Do Dat Entertainment – Toronto’s First Professional Hip Hop Dance Agency
To understand the significance of Do Dat Entertainment, you have to look beyond the celebrity milestones and accolades into the impact and legacies that have been sustained since their first performance and the persistent fight against anti-black racism in Toronto during the late 80’s into the 2000’s.
Do Dat Entertainment pioneered Toronto’s unique style of hip hop dance by infusing reggae rhythms, with hip hop dance movement and militant formations inspired by African American step dance. Despite persistent anti-black racism within Toronto’s arts and culture sector during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Do Dat became the nation’s premiere Black owned and operated dance agency creating movement and providing dancers for artists of all genres. Do Dat is responsible for the blueprint to Canadian professional hip hop dance. The legacies of some of the original foundation members are still prominent in today’s industry. Their style of choreography and showmanship is still essential to all practitioners of modern hip hop dance.
The history of Do Dat also embodies themes of immigration, employment, gender identity, urban development and racial capitalism during a crucial time of rebranding the city of Toronto as a major contributor to the global arts scene.
This essay will focus on the impact and contributions of Do Dat Entertainment- their business acumen and that of Luther Brown, its visionary, choreographer and leader. My methodology for this research paper will utilise documentaries, newspapers articles, magazines and other primary resources to qualify DoDat’s impact and legacy on Hip Hop Dance in Toronto.
The difference between Break Dance and Hip Hop Dance.
Hip Hop Dance is often defined as a street dance that consists of freestyled movements that have roots in break dancing. For many, hip hop dance and breakdance are synonymous. It’s Not. “breaking may have been the original hip hop dance, but this is then complicated by dances, distinct from breaking, that came later and are often referred to as ‘hip hop dances.’ In other words, the categories of “breaking” and “hip hop dance” overlap but are not identical.” Fogarty, Mary. “Following The Thread – Toronto’s Place in Hip Hop Dance Histories.”
It is common for many, including scholars to conflate hip hop and breakdance using each interchangeably. The distinction between the two forms of dance is accompanied with conflicting ideologies of hip hop cultural authenticity. In short, there is a fight between who’s is authentically Hip Hop.
Some hip hop purists believe that hip hop dance was a commercial byproduct of breakdance because of its fusion with jazz, disco, and funk. Despite jazz, disco, funk and hip hop being Black musical art forms, break dance was directly tied to hip hop music which came after disco and funk, hence many breakdancers are resolute in their understanding and hierarchical positioning of hip hop dancers.
In the early years of Do Dat, they encountered siginificant push-back from hardcore hip hop heads who proclaimed that the routines they created were commercialized aerobics rather than real dancing. Tanisha Scott, one of the lead female dancers in the crew said in an interview with XXL Magazine
“we‘re still trying to break the notion that choreographed hip hop isn’t as credible as breakdancing.”
Tanisha Scott, XXL Magazine 1998
Defining The Path
It is crucial to understand that DoDat was not a breakdance crew even while they have collaborated with Toronto’s best break dance crews such as the Boogie Brats and Bag of Tricks on occasion, and were respected amongst the breaking community.
Craig Pearson, entertainment writer of the Windsor Star wrote an article in 1998 in which he defines DoDat as ‘Canada’s top hip-hop troupe’ with “Hyper-kinetic panache on stage, in videos and in movies” (C. Pearson, p.1).
At the top of this half page article, featured a large photo of Tanisha Scott, Ryan Robinson, Joceline Adusei and Kwame Mensah, the founding four Do Dat dancers of Windsor. Pearson goes on to highlight that in just four years, Do Dat relocated to Toronto and has dominated the dance scene and made waves in the American hip hop market.
“Do Dat opened the door in Canada.[…] it was the first hip hop agency to provide professional choreographed dancers. And we’re all very diverse. We’re male and female, our ages range from 18-27, we’re Black, and White, and Spanish, and Filipino and Asian”– Kwame Mensah, (C.Pearsons).
What Made Do Dat Unique?
What made Do Dat truly unique was the style of choreography, and the amount of male dancers that were active members of the crew. At the point of the group’s inception, most hip hop dance crews in Toronto consisted mostly of women. Do Dat’s membership at one point had 40 dancers, of which a third were men. The ethnic breakdown of the group reflected a broad base with dancers claiming heritage from the Caribbean, continental Africa, Asia, the Philippines and South America.
Luther Brown Jr.
