There really wasn’t a time that I didn’t know about him. Can you imagine Chicago in the early 1990s without Tommie Sunshine? As I first knew him, Tommie was what you might have called (and what writers then did call) a “rave celebrity”: If there were more than five people dancing to repetitive beats in any warehouse, loft or laser tag arena, you can bet that Tommie was one of them.
Following an epic blow-out at the inaugural Furthur, Tommie left the midwest, ran Satellite Records’ shop in Atlanta, took up DJing and production and now, the kid from Chicago must absolutely be considered one of the most prominent producers and remixers in dance music.
What surprised me when talking to Tommie (a personal record, 5 hour interview) was his depth of knowledge and love for even the era of House Music before our generation got involved. It’s been a long strange trip, it ain’t over, and it started something like this…
We were talking before the interview about early Chicago House Music and Trax Records, even to the edge of the ’80s. I had no idea you went that far back.
One of my earliest memories was a scene involving Larry Sherman. I think I was the only person not actively involved in the music industry to witness this. It was around 1989 at a conference in Chicago, a bastardization of CMJ called the Midwest Music Conference. It was centered around a couple of shows – the Chili Peppers at one show, Faith No More and Fishbone at another, and there were also panel discussions, industry workshops…
I was maybe 17 or 18 years old and my plans at the time were to get an internship with Sony in their alternative music department. I paid to register for this thing and there’s a House Music panel on the program. I’m all over this, since I was going to Medusa’s, listening to BMX and I loved House Music. I knew everyone on the panel. It was Adonis, Fast Eddie, Chip E., all in the same room. But some lunatic, for some reason, invited Larry Sherman.
He walks in, and I’m like who the fuck is that guy? There are a dozen people on stage. Eleven people are sitting on the left; Larry’s on the right all by himself and nobody would sit within five feet of him. Nobody. Visually appropriate, because everyone else on that stage wanted to kill him. They heard that their records were selling millions of copies, which in some cases they were, and in some cases they weren’t, but there was a lot of bad blood.
It stayed civil for about 10 minutes, and then it turned into an absolute farce, like an episode of the Honeymooners. The panel discussion unraveled. These guys wanted to kill each other.
In the fervor of the times, we thought House – and at the time especially Hip House – would take over the world. I was down for it – I was the biggest Hip House fan in the world. But that was a very real, very profound experience. I wondered, How can we ever get this music out of Chicago? This was the reason why. We couldn’t even take over Chicago, how could we go global?
I actually worked on a track with Fast Eddie recently that’s due to come out in October. I didn’t know what I’d be getting into – after sending it off to him, I wondered, am I going to have to hack this to death? But no – I got it back from him and it’s incendiary. He killed it.
Just in that story, you reference Hip House, the original House pioneers like Chip E. and Adonis, and indie/alternative. There was this beautiful moment in the early 1990s when it was really that wide open, maybe because we didn’t know enough to be “purists”.
More than any of the finer points, the part I miss the most is that merciless eclecticism. It’s just not there anymore.
I remember once in my Acid Jazz days going to see Digable Planets playing. I was dressed in the whole outfit. I’ve got a turtleneck and a Nehru jacket, bell bottoms and a crushed velvet hat and I’m livin’ the Acid Jazz life. I go up to Metro and see them, King Britt is DJing and it’s a great time.
After the show, I hear that Miles Maeda is playing at 500 West Cermak, and I was always down to hear Miles play. I loved listening to him spin. So I got in my car and drove down to Cermak and saw a couple of big guys at the door that I’d never seen before. They were asking me, “What do you want? You’re here for the party? That’ll be ten bucks.” That was already strange – first that I didn’t recognize them, and that I hadn’t paid for a gig in years. I was pretty well known and that’s the way it was.
I didn’t want to go home, so I paid the $10, opened the door to head upstairs and when I got inside I realized that I was the only white guy in the room. These were all hardcore Hip Hop guys. And dressed the way I was, in my bell bottoms and crushed velvet hat, I looked like the biggest jackass you can imagine.
I realized that the only way to survive this was to act like you were born to be in that room. That’s the only way I wasn’t going to get the shit kicked out of me the minute I left and 30 people followed me out.
That night was an incredible moment. These were kids from the projects cutting up old disco records & House records and rapping and freestyling over them. I just stumbled into this amazing thing. Their rapping was unbelievable. It was one of my favorite potlock, weird, random moments. Being from Chicago and having never left at the time, I didn’t know that music was more than what was happening wherever I happened to be. What I was listening to was going to evolve into something else, just like those kids were doing something totally different than whoever made those old disco and house records intended. They might have never stepped foot inside a club to hang out with a bunch of white kids who didn’t know how to dance, but here it is. I flipped.
I’ve interviewed Robert Williams of The Warehouse about one-time patron Dave Medusa. He said that “Medusa is a child of the Warehouse”; and I think Tommie Sunshine in some ways is a “child of Medusa’s”. The eclecticism of that place, where you could hear punk and industrial and new wave along with Rush and Armando and these DJs from the Southside of Chicago – it’s staggering when I think about it now.
