Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers: Still Breakin’ After All These Years

By on May 1, 2015

I knew Boogaloo Shrimp before everyone knew him as Boogaloo Shrimp. Back in 1983, Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers was one of a handful of street dancing teens who used to drop by the record store where I was working at the time — Licorice Pizza in the Lakewood Mall, in Lakewood, California, located about twenty miles south of L.A. — on the weekends.

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Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers at the Lakewood Mall, circa 1983

He even seemed a little bit shy back then — he’s not anymore, trust me — and I remember he had an easy smile and marvelous glinting eyes. He’d come by the front counter and politely ask if we’d play certain songs on our sound system, which we kept at a decently loud volume (mall security often came by and asked us to turn it down)… and that’s where we first got a chance to see his incredible moves, out in the little forecourt area at our store’s entrance.

Those of us who worked at the store began to look forward to working on the weekends, when the store would be typically jammed with kids hanging at the mall like pretty much everyone under the age of 18 did back then. We’d keep looking towards the open area at the front of the store, by the lemonade stand where a couple of cute sisters worked, waiting for Michael and his little entourage to appear, and soon enough, there they’d be.

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My recollection is that Michael could dance to anything, but his preferred jam was the Jonzun Crew’s “Space Is The Place,” from their 1983 Tommy Boy album Lost in Space. If you know the track, you know that it starts off with heavy breathing, sounding like what an astronaut might hear inside his helmet, accompanied by a beeping countdown right before blast-off.

I can still remember him standing in the mall, those vivid eyes of his closed, and his friends would begin gathering around. And then, right when that electro-synth beat kicked in, he’d come alive, like his body was suddenly electrified with a current that ran from the top of his head down to bottom of both feet. The music just took over his body — he went from being stiff and robotic, to flexible and angular, moving at weirdly impossible angles, like that current was moving his body.

I’d never seen freestyle popping and locking before, it was all new to me at the time, but all I knew was that it was damn impressive to see someone at such a young age able to move his body so freely — he was only thirteen or fourteen at the time — and with such incredible control.

I realized that even as I was seeing rough, unpolished talent, I knew — the way you just know — that there was something special going on.

He was destined for… wait for it… stardom.

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That’s how it was for Michael Chambers, who got his stage name Boogaloo Shrimp from his father, an ex-Air Force military man who had settled down to raise a family in Wilmington, a seaport city with a mixed community of Polynesians, Mexicans and African Americans. It’s not too far from the same area where Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube both grew up.

Michael’s father worked for Van de Kamp’s seafood and Chicken of the Sea, and he used to call Michael, his youngest, “Shrimp,” which also ties right into the whole seaport thing too — Michael is Afro Creole American — because the “Boogaloo” part of his name originally comes from the New Orleans area, but it also became one of the buzzwords used in a new type of dancing, pop-locking (from “popping” and “locking”), originally practiced by a guy named Boogaloo Sam (Sam Solomon), who founded a 70s dancing group, The Electric Boogaloos, who were named for “Do The Boogaloo” by James Brown, which was a type of dance that Brown popularized. Got all that?

Michael’s mentor, by the way, is a rarely remembered dancer named Mark Benson, who goes by the stage name of King Boogaloo Tut. There were other individual dancers — like Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quiñones — and influential dance groups too, obviously, and in interviews now Michael often mentions that he and one of his contemporaries, Pop N Taco (Bruno Falcon), came along after first taking the moves they’d seen danced by the Rock Steady Crew, The New York City Breakers, and the Electric Boogaloos, and then adding their own.

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Michael and his friends entered dance contests, and the first time he says that he made any money was when his older brother took him to perform at the Redondo Beach Pier, with just a boom box and a bucket, and when they were done dancing, the bucket would be full of bills to split between themselves, a few hundred dollars a week.

I don’t remember there ever being a bucket at the Lakewood Mall, but perhaps he was raking it in back then too. Michael says now (although he didn’t tell me this then) that he’d already appeared in TV commercials in the early 80s, like the promo he did for CBS (“We’ve Got The Touch,” which shows him performing his first moonwalk — more about that in a sec).

