Jefferson Community Center was the spot. As soon as class let out at nearby Mercer Middle School in the early ’90s, kids came barreling down the path through Jefferson Park with anticipation.
Several days a week, local DJs would set up their turntables, spinning records for the legion of breakdancers, or “B-boys,” who congregated in the stuffy rec center to practice their moves. Sketchbooks were feverishly passed and critiqued among the graffiti artists who also made Jefferson their meeting ground.
“We used to all look forward to running there after school,” says Benito Ybarra, who was 11 or 12 at the time. “We couldn’t wait to get there.”
Where the Central District was ground zero for Seattle rap music, Jefferson Park became the nexus for the other elements of hip-hop culture — DJing, breakdancing and graffiti writing, says Ybarra. At the center of it were revered B-boys Soul One and Fever One of the DVS Crew, a collective of DJs, B-boys and graf writers, who came there to break.
For many of the youth from Mercer Middle School and Franklin High School, the vibrant Jefferson scene Soul and Fever — who were then in their early 20s and eventually taught more official breakdancing programs in local schools — helped cultivate was a positive alternative at a pivotal time in their lives.
“Everyone was trying to figure out their identity and what would define them, and a lot of kids were choosing to be down with certain street gangs,” says Ybarra. “Everybody at Jefferson had that same energy, but we redirected it toward hip-hop. It still gave you that crew identity, family vibe.”
On March 19, Soul One — whose real name was Jeffrey Alan Yoshio Higashi — died in his sleep. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the cause of death as an accidental drug overdose. Friends and relatives say they saw no indication that Higashi, 48, ever had substance-abuse issues. “His passing was a complete shock to everybody,” his sister Julie Higashi Davis says.
A GoFundMe campaign was created to help with funeral expenses, with any remaining money going toward a college fund for Higashi’s twin daughters, now high-school seniors. A memorial show also benefiting his daughters will be held 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 10, at the Crocodile, with live art from his DVS mates and performances from heavyweight Seattle DJs including Jake One, Vitamin D and DV One. Members of renowned B-boy crew Massive Monkees, many of whom came up at Jefferson Park and were influenced by Soul and DVS, will also perform.
Soul’s death was felt around Seattle’s hip-hop community and an outpouring of love and condolences hit social media as the news spread. Over the years, Soul became best known as a prominent DJ — a charismatic party rocker who could make the smallest gigs feel massive, as Ybarra’s older brother Alonzo, a childhood friend, remembers.
But Soul’s legacy as a steward of hip-hop culture in Seattle extends beyond what he did behind the decks, rooted in those early Jefferson Park days — its traditions carried on by the younger generation nearly 30 years later.
“Bridging the gap”
Soul’s first piece of “graffiti” didn’t carry much street cred. From a young age, he was interested in art and Higashi Davis, recalls Soul painting a bright orange Garfield on a wall in their childhood home near Genesee Park. When breakdancing got hot in the early ’80s, Soul and Fever and their jumpsuited friends would lay down cardboard in Soul’s basement bedroom and practice moves they’d unleash at local mall competitions (and eventually much bigger stages).
“I would sit up on the top bunk and they would turn on the [boombox] and be in there for hours,” Higashi Davis says.
One of the earliest memories Frankie Uno-Valdez has of his extended cousin was from a Fourth of July at Soul’s grandmother’s house in Enumclaw. When he walked in, she told him “Jeff and the boys” were out in the barn.
“I’m from the city, I’m just like ‘Oh great, we’re gonna go out to the barn,'” Uno-Valdez says. “We walk in and there’s a bunch of homies there breakdancing.”
Soon after, Uno-Valdez saw “Jeff and the boys” on TV performing during a Seattle Center competition.
By the early ’90s, when Soul and Fever anchored the Jefferson Park scene, breakdancing’s mainstream popularity was waning. As pop culture’s infatuation with city kids spinning on their heads dissipated, Soul and DVS Crew helped carry the local torch, inspiring a new wave of Seattle youth. “Instead of letting a lot of those art forms — breaking but also graffiti — fade as the entertainment world turned away from hip-hop after treating it like a fad, they bridged the gap and brought that forward to the next generation,” says Alonzo Ybarra.
At Jefferson, the younger Ybarra, Benito, remembers Soul as a willing teacher (if you could handle blunt feedback) with a loving, generous spirit beneath a “hard-core exterior.” Soul excelled at everything he did — DJing, B-boying and graffiti art — and was a famously ruthless critic who pushed everyone around him to better their craft through constant clowning, friends say.