At the helm of this team was Luther Brown, a Jamaican born immigrant who migrated to Toronto in the early 1980’s and lived in the Jane Finch community. Luther grew up in a household that embraced art and culture. In Jamaica growing up Luther always loved to dance, and he was introduced to it from his mothers closest friends. As a teen, he quickly adapted an ear for music through assisting his father on Toronto’s longest running reggae radio show, The Caribbean Crucible which ran from 1987 through 2007 at York University’s community radio station CHRY 105.5 FM. (Brongster.blogspot.com) His love for the arts continued to develop throughout high school as he formed and ran numerous dance and step teams, while at the same time expressing himself creatively through a pen and pad as a songwriter. (msaagency.com) Luther’s exposure and love of reggae music gave him a special skill to hear and interpret hip hop differently.
Reggae and Hip Hop Fusion
Most dancehall and reggae music is written using the 4/4 meter with heavy emphasis on the backbeat. The backbeat emphasises the third beat while having no emphasis on the first beat. The addition of the heavy bass provides the weight and anchor, allowing other instruments such as percussion and guitar to fill in the ‘pockets’ to create complex polyrhythmic patterns. Luther’s innate ability to hear the ‘pockets’ in hip hop allowed him to create movements that would sit in those pockets which ultimately set his choreography apart from other hip hop dance practitioners of the time.
Luther would seamlessly weave rigid chest, head, shoulder and arm movements with dancehall inspired grooves which centred the body while sweeping the stage with intricate stage formations. His choreography was precise and formulated, it was colured with the moves characterised by the individual dancer. In essence, Luther fused hip hop and reggae with militant moves and formations inspired by step dance, a West African dance that Black Americans have adopted into Black Fraternity and Sorority culture.
“The practice of creating hip hop dance, and music is a constant process of innovation and creation against limitations.”
(Francesca D’Amico- Lecture)
Precision choreography with no mirrors!
With no access to dance studios, DoDat trained in public spaces often under surveillance of police or private security. In an interview with Susan Walker, founder and choreographer Luther Brown said,
“We never had dance studios. For us, it was ball courts and baseball diamonds and garages and balconies, dancing in front of churches, in front of hospital buildings. We created our own competitions. We danced at the Driftwood Community Centre or danced at school, C.W. Jefferys.”
In addition to their performances at local high schools and talent shows, they also competed in dance competitions with break dancers and other hip hop dance crews throughout southern Ontario, New York and Detroit. University of Windsor sports weekend and Caribanna were major events that DoDat drew large intergenerational, multiethnic, international crowds to their performances. By the late 1990’s, Do Dat dominated the hip hop scene in Toronto and were recognized and respected in New York and Detroit.
DoDat worked with Canadian hip hop, r&b and pop artists such as Glen Lewis, Jully Black, Shawn Desman, Michee Mee and Maestro Fresh Wes, and by the mid 90s, DoDat had become a staple for hip hop dancers in music videos and live performances across Canada.
American Hip Hop Magazine XXL (Double XL) wrote an article in 1998 calling DoDat “Canada’s premiere urban dance agency”, and credited them for meeting the demand for skilled male and female dancers to appear in music videos and live performance. The magazine pointed out that Canadian videos were always missing the element of variety and flavour that dancers added. (M. Hines, XXL 1998)
O.I.P – The Home of Do Dat
With all of the accolades, national projects and local successes, DoDat did not have a dance studio of their own. This circumstance was not of their choosing, inability to organise or lack of interest. Rather, the reality was that Toronto had and still has a social crisis with anti-black racism that has infected the city and in the industry as detailed in the Canadian Independent Music Associate (CIMA) report ‘Breaking Down Racial Barriers’ published in 2021.
Instead they partnered with local dance studios providing dance classes in exchange for access to the studio after hours. This was the case until Danny Davalos, member of DoDat – opened One Immigrant Production (O.I.P) Dance Centre- Home of Do Dat Entertainment.
This dance studio became Toronto’s elite dance studio offering classes 7 days a week with various DoDat Dancers teaching weekly classes downtown Toronto. By early 2000’s DoDat was advertising their services as a dance agency that provided “Artist Development, Innovative Choreography, Professional Dancers, Industry Workshops, Urban Dance Classes Private Class Sessions” (Un-Habbitant Article).
