The first rap Anwar "Flii Stylz" Burton ever learned was Too Short's "Freaky Tales." He found the cassette in a gutter at 21st Avenue and Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland. After a few listens, he could say it like he wrote it.
Burton was 6, and he had already won a few hip-hop dance competitions. By eighth grade, he was a part of Housing Authority, a Bay Area underground hip-hop collective. At 18, he left for Hollywood. Before long, his talents as a singer, songwriter, dancer and choreographer landed him gigs with Madonna, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez. He appeared in David LaChapelle's 2005 documentary, "Rize," about the clowning and krumping dance movements developed on the streets of South Central Los Angeles.
Today, Burton, 34, has earned American Choreography Awards for Usher's "You Don't Have to Call" and Missy Elliot's "Pass That Dutch" videos. He has collaborated with the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am and recently won an MTV Video Music Award for best choreography on Chris Brown's "Turn Up the Music."
Burton, who lives in Hollywood, is creative director for Chris Brown's "Carpe Diem" world tour, which kicks off in Denmark on Nov. 14. He also will make an appearance on the MTV docu-series "World of Jenks" beginning Dec. 10 (the show premieres Nov. 12). We caught up with Burton between rehearsals to talk about his East Bay days and his plans for giving back.
Q What was it like winning that MTV Video Music Award?
A All I can say is I didn't see that coming. "Turn Up the Music" was a very special project. We weren't expecting it, but we knew the video was hot.
Q What were some of your favorite Bay Area spots for hip-hop in the '80s and '90s?
A The Upper Room in San Francisco. And The Omni in Oakland. I remember I would perform all night and then try to get to school on time after getting something to eat at the Burger King on Fifth and Market.
Q Why did you and your mom move from Oakland to Richmond in 1985?
A My dad went a little too far with the domestic problems, so me and my mom had to move in with my older sister and her kids until 1989. It was hard. All the gun shots outside. All the dead bodies. All the bullets flying through our walls and touching my sister's hair. I remember I saw my first riot at 92nd and Sunnyside.
Q You have no formal training. What do you think it was about hip-hop that clicked with you?
A I'm not going to say it was an escape. I'm not gonna say no cliche type of (expletive). All I know is it was the only thing I did that I didn't have to try. My gift is rhythm. I took six months of jazz with Miss Burgess at El Cerrito High School, but that's it.
Q What was your first big gig?
A Toni Basil put me and Housing Authority in a job dancing at a Bette Midler concert for $2,000 in 1994. I was 16. When I went back to school on Monday and people asked if it was me, I denied it. I didn't want the attention. After that, I danced in TLC's "Kick Your Game," even though I was too tall for the job. After that, it started snowballing.
Q You are public about your love of Oakland and your desire to give back. What does that include?
A My goal is to be an efficient, respectable mogul who comes back to the bay and gives free seminars to kids in Oakland about how to hone their craft and exactly how to get into the industry. Catch me in a few episodes of "The World of Jenks" (on MTV) later this month, and you'll see what I mean.