Battle of the Flexes
There’s been a visceral new sound seeping out of Brooklyn in recent years. The music is dark, bass-heavy, intertwined carefully with the irresistible strains of reggae and dancehall and tinged with New York attitude. This is flex dance music – FDM – and it’s taking over.
To understand the spirit of FDM, you have to experience it. As Hitmakerchinx, one of the genre’s pioneers, declares when we meet in London to talk about the music he’s spearheading. “It’s just energy music. It’s not something you can speak about. You hear it and you don’t know what it is but it makes you move.” Currently touring Europe alongside fellow FDM pioneer DJ Aaron ‘The Mix King’, the pair will have played Stockholm, Berlin, Gothenburg and Madrid by the time they get back to their native Brooklyn. Today they’ve arrived wearing matching BAPE hoodies, ready to give a masterclass in the genre’s history.
While FDM is hard to describe and impossible to contain, its birthplace is specific to Brooklyn and the vibrant West Indian community living there. The genre didn’t spring fully-formed into life, however. Instead it’s the result of an evolving, symbiotic relationship between the music and a style of dance called flexing, which, until recently, was accompanied by flex tunes, FDM’s predecessor.
Essential to FDM today, flexing sees people contort their bodies, serpent-like, through a series of fundamental moves – pausing, bonebreaking, connecting, gliding, get low, hat tricks and punchlines. Both Aaron and Hitmakerchinx are flex dancers and within moments of meeting them, you can tell that they’re athletes at the top of their game. The duo are built like ballet dancers – elegant in their movements, perfectly poised and gently expressive as they talk.
Flexing’s foundations lie in the 90s, when a new dance style arrived in Brooklyn from Kingston, Jamaica. Dubbed bruk up, a name taken from its loose-limbed, broken movements, it set the community on fire. Brooklyn parties were soon overrun with bruk up dancers, and the style quickly transitioned onto people’s screens via local access cable show show Flex N Brooklyn. A showcase for neighbourhood talent, rappers, singers and dancers would take to the stage to perform. But bruk up began to metamorphise, becoming immensely popular as dancers added increasingly intricate movements. And so flex was born, its name taken from the West Indian term ‘flex’. “We say ‘flex’, just like that Mad Cobra song, you know? ‘Flex, time to have sex’?” Hitmakerchinx laughs.
With the dance came a new culture. An entire scene of DJs emerged, creating long, simple mixes of riddims for flex teams to battle to. These gradually shortened but remained basic instrumentals until a new wave of DJs, many of whom were dancers themselves, blew onto the scene. Aaron, one of the most revered creators of flex tunes, rode the crest of this new wave in the early 2000s, birthing a fresh sound that was uptempo with harder beats. His blends still mixed reggae riddims but added raw samples stripped from songs.
Aaron explains this magpie approach with the example of mixing the throbbing Volume Riddim, FDM’s foundational riddim, with Madonna’s Frozen. “It was me taking the dancehall aspect and breaking it down for people to understand. I would take any riddim and mix it with what was hip. It would still be dancehall but whatever we mixed it with would add a different energy.” The new sound swept the flexing world.
Then Hitmakerchinx arrived. Already dancing and making beats, it was after hearing DJ Flava’s remix of Rihanna’s Cry that he turned towards flex. Unlike the first spate of DJs, Hitmakerchinx produced his tracks from scratch using FL Studios. Structured and complex, his tunes were built using precise layers of 808s, bass, kicks, samples, hi hats and the crucial reggae riddims. They laid the foundation for FDM and were instantly lapped up by the community.
The first of his tracks to take the sound outside of its locality was Earthquake. “Earthquake was the difference,” Chinx says. “Because it had the bass that everybody loved.” Drum heavy and club ready it was featured on 2014’s Step Up 5 soundtrack, where it was picked up by Total Freedom who recognised how perfect it was for the dancefloor. Hitmakerchinx’s sound soon spread throughout club collectives like GHE20G0TH1K and Night Slugs – the latter who released Hitmakerchinx’s lauded Shades and Monsters: FDM Classics alongside Fade To Mind in 2017. “Fade to Mind and Night Slugs really inspired us dropping FDM mainstream for the world to enjoy – it was just on SoundCloud and for the dancers before,” Chinx says.
In 2015, Aaron dipped his toe into FDM. “A guy in my dance group was like, ‘Yo man, you should really try that sound Chinx has been doing.’ So I tried it.” He remembers putting out his first FDM track, Street Fighter Tune. People loved it, so he just kept making it. The two came together to name the new genre which blended island sounds with urban landscapes. “We needed to change it from flex tunes to FDM.
If EDM is electronic dance music, then flex dance music is just an easier way to explain it than saying, ‘We’re a subgenre of dancehall and reggae’,” Hitmakerchinx says.
Since its official naming, FDM has blossomed. Outside the flexing community, the music is embraced. Hitmakerchinx and Aaron have been joined by Uninamise and Epic B and, together, the four are at FDM’s centre, thrusting the sound forward. Chinx and Aaron still use flexing as the foundation for their work. Both continue to flex and the dancer’s physical body remains at the core of every FDM track. The two are inextricably woven together and the strength of their music comes from their strength as bone-bending dancers. Hitmakerchinx says, “If we can’t dance to it, it’s not good FDM.”
While others are now trying to make FDM, the genre’s pioneers aren’t worried. The sound can only be mimicked by those who don’t come from the culture. Hitmakerchinx breaks it down simply. “It’s spiritual for me and it’s embedded in my life. I’m West Indian, I grew up watching Flex N Brooklyn, I grew up in battle fests, I grew up around flexing and flex dancers. It moulded my style and changed me as a person. The music does a different thing for me – it makes me happier, it takes care of me. It’s a different type of energy.”