In 2007, South Memphis native Charles Riley (aka Lil' Buck) debuted his dance skills in a homemade music video with his rapper brother Young Jai. The grainy video for "Choppin' Like Dat" was the first of numerous Lil' Buck "jookin'" videos posted on YouTube.
Those videos led to Lil' Buck's move to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a choreographer and professional dancer. The 23-year-old appeared in Janelle Monae's "Tightrope" video and is currently traveling the globe with acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma in an unlikely pairing of Memphis jookin' and classical music.
Jookin', a made-in-Memphis dance style that looks like a cross between ballet and Michael Jackson's "moon walk," was an underground sensation in hip-hop clubs before YouTube brought the dance to the mainstream.
On November 12th, Lil' Buck, one of 12 finalists in a competition to become Madonna's next back-up dancer, will audition at the Smirnoff Nightlife Exchange Project in New York City. — Bianca Phillips
How'd you get involved in this Madonna contest?
A videographer had me do a little one-minute clip of dancing and talking about being a part of the Smirnoff Nightlife Exchange. It was posted in an online contest, and it ended up getting a lot of views. Next thing you know, I'm one of the top finalists.
What's the origin of Memphis jookin'?
It's a style that originated in Memphis almost 30 years ago. It came from the Memphis sound back in the day: DJ Squeaky, DJ Spanish Fly, Three 6 Mafia. You can't help but bounce your head when you hear that Memphis beat.
When did you start jookin'?
I first saw jookin' at the Crystal Palace. There was a guy named Bobo, and he was gliding across a carpet like water. I was around 12 years old. That's when I knew that's what I wanted to do. I started learning it on my own just by watching people around my neighborhood.
So is jookin' your job now?
I do choreography centered around the jookin' style. I just travel and get Memphis jookin' seen by the world. I do a lot commercials, and I'm signed with an agency. Right now, I'm doing a lot of work with Yo-Yo Ma. We're going to China in a couple of days and then to Japan.
Were else have you been spreading jookin'?
I was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show three times. She loves jookin'. I was on So You Think You Can Dance. I auditioned with my crew instead of auditioning individually. I don't know if they aired it.
How'd you get discovered?
I was contacted by a lady who wanted a music video for one of her artists after she saw the first video I put on YouTube. She ended up flying me and one of my friends out to L.A. We stayed there for three days and did the music video, and we saw a lot of opportunity out there. We saw all the lights and the culture. We knew we had to go back and get something going with this dance style.
When you were watching older jookers as a kid, did you ever imagine this becoming your career?
No, I didn't. Jookin' is more of a cultural dance, so it was like eating breakfast. It was everyday life for us. But as I got older and people started requesting jookin' for music videos, I saw the possibilities of expanding jookin' from a street dance to big deal around the world. I think it deserves to be in the same genre as ballet and jazz and modern dance.