Michael Chambers on The Boogaloo Shrimp Documentary and 35th Anniversary of Breakin’ | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, August 4th, 2020  

Michael Chambers on The Boogaloo Shrimp Documentary and 35th Anniversary of Breakin’

Influential Street Dancer Features in a New, Career-Spanning Documentary

Apr 16, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Next month will mark the 35th anniversary of Breakin’, the iconic ‘80s dance movie that brought breakdancing from the city streets to movieplexes around the nation and became a top hit for Cannon, the legendary b-movie studio that produced it. (Its sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, will also celebrate its 35th birthday this year: the two movies were released only seven months apart.)

The movies’ youngest star was Michael Chambers, a teenage dancer from Los Angeles best known under his performing name: Boogaloo Shrimp. Although he was only 16 when Breakin’ was shot, Chambers had already been dancing on a professional level, appearing in music videos for Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You.” Though impressive, perhaps his biggest contribution to pop culture up to this point had happened behind the scenes: working with Michael Jackson ahead of his famous Motown 25 performance, teaching him b-boy moves and helping him master the moonwalk.

The story is told in greater detail in The Boogaloo Shrimp Documentary, a new film about Chambers’ life and career that was directed by Taylor Golonka. In the early ‘80s, Chambers was featured performing the move on a television documentary on Los Angeles’ vibrant hip-hop culture. Jackson saw the program, and reached out to Chambers and another featured dancer. The two were summoned to the Jackson compound, where they met the family and started working with Michael on the moves. Though Chambers never received credit for this early contribution to Jackson’s signature style, the pop star eventually payed him back by requesting he work as choreographer for the The Simpsons’ “Do the Bartman” music video. (Chambers was credited for his Simpsons work.)

The Breakin’ movies made the young Boogaloo Shrimp into an ‘80s dance icon. Both films made use of Chambers’ unique dance style, dubbed “liquid animation” after it was inspired by the stop-motion animation method of the great special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. Among the many dance numbers in the Breakin’ movies, two stand out. The first is Breakin’s famous “Broom Dance,” in which Chambers’ character, Turbo, appears to make a broom levitate and dance alongside him. (A visible string, more obvious in recent Blu-ray releases than ever before, doesn’t detract from the scene’s magic.) And then there’s the “Ceiling Dance” from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, in which a lovestruck Turbo struts his stuff up the walls and across the ceiling, as if he’s defying gravity; this scene was suggested by Chambers himself, inspired by a showing of John Carpenter’s The Thing on French television. 

As his career went on, Chambers moved into the special effects area of the film industry himself, his robotic moves making him perfect to play the Robot Bill in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and a recurring role as the Urkelbot on the TGIF staple Family Matters.

The Boogaloo Shrimp Documentary can be streamed now on Amazon Prime. Featuring an extended interview with Chambers and on-camera tributes from his peers and admirers, it’s a great, in-depth look at the career of one of pop culture’s unsung heroes. Chambers was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about his life, work, and involvement in the Breakin’ movies.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: As someone whose career has touched so many facets of pop culture – from Breakin’ and your influence on street dance, to the moonwalk, Steve Urkel and The Simpsons – this documentary is something that needed to be made. Can you tell me how you and director Taylor Golonka found each other, and how this project came together?

Michael Chambers: We met and had chemistry, and he was really sincere about getting the project launched.

When you started out, you’ve said that it was things like disco, animation, and science fiction movies that inspired you and your friends to start dancing. But in reality, you were at ground zero for West Coast hip hop culture. At the time, could you tell that you were part of something special, or that what you were part of would have such a big impact on pop culture?

On the West Coast it seemed every city had its group of dancers so, yes, it was an amazing time to get recognition for your dance skills and meet and work out with other dancers to improve and master your unique, personal style.

You were still so young when you starred in Breakin’, but you also already had a lot of experience making music videos and hanging out with huge stars like Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. Were you totally over camera shyness by the time you starred in your first movie?

For the record, I was not hanging out with big stars, it was all work related. I joined the Screen Actors Guild and Actors Federation for Television and Radio Artists unions. By performing on the Redondo Beach pier and dance contest, I had built my confidence. But if you look closely at the “All Night Long” music video and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” I was concentrating on my dance steps and did not look into the camera or smile much.

