We here at South Shore Ave are gassing up the DeLorean & taking you back to 1994, where we bore witness to a groundbreaking show that influenced a generation. Twenty years ago this week, Executive Producer Dick Wolf and FOX Network launched the first episode of New York Undercover, which starred Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo, as Detectives J.C. Williams and Eduardo Torres. By the end of its first season, it garnered critical acclaim & helped influence the musical and fashion decisions of youth everywhere. With the help of my friend Headley Bent, we will break down those influences plus discuss all things that New York Undercover impacted in the mid 90s. Yup, we’re on the case….
How did you first come across the show?
Cee: Sounds like a weird question until you realize that back in 1994, I lived in the South Shore & did not have any access to FOX. We only got it a few months later during the holidays. No more waiting for Headley’s sister to mail us** videotapes of Martin & all the other black shows we didn’t get in Montreal. I could watch it on my own now! Before FOX came into our lives, we had to depend on local stations to carry those shows, which of course, they never did. So one night as I was getting ready for bed, I had the TV on CFCF 12 (CH. 12) in the background as the news was ending. While I’m changing my clothes, I hear Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage“ being played out of nowhere. I pulled that “180 slo-mo” turn toward the TV with that WTF look on my face. I’m seeing this guy running away from two goons before eventually falling to his death. I didn’t understand what has happening. I only had two channels in my room: CBC & CFCF 12. Ok, & sometimes if there were no clouds in the sky & the antennae was tilted juuust right, I’d get to watch Bleu Nuit on CH. 4 too on Saturday nights….but that’s another story for another time. Basically though, how the hell would CFCF even know about Hip Hop, much less playing it?? And why was it being played for this segment? What was so fantastic about this voyage???
Eventually, I realized it was the first scene of New York Undercover, & I’m seeing the Spanish dude from Fame & one of the Black Bobsledders from Cool Runnings as the two stars. Ok, lemme kick back & watch! As the show continued on, it immediately roped me in. Detectives J.C. Williams & Eduardo Torres looked like us, spoke like us, and dressed like us. In most cases, they dressed waaaay better than us. Everything came to a climax when they showed Torres rocking the Ottawa Senators hockey jersey with the Jordan IIIs running around New York city chasing a lead. IT WAS OVER. DONE. If the show was a cult, I would have thrown on a robe & started following the leader. I just couldn’t comprehend what the fu** was happening. On a random Wednesday past midnight, I’m watching a cop show whose detectives are wearing all the latest apparel & other stuff we didn’t even realize was hot yet, and spoke just like I did, while playing all the hottest hip hop & R&B tracks in the background. Oh yeah, & I’m watching all this in my bed on a local channel where the only black people that were on there was Oprah & one of the Montreal Expos players (probably Marquis Grissom) on the news. What the hell was happening here?!??
** Also Headley, notice I said “Us“? I don’t care, I benefitted from those videotapes too. So really, it was like both of ours…. you just kept it at your house.
Headley: Lol, The other show was Living Single. What’s sad is you’d think my sister lived in the heart of the States, in the Big Apple, or somewhere easily accessible to these shows. She lived in Pickering?!?!?! And yet she had to feed me sitcoms like it was classified. But we ate it up. New videotapes was like putting on a new pair of kicks.
But back to your question. This is actually a haze to me. Like trying to recollect your first steps, but you know it happened seeing as you’re running today. All I know is the show debuted on CFCF 12 at midnight, and I just stumbled upon it. I think I was watching the news (yes I watched the news back then) and sports segment came at the end of the broadcast. There was no all-day sports channel in English for us Anglophones in Montreal. RDS (a French Sports station) didn’t get much play in our house. Plus I was lazy & we had no remote to just signal off right away, I had to work the energy to get up and physically turn the dial. Yes, I didn’t stutter…. I SAID TURN THE DIAL. So before I could conjure up the energy to turn off the TV, I heard the music from the opening scene, and the perplexed look on my face had to have been priceless. I froze for a second like I heard footsteps in the attic. My face was in the pillow and I said to myself, “that sounds like Video Music Box”. I now turn around to face the TV, and I’m seeing a scene that looks like a video I’d often record with my VHS tape on SLP, when I visit my fam in NYC. I’m like “what am I watching?!?!?” Nothing like this ever came across my TV set unless it was controlled by my VCR. Needless to say, I watched the entire episode like I was watching Santa from behind the door on Christmas Eve. I was hooked before the beginning credits were finished, and all sleep had left my body. By the time it ended with a scene at Natalie’s, I’d already convinced myself I’d see no rest before 1 a.m., whenever this show was on in the immediate future. That was a guarantee.
Cal, did we talk about it in school the next day? I felt like I had a story to share. Like it only came on my TV. Hadn’t been that geeked up to talk about a show since watching an episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, where Lois had a running slow-mo scene and the bounce…. ***daydreaming***
Cee: AHHHH yes. There were few things more resourceful & valued back in the early to mid 90’s than Teri Hatcher & her breasts. For God’s sake, they even created a whole Seinfeld episode around them. I’m sure there were many faculty members of school boards across the country who wondered why their male teenagers kept showing up every Monday morning with one of their forearms looking like Popeye’s.
