A Night at Natalie’s: 20 Best Musical Performances on ‘New York Undercover’
Throughout its 40 years of existence, hip-hop has influenced and infiltrated all areas of pop culture. From fashion to film, language and beyond, the genre has become ingrained in America's psyche.
With the growing popularity of the culture's music and ethos, it wasn't long before big wigs in Hollywood and television took notice and began to incorporate its cues on all things cool into their work, hoping to attract the same demographic that rap had captivated seemingly overnight. While a few shows on television had tried to adapt, most came off as cheesy and didn't truly capture the essence of what hip-hop was about. It wasn't until Dick Wolf (the man behind shows such as 'Law & Order' and 'Homicide: Life on the Street,' among others) created the crime drama, 'New York Undercover,' that a true hip-hop-driven show was presented to viewers. The series actually embodied the authenticity that rap enthusiasts were looking for.
Centered around NYPD detectives "J.C. Williams" ( Malik Yoba) and "Eddie Torres" (Michael DeLorenzo), the show was representative of a new world where grown-up b-boys and fly girls could also be depicted not as stereotypes but productive citizens on the small screen. Looking at the characters style of dress, lingo and the locales they frequented, they weren't too different from everyday participants in hip-hop culture. But, aside from the riveting cases the detectives solved, the aspect of the show that truly stood out to viewers was Natalie's -- the fictional bar and restaurant owned by its namesake Natalie (played by soul music legend Gladys Knight) that was prominently featured in the show.
At some point during the episodes, J.C. and/or Eddie Torres would wind up at Natalie's, where they would recount their personal and professional triumphs to the sounds of the finest R&B and hip-hop of the time. During the show's first three seasons, a who's who of the biggest stars and legends in urban music would make guest appearances and perform their latest singles, or exclusive covers of classic soul.
Being that this week marks the 20th anniversary of the 'New York Undercover' debut (Sept. 8, 1994), we look back at the most memorable live performances at Natalie's during the show's legendary run. Grab a seat and a drink as we give you a dose of nostalgia.
NYC natives and "sisters with voices," SWV made music that was a mix of soul and urban grit, which was what 'New York Undercover' was all about. It's no surprise that when they graced the stage at Natalie's, the results were great. With usually reserved member Lelee showing viewers she could do more than play the background, all three vocalists sing lead and each deliver in a big way.
'90s teenage sensations Brandy Norwood and Tevin Campbell attempted to tackle the classic Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway ballad 'The Closer I Get to You' during their shining moment on the show. Nothing can replace the greatness of the original, but this endearing rendition remains one of our favorites.
Bad Boy Records' resident good guys added their name to the long list of acts to rock one of the livest (fictional) lounges in the history of television. Paying homage to Earth, Wind & Fire through song, their appearance on the show was also another sign of the marketing prowess of Sean "Puffy" Combs, with the airing of this episode (Aug. 29, 1996) coming only three days after the release of the group's debut album.
Riding high off of the release of their second album, 'Off the Hook,' So So Def songstresses Xscape made an appearance on the show's 'Sympathy of the Devil' episode. Originally airing on Feb. 15, 1996, the group performed a rendition of Debarge's classic 'All This Love.' Shouts to Donald Faison, of 'Scrubs' and 'Clueless' fame, for playing the most threatening role he'd ever have in this episode as the shooter in question. Never knew he had it in him.
In a Jan. 18, 1996 episode that also happened to feature Wendell "Bunk" Pierce of 'The Wire' fame, Brownstone stopped by the show to perform The Emotions' 1977 classic 'Don't Ask My Neighbors.' While the group wouldn't go on to make much noise after their platinum debut that preceded their appearance, at the time, they were one of the hottest R&B groups in the game and definitely deserving of a spot on Natalie's legendary stage.
Jon. B made his way to Natalie's stage in October 1995, in an episode that also included the introduction of J.C.'s femme fatale love interest, "Simone." With the crooner's debut album, 'Bonafide,' having just gone platinum -- propelled by the Babyface-assisted ballad, 'Someone to Love' -- Jon. B blessing viewers with a rendition of this Stevie Wonder classic was a no-brainer.
R&B duo and Flavor Unit reps Zhané made an appearance on the show, performing Deniece Williams' classic, 'Free.' Originally airing on Feb. 2, 1995, following the success of their platinum-certified 1994 debut, the group furthered 'New York Undercover''s knack for having just the right guest at the right time.
On Jan. 5, 1995, Mary J. Blige would make the first of what would be two appearances on 'New York Undercover,' going down as the only artist to have had two spots as a performer in the show's history. She opted to perform her own cover of the Rose Royce classic, 'I'm Going Down' and completely bodies it, which is exactly what we'd expect, with the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul getting down on hip-hop's favorite crime drama.
