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“Let’s hop, hop and step, step to the front three times and dip, dip.” That’s how vocalists of the Chocolate City Band tell us to do the band’s new signature dance, the Chocolate City Shuffle. Starting with a funky keyboard and bass line, the song soon gives way to traditional go-go percussion. This is a line-dance number with unquestionably old-school appeal.
The video for “Chocolate City Shuffle” features band members, an exercise class, and unexpectedly, a crew of skater kids doing the dance—-a group whose presence is explained by the fact that the visual was shot by Darren Harper, the well-known D.C. skateboarder who also plays percussion in the band. (Harper has been known to rap, too.)
A variation on the electric slide, the Chocolate City Shuffle tosses in some of its own modern freestyle movements and a brief Soul Train portion. No, no twerking or bounce beat here. Via email, I chatted with the group’s singer, lead talker, and manager Michelle Blackwell about how the group and its “Dong De Dong Diggy Diggy” line dance got started.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Washington City Paper: When and how did the group form?
Michelle Blackwell: The group formed in February 2013. I wanted to form a band outside of the one I was with at the time (W.H.A.T. Band) where I could highlight more of my original songs, particularly the softer go-go songs. I came up with the name Chocolate City for our band’s name as an homage to the city I was born and raised in, and for all Chocolate Cities in and around the world. Not necessarily just a reference to race but of urbanized areas with all the diversity that they encompass, from Dark Chocolate to White Chocolate.
WCP: Who’s in the band?
MB: I’m the singer, lead talker, and manager, Losceyboi Lyles (All 4 U, Dynasty, Firm Project) is the singer on the second mic, Gabby Moe is the rapper, Steven Drakes sings, Gerald Lattimore (Junkyard Band, Northwest Youngins, Top Notch) is a keyboard player and co-manager, David Cleveland (HuckABucks, Black Alley, W.H.A.T. Band) also plays keyboards, Rob Ducket (New Impressions, W.H.A.T. Band) is on bass guitar, Stanley Cooper (76 Degrees West, Marcus Johnson Project, The Legends of Go-Go) plays lead guitar, Joe Mahogany (aka ToeJam) is our drummer, Darren Harper is our percussionist and conga player, and Michael Harris (W.H.A.T. Band) is also on percussion.
WCP: Who came up with the idea for the line dance?
MB: I came up with the idea after watching my drummer and keyboard player (ToeJam and Gerald) on the dance floor during one of the breaks at our show, battling it out doing the ChaCha Slide. It occurred to me just how universally appealing line dances are to people of all ages, races, and backgrounds, and I thought to myself, “go-go really needs something like this.”
WCP: How was the song written?
MB: I came to practice not long after that show and told the guys my idea, instructed the musicians to craft a dance song set to a go-go rhythm, while we, the front line, stepped outside the room to come up with the lyrics. I explained that I wanted it to be the classic instructional type of line dance we are accustomed to, with the dance steps as the lyrics. Keeping that in mind, we went to work. Stan Cooper took the initial lead in constructing the music with all the guys adding their input and inflections, and when they formatted a workable piece, Steve Drakes started chanting the beginnings of what is now the instructional hook to the dance/song. They weren’t words yet, but the pattern of the words and the melody was there from the first time he started singing. I loved it immediately! Right behind that came the “Dong De Dong Diggy Diggy” from Gabby Moe, and the rest is history.
WCP: Who created the line dance and what was it inspired by?
MB: Steve Drakes created most of the dance. I added and tweaked parts of it like the turn-arounds, but it was mostly Drakes. It was inspired by all line dances. I tried to stay true to the normal line-dance format where you repeat a series of steps facing all four directions but I also added a twist—-a part in between for people to freestyle and dance their own way.
WCP: How often has the group played live?
MB: Over 20 times.
WCP: What songs do you cover? How many original songs do you have?
MB: The beauty of this group is that it’s full of writers and producers. In my former bands [Suttle Thoughts, Northeast Groovers, W.H.A.T. Band] my writing has always made me stand out, but now I’m surrounded by people who are creating hot originals, too. It’s really amazing. And we can also cover songs in our own unique way as well.
Our sets are half original and half cover songs. We cover classic R&B favorites (Luther Vandross’ “Don’t You Know That,” The Stylistics‘ “People Make the World Go Round”), current Top 40 songs (Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines,” Sevyn Streeter‘s “I Like It”), and hip-hop favorites (Kendrick Lamar‘s “Don’t Kill My Vibe”). Along with “Chocolate City Shuffle,” we also perform original songs like “Who’s Not Here,” “Shake It Up,” “Reminisce,” “Party Mode,” “Enjoy Myself,” and others.
WCP: How was the video done? Tell me about the go-go exercise class and other participants.
MB: The video was recorded by our very own percussionist, Darren Harper, who is also a very popular skateboarder and has garnered a great deal of popularity and fame on the skateboard circuit. It was shot for a “Straight to YouTube” instructional and what we call our promo video. It was put up to show people how the dance was done, but I also wanted to add a few fun elements to it to separate it from traditional instructional line dance videos you normally see on YouTube where the camera is stationary and there are just folks in a room doing the dance.
The go-go exercise class is made up of a program called “Da-Go-Go/Go-Go Fitness,” the brainchild of Danette Tucker-Hooper and Erica Berry, who have started a movement with their exercise routines set to popular go-go and other music, with classes from the D.C. area to classes in Atlanta, Georgia, and Seattle. The kids were videotaped at the skate park across from Shaw Junior High School.
WCP: What has been the reaction?
MB: The response to the video and songs has been tremendous. DJs from as far away as Houston, Texas; Alabama and New York have been contacting me via my YouTube and Twitter Pages for the track to play at their gigs. Our YouTube page is approaching 17,000 hits after only a couple weeks, and people have sent in videos of their version of the Chocolate City Shuffle from as far away as Massachusetts.
The Chocolate City Band performs Friday Dec. 13 at the Solar Eclipse, 2820 Bladensburg Road NE. (202) 526-3533. Also Dec. 31 at Takoma Station, 6914 4th St. NW. (202) 829-1999.