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Watch 13 Documentaries On Key Black Dance DJs, Cultural Figures & Institutions

Educate yourself with some documentaries on key black figures and institutions in dance music's history.
Left to right in the back: Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Blake Baxter. Left to right in the foreground: Eddie Fowlkes, Juan Atkins, Santonio Echols

It can’t be said enough that electronic music owes just about everything to black and gay institutions, musicians and artists who built the foundations for the genre that has created so much for so many. Those early pioneers, originators and key figures helped pave the way through discrimination, lack of resources and often, economic hardship that later on white DJs would reap the rewards for. We want to highlight those pioneers and many key black figures, cultural movements and institutions with some important documentaries that help illuminate what they did for the culture and music.

There are a fair amount of documentaries on this list, so watch these over the weekend and into the next week in between marching, reading, speaking with others and learning. This may be a well-deserved mental break that allows you to dive into the roots of dance and electronic culture with some pivotal black figures.

1. I Was There When House Took Over the World

This documentary looks back on the foundations of house music in New York and more importantly Chicago with interviews with key figures like Nile Rodgers, Marshall Jefferson, Honey Dijon, Steve Silk Hurley and many more.

2. Why Drexciya took Detroit electro underwater

This documentary dives deep into the mythology, influence and magic of Detroit electro's most influential duo, Drexciya. While many in Detroit looked to space, Gerald Donald and James Stinson created a mythology in deep in the ocean, following in the footsteps of Sun Ra and George Clinton’s Afro-futurist ideals.

3. High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music

This documentary looks back at Detroit and techno music – two entities whose stories that are intertwined at their cores. It looks at the originator – Juan Atkins, the elevator – Kevin Saunderson and the innovator, Derrick May and their influence on the genre and then how various other artists like Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, Eddie Fowlkes and Stacey Pullen all left their mark. It follows the race riots of 1967, how the fabric of the city was shaped by seemingly constant economic downturn and moving through to the underground party scene of the late ‘80s.

4. Paris Is Burning:

This documentary is an essential look at the LBGTQ vogue Ballroom scene in Manhattan in the 1980s. Told through the eyes of the dancers themselves and with access to the floor and shows, it showcases the various types of outfits, personalities, styles and people who were a part of this vital and influential scene.

5. Pump Up The Volume: A History of House Music

A seminal look at the history of house music. The over two-hour documentary looks at the roots of house music in Chicago and New York to its explosion in the UK and around the world. It starts in the 70’s and 80s with Larry Levan in New York at the Paradise Garage, Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy at the Warehouse later called Music Box in Chicago and much more.

6. Array’s Jewels Catch One

This film explores history of the oldest black-owned disco in America, Catch One, and of its owners, Jewel Thais-Williams (an African-American lesbian icon). Opened in 1973, it defied discrimination from all parts of society as a haven for gays in Los Angeles. It provided a safe space for LGBTQ, black and AIDS-impacted communities for over four decades. As Jewel says in the film, the dancefloor was for gays, lesbians, bi’s, tri’s and otherwise. Watch it now on Netflix.

7. Talkin' Headz - The Metalheadz Documentary

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The 1998 documentary is a blast from the past, going back to the 90’s drum and bass scene with the vital label and the artists who have been a part of the journey. There aren’t too many drum and bass documentaries out there, especially compared to house and techno. This chats with the likes of Goldie, Grooverider, Dillinja, Ed Rush & Optical, Source Direct, Photek and others.

8. Origins: Black Coffee

This documentary with Resident Advisor looks at Black Coffee’s roots in South Africa. It starts at the home he grew up in and then eventually how he got his career started and eventually became a global sensation.

9. Moodymann: Dust On My Shoes

This documentary examines the enigmatic Moodymann. It features interviews with Mike Banks, Traci Washington, Amp Fiddler and more. It goes into the origins of Moodymann as a person and as a musician, who took cues from his musician father and his grandfather who owned a club that Moodymann started to work for at the age of 9. Moodymann says his time working at a Buy-Rite Music helped shape him, where he could meet other DJs, see what they were playing and what didn’t work.

10. Real Scenes: Detroit

This looks into Detroit, with a brief overview of its history, but focuses on the late 80s and into the early 90s with the warehouse scene and how that shifted from warehouses to clubs. We get to see someone like Mike Huckaby influence the next generation of producers at Youthville and how the city is both evolving and can struggle, despite its own strong cultural roots.

11. Goldie Documentary:

This is another documentary with Goldie, but focuses on him. It looks back on his origins in Wolverhampton as a B-boy and his early career. We get to meet some early friends and the people who have been there from the beginning.

12. Techno City: What is Detroit Techno?

Another documentary about Detroit and techno, but yet another good look at the city and techno. The doc from 2000 includes interviews with seminal figures like Carl Craig, Derrick May and others. Another important thing about seeing the documentaries from different periods of time is that they capture different moods and how genres and artists are seen in that micro-era. You can run your own timeline of techno through these documentaries.

13. How Larry Heard Made House Music Deep

Another RA documentary, but this time looks at the very underrated Larry Heard, aka Mr. Fingers. They look at the word “deep” and how it has changed from what it used to mean to the white-washed nonsense it can mean now. The doc examines what made Larry Heard so timeless with his mix of house, jazz, soul and more.

Bonus interview with Frankie Knuckles:

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