For many Music Masters, there was no better catharsis than the beat of a good song. This was no different for Reign.
As the leader of Neo-DanceDown, he’d sampled and listened to just about every kind of music imaginable.
There was one particular genre though, that to him, stood above all others.
Be a lie if I told you that I never thought of death.
The words flowed right out of his mouth, just in tune with the music.
It was a line spoken by Reign, in song and in conversation, more times than he could count.
In a way, he and his fellow DanceDown were truly the last ones left.
In a throne-like chair, Reign sat alone like a king, listening intently to the sound of lyrical storytelling, rife with kick and flow.
In his private abode, it was usual for Reign to contemplate on everything that happened within the span of a single day. It was simply in his nature to analyze everything down to the most minute detail.
After months of scouting and observation, he’d successfully brought in Michael Kay of the Audio Knights. It was something that Reign had wanted, something he needed, since the moment he’d laid eyes on the footage of the boy facing the assembled Pop 5.
His Jackson 5 song effect aside, anyone with that kind of promise in dancing skill was a necessity to their Ensemble. They were named DanceDown for a reason, after all.
And now that her allegiance was truly assured, Denny of the Pop 5 was simply an afterthought, a bonus on top of Reign’s true prize.
Reign shifted in his chair, breathing deeply. His body pulsed before he relaxed his muscles, as he’d remembered from his martial training so many years ago.
Focus was key. It appeared to be the main thing Michael lacked, and it would be the first thing that Reign would teach him.
As Reign moved to stand up, the door into his office was knocked upon, as a voice that he’d heard time and time again addressed him from the outside.
“Reign. It’s me.”
Silky, smooth, and irresistible. She had been the one thing that even Reign’s will had been unable to truly withstand.
With a decisive but slow gait, he went for the door, inputting a quick code on the electronic look that caused it to slide open but a moment later.
Selena stood in the doorway, uncertainty all over her face.
Beneath the cover of his mask, Reign narrowed his eyes.
Selena passed by him and took a seat. “He’s coming. Give him a few to get cleaned up. You know how kids are.”
“He’s seventeen.” Reign reminded her. “When I was his age, I already had blood on my hands. The last thing we need is to baby him here.”
Selena said nothing to that. She seemed to almost shrink in her chair, as if seeing some great consequence beyond Reign that even he couldn’t perceive.
Through his mask, Reign sighed, putting a hand on his desk as he tried to relax his tone.
“You have to understand, this is the deal with him. We have to be hard on him if he’s going to make it out there. Craven was one thing, but what happens when the rest of Zero Beat falls on his back? What happens when it’s Obsinight?”
Selena pursed her lips, annoyed.
“Easy for you to say. He’s my son.”
Reign paused, taking his hand off the desk.
“Have you told him?”
Selena looked away.
“No. Not yet. It’s…it’s not a good time.”
Without missing a beat, Reign put a finger beneath her chin, making her look up at him in the process.
“So much for all that wit, all those little remarks. Are you really so helpless in the face of your own flesh and blood?”
Selena didn’t move away, only slightly averted her gaze.
Though she couldn’t see his eyes beneath the mask, she could feel the glaring truth of their gaze.
“My brother is a concern. He’ll find out about all this. And when he does, he’s not going to like it.”
Reign walked past her, hands behind his back as he looked up at the wall above.
Along it where various items of memorabilia: signatures from rappers long dead, prized vinyls that Reign coveted, and even a framed photo of Highlord Funk himself, circa 1977.
“Yes, Prototype. I had hoped we’d see eye to eye, but with his nephew, things are always personal.”
Reign turned slightly, announcing his next words. “If he becomes an issue, I’ll deal with it. For now, let’s see how things go. Even when Michael tells him, he doesn’t know where the DownLow is, and he’d never attack us out of nowhere even if he did.”
With a confident stride, he walked back to Selena in the chair, putting both hands on her shoulders.
He could feel the stress vibrating up her bones and through her shoulders.
“Go see to Denny. I don’t want her left alone for too long.”
There was another rap on the door a moment later, signifying Michael’s imminent arrival.
With this, Reign seemed more than satisfied as Selena stood up to leave.
“Michael’s in good hands. Trust me. I haven’t let you down before.” he stated, only for his voice to lower in a way that Selena was only used to hearing behind closed doors.
In all the years she’d known him, Selena had never seen Reign with his mask off, and yet somehow, she knew him more intimately than anyone.
“Don’t go falling under just yet. His mother needs him, now more than ever.”
Since he’d first arrived at the DownLow with Denny, the image of Reign, DanceDown’s leader, was but a whirlpool of details in his mind.
Now though, Michael stood in his presence, clean as whistle after a fifteen minute shower and able to truly take in the man’s appearance for the first time.
His mask covered only his face, revealing white skin along his exposed arms and upper chest not covered by his tank top. He wore cargo pants, boots, and a hoodie tied around his waist.