“A lot of people just smile and tell you what you want to hear,” says Fever, aka Carter McGlasson. “That’s one of the reasons why people respected him so much. … He was honest.”
A veteran Seattle graffiti artist named Hewes experienced Soul’s “brutally honest” appraisals firsthand. Several years younger than Soul, Hewes was a Jefferson Park regular, though the two officially met in an abandoned downtown garage. Not far from the since-razed RKCNDY club, the old International Motor Sports garage was a hot spot for graf writers. One day Soul rolled up on a 15-year-old Hewes and his friends, and wound up driving them all over the city to look at street art.
Soul became an artistic mentor to Hewes, brashly critiquing his sketches, and six years later, Hewes officially joined DVS. “My life is not going to be the same without him,” Hewes says. “He was so responsible for checks and balances, man, and keeping things on the right track. Without him, I feel like my compass is gone in a lot of ways.”
Before he met Soul, graffiti artist Sam “Sneke” Swanson had put his B-boying days behind him, mostly dancing in clubs to impress girls once breakdancing lost its cachet. A mutual friend introduced him to Soul one night when DVS was breaking at RKCNDY and “it sparked something in me,” he says. Soul knew Sneke from his tags and immediately welcomed him into the burgeoning DVS family.
The crew did everything together — graffiti, breaking, spinning records — and Soul was “the man to beat in all fields,” says Sneke. DVS traveled around the country to B-boy competitions, waving the flag for Seattle at a time when most of the crews taken seriously were coming out of New York, Los Angeles or Miami. (Fever eventually moved to New York and joined the pioneering Rock Steady Crew.)
One day, the generation of kids Soul and DVS helped influence would carry that flag even further.
As a DJ and promoter, Soul was a driving force behind many popular club nights, including Yo, Son! and his long-running dance hall/reggae party Wicked & Wild, which started at Art Bar and moved to several venues over the years, including the Baltic Room. Though he started dabbling with DJing in high school, it wasn’t until Soul and DVS launched their weekly Foundation night at Art Bar — which like Jefferson, became a gathering place around hip-hop culture — in the ’90s that Soul got serious.
Foundation was an all-crew effort, but Soul, who worked at the club, was the “mastermind,” according to Fever. After a few months, Soul approached Supreme La Rock, one of Foundation’s resident DJs, about getting behind the decks himself. “I swear to God, it must have been a week later, and he was nice,” says Supreme, aka Danny Clavesilla. “Skillful, [he] could mix. He was a natural.”
As gifted as Soul was, he also put in the work. Alonzo Ybarra recalls Soul practicing with any free time he got, even after coming home from gigs. “He couldn’t stand the idea of being average at anything that he did,” Alonzo says.
DJing became the priority for Soul, though he never lost touch with hip-hop’s other elements, often spinning at breakdancing competitions. In recent months, friends say he talked about painting again.
“He was the ultimate B-boy up until the day he passed. I got a text from him last week, he was at his job site doing a freeze,” Sneke says with a chuckle, referring to a breakdancing move. “Till the end, man.”
Passing the torch
The spruced-up Jefferson Community Center of today isn’t the “small sweatbox” crammed with breakers and graffiti artists that Hewes remembers. But the traditions bred in that organic “melting pot” of creativity continue. Among the kids who flocked to Jefferson to soak up hip-hop lessons from elder statesmen Soul and Fever were future members of Massive Monkees, including Benito Ybarra. Though Benito wasn’t a breaker, he managed the decorated B-boy/B-girl crew for more than a decade.
Since scraping their sneakers at Jefferson, Massive Monkees went on to win some of the most prestigious international competitions, including R-16 in South Korea. (A video from their semifinals battle has been viewed nearly 65 million times on YouTube.) “We’re at [Seoul] Olympic Stadium performing some B-boy [expletive] that we learned at Jefferson,” Benito says.
Soul accompanied Massive during a 2007 R-16 run in Seoul, DJing the event and various after parties. “He was like a proud dad,” Benito says. “I think he felt like his job was completed. … It was the most happy I’d ever seen him.”
In 2013, Massive — which celebrates its 20th anniversary with a three-day blowout in June — opened a dance studio of its own, The Beacon in the Chinatown International District. There they run classes and after-school programs, passing hip-hop traditions on to the next generation with the same spirit that coursed through Jefferson Park.
“To this day, you can go to the Massive Monkees’ studio and see Massive teaching kids,” Benito says, “and the direct influence comes from how they were taught by Soul and Fever.”