Two decades after it went off the air, YouTube clips and artists like Black Milk are celebrating the legacy of Detroit’s once-influential TV show and its impact on dance music and the city that gave the world techno.
"Detroit's New Dance Show," a new track from hip-hop MC and producer Black Milk, dusts off one of the lesser known institutions at the foundation of Detroit's electronic music canon: The New Dance Show, a legendary local TV program that ran from the late 80s into the early 90s in Detroit, and pays tribute to the show's infamously dope soundtrack with synth-heavy, four-on-the-floor beats.
The New Dance Show, aired from 1988-1995 on Detroit's WGPR-TV 62, the first black-owned and operated television station in the country. The show featured local kids in the flyest clothes and hairstyles of the time breaking it down to a mix of Detroit techno, ghettotech, Chicago house and music from overseas artists like Kraftwerk and A Guy Called Gerald. It brought emerging underground music into the living rooms of households all over lower Michigan. The new sound of Detroit was introduced to a massive city-wide and suburban audience outside of the clubs and late night warehouse parties as now-classics like "Clear" by Cybotron, "Big Fun" by Inner City and "NO UFOS" by Model 500 were spun by the show's resident DJs as dancers like The Count, LaWanda and Miss Energy showed off their impressive skills. The highlight of each episode were the dance lines, where everyone got the chance to flaunt their signature moves and unique personas:
"We were the people who would introduce certain artists - along with The Electrifying Mojo and some other radio jocks - and we could make it happen for them," explains RJ Watkins, The New Dance Show's creator, producer and host. "If The Dance Show got on it- we could introduce it to the world. We helped a lot of groups go national just by playing their tracks on our show."
Often lazily described as Detroit's version of Soul Train, The New Dance Show was unique not just in its music selection but because of Watkins' talent for editing. His background in dance studies and ear for music allowed him to cut shots to match the beats, giving the show a live energy and flow unlike any other, including its equally legendary predecessor, The Scene.
Watkins, who now dedicates his energy to his current role as President and CEO of Detroit's TV33 WHPR and 88.1 FM, began his career in television by hosting and producing his own show, Late Night With RJ Watkins. He cites Johnny Carson as an early inspiration and remains passionate about the power that television has to bring people together. Not for nothing, everyone in Detroit knew and loved his catchphrase from the show: "Keep it movin', keep it groovin'."
"If we still had a show like that on, we could curb some of the grave stuff that's happening in Detroit right now," he says. "We gave people a reason to be home for an hour, we locked the city down. Sit down, shut up, laugh—whether you love hate it, like it, you're gonna be home at 6 o'clock and you're gonna watch. It gave everyone something to talk about. We had characters, like in any family, that everyone knew and loved. You had your neighborhood sister down the street, you had your neighbourhood gay guy, your neighbourhood dyke, your neighbourhood fat girl, small girl, your neighbourhood hustler, your neighbourhood pimp. We had all walks of life on that show."
In a culturally divisive time, The New Dance Show acted like the Pied Piper, luring suburban kids into the city and city kids out into the clubs, ultimately helping to nurture an underground dance music scene where gender, ethnicity, socioeconomics, race and sexual orientation were, inexplicably, practically a non-issue.
Now, almost two decades after the show went off the air, Black Milk's "Detroit's New Dance Show" is reconnecting his audience to that legacy. It may be a stylistic departure for the artist whose hometown roots usually come through in the soulful, Motown sounds that he's prone to sampling, but it's not a total left field move. Black has already established himself as a creative force in the hip-hop industry, known for his ever-broadening repertoire of diverse production styles and collaborators like J. Dilla, Jack White and Black Thought of The Roots. According to Black, it was really only a matter of time before he dipped his toe into the techno pool,
"Cats like Juan Atkins brought this sound to Detroit and the world in the early to mid 80s," he explains. "Hip-hop was still pretty new then, too. It was just a natural progression for people that were into hip-hop to also be into electronic music, if you lived in Detroit. Musically, it's different but the vibe and the feel and the artists that were making techno had a certain ghetto-ness and attitude that meshed well with hip-hop. The attitude and approach wasn't that different."
He concedes that isn't necessarily going to cater to his typical fanbase, but that wasn't the point. "It's a Detroit thing, man," he says. "When I released that song, I expected only a select few people to get it. I didn't expect it to appeal to everyone."
Black Milk isn't the first artist to tip his hat to The New Dance Show. In 2009, techno producer Osborne used clips from the show for the video accompanying his track "The Count" and producer/singer Mayer Hawthorne did the same with 2011's "A Long Time". In discussing early influences, you'd be hard pressed to find a Detroit-bred techno DJ or producer who doesn't make mention of the show.
"They know—Juan Atkins and the other techno artists—how important The New Dance Show was because they would give us a track and we would put that in the mix and the kids would go crazy," Watkins recalls. "Even though we don't get the credit for it, the people inside the industry know the secret; they down for us."
Thanks to YouTube, The New Dance Show maintains a cult following to this day. Reruns are still broadcast in the Detroit area on Watkins' station, but fans outside of the D looking for more than online clips may be out of luck, at least for the time being. Watkins isn't chomping at the bit to release his masters,
"We don't know how to control that entity yet because once you put it on DVD, it's just gone. Anyone can duplicate it," he admits. "I haven't authorised any of the YouTube stuff but I don't mind because they're keeping the show alive and I appreciate it."
Any discussion about The New Dance Show would be grossly incomplete without pouring a sip out for the equally infamous commercials that aired during the show for Watts Club Mozambique, an all-male strip club:
Black Milk's LP, If There's A Hell Below is slated to drop on October 28. He is also at work on a techno-inspired project, due later this year on Warp Records.