Defying Gravity, Breakin’ Boundaries: The Rise of Fresno’s Climax Crew

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In the early 1990s a ten-year-old boy sat on the roof of his grandmother’s home in Southeast Fresno, surveying the landscape of the Butler Park neighborhood below; his eyes were drawn to the sight of a boy his age three houses down puncturing the sky with successive waves of bounces, twists, and flips off of a mini-trampoline. The cliché historian angle here is to say that multiple histories intertwined in that moment to entice the boy off of the roof; there was the intimate history of grief unfairly heaved on the shoulders of the ten-year old on the roof following his father’s tragic death; the macro history of migration, geography, and neglect at the heart of working class Butler Park; histories yet to be written of two Butler Park boys who crossed neighborhood boundaries and global borders to put Fresno on the b-boy map.

While all off that is true, the reality is that the boy was drawn off the roof because seeing boys your age puncture the sky is pretty amazing; so the boy bounded down the street to meet the mysterious, gravity-defying figure. Two things happened when the boy on the roof found the boy puncturing the sky: 1.The boy on the roof learned to do a front flip off of a mini-trampoline and 2. Charles Montgomery met Pablo Flores.

By the time Montgomery and Flores entered middle school (at Kings Canyon and Sequoia, respectively), they learned from movies like Breakin’ and Beat Street that they could blend the raw athleticism on display during that initial meeting with hip-hop rhythm and competition; soon, they took to calling themselves b-boys. Eventually, Montgomery and Flores found other kids in Southeast Fresno who also called themselves b-boys. Those kids have their own sets of intertwining histories that led them ; in a nutshell, they were working class children of Hmong refugees trying to windmill and headspin their way out of inter-generational trauma and towards a sense of community in occasionally hostile environments.  Starting in middle school and continuing into Roosevelt High School, Montgomery and Flores began to hone their skills in predominantly Hmong crews, Dancing in Style (DIS) and Smurfs respectively. In these crews, they learned from an older generation of b-boys who helped to establish a local “power move” tradition perfectly suited for the boy on the roof and the boy who could puncture the sky.

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Montgomery and Flores were not the only non-Hmong b-boys to join mostly Hmong crews. Flores’s fellow Smurf member Eric Costello was Mexican and also called Southeast Fresno home. Like Montgomery, he first met Pablo Flores in the mundane spaces of Southeast Fresno as the two had competed against each other in city baseball and football leagues. Also like Montgomery and Flores, he called himself a b-boy; unlike Montgomery and Flores, however, Costello mostly danced with relatives or kept his dancing confined to the safety of his bedroom. All of that changed in high school when he saw Flores battling Hmong b-boys at Roosevelt and was inspired to be more open about his dancing. As he danced more, Costello caught the attention of Ville Thao, a founding member of Smurfs crew. Soon, Costello and Flores were logging long practice sessions with Smurfs crew whether it was at a crew member’s home or at neighborhood parks like Holmes .

Ideally, the story of a b-boy crew made up of Hmong children of refugees and working class youth of Creole, Mexican, and Filipino backgrounds would be the  climax (that pun will make more sense shortly) of this story: a tale of multi-ethnic friendships smashing racism to the funky samples of Clyde Stubblefield’s drums. Some of this is true; however, like so many other inner-city environments across the United States, Southeast Fresno in general and Butler Park in particular were neglected communities with few job opportunities or resources and plenty of gangs seeking to fill those voids. For Montgomery, Flores, and Costello, that meant conversations with Mexican Bulldog gang members questioning their loyalty for hanging out with “Asians.” At the same time, crossing multiple gang boundaries while walking to Holmes Playground for a practice session meant a variety of suspicious stares and, on at least one occasion, a pulled pistol, from Hmong gang members. The reality of the story of a b-boy crew made up of Hmong children of refugees and working-class youth of Creole, Mexican, and Filipino backgrounds, then, is that the complex intersections of race, ethnicity, and gang-affiliation made such relationships tricky, if not outright dangerous.

However, it was not the fear of gang retribution for perceived racial transgressions that led to the departure of Montgomery, Flores, and Costello from predominantly Hmong crews. Rather, it was the easier to understand frustration that they were not getting their props—a frustration that grew over time into a desire and motivation to forge their own path.

This is the “creation myth” part of the story. Costello and Flores decided it was time to leave Smurfs; they then placed the dreaded break-up call to the head of Smurfs, who gave his blessing for the move. Costello and Flores next called Montgomery to ask if he was down to leave DIS and join their crew. He was in. They still needed a name;  while moving some furniture around, Costello found a list of potential crew names the he and his homie had experimented with earlier and the name “Climax” immediately stood out to him. In later years, crew members would try to argue that “Climax” had a deeper meaning; something along the lines of “achieving a supreme result,” or the more PG-13 interpretation that you can probably figure out on your own; truth is, Climax just sounded kind of cool so the name stuck.