By 2004 Toronto’s Hip Hop dance scene – and Do Dat more specifically – had dominated the American music video and live performance industry. Artists such as Destiny’s Child, Brandy, Diddy, Jay-Z, Lil’Kim, and many more sought Luther Brown and DoDat dancers for their unique style and flare. In Toronto, dance studios began to offer hip hop classes that were taught by Jazz and contemporary dancers who mimicked hip hop dance moves, some fitted themselves in costumes to portray a concept of ‘cool’.
Anti-Black Racism in Canadian Art & Culture Sector
The reality of racism in the form of racial capitalism, the commodification and white washing of the contributions of DoDat to Toronto Hip Hop culture became real. Racial capitalism as defined by Nancy Leong of Harvard Law Review, is “the process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another person.” (N.Leong p.1)
This theory also addresses how the commodification can also foster racial resentment by causing nonwhite people to feel used or exploited by white people. I add that racial capitalism also insights tensions within the commodified culture when trying to distinguish between concepts of success and selling out. Prior to O.I.P, Do Dat did not have a permanent dance studio to call home, instead they would teach in studios in exchange for access to space late at night.
Majority of these studios were white owned and drew a lot of popularity. The exchange of talent for space would be considered selling out by some practitioners of hip hop dance. Sébastien Darchen published an article entitled “The Creative City and the Redevelopment of the Toronto Entertainment District: A BIA-Led Regeneration Process” in which he argues that
“the absence of redevelopment and economic revitalization strategies at the city or regional level, regeneration strategies associated with the creative city concept have become a convenient means for private stakeholders to legitimise their actions with regard to the redesign of downtown areas.”
The creative city and the redevelopment of Toronto’s entertainment district demonstrate how the process of urban planning and redevelopment accessorizes the city’s design and appeal with Black culture while relegating ownership, and access through private business by-laws, policies and racial stereotypes. Transforming communities through the arts was a study published by the Toronto Arts Foundation ( TAF) in 2013.
In partnership with Art Starts, OCAD University and York University, the study explored barriers to arts and to understand how residents engage with the arts at a community level. They argued that despite Toronto’s Reputation as an inclusive and tolerant society, at the national level, Toronto is increasingly in the dark as to how diverse citizens are engaging with each other and accessing the means of cultural expression (M. Charlton, et al)
This study criticised the policy created by the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (FCPRC) for not defining art. Instead the FCPRC simply categorised art into three areas: commercial, professional and community. As a result national policies concentrated on the categories with a focus for cultural sovereignty and national identity.
The policy defines Cultural Sovereignty as “A country can be said to be culturally sovereign if it has the freedom to make the necessary decisions on its cultural future; that is, if it enjoys the necessary freedom to promote the creation, distribution, preservation and accessibility of its cultural production across its territory.” (J. Jackson, R. Lemieux).
The policy goes on to address access to Canadian cultural production in the following quote “Canada’s population, small in comparison to its vast area, is concentrated along a narrow band 5,514 kilometres long near the U.S. border. Canada thus faces the considerable challenge of ensuring that all Canadians, from east to west and from north to south, obtain access to Canadian cultural production effectively and economically.” J. Jackson, R. Lemieux
Without qualifying or defining cultural sovereignty in the context of Canada as a cultural mosaic and the use of vague language when addressing access renders this policy useless when addressing the racial inequalities that Black Canadian artists and arts communities were experiencing during this time. Subsequently, this ambiguous policy would go on to shape how other federal, provincial and municipal policies are designed and enforced, it also informed funding on all levels of government.
Toronto’s Art Renaissance and the exclusion of Black culture
In Toronto May 2003, the federal and provincial governments announced that they would be investing up to $233 million in cultural infrastructure in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) through the Canada-Ontario Infrastructure Program. Seven cultural institutions were chosen: Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Canadian Opera Company, Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), National Ballet School, Royal Conservatory of Music, George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, and Roy Thomson Hall.
The provincial government also invested into Ontario College of Art and Design because of its proximity to the AGO. In the context of racial hegemony, these buildings cement Eurocentric ideologies of art and culture asserting superior national identity which is demonstrated by the events, programs and access that is curated and offered to the public. (B. Jenkins p.1) This collection of buildings and institutions produce knowledge defining and qualifying Canadian art and culture in which Hip Hop was not present.
