The African American Roots of Contemporary Dance Pop
by Rachel Devitt | February 24, 2014
It's fairly apparent that the contemporary dance pop that currently has its robo-hand (like Beyonce's, get it?) wrapped around the charts in a vice grip is a style that's rooted in, well, roots or, more specifically, in retro aesthetics. The four-on-the-floor beats of disco, the synth-obsessed sleekness of the '80s, the big beats of '90s club music, even the cyborg fascinations and post-apocalyptic anxieties of old-school sci-fi are all omnipresent in the nostalgia-steeped neo-futuristic world of today's pop.
When we talk about the past this style evokes, however, we typically focus on predominantly white histories: Euro-disco, icy Scandinavian dance pop, '80s mall divas and New Wavers, '90s big-beat icons. But as is the case over the course of much of popular music, there are other histories, other pedigrees, other currents of influence that are all too often overlooked or left out of the picture. The clubby beats and smooth synths of contemporary dance pop, for instance, have also been significantly influenced by African American artists across several decades and genres.
In honor of Black History Month, we've compiled this relatively short, not exceptionally comprehensive introductory cheat sheet to the African American roots of contemporary dance pop: a guide to the black artists who helped pave the way for the likes of today's Gagas, Robyns, Black Eyed Peas, Rihannas, La Rouxs and more.
Honestly, we could probably just cut the rest of this list and focus on Donna Summer if we really wanted to boil things down to their essence. Her sensual vocals both aggressive and aloof over beats that made you want to dirty dance (and more) and her injection of an icy hot sexuality into pop epitomized the disco era. And when she partnered with sequencer-junkie Giorgio Moroder in 1975 to coo and purr "Love to Love You Baby" over (and over and over), she also helped create the vocal aesthetic of electronica and contemporary dance pop: a singer who at once made you lust after her and highlighted the little producer behind the curtain.
Listen: On The Radio: Greatest Hits Vol I & II
See Also: Diana Ross
Fashion icon? Check. Slightly terrifying presence merged with smoking-hot (gender-bending) sexuality? Check. Art-house aesthetic filtered through an undying love for a good beat and a decent hook? Uh, yeah. Grace Jones was queen of the dance freaks way back before Stefani Germanotta and Robyn Rihanna Fenty were even a potential shimmy in pop culture's disco-dancing hips -- an influence both those contemporary dance pop stars have at least visually acknowledged. Though she never reached the mainstream echelons of a Gaga or a Rihanna (and maybe she never wanted to), Jones carved out space for freaks, hipsters and dominatrixes to have their way with a beat on a very public stage.
See Also: Disco drag queen Sylvester, art-house house queen Green Velvet/Cajmere
Martha Wash has been instrumental in shaping dance pop genres for at least three decades: as a backup singer for disco queen Sylvester, as a member of the (men-who-love-)men-loving trio The Weather Girls and as a powerhouse vocalist for '80s-'90s dance pop outfits Black Box and C + C Music Factory. You know this voice. What's more, you know intimately what it sounds like soaring over fidgety, finessed dance beats. And while Wash's rafter-shaking vocal style isn't so much in vogue in today's dance pop (though Beyonce may beg to differ), her considerable influence can still be seen in the penchant for high-pitched drama (crossed with infectious joy) and the idea that dance pop artists should have a formidable presence over their songs. Wash is a diva to be reckoned with. The dream of today's dance pop ingenues? To have even half the number of people feel compelled to do their bidding as Martha Wash does when she commands, "Everybody dance now."
Listen: Black Box: "Everybody, Everybody"
The Weather Girls: "It's Raining Men"
C + C Music Factory: "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)"
See Also: Chaka Khan; Mariah Carey, Emotions
Going by the "godfather of techno" may sound like hubris, but Detroit producer Atkins (who also recorded as and with Cybotron, Model 500 and Infiniti) earned it. When he began laying down tracks in the early 1980s, Atkins (along with Derrick May and Kevin Saunders) not only fathered a new genre, he also laid out the blueprints for dance-oriented genres in the decades going forward, cobbling cosmic funk and synth-pop into a bright, danceable techno-future. Atkins went on to have a good deal of commercial appeal, at once embracing and influencing the more pop-leaning strands of dance music and making space in the techno-futuristic landscape for today's robo-diva to walk among us.
Listen: Cybotron, Clear
See Also: Derrick May, Kevin Saunders