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electric boogaloo

Nick Offerman on Break Dancing, Newcleus, and How He Got So Fresh

Last spring, Nick Offerman revealed on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon that, back in the eighties, he and his cousin had participated in break-dancing competitions under the street names Tick-Tock and Flip-Flop, respectively. “Break dance has been a very important part of my life,” he deadpanned — and then, against all odds, Ron Swanson began popping and locking with Fallon. The Parks and Recreation star expounds on his breakin’ past in Paddle Your Own Canoe, his upcoming memoir about how a small-town kid from Minooka, Illinois, wound up married to Megan Mullally and owning a crucial role on one of the best sitcoms on television today. Borderline obsessed with the concept of Offerman’s b-boy days, Vulture felt it necessary to discuss the topic at length with the impressively mustached actor, and he obliged with ruminations on proper break-dancing foot- and headwear, why Newcleus is preferable to Run-DMC, and whom he was rebelling against. 

As with rap, there was an east-coast, west-coast thing with break dancing: electric boogaloo vs. the Rock Steady Crew, et cetera. But is it correct to say that you took your break-dancing cues from the scene in nearby Joliet, Illinois?
Yeah, I think that would be an accurate estimation of the bailiwick of our influence.

Is that where you went to find music to dance to?
We could only get the very biggest titles. There wasn’t even a cool independent record store that we were aware of within driving distance. So we had to go to the mall and go to the Sam Goody, or whatever the corporate record store was then. And you know, the only big-label stuff we could find was Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC. Sometimes in the weird little indie section we would find Newcleus, or “Rapper’s Delight.” But mostly we would stay up really late on the weekends and listen to Chicago radio stations and tape songs off the radio, [like] these really static-y, kick ass D.J. remixes. And those were absolutely our most prized possessions. Because back in the day, the fact that we got these crazy original D.J. mixes was solid gold. You couldn’t get music like that. I mean, it was decades before the telephone, let alone the Internet.

Do you remember the artists or the D.J.'s?
No, it’s one of those things that my cousin Flip-Flop and I, we constantly say, “My god, I wish we would’ve hung onto those things.” We had no idea the value they would have in an archival sense. I mean, we could be putting out an entire dance mix with Paddle Your Own Canoe and probably triple our exposure. The one I remember the most clearly because it was the one I really connected with and learned by heart was the song “Jam on It” by Newcleus. My cousin and I could still drop it at any moment: Three words to the whack/Set yourself back.

Why did that one connect more than, say, “My Adidas”?
That’s a very good question, the answer to which is unfathomable. You know, “Why is a duck?” There’s no telling why we choose our favorite colors or our favorite flavors. But in our house, “Jam on It” tasted more like bacon than “My Adidas.” “My Adidas” was not absent from our mix. But “Jam on It” — as far as we knew, we were the only guys in the tri-county area that had managed to nab it off that radio show. So when we would play it and dance to it, all seventeen audience members would thrill to the sound and go, "MY CHRIST, HOW DID YOU GUYS GET THIS FRESH?!"

Ah, so it seemed like you were part of a secret society and had access to the esoteric literature that fueled it.
Yes, we were absolutely the Illuminati of our community when it came to the electric boogaloo. And our audience, all of our fans, had seen the break-dancing movies. They had seen Beat Street and Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2. So to have these denizens of the street living among them and crafting the exact same esoteric movements at their very own skating rink was quite magical indeed.

In the book, you mention that you owned a pair of parachute pants. What other details helped you to get into the character of Tick-Tock?
Well, something I still to this day don’t understand is that you take your sneakers, preferably of the Adidas brand, and you loosen them up to the point of being completely ineffectual and only a hindrance on your feet. So you completely loosen them up, and then instead of putting in an effective cinching shoelace, you put in some brightly colored double-wide lace that’s just there for aesthetic reasons. So you spend half your time trying to keep your shoes on as you’re sliding around on a piece of cardboard. So that’s an important detail. And then any brightly colored handkerchiefs or bangles that you can coil up and tie around your knees elbows or wrists. They also get in your way, but they’re a necessity. And another favorite accessory is to wear any sort of hat that’s of the utmost wrong era. A bowler hat, a bus-driver’s captain’s hat, a beret, all of these — again, they’re in your eyes, they’re completely sweaty, but they’re indispensible.

