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It’s the running man, but fluid and cocky, with knees splayed and hands limp, a thumbs-up thrust at the dancer’s chest; a finger pointed at their audience. Then the finish: arms crossed with a smug smile. It’s called the “Basic Dance” and anyone who’s played Fortnite long enough to reach the lobby has seen it. Developer Epic has a variety of purchasable dances, but this is the one that noobs and “no-skins” get free of charge. And it has a rich history that doesn’t quite have a happy ending.
It dates back to February of 1990. It was a different time. George H. W. Bush was a year into his presidential term. Driving Miss Daisy was number one at the box office. The Cosby Show and Roseanne were tied for the top spot in primetime television (and their stars remained relatively unproblematic).
But, most importantly for our story, R&B group, New Edition, was on hiatus. Lead singers Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant were pursuing solo careers, leaving the rest of the group’s members, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie Devoe out of work.
They didn’t stay that way for long, and instead put their talents (and names) together to form Bell Biv Devoe. In early 1990, the new outfit was preparing to release its first full-length album, “Poison.”
Fortnite Dance: February 24, 1990: Bell Biv DeVoe Releases “Poison”
“Poison” was also the name of the album’s lead single, a new jack swing bop which debuted a month before the album’s release. The song, which began as producer Elliot Straite’s “love letter” to an ex, took on a life of its own, rising to the top of Hot Black Singles chart for two weeks and holding the number three spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for four weeks in a row. It was certified platinum in June of that year and became a favorite on MTV and in the club.
Fortnite Dance: February 7, 2006: Turk Auditions for the Air Band
Sixteen years later, Donald Faison made the song a favorite among fans of NBC’s hit medical sitcom, Scrubs, too. While sitting in on an audition session to fill the lead singer spot in the Janitor’s air band, Faison’s character, surgeon Christopher Turk, mocks the air band.
“Do you think this is easy?” Ted, the Janitor’s bandmate, asks.
Then Turk makes it look easy, hitting play on a boom box and busting a move to “Poison.”
“I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but he’s got it,” the Janitor says. “He’s so damn talented.”
The scene became a fan favorite, and when Faison did a Reddit AMA a few years back, the subreddit was filled with references to the dance. (Faison also revealed, believe it or not, that he freestyled the dance and completed it in one take).
Fortnite Dance: April 1, 2018: Donald Faison’s “Dear fortnite…” Tweet
With Fortnite: Battle Royale’s ascension to total world domination (Epic reported 125 million users across all platforms back in June 2018), the shooter became a household name, penetrating cultural consciousness in a way that only that true phenomenons do. News outlets wondered aloud about Fortnite addiction, Drake hopped on a stream with popular Twitch streamer Ninja, and mumble rappers put out an ode to the game.
Amid the mayhem, a side-by-side comparison video went viral, showing that the “Basic Dance” was, indeed, a move-for-move recreation of Faison’s air band audition dance. Faison, apparently having seen the video or another like it, tweeted “Dear fortnite… I’m flattered? Though part of me thinks I should talk to a lawyer…” to thousands of likes and retweets.
Dear fortnite… I’m flattered? Though part of me thinks I should talk to a lawyer…
— Donald Faison (@donald_faison) April 1, 2018
Fortnite Dance: April 1, 2018 – Present: Epic Stays Silent
It’s now been more than four months, and Epic still hasn’t said a word about the 12-year-old (but still fresh) moves that inspired the “Basic Dance.” (The company did not respond to requests for comment.) No jokey response to Faison or humorous co-opting of the meme. The company’s reticence to address the dance’s inspiration may have something to do with criticism they faced from other high profile sources.
“Fortnite should put the actual rap songs behind the dances that make so much money as Emotes,” Chance the Rapper tweeted on July 13. “Black creatives created and popularized these dances but never monetized them. Imagine the money people are spending on these Emotes being shared with the artists that made them.”
Rapper 2 Milly, whose dance the “Milly Rock,” appears in-game as “Swipe It,” told Kotaku he wished that Epic had approached him about using the dance.
“I do take it as a Very big deal I just wish [Epic] would have reached out with a payout and a contract being that I am solely the creator of the Dance And Song MillyRock…I don’t feel it’s appropriate that my art (dance) which is a big part of culture is basically stolen,” he said.
While his response to the developer’s co-opting of his moves was less serious, Faison, who is black, has been in roughly the same situation since Fortnite debuted. And Epic shows no sign of slowing. The studio recently added “Intensity,” a recreation of the famous moves which gained the shirtless, bearded, muscular man, who came to be known as TechnoViking, Internet notoriety after Berlin’s Fuckparade 2000.
Epic has the most popular game in the world and a booming in-game economy. They can get in on the fun, and start joking around with Scrubs stars on Twitter, if they take Chance’s advice and give credit where credit is due.
“I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but he’s got it.”
Unfortunately, for Faison, Bel Biv Devoe, 2 Milly, Technoviking and other artists, “it” isn’t a royalty check.