By GUY TREBAY
IN the evolution of black barbering according to Kamal Nuru, the list of begats begins with the Fade (which some folks refer to as the Jersey).
The era would have been around 1982. The Fade was a popular haircut dating to the golden age of hip-hop, one in which the sides were cropped close and the puffy hair on top was kept low, an effect achieved using clippers fitted with No. 1 and No. 2 blades.
“A No. 1 is pretty close, so you can still see the scalp,” Mr. Nuru said last week from behind the Dutch doors to an office that also serves as the coat closet at Levels Unisex, his bustling barbershop on Lexington Avenue in East Harlem.
“A zero,” Mr. Nuru added, referring to clipper gauge, “would be bald.”
Stepped up and set back from the street, Levels is an oasis of calm and tonsorial focus in a part of the city where an awful lot of agitated people can be seen bustling around. There is a homeless shelter across Lexington Avenue. There is a drug treatment facility around the corner. A more-or-less permanent cluster of transvestite prostitutes plies the corners of nearby 125th Street, clad in summery ensembles of Daisy Dukes and tube tops, accessorized with clutch purses that seem awfully tiny until one considers the modest dimensions of the tools of their trade.
The Fade cut eventually begat the Hi-Top Fade, as popularized by rappers like Doug E. Fresh and Schoolly D. When an angled cut was worked into the longer hair at the top of the head, the Flat-Top (a k a the Box) became the Slope (a k a the Gumby), and then the Slope or the Gumby, or whatever you called it, eventually begat another ridged haircut named for a math geek character played by the actor Kadeem Hardison in the “Cosby” spinoff, “A Different World.”
The Dwayne Wayne, Mr. Nuru explained, “had a little swoop-up like a ramp” and was immensely popular at about the time that Mr. Nuru got into the barbering game in 1987. By lucky chance, that happened to be at the precise moment when many African-Americans fastened onto the idea of having their coiffures shaved into complex patterns and topiary designs.
“The late ’80s and early ’90s were a really great time” for African-American hairstyling, said Mr. Nuru, who is 39. Gazing around at the 11 chairs in the shop, one of three he owns in as many boroughs, he remarked with satisfaction that, like much else from the ’80s, the glorious hairstyles of that long ago era had cycled around again.
“The Mohawk came back heavy in the last year,” he said. “And people started playing with their hair again.”
They started having their hair shaped and shaved and cut into fanciful patterns. They began adding Chinese-made black coloring to already dark hair to achieve a blue-black “Beijing” dye job, an effect that lends the wearer a curious resemblance to an action figurine.
They resumed — and with greater brio than was ever seen in the 1980s, when the rigid machismo of early hip-hop culture put a crimp in playfulness — having fun with how they look.
“I used to cut Mickey Mouse into people’s hair, Yankees symbols, any logo or abstract symbol or caricature they could think of,” said Mr. Nuru, whose Islamicized name, he claimed, means...