, originally intended as the groundbreaking division of Styles Upon Styles, was born.

Another pair of brothers – Mike and Adam Cruz – joined, along with Magaña’s younger brother, Odin “Odin Rock” Magaña.

“That’s why the Furious Styles Crew foundation is really family-oriented, because we were literally all brothers looking out for each other,” Magaña said.

Furious Styles went around and competed, an organic, spontaneous exchange of dance moves that could take place anywhere: on the street, in the club or in a community center. Often, he said, a fight started with a simple, meaningful look.

“We had another crew coming in,” he said. “You knew it and the DJ knew it. You would just look at him. And he said, ‘OK,’ and he put on the music that was the catalyst for this kind of thing.

As Furious Styles’ reputation grew, some dancers told Magaña that they would practice to beat them.

Sofia Magaña is seven years younger than her brother and a narrator in the play. Around 2000, when she was twenty, she started her own all-female dance crew called Bgirlology. She remembers the slow growth of hip-hop in Phoenix.

“It just started snowballing,” she said. “Furious Styles started having a lot of rivals and that just created the battleground here in Arizona.”

Furious Styles, all grown up

Furious Styles celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2023. As the crew ages, the focus is on paving the way for the next generation of hip-hop artists. They hope to bring hip-hop to spaces where it has historically been excluded, says DJ Akshen, who has played for the crew for decades.

In May, for example, Furious Styles performed at the Phoenix Symphony in a show that combined classical music with the rap of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

For that performance they had a different, newer crew called DeadEnd Family.

“They are brand new, but we have already been working on them,” Magaña said. “They’re like, OK, we have a place in these spaces, because in the past it seemed like we didn’t belong here.”

The upcoming play at the Herberger is a continuation of these efforts to bring hip-hop to new audiences. But the members of Furious Styles also want to keep the focus on where hip-hop originally comes from.

“It came out of nowhere. Black and brown people in marginalized communities created something out of nothing,” Akshen said. “Who would have thought a few years ago that hip-hop would have been in the Herberger?”

How hip hop came to the Herberger

Rod Ambrose is an actor and director who has been in theater for more than fifty years. In 1999, he won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the City of Phoenix. The list of celebrities he met includes Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis and Luis Valdez, considered the father of Chicano theater.

He first met Magaña in the early 2000s at the Thunderbirds Teen Center in north Phoenix, where Ambrose was a program coordinator and worked with children and first-generation students who had been expelled.

One day he heard shouting and screaming from the multipurpose room. He thought the kids were fighting so he went to break it up.

“They weren’t fighting. They were all huddled around this character in the middle of the floor,” Ambrose said. “And he turned on his head!”

Magaña was recently hired to teach breakdancing to at-risk youth downtown. He and Ambrose started talking and connected immediately.

Ambrose, like Magaña, is from Chicago and came to Phoenix to escape the gang war. Both had become involved in the arts at a young age; Ambrose was one of the original members of Black Theater Troupe in 1970. And both, Ambrose recalled with a chuckle, were short-lived, which made life difficult at times.

“I understood exactly where he was coming from,” Ambrose said.

After Magaña stopped working at the youth center, the two did not see each other for twenty years. But Ambrose had made a deep impression on Magaña. He often thought about him.

That’s why Cescily Wiener of Herberger Theater approached Magaña last year to make a play of his life story and said she had the perfect person to direct it, he immediately knew who she was talking about.

“I immediately got goosebumps,” Magaña said. “I knew she was going to say Rod Ambrose.”

Wiener, director of community engagement at the Herberger, came up with the idea last May after hosting the Furious Styles Crew during Herberger’s First Friday Live series of outdoor performances.

She was so moved by Magaña’s story that she asked him if she could turn it into a play. He hesitantly agreed. Thus began months of phone calls with Ambrose so he could write the script.

What to expect during the Furious Styles Crew game

The cast consists of about 20 people associated with Furious Styles Crew, whether they are official members or not. The second part of the piece involves an actual battle, with DJ Akshen playing songs for the dancers.

The piece is for everyone: those familiar with hip-hop and those completely new to it. The cast sees it as a special opportunity to showcase the history and cultural context of hip-hop, something they believe is lost in mainstream presentations of the genre.

“It’s the culture. It’s not just rap music you hear on the radio,” Akshen said. “Rap is something you do. Hip-hop is something you live.”

Magaña said he hopes the performance will humanize graffiti artists, breakdancers, rappers and DJs. More than just his own story, he wants audiences to understand and ultimately invite the communities he is a part of.

“There’s a place where all of us can be fools,” he said. “You can come and just be yourself.”

Thirty years later, Magaña has created a space that his 17-year-old self, who walked around with a spray can around his neck, would be proud of.