Aaliyah performs her hit cover of the Isley Brothers' 'Choosey Lover' for the grown and sexy crowd at Natalie's. Innocence and lust never went as well together as when the songstress merged them and this showing was just another example of her subtle, yet alluring vocal talent. R.I.P. Baby Girl.
Following the release of what would prove to be one of the most successful R&B albums ever, 'II,' Philadelphia reps Boyz II Men made a pit stop at Natalie's to perform their power ballad, 'On Bended Knee.' Giving the patrons at Natalie's a dose of their brand of Motown harmony, the good boys of the '90s scratched their name off the list of '90s heavyweights to blaze the lounge's stage.
Following a trying case featuring the introduction of Ice-T as drug lord "Danny Court," J.C. and Eddie stop by Natalie's for some much needed relaxation. Brian McKnight, who was gearing up for the release of his sophomore album, 'I Remember You,' when this episode originally aired, provides the background music as the two reflect on Eddie's near-death experience. Little did they know, that would not be the last of "Danny Court" and he would prove to be the worst thing to happen to them.
Feisty teenage songstress Monica made her way to Natalie's stage in May 1996, to perform the Al Green classic, 'Let's Stay Together.' With a platinum-certified debut album and becoming the youngest artist in history to have consecutive chart-toppers on the R&B charts, an appearance on 'New York Undercover' served as the icing on the cake.
With a critically-acclaimed and highly successful debut under his belt, in October 1995, D'Angelo made himself the latest star to take a shot at Natalie's storied stage, performing his album's title track. While some would've preferred to hear his other hit single, 'Lady,' a dope set is a dope set and D'Angelo can definitely hang with the best of showmen.
On one of the most unforgettable moments in the show's history was when recently freed Danny Court (played by Ice-T) murdered J.C.'s wife in revenge of his brother's death. The tragic twist in the plot can also be seen as the beginning of the end in hindsight, as things could only go downhill for the character's lives from there. The guest on this particular episode, Def Jam Recordings' R&B artist Montell Jordan, also helped stamp it with his heart-wrenching cover of Bobby Caldwell's 'What You Won't Do For Love.' Montell's radio hits may have been hip-hop/R&B hybrids, but after this showing, there was no doubt he could also execute classic soul with the best of them.
Natalie's got a little taste of bohemian flavor courtesy of a then up-and-coming artist named Erykah Badu. With her debut album, 'Baduizm,' blazing up the charts, she opted to give a nod to another free-spirited talent in Chaka Kahn, doing a cover of the vanguard's classic, 'Stay.'
Natalie's wasn't exclusively a spot for R&B artists, but the biggest names in rap as well. Fresh off the mega success of their sophomore album, '1999 E. Eternal,' Midwest reps Bone Thugs-N-Harmony made the trek to NYC for a performance of their smash single, 'Crossroads,'
on an episode that aired on Sept. 5, 1996.
You know you can't have a truly soulful environment until the Godfather himself christens it. Well, that's exactly what James Brown did, giving a riveting performance of 'It's A Man's World.'
On April 6, 1995, Chante Moore appeared on 'New York Undercover,' lending her vocals to a cover of Minnie Ripperton's steamy, 'Come Inside My Love.' Later on that year, the rising singer would appear on the blockbuster 'Waiting to Exhale' soundtrack, contributing two songs to the star-studded affair.
Teena Marie proved she could more than hang with her younger contemporaries during a 1995 appearance on the show. Covering Rolls Royce's timeless 'Wishing On A Star,' the "chocolate snowflake" does it justice like only a gifted vet like her could.
Die-hard fans of 'New York Undercover' will always remember this episode as the one that basically dismantled the show, all within 60 minutes. In that episode, a lady villain is hell-bent on revenge after losing the Clyde to her Bonnie during a shootout with Eddie and J.C. following a bank heist. As Johnny Gill belts out a passionate rendition of The O'Jay's cut, 'Sunshine,' J.C. learns that Eddie has opted to switch police stations in pursuit of his marriage with Nina, which would leave J.C. without his long-time friend and partner. Sorry to spoil things if you've never seen this episode, but Eddie Torres ultimately gets murdered, all but ending the show's legendary three-year run. Following the season, Michael DeLorenzo and Patti D'Arbanville, the detectives' feisty boss, would both leave the show, giving us the less than stellar "Tommy from 'Martin'" era of 'New York Undercover' that most of us have omitted from our memory for sanity's sake. But hey, at least we got this memorable performance from it.