There are condos now where Medusa’s was at, not far from the infamous Dunkin’ Donuts on Belmont & Clark. It was on School Street, and how absolutely perfect was that?
I get really emotional whenever I pass there. “Did you know that GG Allin was once in what’s now your living room, you fucking yuppies? His satanic ghost is haunting your ass!”
To put it into perspective, Medusa’s was the Chicago version of Dancetaria. That needs to be known. We didn’t have Mark Kamins DJing but we had the same kind of lunacy of walking into a room and hearing, of all things, opera – Maria Callas records being played in the chill out room.
The main floor was dance music. You’d have Flea Circus or some other punk band on the 2nd floor, or the Digits if they were in town. The 3rd floor was video and you’ve got music by the Smiths, The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen. It was just fantastically eclectic. I was going to Medusa’s and then waiting in line for Guns N Roses tickets, seeing Nitzer Ebb, Front 242 and Ministry, Die Warzau at Metro, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult at the Riviera, going to a metal show and listening to BMX on the way home. This was not strange. It was my every day life.
You would hear Lil Louis’ “War Games” and bug the fuck out. Or Pailhead’s “I Will Refuse”. Like “War Games”, it was pure aggression. The biggest moment every night is when the music would go dead, and you knew to get the fuck off the dancefloor. You’d hear that pulse, that Paul Barker bassline and the dancefloor turned into a sea of sharks. I see this all cinematically: I remember it like it was yesterday, everybody in a circle and a dancefloor turning into a moshpit. I got the crap kicked out of me. I’d go home and somebody asked “Do you have a black eye?!” Yeah, probably. I thought I was tough and the very definition of strength at age 17 – yeah, I’m ready for this. Instead I’m in the corner crying after 20 seconds. It’s amazing to think back to this song being played in the same context as the “House Music Anthem”.
At the time, you were pretty ubiquitous in Chicago. One of the Trance Atlantic Express CD booklets had a whole chapter about Drop Bass’ first Furthur rave and you were portrayed as kind of the ultimate party kid. Why did you leave Chicago?
What has to be said about that era is that we were doing a ton of drugs. I don’t just mean smoking a joint, but heavy psychedelics, heavy opiates – really heavy shit. That was the reason I left the Midwest in the summer of ’94. I had to move before I died. I actually knew I would die if I didn’t leave. I could see where we were headed, and even though I was really fucked up, my intellect took over from my disease long enough for me to have that insight. I’m definitely a drug addict; I’ve been sober for seven years now. And in the grip of that chaos, I had the realization that I needed to get the fuck out or I was going to die. The music was getting more exciting, the scene was getting bigger and bigger but so were all of the problems. We’d reached the absolute limit.
It wasn’t just a Friday/Saturday/weekend thing. We were hanging out with each other and doing this all the time. Seth Love would throw these afterhour sets at Charles Little’s office on Milwaukee in ’93. In my head they play like a movie. I mean they didn’t even really start until it was daylight out and they were still going well into the afternoon, with Spencer Kincy, Derrick and Diz playing proper House Music. Then on Monday we’d go to Foxy’s to hear Derrick. He would almost have to have toothpicks in his eyes to keep them open. His DJing, of course, was still great. Whoever thought that holding a Monday residency after those weekends was the way to go should have been smacked.
So I bailed on the Midwest for my health and sanity, went down to Atlanta to relax and get my head together. Two very good friends were down there with me and they wanted to party. We got the itch right away and couldn’t remove ourselves from it. So we found our way to the local party scene in like two seconds and were off to parties in the really shitty part of Atlanta.
At a party there in ’94, I heard that Scott Richmond was opening an Atlanta branch of Satellite Records. I wanted to be a part of that, but I never met him. I heard these rumblings that he’d hired some kid to run the Satellite store in Atlanta. God knows how I figured this out, but I got his cellphone number and told him, “Listen, I don’t know who you hired, but you need to fire them now. I’m the only person that can run this store. I’m from Chicago, I witnessed the birth of this music and lived through the second wave. I’m the one.” He was blown away by the audacity, but he fired that other kid and hired me.
Have you thought about what would have happened had he blown you off?
Never. It was fate.
Were you a DJ at that point?
My DJing up to that point had mostly been in the second room of raves. My style was unfathomably eclectic and not really based around mixing. It was more of the Mancuso style of playing records. I’d play Depeche Mode, Public Enemy, Happy Mondays and Adonis, all in a row. This was totally logical in my musical brain.
Woody McBride gave me my first gig up in Minneapolis. I was terrified. I’d never even used turntables before. My style was basically powered by a fistful of drugs and playing music just like you’d play records for your friends at home. And it grew, to the point where at a Drop Bass party there would be a thousand people crowded into the “second room” and listening to me play The Stone Roses and Wu Tang Clan. I never saw the boundaries, and I didn’t get why anyone would have a problem with that. For an analogy that I think your readers would understand: more Ron Hardy than Frankie Knuckles. I didn’t think about jumping 30 bpms between tracks. If I felt the crowd’s energy fading, then I’d get disco like “You Make Me Feel” going.