To say Reign was toned would be an understatement; he was like a stunt man in a martial arts movie, with well-defined, taut muscles wherever his skin was visible.
And for Michael, the mask, coupled with the music playing in speakers overhead, seemed to make things only more intimidating.
Yet, as if completely reading his thoughts, Reign was quick to reassure.
“How are you feeling? You holding up okay?”
Michael nodded quickly.
“Yeah. Yeah, of course.”
Michael abated his breath. Just being in this room felt like being under Reign’s shadow. The sensation was almost crushing.
“You mind the music?” Reign asked, suddenly aware again that Tupac Shakur’s voice sang overhead. He’d become so used to it by now, he forgot it wasn’t ambiance to everyone.
“It’s okay.” Michael said, not wanting to press further.
But Reign was quick to sense the discontent in his voice.
“Just okay? Come on. Tell me what you really think.”
Michael shifted in his chair, furrowing his eyebrows as his annoyance flooded out.
“Fine. Rap music bugs me. It bugs me because half the time it feels like stealing. They lift a drum beat, guitar riffs, all this stuff from funk, R & B, disco, and then call it their song. And most of the time, it’s the rap single that gets known, and the funk single that fades into obscurity. I hate thinking about it.”
“But you don’t hate the music itself?” Reign asked.
Michael swallowed his breath. “I…I guess not. More the idea behind it. The way it’s made. It’s hard for me to enjoy it because of that.”
“But you like James Brown?”
“He’s considered a pioneer of rap, believe it or not.”
Michael’s eyes widened. “Really? Huh, I guess I never really thought about it that way…”
“I feel you. You’re not wrong to think the way you do.” Reign told him. “I thought the same as you, a long time ago. Took me years to see the meaning behind the words in songs like these, to feel the raw emotion. Eventually though, it inspired me to take up rapping, and to master break-dancing.”
“If you sit and think about it,” Reign continued, enveloping Michael in his words. “Neo-DanceDown is just a sample of the original. We’re just following the beat that Highlord Funk already set down. Like a disco bassline dropped into a hip hop single.”
“I think I understand.” Michael replied, trying to be cordial. “And I’m super grateful to be here. Denny is too, for sure.”
“Good. If you’re not comfortable with us, what’s the point?” Reign acknowledged.
“It’s taken years to rebuild DanceDown, you see. I’ve gone to both poles and back, touched every corner of the world, and came back with four of the best. You and Denny and Nami; you’re exactly what this thing needed, the next step. I want to do it like we used to. You get me?”
Michael smiled, just slightly more comfortable.
“I didn’t realize how big this all was. Makes me feel so freaking small, honestly. I thought being a Music Master was enough of a big deal. But dancing…I just did that for fun.”
Michael sighed. This was the hardest question to ask.
“I gotta know though: why me? You’ve already got crazy good people. Valero, Lucas, Lisa, Selena…I’m like nothing compared to them.”
Reign smirked underneath his mask.
He would never say it, but he saw so much of himself in Michael. Sometimes, it was almost like looking at a mirror.
It was unfortunate that things had changed so much since those days.
“To be honest,” Reign replied, looking up at the picture of Highlord Funk above as Michael followed. “You remind me of him. Zero Beat can say what they want, but the truth stays that he’s an inspiration to many. And DanceDown needs a face like that again.”
Michael Kay blinked. Framed within that photo was the image of a man, clad in a yellow and black jumpsuit, with a large brown afro and dark red glasses framing his eyes. He was caught in a moment of time, with two other people in a grainy photo that seemed plucked right out of the ’70s.
“Highlord Funk. I keep hearing his name. I just know he’s dead, and that Zero Beat did it.”
The boy looked down, suddenly somber in his tone.
“And…that he’s the reason they came after me in the first place. All cause he used disco music.”
“Well.” Reign began. “It’s a little more complicated than that. The truth becomes blurred by history.”
“But it wouldn’t be right for you to be with DanceDown, if you didn’t know the truth. And thankfully, it’s something that was passed on to me some time ago.”
“The truth?” Michael asked, eyebrows raised and mind curious.
He should have known. Of course there was always more to the story than what Calvin had said, and what Valero had so briefly shared.
“Where to begin…” Reign said, his voice wandering before finding its rightful place again.
“I suppose all things start with the Ensemble. You see, DanceDown was Highlord Funk’s attempt to bring together disco-using Music Masters from all across the country. He’d picked the perfect time, right when the first Walkmans were being released to the mass market. Before that, you had to depend on boomboxes, speakers, or just be Synkronized with something. As DanceDown grew, disco music became only one facet as the dancers started flooding in. With so much raw skill, they began to perfect the art of dance, pushing the boundaries of the martial art that Highlord Funk had learned in China so many years ago. This is what became dance-fighting as you see it today.”
“You guys make it look so easy.” Michael said. “All I can really do with it is dodge stuff.”
