The HFPA's Annual Summer Luncheon - Inside
Actress Rosie Perez speaks onstage during the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's annual summer luncheon held at the Beverly Hills Hotel on July 30, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California.
Alberto E. Rodriguez

Music Sermon: Groove Me - The Women Behind The Early ‘90s Dance Legacy

In the early ‘90s, music videos were all about high power choreography, and women were the creative talents responsible.

If the category is “women in ‘90s music videos,” the first response that probably comes to mind is, “video vixen.” Hip-hop rose to mainstream prominence in the late ‘90s, and along with it came big budgets, high gloss videos, with stunning sirens at the forefront.

But in the early ‘90s, music videos were all about performance. Visuals were high energy with power choreography, and women were the creative talents responsible for the most crucial element of the culture. We danced hard as hell.

As hip-hop was finally gaining legitimacy at the beginning of the decade, hip-hop dance was still a new specialty. These women all brought new style and technique that had us clearing furniture and burning calories trying to learn routines watching Yo! MTV Jams after school. There’s a lot of crossover with these ladies, too. They were often in the same videos and on the same tours – an example of how small and elite the in-demand talent was.

In our continued celebration of Women’s History Month, we honor some of the key dancers and choreographers of ‘90s R&B and hip-hop.

Str8 Ahead

Bell Biv DeVoe are damn near the mascots for the hard-dancing ‘90s. But their dancers, Str8 Ahead, gave the group a significant amount of their sauce.

Mike Bivens spotted Tee, Nikita, Pluke, and Debra when he judged an L.A. club’s dance competition (they lost to the Pharcyde, who were then a dance crew called GTI). Mike told them he, Ronnie and Ricky were putting their own group together, gave them a new song, and asked them to make up a dance routine. The song was “Poison,” and their routine is the same one we all be ‘bout to f**k our knees up and run out of breath for on the dancefloor today. “That song was over four minutes, and people think that four minutes is a short time to dance at the level that we danced,” Debra shared in an interview. Famed New Edition choreographer Brooke Payne pushed the girls to get their stamina up, making them do the routine back to back, multiple times. ”No disrespect to today’s dancers, but the level of energy we had to give those songs…it was like dancing ten minutes in today’s time.”
Even Mike exhales an “I’m tired, sh*t” at the 2:50 mark.

The ladies were also partially responsible for BBD’s “mental” look. They styled themselves, and the guys started picking up on their bold and colorful mix of street style. The hiking boots BBD became known for? Str8 Ahead wore them first, and then copped them for the guys on request.

Sidenote: I am neither lying nor exaggerating when I tell you that my number one career aspiration at 13 years of age was to become a “BBD Girl.”

Leslie “Big Lez” Sager

Big Lez is the choreographer a lot of people don’t even realize they know. Her choreography days were done before the golden era, when top hip-hop and R&B choreographers became as well-known as their clients.

For those of us old enough to remember, her new jack moves are instantly recognizable. Younger folks know her best as the dancing silhouette in the Living Single intro.
I still don’t understand how in the world some of y’all spent years thinking this was Erika Alexander. She’s Big Lez for a reason. Erika is… Nevermind.

A college gymnast, Lez brought high-level athleticism to urban dance. If you were watching a video and someone randomly did a back walk-over or busted a handstand split, it was probably her. She was the queen of kneepad choreography, ‘cause you were gonna be all over the floor. Arms pumpin’, legs kickin’, ponytails swingin’.

Mary J. Blige was not a natural dancer, but thanks to Lez, early Mary is synonymous with getting it in. “The “You Remind Me” video? Lez. I’ve never had anyone to work me that hard before,” Blige has said of Sager, “but it was all for the good because… I mean, I was a dancer in that video.”

Lez was an Uptown Records favorite. Mary J, Heavy D, Jeff Redd, Aaron Hall…she was all up and through the label.

If you were paying attention, she was easy to spot in other joints, too.

In the back half of the decade, Lez stepped up from the background to the forefront as a host for BET’s Rap City and then became an on-air radio and TV personality/producer.

Rosie Perez and The Fly Girls

In Living Color was one of only three shows I can think of – along with Soul Train and Solid Gold - that made the dancers the center of the brand. It was unique to the other two because In Living Color wasn’t even a music-centered show.

Keenan Ivory Wayans brought former Soul Train dancer Rosie Perez on board off the heels of her appearance in Do the Right Thing to be the choreographer and ad-hoc music supervisor, a role she filled for four of the show’s five seasons. She choreographed eight routines a week, picked the music, and booked the musical acts.

A "fly girl” was once the ultimate compliment you could pay a New York chick. It meant she was gorgeous, hair was poppin’, accessories were poppin’, moves were poppin’, and she seemed completely unattainable. The Fly Girls embodied all of that. They captured an era in style and dance.