Some of the other commercials he says he appeared in were for Aqua Fresh toothpaste, and McDonalds. He also went to Japan and did a TV commercial for Nissan, which is where he first got into the whole banzai clothing thing.

All I know for sure is, even though he probably had a lot going on back then, he didn’t talk about it, and, like I said, he actually seemed a little shy. Then, one day, Michael and his friends just stopped coming by the store on the weekends, sometime in 1983 or 1984, and I never saw him again.

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Oh, but I did continue to see him, of course, just like everyone else did — I remember the first time I recognized him on TV, in a Lionel Richie video forAll Night Long,” which was one of the first videos we can remember to feature pop-locking breakdancers, and it included not just Michael but members of his crew.

Michael likes to tell interviewers now hat he was among some of the “first black kids ever employed on MTV to sell recording artists videos, for the record.” (It’s funny now to imagine that there was a time when people used to say MTV was afraid of playing any videos by black entertainers, except for Michael Jackson, of course).

But it wasn’t the first time he’d been on TV, apparently. Before the Lionel Richie video, in 1983, local L.A. anchorman and TV reporter Paul Moyers did a segment for “Eye On L.A.” on Hollywood Boulevard, about the street dance culture, and that’s when Michael says he first did his moonwalk/backslide combination on film.

As he describes it now, he took various elements he’d seen in SFX-heavy sci-fi movies — like Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects in 1981’s Clash Of The Titans — and then came up with his own “liquid animation” dance moves, taking those moves and the ones he’d seen Claymation animation, and adapting what he saw into his own street dancing.

Michael says that Susan Scanlan, a choreographer, who had also appeared on “Eye on L.A.”, knew the Jackson family, and she told Michael and Pop N Taco, who was also on the segment, that Michael Jackson would like to meet them, and not too long afterwards they were taken to Jackson’s family compound in Encino, where he says Michael’s dad Joe Jackson told his son something like “These guys are the next big thing and you need to have them as your personal coaches.”

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Michael and Pop N Taco met with Jackson again, backstage at one of Lionel Richie’s shows, after they’d already appeared in the “All Night Long” video, and Michael says now that it wasn’t too much longer after then that Michael Jackson started doing the moonwalk and other dance moves that he was doing first, and even though Jackson worked with dancers like Jeffery Daniels, Cooley Jackson and Casper – three guys from Shalamaar — he also apparently began using some of Boogaloo Shrimp’s signature moves, which Michael says he recognized when he watched the “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” special on TV, which aired on March 23, 1983.

Of course, Michael –- Chambers, not Jackson — was now beginning to rub shoulders at dances and parties, and soon meeting celebrities like Diana Ross, Ashford and Simpson, Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart, and he also appeared in Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You.”

Then he went on tour with Lionel Richie and the Pointer Sisters. A world tour. Around the world.

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A few years earlier (also 1983), Flashdance had come out and suddenly there were a lot of movie scripts going around, and producers were looking for dancers, and Michael, now sixteen, and Pop N Taco and Shabba Doo (who was older than Michael by quite a few years, born in 1955), all had agents and managers and people looking out for them, and so they began going to auditions. Lots of auditions.

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Then came the proverbial “big break” when one of those scripts was for a movie called Breakin’. Adolfo had originally been hired to do choreography, but producers liked Michael and Adolfo (Shabba Doo) so much that they cast them in the movie in two leading roles — Turbo and Ozone —and re-wrote their dialogue so that it sounded natural.

Michael says now that he realized the movie would give him a chance to expose the west coast styles of popping and locking — the Wildstyle documentary had come out before Breakin’, and that was focused on the B-boy scene in New York — and he knew it was going to be historic.

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Michael’s broom dance is one of the more memorable dance routines in the movie, and he says now that Breakin’ did well enough at the box office that he soon found himself at the Cannes Film Festival, having lunch with “Menahem Golan and all the big dogs of the film festival,” and that Golan had asked him how he was going to top his broom dance number, and Michael replied that he’d been watching the Kurt Russell sci-fi horror movie The Thing, and there was a scene where the “Thing” alien had shot up the wall and stuck on to the ceiling, which he thought could represent being “head over heels” in love with his Breakin’ 2 co-star, Sabrina Garcia.