For youth growing up in Southeast Fresno during an era of gang databases, anti-immigrant sentiments, and general hostility to youth of color, a given name could be a burden, a perpetual reminder of outsider status, of being perceived as a threat. In this context, the process of choosing a b-boy name is an individual act of self-expression and flavor; a well-chosen name signals an individual’s connection to a particular neighborhood, generation, and/or style. Just as importantly, however, for many youth of color, re-naming oneself is a defiant act of reclaiming one’s identity. And so, with Climax established as the crew name, our protagonists dove into the well-spring of primordial dopeness and shed the baggage of “Montgomery,” “Flores,” and “Costello,” coming out the other side as “Goku”; “B-boy Pablo”; and “Flip” respectively

Climax quickly expanded with the inclusion of Flip’s homie Ygnacio “JR” Haro, and B-boy Pablo’s brother Alex “Footloose” Flores who, along with Goku, B-boy Pablo, and Flip made up Climax’s “fab five.” The crew began practicing throughout Southeast Fresno, often at crew member’s homes but also at local community centers like Ted C. Wills Community Center, the Mosqueda Center, Holmes Playground, and Roeding Park. Soon they began to battle throughout the Central Valley, often taking on their former Hmong crew mates.

As young upstarts, early battles often meant defeat at the hands of more experienced crews like the Smurfs. Yet, Climax kept on the grind. Fresno added to that grind; on the one hand, there were no established b-boy institutions like in the Bronx, Los Angeles, or the San Francisco Bay Area; on the other hand, if you wanted to learn from a b-boy “elder” you were talking to someone who was, at most, 2-3 years older than you.  Like most Fresno b-boy crews, then, Climax found inspiration wherever they could; maybe a dubbed VHS tape of an old battle made its way into the neighborhood; maybe someone caught a glimpse of a b-boy or b-girl top-rockin’ for McNuggets in a McDonalds commercial; or maybe someone had a cousin in LA who was a b-boy; sporadic snapshots translated into imperfect replications. Yet, out of these imperfections came a unique style that grew sharper with each local battle. Before long, defeats turned to victories and Climax emerged as one of the most respected b-boy crews in Fresno and the Central Valley.

Like most respected b-boy crews, Climax drew strength from the sum of its parts. Not only did different crew members have their own specialties as b-boys, they also began to immerse themselves in hip-hop culture. After suffering a series of serious injuries, Flip stopped dancing, and poured his energy into starting a Climax-branded DJ crew that threw local house parties and battled emcees in local cyphers while other crew members busted out the fat caps and dove into the local graffiti scene.

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Over time, the crew had gathered fragmentary evidence of lush hip-hop pastures in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. One such fragment that made its way to Fresno was a colorful flyer beckoning the crew to Radiotron, a b-boy Shangri-La in Los Angeles run by the legendary Lil Cesar; complete with graffiti style lettering, boomboxes, and b-boys, the flyer promised the opportunity to see iconic b-boy crews, DJs, and emcees. Within a year, Climax was battling at Radiotron.

As talented as Climax was as a crew, the two Butler Park boys, Goku and B-boy Pablo, stood out for their athleticism and creativity. For the uninitiated, it’s the former characteristic that gets all the attention when it comes to b-boying and for good reason: it’s not everyday you see human beings defy gravity and contort their bodies into unimaginable positions while staying on beat. However, b-boying is equal parts art and science; the best b-boys blend an intimate understanding of centrifugal force with the ability to visualize the beauty of a well-placed transition or freeze. Climax co-founder Flip would later explain that while both Goku and B-boy Pablo had a great deal of raw athletic talent, it was their scientific approach to learning moves that set them apart. By his own admission, Flip threw himself into a move, immediately trying to imitate a new move he had just witnessed often in ways that exerted violent pressure on his limbs and joints; in contrast, Goku and B-boy Pablo took their time watching and re-watching a move being performed, next, they broke the move down to its component pieces and tried to understand the move’s fundamental kinetic logic before trying to execute the move.

bboy pablo climax cre fresno 1990s (1)

B-boy Pablo introduced Goku to this process when teaching him how to do a more efficient front flip during their initial meeting. Focusing on process allowed them to map fragments of moves seen in videos or battles into cohesive final products. The process helped them dissect opponents in battles and devise effective counter-moves; the process helped them unlock the hidden physics of power moves and combinations that lived only in their imagination. Process was science. Process was discipline. Process was structure. In Butler Park, where discipline and structure came with strings attached, whether it was police surveillance or gang pressure, process was survival.

Historians describe b-boying using unnecessarily complicated language like “processes” and “kinetic logic”; none of that means much in a battle. Battle is about who flies the highest; who finds ways to make the body do something you never thought possible; who brings the most flavor? Goku and B-boy Pablo brought all kinds of Central Valley flavor to Radiotron in 1996; the two Butler Park boys served b-boys from Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond with unique moves born from a community neglected by society at large and isolated from larger the b-boy networks in metropolitan hubs.

