An important chapter in L.A. hip-hop history came to an end with the shuttering of Westlake youth center Radiotron in 1984. The movie Breakin' was filmed there, and the closing was the inspiration for Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.
But Radiotron's legacy lives on; its 30th anniversary will be commemorated this Sunday in MacArthur Park, near where the center was located. We spoke with Carmelo Alvarez, the man often credited with founding Radiotron, about the spot and its history.
How did Radiotron start?
It came out of a club called Radioclub where Ice-T was the MC and that's where The Glove and all the poppers like Boogaloo Shrimp and Lil' Coco [came from]. This gentleman named Mr. Huntsburger owned several properties on 7th and Park View. I was renting a space from him to create a youth cultural center and he told me he had a theater in back that could be a center for the kids. He mentioned the club named Radio that was every Friday from 11 until five in the morning. There was poppers, breakers, all ages and all ethnicities, it reminded me of the hippies and the free love movement.
People were just showing their skills and I loved it. I told Mr. Huntsburger it was cool and we should let them stay there. They filmed the movie Breakin there, and then a bunch of kids came over and asked to break there every day. I had a room for graffiti artists called the tag room, and they would tag in there. It was multicultural, multiethnic and all kids were welcome. There were different stations for DJing and MCing where kids could hold their skills.
Was there an exact moment when you realized what a phenomenon Radiotron was becoming?
Yes. The kids would come into Radiotron and be breaking and popping and doing all the elements of hip-hop. Nextdoor to Radiotron was a mod club who would have parties on the weekends and they would be breaking bottles and lighting the garbage can on fire in the Radiotron parking lot. The owner would come out on Monday and say “Hey guys, this is terrible.” I told them the kids in Radiotron wasn't doing that, it's the club on the corner. I went to the club's owner and told them about [his] people breaking bottles, and he brought me into the club and said “Point them out.”
The mods looked at me, and the guy whose eyes were weird said, “Fuck you, brown nigger!” and he spit at me. I kicked him in the knee and punched him and he started coming at me. I ran to Radiotron, he busted the doors open and all the mods came in. They raided the snack bar, and this guy threw all the furniture of Radiotron right in the middle of the street. The cops left me there and said “We can't move that, that's your problem.”
The next day the breakers came, got the broken pieces of furniture, brought them back into Radiotron and patched them up. That's when I realized this was their club, they loved this space and they took ownership of it. they protected it and they put all the pieces back together. To these kids, it's really important. It's not just a building, it's their home away from home. This was their life. I don't see the movie as the defining moment, because that's Hollywood. This was the moment.
What lead to its demise?
The owner sold the property. We marched to City Hall to [try to save it], but the city officials ignored the kids. We were in the news and Canon Films saw it, so they came over and said they wanted to make Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo about our story about trying to save the center. In the movie the kids saved their center but in reality the city turned their back on the kids, they didn't save the center and passed more laws against the city. The Surgeon General declared breakdancing hazardous to your health. Why didn't he declare gangbanging was hazardous to your health? Then the city of L.A. banned Teen Clubs. They demolished the building, and I heard stories about kids who felt that when it was shut down had nowhere to go.
Where do you see the influence of Radiotron today?
There was a little white boy whose mother took him [to Radiotron] and told him to “go in there and survive.” That kid's name was Will and last Thursday I saw Will playing with Stevie Wonder at the Grand Performance. Wil-Dog is the founder of Ozomatli. I've known him since he was 11 years old, and my relationship with him began at Radiotron.
When Ozomatli had their 15th anniversary, I talked to Wil-Dog's mother Melody, and she said “you were my daycare center.” There was also a kid from El Salvador whose mother brought him to L.A. that came to Radiotron. He would do half a headspin, then fall down. Then he would do a headspin, then fall down. He would do two headspins, then fall down. He became the kid who would do the most headspins and his name is Little Caesar, a kid who has traveled the world breakdancing for Ice Cube, Madonna, Janet Jackson and the Queen of England. He just opened the Hip-Hop School of Art in Pamona. He was a 13-year-old who came from El Salvador to Radiotron, and look what he's doing now.
Those are the stories of Radiotron. It's not about Carmelo. A lot of people say “Carmelo founded Radiotron.” No, Radiotron found me. It gave me a purpose to do something. We all have a purpose in life and some people unfortunately never find it. My purpose is to advocate for the young people and use culture and art to make it better. Kids were leaving gangs to breakdance with each other or start graffiti crews. Wouldn't you rather have them doing that?
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