“Plastic Dreams” came out of nowhere (a/k/a Holland) in 1993 to become one of the greatest dance singles of the ’90s (Mixmag ranked it #15 in its list of the “100 Greatest Dance Singles of All Time”). Credited to Jaydee, a pseudonym for writer/producer Robin Albers, the track is 10-plus minutes of Booker T.–style Hammond B-3 improvisations over an unrelentingly tight beat — it’s one of the rare slabs of house music you could actually call “hot,” the way people use the word in jazz. Yet “Plastic Dreams” never really moved beyond the dance floor. One reason may be that there are no vocals on the track, and that almost always limits a recording’s commercial reach. Another is that Albers never went on to have much of a career as a name DJ à la someone like Moby.
That might have been the end of the story for “Plastic Dreams,” but four years ago a Chicago DJ by the name of Mr. C, the Slide Man (a/k/a Casper), unwittingly embarked on a course that would alter the fate of Jaydee’s masterpiece: he created a dance that’s come to be known as the cha-cha slide for an aerobics class at a Bally’s Physical Fitness gym. Before long, the dance became so popular that he began performing it at local clubs. The act consisted of Mr. C calling out the dance moves while a house DJ spun a tune for the crowd to move to. The song in question? “Plastic Dreams,” perhaps chosen because Michigan dancers had been doing something called the Detroit hustle to it for years.
In 1999, a bootleg 12-inch single of “Plastic Dreams” featuring Mr. C’s voiceover began making the rounds; in 2000 its popularity prompted Mr. C to record his own “official” version. Actually, there were two versions featuring two different spins on his trademark call-out instructions. One was an undercooked re-recording of “Plastic Dreams,” the other a spare funk track recorded with Chicago’s Live Platinum Band to distinguish the cha-cha slide from the Jaydee original of “Plastic Dreams.” It’s the latter version that then started turning up on urban radio, particularly Chicago’s WCGI.
The song and the dance are now a smash in the Midwest, and Universal, which picked up Mr. C’s Live Platinum Band version for national distribution, is in the midst of a campaign to make the cha-cha slide the next macarena: a tour, an “instructional” video, a great poster with each dance step illustrated in Miles Davis’s On the Corner–style cartoon characters, and, of course, a full-length album called Cha-Cha Slide: The Original Slide Album Featuring Casper (Universal) are all now on the market. Interested parties are advised to forsake the album for the single: rushed out to capitalize on the dance’s popularity, the album is padded with lesser alternate versions, instrumentals, and hideous R&B jams.
In response to the Chicago dance zeitgeist, Rhino has whipped up the compilation Smooth Grooves — Steppin’ Out (it hit stores on February 6), a collection of tracks dedicated to an indigenous Windy City dance style known as “steppin’.” In contrast to the cha-cha slide’s boxy movements (it’s a direct descendant of the electric slide), steppin’ is a sort of warmed-over update of the jitterbug, and the Rhino collection showcases the smooth grooves favored by steppers, including midtempo R&B from Patti Austin and Blue Magic and a remix of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” The music of steppin’ bears little relation to the cha-cha slide. But Mr. C, who has won Chicago’s annual World’s Largest Steppers contest in nine of the past 11 years, clearly means to position himself and his cha-cha slide as part of the larger Chicago dance scene, so he includes a steppin’ track (“Step to This”) on the Cha-Cha Slide CD (not to mention two mixes of fellow Chicagoan Charlie Green’s pioneering “Bus Stop/Electric Slide”).
It’s hard to say whether the cha-cha slide will attain a macarena or even an electric-slide level of popularity. If it does, however, it will be in a form that bears little or no trace of the classic Jaydee house hit that inspired it. At best, “Plastic Dreams” will be a footnote in the story of the cha-cha slide — a crucial link back to a forgotten recording that twice failed to transcend dance-floor limbo. But those lucky enough to have heard the original cha-cha-slide recordings will know that without Jaydee there’d be no Mr. C.