Chicago dancer Lil Kemo ready for bigger breakthrough

It's good to be the Bop King

Chicago dancer Lil Kemo, who helped perfect a dance known as "Bopping", which started on the West Side of the city, talks about the dance and displays some of his moves.

Travon Biggs, a.k.a. the Bop King of the World, a.k.a. the Fastest Legs on the West Side, a.k.a. the originator of the Kemo Step, a.k.a. Lil' Kemo, walked up his unplowed street in North Lawndale the other day, sneakers sliding sideways in the slush. Behind him a rabbit hopped out on the sidewalk, reconsidered it and hopped back beneath a fence. Across the street, an elderly man shoveling a walkway shouted: "Proud of you, Kemo!" Biggs, whom everyone calls Kemo (and I will call Kemo from here), waved over his shoulder.

"Proud!" the man repeated.

Kemo turned the knob on his front door, knocked snow from his feet and said hello to his mother. He's 18, home-schooled and lives there with her, his two sisters and a little brother. They moved there eight years ago after the housing project they lived in was bulldozed. Kemo sat before the computer in the living room. I asked to sit beside him and he nodded and pulled up a second chair. I asked this partly because he had just told me that his "whole life now is sitting at this computer" and partly because his email in-box these days had to be extraordinary.

It was.

"Do U Do Kidz Parties?"

That's just one of the subject lines that jumped out, but most of the rest were similar, variations on a theme: Lil' Kemo is definitely in demand.

His email was set up so that he could read the first line of each message without opening the email itself. "Do U Do Kidz Parties?" looked especially promising. Kemo noticed the "$600" that its author mentioned in the first line, and so, without reading the rest, Kemo mumbled to himself: "OK, so they want to pay us $600." Then he emailed back a brisk, easy response: "Yeah, we can do it."

The next email asked: Would $500 work to dance at a house party? Would it cover Kemo and Dlow — Kemo's friend and dance partner, a.k.a. Daryon Simmons, also 18 and arguably even more in demand now?

It would.

"Man, so many bookings," Kemo said. "Doubt we can do them all."

Lil' Kemo, along with Dlow ("dee-low"), has become a household name throughout the West Side. He wants to rap (last year both he and Dlow released, independently, a handful of upbeat, Auto-Tuned party songs). But right now, primarily, he dances, and a lot of people want to pay him and Dlow to dance at their parties, at their school functions and in their music videos. The dance that made his name is bopping, and though it's not Kemo's exclusive creation, Kemo popularized it, made it his own. He's synonymous with bopping. Last week, he and Dlow bopped at the United Center during a Bulls game. Last month he bopped on "The Steve Harvey Show," and also with the anchors on WFLD-Ch. 32's "Good Day Chicago." Kemo's had a shout-out from Chance the Rapper, appeared in popular Chicago-made rap videos (King Louie, John Walt). On Feb. 21, as part of a rap showcase, he's dancing at the Olympic Theatre in Cicero. Just like he did last month …

"Man," Kemo said, squirming in his chair, "I am tired. So much stuff. I promise you, I wouldn't lie. Me and Dlow went to TGI Friday's yesterday on Cicero (Avenue). Everywhere we go we get noticed, but at Friday's? The manager, this nice Caucasian lady, comes up and gives us free food. I promise you: free food! People are treating us right. We didn't have to pay for nothing. The key is to keep getting this thing out there. We could be huge. This bop movement could be bigger, if we got on BET or somewhere. Let us do our thing — huge."

According to Dexter Dale, co-owner of the small Chicago label Dough Street Entertainment, which represents Lil' Kemo and Dlow at bigger events, the dancers have been asking about $1,500 for higher-profile performances, but many appearances are mainly for promotion — to spread the gospel of bopping.

Which is?

Bopping is infectious and exuberant, a party dance, perfect for groups — mesmerizing when people know what they're doing, merely fun to watch when they don't. In an authoritative portrait of the dance last fall, the Chicago Reader's Leor Galil wrote that bopping's roots began on the West Side, its general image being "fluid and playful, with a built-in pulse." Legs fly akimbo, elbows flap, arms curl inward like chicken wings, rise up as though shadow boxing, then windmill like jump ropes. Bodies twist and bob and jerk, but smoothly, as if in one motion. Galil's story places its earliest incarnations in the 1970s, but watching Kemo, especially, it's hard not to picture the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance: zoot suits leaning backward and legs dipping low with the beat. That said, Kemo and Dlow make bopping look simple and elegant — yes, elegant.