Racism in Canada is a concept that is often very ambiguous in definition, and depending on who you ask, their age and ethnic background you get a medley of responses, however, a common response is “We don’t have those American problems” (F. D’Amico-Cuthbert, 2021)
This qualification of racism is extremely problematic because it centres the focus on big overt incidents of racism that must be qualified through a bounty of evidence and overwhelming public consensus; a prime example is the killing of George Floyd. This process of qualifying racism adversely builds racial tolerance, often blinding people to equally toxic and nuanced ways racism affects the daily lives of racialized people. Canada’s music industry has a history of racist practices aimed at black artists. Dr. Francesa D’Amico Cuthbert wrote an extensive article that meticulously detailed the history of anti-Black racism in the Canadian music industry. She argues that,
“since rap music’s introduction to the Canadian marketplace in the 1980s, Black artists have developed local Hip Hop scenes across the country and carved out marketplace opportunities in both the major and independent music sectors […] while encountering covert and explicit instances of structural and systemic racism that have unfairly disadvantaged Black artists and limited the individual and collective opportunity and status of Hip Hop culture in the domestic and international marketplace.” —
F. D’Amico-Cuthbert, ‘We Don’t Have Those American Problems’:
Anti-Black Practices in Canada’s Rap Music Marketplace
From the mid 1980s, hip hop in Canada has been mapped against, in conflict with and outside of the national imaginary (F. D’amico Cuthbert). For many Canadian Black artists to thrive in the industry they have to leave Canada for America to gain traction and record deals. Otherwise they would have to rely on personal finances or not-for-profit grant monies to subsidise the conceptualization, production and promotion of their art; this too was the case for Do Dat and its members. Many Canadian artists believe there really isn’t an industry here in Canada, even in instances of international success such as Drake, he suggested that “[T]hose [artists] are all anomalies, [and] that’s not the norm.” (F. D’amico Cuthbert p.338)
Breaking Down Racial Barriers
Breaking Down Racial Barriers is a Black-led roundtable discussion series that was initiated by Ian Andre Espinet and David ‘Click’ Cox, both practitioners and architects of Toronto Hip Hop having worked in the industry since the late 1980’s. Ian and David have initiated discussions that examine anti-blackness in the following areas: economics, media, creative spaces and live events and the barriers faced by artists and professionals and the legacies that continue to oppress Black people in the Canadian music industry.
The discussion revealed eight areas of impact:
- Anti-black racism,
- Live events
- Succession and retention
- Outreach and access.
Within each area of impact are a list of expressed issues and concerns experiences in various spaces in the Canadian music industry. Many of the issues are echoes of anti-blackness throughout Canadian history such as, stereotyping, tokenism, underrepresentation, systemic erasure, performative allyship, inequitable access to government resources and othering by establishing European art as standard of acceptability (bdrb.ca).
Both Ian and David worked closely with Luther and DoDat during the late 1980s to early 2000s on live shows, artist development and other iconic Toronto based projects. Despite a lacunae of Do Dat personal accounts of racism on record, it is sufficient to reason that they have experienced acts of anti-Black racism as discussed in the BDRB report.
ADVANCE- Canada’s Black Music Business Collective
Another Black-led organization committed to fighting ant-black racism in Canadian art and culture is ADVANCE- Canada’s Black music business collective. Members of ADVANCE include prominent Canadian artists and hip hop architects such as recording artist Kardinall Offishall, Carey Riley of Sony Music Entertainment and Wayne Samuels of DoDat Entertainment. They are a community leading the change in developing an infrastructure for the betterment, upliftment, and retention of Black people in the music business. (advance.ca) Their mission is to help foster an environment within the Canadian music industry that improves, promotes, and better retains Black employees and partners. They believe by creating conditions for long-term success through addressing racial equality and inclusivity through three areas: Advocacy, Mentorship, and Community Outreach (advance.ca).
The Legacy of Do Dat
Do Dat Entertainment pioneered Toronto’s unique style of hip hop dance despite persistent anti-Black racism within Toronto’s arts and culture sector during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Do Dat became the nation’s premiere Black owned and operated dance agency creating movement and providing dancers, artist-development for artists of all genres.
While Do Dat Entertainment is no longer in operation, its legacies are still active around the world. Luther Brown, Tanisha Scott and Mark Samuels are creating for Nicki Minaj, Gwen Stefani, P.Diddy, Rihanna, Lizzo, Nike, Superbowl, Disney, McDonalds and many more. Other members of Do Dat have taken their talents into finance, politics, business management, engineering, music production, teaching and educational leadership.
Do Dat was more than a dance crew, troupe or agency, they were instrumental in the development of professional hip hop dance and artist development across many genres in Canada.