The dance troupe also served as a launch-pad for multiple careers – as did the show itself. Original Fly Girl Carrie Anne Inaba is now best-known as a judge on Dancing With the Stars. Eventually known as “BoomKack,” Laurieanne Gibson joined the troupe for the final season of the show. Jennifer Lopez joined in season three and is the biggest success story of the crew. She allegedly proclaimed her star power from day one, insisting on special attention from Rosie and others. “All of the girls were coming into my office complaining how she was manipulating wardrobe, makeup, and me, all to her advantage,” Perez wrote in her 2014 autobiography, Tales for an Unpredictable Life.

J. Lo and fellow Fly Girl Jossie Harris (who was also in the earlier Mary J. Blige videos) left the show and joined Janet Jackson for her phenomenal janet. album cycle and tour – but then Jennifer quit after the “That’s the Way Love Goes” video to pursue her own career.

Another side note: It’s always been interesting to me that Janet and Jennifer basically don’t talk about each other.

janet. was the first album where Jackson highlighted her dancers. Make note of one of Janet’s other dancers, Tish. She’s going to come up again in a bit.

Fatima Robinson

Fatima Robinson was planning to follow in her mother’s footsteps and open a hair salon in Carson, California when she started getting recruited from the club scene to dance in and eventually choreograph music videos. She wasn’t calling herself a choreographer, she was just making up routines. Then she bumped into Rosie Perez one night in a club bathroom, and Rosie encouraged her to secure the bag. “(She) said, ‘Fatima, you have to charge money, and you have to call yourself a choreographer.’”

Her first major shot as an official “choreographer” was a gig even seasoned pros would have killed for: John Singleton was directing Michael Jackson’s short film/video for “Remember the Time,” and tapped her for choreography. A then 20-year-old Fatima didn’t think she was up to it. Singleton told her, “Michael Jackson needs to learn some new moves, and you’re gonna be the one to teach him. So you gotta man up and do it.”

The result was one of the most legendary dance breaks in new jack swing. The clip also prominently featured the other sought-after dancers of the moment, like Lez, Jossie and Tish Oliver, who sometimes worked as Fatima’s choreography partner.

“Remember the Time” put Fatima in demand as a choreographer. She and Tish were on board for Bobby Brown’s follow-up album to Don’t Be Cruel, and choreographed “Get Away” and “Humpin’ Around,” plus the Bobby Tour. (Peep Lez and Jossie in the videos as well.) When BET brought Bobby’s story to screen last year, Fatima was on deck to make sure the moves were right.

Even though Fatima’s not classically trained, her moves always have a technical element. Precise hits and points.

The video for Brandy’s “Baby” earned Fatima her first MTV VMA nomination for Best Choreography. She was then nominated in 1997 for the tango scene at the end of Dr. Dre’s “Been There, Done That.” And then again in 1998 for Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.” With the exception of two years, Fatima was nominated for the VMA category every year between 1995 and 2004.

I really, really, really cannot explain to you how everything stopped – in a pre-digital era – when Fatima, Hype Williams, and Busta took Coming to America and made it hip-hop. It’s still brilliant, 20 years later.

She continued to show more creativity and innovation with each new project and was sought after when artists wanted something fresh and different. Besides “Remember the Time,” Fatima’s probably best known for helping Aaliyah craft her iconic dance style...

And choreographing Baby Girl’s last video.

Fatima began directing videos herself, working on movies starting with The Players Club, and even showed up in a Gap campaign. In time, Fatima was bigger than just a choreographer – she became a personality.

Years after the first encounter with Rosie Perez, Fatima met her in yet another bathroom. "She said, 'Hey, come here,'” Rosie told Elle magazine in 2014, “And I'm thinking, 'Oh god, is this going to be a ghetto fight?' And she said, 'Girl, I get paid.' God bless America two times!' I said. We hugged each other and became friends."

There wasn’t no hateration or holleration in the dancerie.

There are more names that deserve recognition, especially the second wave of dancers/choreographers that emerged in the late ‘90s and the ‘00s, like Laurieanne Gibson, frequent Missy Elliott collaborator Hi-Hat (Nadine Ruffin), and Ciara’s early go-to Jamaica Craft. Even now, after cinematic videos and fetching vixens have become part of the tales old heads spin about — the days of bottles and label budgets and the years of mandatory backup dancers are long gone —some of these women are still on the scene.

The next time you’re reliving the days of your free and easy youth, busting choreography from your favorite ‘90s music video, say a little thank you to the young women (most of them started in their late teens and early 20s) who made those moments happen. Make sure you stretch first, though.


#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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P Diddy promotes his new Diddy Dirty Money single 'Coming Home' and his headphones DiddyBeats at HMV, Oxford Street on January 20, 2011 in London, England.
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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.


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