So, like Ozone’s Civil War Union soldier hat in Breakin' 2?
Exactly. If you can bust some full popping and locking wearing a yellow construction hard hat, you’re the grand champion of the evening.

Break-dancing gangs usually had a rival troupe to go up against, competitive fire being the fuel for creativity. Who was your Electric Rock?
We desperately sought out other teams to do bloodthirsty break-dance battle with, but by and large we could not find any. A couple of the less attractive Frescura Brothers tried to work up a team during the junior-high years, but they couldn’t quite get on the floor if you catch my meaning. And I think that was ultimately the demise of break dance in the Minooka-Channahon region. Without the appropriate prey, the T-rex lay down and became fertilizer for the herbivore.

You write that your parents embraced your break dancing because they had fond memories of their disco days. Did you ever find your John Lithgow–esque authority figure to rebel against?
We were all churchgoing youth, but they never told us not to dance in church. So we were rebels without a cause. We had all the piss and vinegar of your average teenager but everybody was pretty nice to us. We were pretty sweet for street thugs.

Was Tick-Tock your first taste of having an alter ego?
I suppose it was. I had dipped my toes in the water here and there. I certainly had gotten a taste on the altar at our Catholic Church as an altar boy. I remember specifically at a very young age, maybe 8 or 9, I was holding the cruets of holy water and wine, which the priest would mix in the chalice during the Eucharist. And I was simply holding these cruets waiting for him to use them when I caught a whiff of the wine and I made a face. And I believe that was my first laugh. And a thought, Say, that wasn’t too bad. So I did it again and made sure I reached the back row with my mugging. My dad quickly communicated to me that this was neither the time nor the place to exercise my burgeoning slapstick career. But I think that’s where I caught the bug and I think break dancing was the first time I was able to assume a character in public and say, “This is not Nick you see before you. This is Tick-Tock. Please be transported by the magic electricity that seems to pulse through my entire corpus.”

You were the uprock guy and Flip-Flop was the downrock guy. But you created your own moves and gave them names like the C4PO, the Grumpy Dervish, and the Pigfucker. Could you take us through a couple of these moves? Or were you just clowning?
Well, that may be your interpretation of it, but the vernacular of my choreography is a subject matter that I could not take more seriously. And as far as quote taking you through them unquote, I think we might as well ask Michael Jordan to take us through a few of his favorite moves or perhaps have Leonardo Da Vinci describe some of his preferred brush strokes. I can tell you that the clown has donned the makeup and his nose, the children begin to weep and scream, and the clown knows that it is just.

Wow. What is that from?
I just shat that out. That is from the aegis of my imagination.

Whenever break dancing popped up in the mainstream, like Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It” performance at the ’83 Grammys, did you feel that someone was communicating directly to you in Minooka through the television?
Well, the Herbie Hancock thing was a huge moment. It’s funny. It’s almost traumatizing to remember a time when you could be excited about something and you couldn’t tell anybody. You’re twelve miles from town, you could tell your sister, you could tell your parents or your neighbor — they don’t give a shit. And you can call your cousin, but even that, even a telephone call has a cost, so you don’t take it lightly. You don’t just call your cousin to say, “Oh my god, did you see that new Snickers commercial? It totally invented some awesome moves.” You would wait to talk about it at school. And so this totally banded together my cousin and me, every moment. This was when MTV just started and Michael Jackson was doing such incredible things with his choreography in his music videos. Not to mention his sister, who I call Miss Jackson because I’m nasty. But we would take these moves and in our own pubescent, uh, you know, white Midwestern way, and we would interpret them for our peers at our school dances and get-togethers, and the fraction of Jacksonian talent that we were able to then parlay to our own audience did thrill them indeed. To be able to take the magic of popping and locking and learn it on our own in our basement in front of a mirror and to then display that to an audience with great effect, was sincerely a very moving epoch in my development. Where I said, “Oh, I can taste what Turbo has tasted.” 

Photo: Emily Shur