Michael Jackson's 'Blood on the Dance Floor,' 15 Years Later

The strange story behind the global hit, which was released a decade and a half ago today

Blood On The Dance Floor 615.jpg

Epic

On June 6, 1990, producer/musician Teddy Riley was supposed to be at his friend and fellow band member's birthday party. Instead, he spent the night at a Soundworks Studio on 23rd Avenue in Queens, working on grooves for none other than the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

"I told [the group] I had a lot of work to do," Riley recalls. "Michael was my priority. I was going out to California to meet him soon, and he wanted me to bring my best work."

It was a fortuitous decision.

Later that evening, Riley learned someone was shot on the dance floor at the party he had skipped. He was shaken. At just 23 years of age, violence and death were already becoming a recurring theme in his life. Within that same year, his half-brother and best friend both had also been murdered.

Riley was shocked to learn Jackson's title for the track: "Blood on the Dance Floor." "He knew what it was about even before I told him what happened that night."

The rhythm track Riley worked on that night was aggressive, ominous, menacing. But it had no words, no title, and no melody.

The following Saturday he was on his way to Neverland Ranch to meet Michael Jackson. Riley was nervous. Jackson had already tried out a handful of people to replace legendary producer, Quincy Jones, including L.A. Reid, Babyface and Bryan Loren. None stayed on.

Jackson had high hopes, however, for Teddy Riley, whose street-inflected New Jack Swing style brilliantly fused jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip hop. Indeed, perhaps its greatest achievement was in bridging the divide between R&B and hip hop, a bridge, incidentally, that Jackson had been hoping to find since working on Bad.

Jackson listened carefully to the tapes Riley brought with him and instantly loved what he heard. The tracks used different chords than he was accustomed to. The rhythms were fresh and edgy. The beats swung with velocity and hit like sledgehammers.

Among several tracks Jackson listened to that day was the groove Riley worked on the night of the party. Jackson had no idea about the context. "He knew nothing about it," Riley says. "I never told him anything about it."

A couple of weeks later, however, Riley says he was shocked to learn Jackson's title for the track: "Blood on the Dance Floor." Riley got goose bumps. "It was like he prophesied that record. He felt its mood."

Over the subsequent months, Jackson and Riley began working feverishly on a variety of tracks, sometimes separately, sometimes together at Larabee Studios in Los Angeles. "I remember he came back with this melody, 'Blood on the dance floor, blood on the dance floor.' I was like, 'Wow!' He came up with these lyrics and harmonies. Then we just started building it up, layer by layer."

teddy riley ap images.jpg Riley used a vintage drum machine (the MPC 3000) for the beat. The snare was compressed to make it pop ("I want it dry and in your face," Jackson used to say). It was a sound they used throughout the Dangerous album. "Listen to 'Remember the Time,'" Riley says. "It's very similar."

Presented by

Joseph Vogel is the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. His work has appeared in Slate, The Huffington Post, and PopMatters. He holds a Ph.D. in american literature and culture from the University of Rochester. 

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