Specifically, they carried with them a Fresno power move tradition that evolved in battles with both Hmong and non-Hmong crews in Fresno and the Central Valley. In the process, they caught the attention of Soul Control, a collection of California b-boy all stars who were already leaving their mark in the b-boy world.  Goku and B-boy Pablo were invited to join Soul Control and ended up dancing with bona fide legends like Sean “Mega Man” Burgess, Jacob “Kujo” Lyons, Tyrell “Tiny” Martinez, Carlos “Inferno” Alvarez, Omar “Love” Espinoza, Barmak “Floor Molester” Badei, and Babak “The Flying Monkey” Badei. As Soul Control members, Goku and B-boy Pablo found themselves at the heart of the b-boy universe, battling crews they had only seen on grainy, overdubbed VHS tapes, and visiting corners of the nation and the globe they had not even heard of.

Goku and B-boy Pablo always came home. They didn’t have to; it would have been easy to relocate to Los Angeles or San Francisco, where they could attend open practice sessions populated by other b-boy heavyweights they now counted as friends and rivals or try out for television shows, movies, and commercials looking to add some “urban flavor” to their vanilla offerings.

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Instead, they chose to come home. Once in Fresno, they witnessed new generations of Climax members help the crew cement its local status. Marcio Santos came up with the idea to throw an “all elements” jam at local parks in a series of events known as Hip Hop at the Park that brought together local b-boys, DJs, graffiti writers and emcees and featured the deft DJing of Alex “A-Wax” Aranda. Climax now drew from a full roster of talented b-boys including Martin “Toxic” Hernandez, Mike “Little Mikey” Lopez, Kilo “X Man” Zaysongkhma, Erik “Este” Thurman, Rudy “Smith” Salazar, Omar “Tot” Gonzales, Nathaniel “Panthro” Lewis, Vince “Link” Gonzalez, Chris “Puma” Lewis, and Peda “Gohan” Thik who continued to battle local crews. Goku and B-boy Pablo also brought Soul Control and other well-known b-boys to the Central Valley. In return, Fresno provided comfort and nurtured their continued growth.

One of the most important stages in that growth took place in 1998 on an empty stage at the Ted C. Wills community center. It was there that B-boy Pablo, surrounded by his Climax crewmates, methodically pieced together what would become his signature move, the continuous airflare. Airflares require a b-boy to execute a complete vertical body rotation using only their hands; needless to say, this is not easy. It requires strength, balance, and precision. B-boy Pablo wanted to up the ante by stringing together two airflares. On the Ted C. Will stage B-boy Pablo kept willing his body to defy basic laws of physics; at various points he would get through a rotation and a half only to have gravity rudely smack him down. He persisted, relying on process to overcome obstacles. In 1998, on a recreation center stage in Fresno, B-boy Pablo executed the first known continuous airflare.

B-boy Pablo repeated the continuous airflare in competition at Freestyle Sessions 3 in 1998, and continued executing it in numerous competitions. Goku also kept pushing himself to go bigger with his moves and would add his own innovative power move transitions to the b-boy dance cannon. Goku, B-boy Pablo, Climax, and Soul Control kept growing and innovating; they battled, they traveled around the world, they created a sense of brotherhood.

Then came 2004, when their world collapsed on itself. Pablo “B-boy Pablo” Flores decided to take his own life. There is no clever metaphor to describe the impact Pablo Flores’s death had on those close to him; no historical angle to provide meaning to the loss of someone you met at 10 years old; no description of the near superhero feats of the children of neglect to explain the unexplainable. Pain, anger, resentment, and sorrow in response to the tragic loss of human life, of the many chapters left unwritten.

The void will never be filled but Goku and his crew mates, his brothers, eventually had to move on. Goku took over leadership in Climax and blended it with Soul Control to create Climax/Soul Control. He became the b-boy elder that his generation never had, helping to train and mentor the next generation of Fresno b-boys and b-girls. Goku stays active in the b-boy world, rising through the ranks and often judging in the battles he built his own b-boy reputation in.

Eric Costello Climax Crew mid 1990s

The distance between three Butler Park houses, a pre-teen’s desire to fly, neighborhood and school networks, the length and width of a community center stage; these are the mundane building blocks from which history is made. In places like Fresno these stories are too often ignored or drowned out by stories coming from bigger cities or from well-funded archives.

These stories matter. Charles Montgomery, Pablo Flores, Eric Costello, Ygnacio Haro, and Alex Flores matter; Goku, B-boy Pablo, Flip, JR, and Footloose matter. Hmong crews matter, Bulldog gang members matter. Fresno matters. All these stories matter because they speak both to the ways communities like Butler Park are left to fend for themselves in a hostile world but also because they epitomize the creativity, passion, and struggle of those who live in these communities. It is easy to miss these stories. Sometimes you need to sit on the roof and wait for someone to puncture the sky around you.

Sean Slusser is a PhD candidate in History at University of California, Riverside and an adjunct at California State University, Fresno. He is co-founder and co-director of Straight Outta Fresno, a public history project that seeks to document and showcase the multi-ethinc history of hip hop in Fresno.

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This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

Author: Tropics of Meta

We are legion.

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