But yes, I’m sure we had healthy conversations about the beginnings of New York Undercover back then. I mean, how can you not have??? Especially when most people in our city only heard of Martin & the other black shows that did not air on NBC or ABC. The girls were in love with the sex appeal of the two stars (especially when J.C. took off his shirt). The guys loved the overall swagger of the show, the really horny guys wanted a piece of Lt. Cooper for whatever reason (trust me, I knew a couple), and the show among black people & anyone else who embraced hip hop & urban culture grew a cult following almost overnight. You wouldn’t dare miss an episode afterwards.
What kind of impact did New York Undercover have?
Cee: I would say it without knowing the data or statistics of the demographic groups back then, but judging from my eyes, on a scale from small to MAJOR, it probably had as much impact as a Tsunami crashing onto a small island. At least to anyone 25 and under at the time. You have to remember, this show came smack in the sweet spot of the best time in Hip Hop, back when all the new major artists were pumping out some of the best work we had ever heard. East coast, more specifically, New York’s hip hop scene was going through a renaissance period, that was dominating the airwaves around us. Simply put, hip hop artist were becoming superstars & affecting the culture around them. Their music itself blended perfectly with the main characters & storylines from the show. We weren’t used to seeing a Hispanic and a black male being the main leads on a TV show, much less for a major network. The music that was played in the show was extremely relatable & realistic to how they carried themselves.
Let’s get into the fashion sway that NYU had over my generation for a moment. I said earlier that they dressed way better than us. I’ll take it a step further, that show was our motivation on how to look and dress. It’s not an exaggeration. Whatever JC & Torres wore, after a while was studied down to a science. A lot of it was borrowed from the hip hop artists, movers & shakers during those times without question. In fact, it was an explosion in urban fashion where wearing name brands became something you had to do. But the show gave it further validation when we kept seeing it on a weekly basis with consistency. From the hockey jerseys, the winter skullies with the beak, the black university tees and sweaters, the army fatigue pants with the drawstrings in the cuffs, it was like a how-to on how to look fly. Quick story: I’ll never forget the first time I saw a bubble goosedown winter coat, it was when JC rocked it. My cousin from New York was coming up to see us, & I basically told him don’t enter my house without that bubble goose (I would pay him back of course). He got me a black South Pole bubble goose down 3/4 length with the matching skully. NOBODY had that yet. They didn’t even sell the jacket in stores yet much less the 3/4 length one. When I went to school the following week with that on, plus the mustard Timberlands I got from my older brother, with my Franchise Athletics black & yellow hockey jersey… simply put, I felt like a pimp. The only thing I was missing was a gold cane, but the way I strutted through the front doors, it was like I had an invisible one anyway. At that moment, I was Kanye before Kanye. Everyone was looking at me & I was looking back at them like, “Excuse me, was you saying something? Uh uh, you can’t tell me….NOTHING!!” The impact on us was unreal. I don’t think any show influenced me like that before or ever since.
Headley: Cal, you sound like when I bought my first pair of name brand sneakers entering High School. We’ve shared stories for years about the dreaded visit to Pitt/Yellow shoe store off Tashereau in Greenfield Park. Last I remember, those stores are still there today. Buying cheap sneaks which would disintegrate on your feet while wearing them was the norm. But our parents were sucked in by cheap prices (even though you had to replace them monthly). When I went to NYC on Labour Day weekend in 1989, and got my first pair of legit sneaks, you couldn’t say nothing to me. I walked the halls with pointed feet. And get this… THEY WERE AVIA’s!!! Back to the question at hand….
Let’s just forget the series for a moment. I’m going to ignore everything you just said. Not because it’s not valid, but because I cannot explain it any better. That impact was undeniable. But I’m going to touch on another aspect that gets lost but was profound to Montreal specifically. This series, this show changed the way we advertised for parties in Montreal. Up until that point, it was purely pushing flyers, basically old school. Still to this day, it’s the most grassroots marketing for parties. With all the technology out in the world, pushing flyers is still effective. As we’ve gone from LP to CD to MP3, you can still expect to get flyers on your windshield on a hot weekend. Well, back then that was the only way you got parties promoted. I didn’t get my first email address until 1996 when the series was well underway. But it was during New York Undercover programming that we started seeing commercials for parties. This was epic! No such thing as PVR, yes you could set your VCR to record, but most people watched the episodes live. You couldn’t bear to wait longer than the necessary week, from one episode to the next, so everyone into urban culture was glued to the set and having to endure the commercial breaks. It was a savvy move to drop a commercial ad because the time slot would be relatively cheap and everyone in your niche market being catered to would be watching. I think it was either a Rickey D & Shaheed or the Keith & Karen ads I first saw, and soon became routine to see the low budget commercial on the reel during New York Undercover. The sophistication on advertising parties had arrived in Montreal’s urban scene. It was the shift to new school marketing in our party scene.
Interesting Fact: Malik Yoba (J.C. Williams) and Michael DeLorenzo (Eduardo Torres) were the first two people of color to be in the starring roles of a police drama on US Television.