"We started bopping together because he was the best at it and I was the best, and rather than compete we joined forces," Simmons (Dlow) said. "His style is lower body. He uses his legs more and goes down more. And I am all upper body, working my arms and neck and head more than he does. We do fit well together."

And now, more or less, they are waiting for bopping to cross over, go mainstream, become the next Harlem Shake or, heaven forbid, Macarena. Which could happen: In December, Kemo and Dlow released instructional videos with original songs attached: "The Kemo Step" and "The Dlow Shuffle." Combined, both were watched more than 2 million times within a month. The latter (and more popular of the two videos) is a pastiche of arm work; the former resembles a peppy cartoon character in an exaggerated stroll home from work. Ukemoshay Sanders, a Los Angeles dancer who grew up on the South Side and made his name with the speedier, more intricate street dance named footworking (Kemo's nickname is a tribute to Sanders), said: "No disrespect intended, but bopping is seasonal, momentary. It's not art but it could be big." (Even Rick Ross, on Jay Z's recent album "Magna Carter … Holy Grail," rapped: "I don't bop, I do the money dance.")

And so, Kemo has developed a routine with his computer: He wakes up, checks his emails for new bookings and appearance requests, then goes on the hunt for new recruits. He wonders: Who's bopping now?

He called up YouTube, which indicated he shot 123 videos of himself bopping (mostly in his basement and backyard), and those videos (not including the "Kemo Step" video) have been watched more than 1.5 million times — and answered with scores of videos of people trying to bop. He switched to Facebook, where a video showed an Asian man bopping in the snow. Then he moved to Vine, where old women, teenagers, someone in an Elmo suit at a children's party, a character in the video game Minecraft, all were shown dancing the Kemo Step.

He watched the Elmo clip three times, laughing louder and louder with each new play, then turned to me: "Here's the thing: These people, nobody taught them how to bop, but because of our videos, they do know."

Kemo started this at 16. He showed me the first video he shot. He looks exactly as he does now, thin, boyish. He places his video camera on a paint bucket, then runs back to a corner of his basement and waits for music to start. We watched it a while and Kemo, never taking his eyes from the screen, said, explaining his inspiration: "I saw these guys on a corner, listening to a radio, working their elbows real cool. But they didn't know where that could go (from there). So I made it my own, adding legs, paying attention to detail, lyrics." Mix in the influence of Sanders' footwork, and Kemo is telling a story very familiar to pop culture:

Fusion, osmosis.

"But this was the breakthrough," he said, calling up a King Louie video from a year ago. It shows Louie on a corner, ominous, not smiling. No one is smiling. But behind them, Kemo's body convulses, waves. He stands out so plainly it's obvious why you would want to know more. Duan Gaines, a.k.a. DGainz, the influential Chicago music video director who made the clip, told me: "I just saw (Kemo) dancing one day and said next time I need to bring my camera. So I included him in the video for 'Break a Band' (from Chicago rappers Dreezy and Mikey Dollaz), and when we were shooting with Louie, I showed him a rough cut. He said 'Who is that kid?' So I called Kemo, who lived down the block, (and he) came right down and danced. I liked his individuality. The dance, too: When you bop, it's not one, two, three. It's this expression of you."

Kemo's dancing also popped out in contrast to the brooding, lock-step intensity of drill, the style that has dominated Chicago rap for a year or so. Kemo thinks the rise of bopping is a reaction to drill. He also thinks: "Though I have gained a lot of supports, I have gained a lot of haters." Partisans of the drill scene, he figures. He shows me a video that someone shot recently of a fight outside a social club on the South Side: There's a lot of screaming, and arms flailing, and suddenly, Kemo breaks free and runs into 87th Street.

"I don't want to fight," he said, watching himself. "I want to stay positive and follow a dream. I don't want my legs broken. I'm running fast. I'm thinking of my life, basically." He clicked it off and said: "So now I'm just sitting patiently. Me and Dlow are headed to Atlanta to battle (a.k.a. compete against) the Nae Nae guys."

The Nae Nae?

"You don't know the Nae Nae?" he asked, astonished, calling up a video of a similar if less demanding dance. Then he called up a video of an NFL player doing a Nae Nae end-zone dance. I asked if anyone has bopped in an end zone yet. He shook his head, smiling: "We're not there yet. Soon, man. Soon. You'll see."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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