Before Empire, there was New York Undercover. While one teeters into more soap opera terrain and the other was a solid cop drama, they are importantly linked through the culture of hip-hop, and Fox, the network behind both.
As Empire resumes its second season next week, TV One’s Unsung Hollywood: New York Undercover couldn’t come at a better time. This is no feel-good flashback. Although it is nostalgically retrospective, it is also cautionary. In other words, we and Fox have been here before.
Since Empire’s debut Jan. 7, 2015, the conversation about hip-hop and television has been deafening and largely ahistorical. Empire is far from the first network drama—or Fox drama, even—to tap into hip-hop’s kinetic energy in order to try to make good on its pop-culture dominance. New York Undercover—starring Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo as New York City police detectives, and partners, J.C. Williams and Eddie Torres, respectively—was arguably the first to go there. And it went there at the level where most of the hip-hop audience was. There were no mansions and fancy cars. No, just an attempt to dial into something that was real. Today, New York Undercover is often a footnote, when it should not be.
Thumb through television’s endless catalog of shows over the past 25-30 years: How many of them boast black and Latino leading co-stars with a largely nonwhite supporting cast? As Lauren Luna Velez, who played Detective Nina Moreno and Torres’ love interest, says in Unsung Hollywood, “We’re the A story, we’re the B story, we’re the C story, we’re the story, and I think it’s kind of, like, the most groundbreaking thing about the show that we were the show.”
Unfortunately, it would be short-lived. In this age of #OscarsSoWhite, there are painful reminders that not as much has changed as we would like to believe. With shows like Martin and Living Single both on air during New York Undercover’s 1994 debut, Fox appeared to be bringing diversity that television so desperately needed. History would, however, prove otherwise. So what began as a groundbreaking drama marshaling hip-hop culture and showcasing the contemporary, complex urban reality of the audience literally blew up, in a good and, later, bad way.
Influential Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell’s vision of bringing a hip-hop Miami Vice to television, as Unsung Hollywood drives home, was far from drama-free. Although Dick Wolf, who is most celebrated for the long-running Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, co-created the series and got Fox on board, the network was far from all the way in. Pushback was strong, and a lot of that backstory is shared here.
Aside from the groundbreaking casting of the leads, there were other serious victories. One major one was showing Malik Yoba’s J.C. being an active part of his son G’s life despite not being with G’s mother. This reflected a major cultural shift. Unmarried yet responsible black fathers are still not a television norm. New York Undercover also dared to spotlight the tension created by J.C. “upgrading” from G’s mother—the more homegirl Chantel, with dark-brown skin—to the more professional Sandra Gill, an attorney played by New Jack City’s Michael Michele, who had lighter, caramel skin and less street sensibility. Kevin Arkadie, who created New York Undercover with Wolf, is not shy in sharing how hard he, Harrell and Alonzo Brown, president of Uptown Film and Television, fought to include these and other elements that they felt were essential to delivering a more realistic urban drama unlike any television had seen.
Also, no series on broadcast TV had prominently featured a Latino couple, certainly not an Afro-Latino one, in the storyline with such regularity. Torres’ and Moreno’s love story predated the never-ending headlines about the nation’s rising Latino population. And, sadly, it still stands out today. Moreno also represented a strong female voice of color, often challenging sexist and misogynistic attitudes. Prior to Velez’s Moreno, Coco Hernandez from Fame was arguably the last notable Afro-Latina character in a network series, and Erica Gimpel, who played her, isn’t even Latina.
Prior to New York Undercover, hip-hop flexed its presence in comedies, primarily through “raptors” (rapper actors) like Will Smith with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Queen Latifah in Living Single and LL Cool J with In the House. This show, inspired by true “hip-hop” cops, confronted very serious issues, and like Wolf’s Law & Order, many of its memorable episodes came from true stories. One such episode, “Kill the Noise,” was directly drawn from the real-life murder of hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas. Judy McCreary, who wrote that episode, shares everything from the mandate she received to write it to the high emotions of the crew in reaction to it. In addition, she, along with associate producer Lyah LeFlore, are much-needed reminders that black women have played important roles behind the scenes in Hollywood.
Ultimately, having a large black and Latino audience wasn’t quite good enough for Fox. “The people in charge didn’t respect the culture,” Brown says. Kristal Brent Zook, who wrote Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television, sheds light on Fox’s efforts to adjust the show. Writer-producer Reggie Rock Bythewood, Yoba, LeFlore, Torres and others are also quite vocal about it. “They thought if they added some white people,” says director-executive producer Don Kurt, who is white, “that the show would continue on, and it didn’t work that way.”
TV One airs Unsung Hollywood: New York Undercover Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.