Were you skeptical at all when you were first starting out on Breakin’? I can’t imagine two Israeli producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, felt like the obvious people to bring street culture to the silver screen.

I was not raised to be racially biased, so it was a job opportunity and it was not like many people were employing street dancers in lead roles. So my Jewish agent Vaughn Hart suggested it would be a good career move to go the audition and the rest is history. I had no idea that it was not just my dance skills, but my improv comedy and personality that helped me carry my character and made audiences laugh in between the dancing.

Wildstyle had already come out, which focused on New York b-boys. When you were making Breakin’, did you feel any pride or pressure in knowing that you guys were representing the West Coast scene you’d come from, which a lot of the country would be seeing for the first time?

Not at all. We on the West Coast were very aware NYC had great bboy dancers. Director Topper Carew had made a documentary before the Breakin’ films called Breakin’ ‘n’ Enterin’ which featured the best of the best in Los Angeles, as well as a young Ice-T and Egyptian Lover. The best thing that happened at that time to hip hop was a fusion of East Coast interpretation and West Coast. NYC’s fashion and lingo was different than Cali’s, as well as the dance styles. Here on the West Coast we popped, locked, and boogaloo, robotic styles. NYC style was called electric boogie and bboying was boogie down Bronx.

Your Breakin’ character, Turbo, seemed kind of shy, except when he was dancing. I’ve read that they re-wrote the script a bit as they got to know you guys. How much of yourself back then do you see in Turbo?

They had a script but decided to hang out with us and see how we really spoke, learning street terminology at the same time. I admire the writers and Golan/Globus team because they allowed me to improv most of every scene with my dialog, and there were many rewrites to make it work.

Breakin’ was a huge hit. Can you describe your experience during the height of Breakin’ mania? Were you getting approached by fans everywhere?

It was a bit overwhelming and sometimes frightening. I remember my schooldays friends and I went to our favorite hangout, Del Amo Fashion Center, in Torrance, CA, and the film was playing and the security had me wait until the theater lobby was cleared to leave. Also, some fans found out where I lived and my Mother and Father told me when I woke up in the morning fans were waiting across the street to get an autograph. It was fun, and I felt like still a normal guy and came back to the areas I grew up: Southbay of Los Angeles and East Los Angeles disco, funk party areas.

You went to being of an icon of the 1980s to playing a part in several zeitgeist moments of ‘90s pop culture, from Bill & Ted to “Do the Bartman.” You even played the UrkelBot on Family Matters. Is it true the cast and crew had such a good time with you that they wrote another robot episode just to get you back on set?

Well, after the media labeled my dance art as a passing fad and people started saying my character was a NYC wannabe reject, I realized I wanted to do other projects that highlighted my signature dance style. So I told my agent at the time, Julie McDonald, who was Paula Abduls agent as well, I wanted to go up for special effects parts since I was influenced by Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion characters to help create certain dances, and my style of liquid animation dance.

Michael Jackson and I had worked out during the Victory Tour in 1983, which he filmed the session, and was able to master what he learned at that time. I have to admit it hurt a bit not getting credit on paper for my work with him, so when the Bart Simpson project came up I specifically asked Mr. Jackson if I can be credited for my work and my agent Julie McDonald got the contract and to this day I am on the record for working with Mr. Jackson, who wrote the song “Do The Bartman” for the Simpsons Sing the Blues. I was very pleased because this mystery of who was teaching Mr. Jackson now started to unfold, since I was listed as the choreographer.

The director, Rich Correll, and the producers of the Family Matters TV show were very happy with the ratings, so they called me back for a second episode. Also, there were plans for me to be in a third, which was Steve Urkel going to the Epcot Center and donating the Robo-nerd to the science center, but the effects artist Kenny Myers told me they could not reach an agreement with his work, and they cancelled my job. So it was a tough time trying to provide for myself and family.

So many of your friends, colleagues, and admirers jump into the documentary to talk about your legacy. How did it feel listening to them talk about your achievements?

I was humbled and very thankful, since most people would sum up my career by the two Breakin’ films. 

The documentary makes it clear it wasn't just your dance moves that made you a star, but a lot of smart, forward thinking. If you hadn't become a professional dancer, what do you think you would like to have done as a career instead?

Like my father I would have found a regular 9 to 5 and joined a production team with an upbeat company, and been a better father when given the chance.


To book Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers for an event, please e-mail here.


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