(By the way, do yourself a favor and check out the documentary about Golan’s Cannon Films, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films… no, seriously, that’s what it’s called).

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Michael now says that one day at rehearsal, he was at Debbie Reynolds studio in Burbank, when Jaime Rogers, one of the original members of the West Side Story movie’s ensemble cast, saw him trying to balance a broom on his finger, and that he got a prop guy to drill a hole through the broom so that he could do the same kind of dance move that he’d seen Fred Astaire do in one of his films, dancing with a coat rack.

In another interview, Michael says that the ceiling scene in Breakin’ 2 actually inspired Lionel Richie to write his huge 1986 hit, “Dancing on the Ceiling,” and that he and Lionel Richie became close friends after touring the world together. The entire world.

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Michael says that the producers of Breakin’ 2 felt that the dance moves he was doing probably wouldn’t last that long, they were just a fad — and they were right, of course. Today the movies both look like innocent curios from a quainter time, and Michael now says that the reason Breakin’ 2 didn’t do as good as Breakin’ did was that they were going for a “wholesome… like a Christian production,” instead of something more “street.”

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Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo provided just about every kind of possible break to a young untrained actor that you can imagine. Michael made a lot of money in a short time, and soon he was driving a Corvette — with a customized license plate that read, what else? Boogaloo — to high school; he says the tried to go back and finish his senior year, but that he had to get a private tutor and drop out because his classmates were mean, and spat on his car’s windows. I seem to recall reading somewhere that he’d bought an apartment building as an investment, too, somewhere in Long Beach, California.

Michael continued to audition, of course, and he continued to make appearances on TV shows, often dressed like a robot: in 1991, he was famously Steve Urkel’s robot named “Urkel-bot” on the ABC sitcom “Family Matters,” and he was “Good Robot Bill” on Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, also in 1991, and he also appeared the Skat Kat in Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” music video — but that one doesn’t appear in his IMDB listings. He also takes a little bit of credit for influencing Styx’s big 1983 hit “Mr. Roboto.”

Michael also says that some people now actually refer to him as “the father of Dub Step” (!!), which is based on “robotics and illusion.”

He continued auditioning, going up for the part of the “black nerd” in Revenge of the Nerds, and he was also up for Malcolm Jamal Warner’s part on “The Cosby Show,” but he didn’t get either part because he “didn’t have good headshots,” or say he says, and that he was also up for the “21 Jump Street” TV show, with Holly Robinson Peete, and up for a role in the 2003 movie “S.W.A.T.” with LL Cool J, but no more acting roles of any significance came his way. He was glad they considered him, though.

Most of his work opportunities actually came from overseas, from Japan and from Europe, where he became a choreographer and dance instructor, available for private lessons.

There were other factors, he claims now, like the emergence of gangsta rap — and hip hop merging into break dancing — that switched the focus away from his style street dancing, and break dancing and pop-locking, towards rapping and thug life.

He lost touch with a lot of his crew too, and lost touch with Adolfo, who he found out later didn’t really like to have him around because he felt Michael was always “upstaging” him.

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Today, Michael is busy promoting Shout Factory’s new Blu-ray releases of both Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, which came out in April 2015, and he’s making the most of the renewed interest in his thirty-plus year old films again, fielding calls from “important people like CNN.”

Watch this eye-opening interview with him here if you’re interested in learning more from the man himself, and here’s a recent article in L.A. Weekly too.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Eugene Sotela

    Great article. I wish that 1983 West Coast pop lock documentary Breakin n Enterin would get released on Blu-Ray / DVD. My brothers caught it once as it aired on ON-TV and even recorded but lost the vhs tape.

  • Crystal Ariana Gonzales

    I enjoyed reading all this history of him. It’s sad that he didn’t get more recognition and even got screwed over a bit.