“You’ll learn. I promise you. Even Highlord Funk didn’t become a master of disco and kung fu overnight. But when he did, and when DanceDown was at its height in 1979, it finally became something worthy of Zero Beat’s attention.
Michael’s tone became low, as he uttered a single word in response.
“Last Record. That’s when they got it him.”
“It is. And I swear, if I was there…” Reign replied, his tone growing angry and violent.
“It was supposed to be a peace conference.” he continued, taking a deep breath to try and quell his rage. “Zero Beat saw DanceDown’s growth as a potential threat, but they wanted to avoid conflict before it started. With portable music players in everyone’s hands, I guess they thought Music Masters fighting in the streets could threaten their worldwide secrecy. They were convincing enough, and Highlord Funk and his confidants agreed to their meeting terms for the greater good.”
Reign’s tone became more rapid now, more frantic. It was almost like he was rapping unconsciously, storytelling like it was second nature. The anger faded, only to be replaced by urgency.
“In the end, it was just about music. A love of disco music, and a love of dance. That’s what pushed Zero Beat to do what they did. They feared a part of popular music so much, that even when it was all said and done, they caused public uproar from behind the scenes. Disco became reviled for years after, and it made me thank those rappers and techno artists who reminded us of what is once was.”
“They attacked him, first right? Him and the rest of DanceDown.” Michael asked, quietly though. He was acutely aware of the darker changes in Reign’s tone.
“Bunch of fucking cowards, Zero Beat.” Reign said, almost spitting now. “He’d brought only twenty people with him, close friends, allies within DanceDown, but I guess they still didn’t think they could take him. So they hired Obsinight, and their leader Harvey Steel. When the Highlord showed up, Gibb Stadium was all dark. The lights popped on, and they were surrounded by over a hundred Music Masters, all armed with Walkmans, with Steel and his bladed guitar at the front.”
“A hundred? I mean…damn.” Michael said, in both shock and awe.
“They’d taken out about fifty of them when people started dropping. There was about thirty of them left when it was only the Highlord and Barry and Regina. Steel killed them both first, and then left him for last. He got arrogant, and thought he could finish the man by himself. But he didn’t realize that by killing his friends and loved ones, he’d also killed the Highlord’s will to live.”
Reign sighed, approaching the one part of the story it seemed like he hated to tell.
“Surrounded and injured, Highlord Funk let himself get speared, right through the stomach. He was dead, then and there, and Harvey Steel knew it. His win wouldn’t matter though, cause it turns out the Highlord let him get that hit. If he went, then so did everyone else. All Harvey got to see was one flash of silver, before Highlord Funk used up every ounce of music inside him, and let loose a song effect that vaporized everyone and everything in Gibb Stadium. His parting gift to Zero Beat and Obsinight, for destroying everything he loved.”
Reign looked down at Michael. “That is Last Record, as it should be known. The death of Highlord Funk, and the death of DanceDown. Years later, I found out the truth, and I resolved to bring their beat back ever since.”
Michael didn’t say anything at first. He gathered his own thoughts, thinking over everything he’d been told, and asked the most logical question he could think of.
“But…how do you know all this? You said he killed everyone. That’s what Calvin said too.”
“There was one survivor. Used a song effect to get out at the last second. Lucky as hell.” Reign replied, crossing his arms and leaning against his desk. “He passed on everything to me, so that Highlord Funk’s legacy might live on. This is what Neo-DanceDown is all about. I won’t let him be forgotten. Him, and everything he was trying to do.”
“Right now though, I only got one thing I want to do, and that’s bring Obsinight to justice. Zero Beat’s too big on the radar for our numbers, but Obsinight is another story. And this has been long overdue.”
“Okay.” Michael said, cogs clicking in his head as he tried to understand. “And how do we do that?”
Reign put a hand on his shoulder. “Plans for another day. I don’t want to overwhelm you.”
“For now, I’m gonna have you go with Nami tomorrow, and do a little job for me. Just a pickup from Studio Q, should be quick and easy.”
“A pickup?” Michael inquired. “For what?”
Reign nodded, satisfied beneath the mask.
“Something that I should have gotten myself a long time ago. The original Walkman that belonged to Highlord Funk himself. Survived the blast, and kept by Zero Beat as a trophy after all these years.”
He kept his grip firm on Michael’s shoulder, looking from behind his mask with a gaze unseen, but determined nevertheless.
“We can’t have that. It belongs to DanceDown, and who better to get it back than a disco user like him? Valero will brief you on the details.”
He patted Michael on the shoulder. “You got this, Michael. We got this.”
Michael nodded in acknowledgement.
He was still in his seat, but his heart was anything but.
Who was he kidding? He should have known that this wasn’t going to be all fun and games.
Just when he thought he was done with Zero Beat, it was like they sucked him right back in.
Like a pop song on the radio that he could never get out of his head, no matter how hard he tried.