Headley: I referred a bit to Natalie’s in the first question. The fictional café jazz lounge featuring live band performances. I think the concept of Natalie’s clubhouse probably originated as a humble story line to encompass the music culture into the show and morphed into being as intriguing as the program itself. Natalie’s was owned by Natalie herself, then later in Season 2, by Detective Eddie Torres’ father, Mike Torres, a musician and recovering drug addict. You could argue that the acts and anticipation of the performances covered on the show, were as big as the musical guests on The Arsenio Hall show. Yes, I said it. Again, seeing black acts on TV wasn’t regular as it is today. We didn’t have BET, or any of those specialty channels in Montreal, so it was Arsenio’s show that we relied on. Arsenio coincidentally ended his stint (I don’t acknowledge his return back to TV like I try to forget MJ wore Wizards colors once) right around the time New York Undercover debuted. So you looked forward to those five minutes of the Natalie scene at the end of episodes because they had star studded performances everywhere from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to The Temptations. While I get that Arsenio was more revered because in addition to singing, there were interviews that allowed a voice to a muzzled, somewhat controversial, culture which was hip-hop back in it’s early infancy… but the acts weren’t any bigger. New York Undercover brought in top acts. I also willfully enjoyed the throwback artists such as The O’jays, Chaka Khan and George Clinton, to name a few. Not saying that Arsenio didn’t support these type of artists, but watching them perform in a jazz band was very reminiscent of how their career started. My sister was a collector of LP’s (we have several years difference) so I would play a lot of records growing up, and was familiar with some acts, but watching a performance, although short, was still riveting. Natalie’s brought back sounds of yesteryear that we all lost some appreciation for. They brought divas and legends back to life. My appreciation for rhythm and blues / soul / jazz / whatever you want to call it was reinforced because of this lounge. Between Natalie’s at the end of the episode, and the music played in the opening scenes, it was a great way for infusing musical content in a show which really hadn’t been done as smoothly unless the show was about the type of music you heard on Glee. The music content just seem so relevant but never overpowering. Cal, do you remember who played Natalie, the lounge it was named after? Hint, she’s a diva!
Cee: “Was it………um……Gladys Knight??”
“Survey say….**DING!** Gladys Knight everyone!! Gladys Knight was the #1 answer!” #SteveHarveyvoice
Knight was the original Natalie, which I found weird because she was only featured in a few episodes in the first season. Shouldn’t she have been featured in more episodes considering the club was named after her? In real life, can you imagine night after night all these superstars & upcoming artists just rolling up on stage? What was the cover charge?? Was it on some exclusive, VIP-type levels where you needed to be on the list & give up a vial of your own blood?? Think about it: you’re chilling with your date nursing a drink or two & up walks Luther Vandross on stage & he starts singing “Here and Now”. You supposed to sit there all cool & calm like a karaoke singer just walked on? Is that the rule when you’re sitting in Natalie’s, don’t over-cheer? I can never understand how you’re supposed to remain cool with all these heavy hitters performing on a regular basis. Anyhow, if I owned the club, I’d charge $75 a pop & who would say no? You could see Mary J. Blige, you could see Aretha Franklin, who knows. But you gonna pay that $75 though & smile while you’re doing it.
Think about how cool this concept was for a TV show. It didn’t have just one, but it had two different soundtracks which included some of the hot R&B tracks of the time plus the performed songs from the show. You’re right Bent, it was a great concept. I’ll take it a step further and I want you to think about this. This was one of the few shows in TV history that produced an original song that ended up being a classic. Don’t remember? I’ll give you a hint….
That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the legendary Guy!! The show was so popular that it brought a group together who was broken up at the time, to make one more classic. That song dropped on the show, everyone flipped out as it was so unexpected and it departed from the norm of artist doing cover songs or something that we knew. AND IT WAS FIRE. A couple of months later, the song was literally everywhere & we all thought Guy was coming back together. The hype was for nothing as that was literally the last song that they ever made & Teddy Riley continued on making a new future with Blackstreet.** It happened so fast, the reunion thought was gone before it can even marinate in your mind. Sad really, but was grateful for Natalie’s because even in fictional terms, it was able to produce a real life classic. How many shows can you say did that?
Headley: Cal, if you recalled I always said if I ever owned a lounge club, I’d call it Natalie’s. Not because of your sister (I love you Nat!!) but because of this show. I loved it that much. I’ll leave it at that. How many TV shows had soundtracks back then? Could you fathom buying a Friends or Frazier soundtrack? Case close.
Interesting note: Back in the early 90s, this concept was tried in Toronto by R&B star Keith Washington, who had opened a lounge here with performers & everything. Almost like Natalie’s. After a couple of months, a few people decided to have weekly & impromptu MMA street sessions (aka wild fights) that sent people scattering for their lives. Needless to say, the club closed down before it made its real mark.
** Also, Guy did actually come back with an album in 2000 called Guy III. But much like Wayne Gretzky in a St. Louis Blues uniform, we try to forget that actually happened. Let’s move on before we start remembering again.
Cal Cee // South Shore Ave
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