When I got the job at Satellite, Scott said, “You know, you’re going to have to DJ. You’re representing the store. You have to DJ.” And it happened really quickly.
I was approached about opening up for the Chemical Brothers in Atlanta. I said, “Well, I don’t know if this is a good idea…” But you have to, you run the record store. So beforehand, I did my best to put together what seemed to me to be a cohesive selection of music, pulled together loosely around Acid and Hip House – you know, “Yo Yo Get Funky”, “100% of Disin You”… You could say it was an “unsympathetic” crowd. In fact, the only two people who were enjoying it were the Chemical Brothers. They got on stage and were pumping and dancing. If I could get these guys dancing, I must be doing something right. Or at least that’s what I was told when a guy came up to me and said he had a club and wanted to give me a residency on Friday night.
The story that I just told you is the reason why everyone at Gramaphone Records back home never liked me. If you remember Peter Margasak’s column in the Chicago Reader – it was on the front page of the entertainment section. Peter was away so someone else wrote it that week, and there was a big article about me and I told this story. Someone at Gramaphone cut out the article and had it hanging on the door, marking all of the “revealing” parts with a yellow highlighter. It was up there for years – like this was a reason not to take me seriously. I wasn’t telling the story in the present tense. I was being honest about how I just stumbled into this, and they misinterpreted that on purpose. I was just some party kid who wasn’t a DJ when I left and came back after running the Atlanta leg of the biggest record store. I guess they were afraid that I would take away gigs – “Who does this asshole think he is? He left, so why is there any kind of a buzz on him? And he couldn’t even DJ!” When I played Material with Derrick, it infuriated those guys.
My whole life, I’ve only done what I’ve wanted to do. I never sat down and said, “I’m going to make Chicago House Music.” As a DJ, I’ve never said I’m going to play Chicago House Music. That would be disrespectful to all that I know. I heard Derrick Carter and Mark Farina hundreds of times – how am I going to just take that? I tried to do something different, incorporating all of my experiences. I wanted to bring something to a party. This isn’t just about records or technique and I identified that early on.
I don’t DJ and make music because I want to. I do it because I have to. It’s a compulsion. The first time I ever heard this music turned up loud, I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It wasn’t a flippant thing and I don’t want to make it sound like that. Everything turned on for me right there – it was just, “Holy shit, this is it.”
You’ve been at the forefront of predicting the rise of Electronic Dance Music in the United States …
Or I guess what we’re calling “#EDM”, right? If you’ve ever seen the DVD Rise about Disco Donny and the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans, the filmmakers interviewed me for that in ’98. I was wearing a cowboy hat, Misfits t-shirt and Original Jams and I was in a record store in New Orleans, talking about how excited I was to be there. I was more into Techno at the time and was talking about how Techno is jazz. I went on to explain that I thought this music should be the biggest in the world. That was 13 years ago. And look where we are. I always wanted the music to be bigger.
I love the fact that this music is where it is. If you say differently, you’re either lying or you never got it in the first place. House Music to me was always inclusive: I always wanted everyone to come to the party. We lost a lot of that inclusiveness when the whole bottle service and dickhead doorman thing became a cliche, though I suppose that goes back to Steve Rubel in part. But this subculture was inclusive. It wasn’t made up of people playing by the rules. And now people want to put rules on it.
My view has always been that this goes beyond music making or DJing or door policies. It’s a party that everyone’s invited to. Full stop. For every person we could get into a venue to hear continuous dance music, we were one step closer to taking over the world. All we ever wanted was for this to be the music of the world.
But there are some things I wrestle with because I don’t want to sound like an old fart. When I stand before two CDJs and a mixer, I want to take you on a ride that’s informed by everywhere I’ve been. It’s my life story via music, and I say that without trying to be pompous or pretentious. That is what is missing. We’ve forgotten about that with this idea of a gig as a rock concert, with people only playing their own music. It’s show biz. Just inflatable rafts and supersoakers full of vodka.
I’m not hating, I understand that things have evolved into something different but there has to be some sort of balance.
The love of music has been tragically lost. I know a lot about genres that I have no interest in at all. I used to have to order records for Satellite, so I know about Jungle (as they said in the ’90s), Trip Hop, Trance… I had no vested interest in any of these things.
I think that goes back again to the record store. The personal experience of going there and knowing everyone, and they know you, and they know your taste. They know what will blow your balls off and know what you’re into. I remember at Satellite, getting records in, holding ’em for every working DJ. “Five people get this record.” “Ten people get all drum & bass”. “I have one copy of this, but next week I’ll get 20 more. I’ll keep it for myself to play, because someone will ask about every record played at my residency on Friday.”
This is an example of that kind of shared experience. There was one record that just blew us away. There wasn’t much powerful disco out then, and the record that did it to us was Rhythm Masters’ remix of Todd Terry’s “Keep on Jumpin'”. I put the needle on that record the first time at Satellite, and everyone in that room just went berserk. I put it on a second time, and then a third. People were standing and sitting in a half circle, almost like we were in church, listening to the voices of Martha Wash and Jocelyn Brown.
These were more than records, they were a shared experience. That’s the community of the record store.
Where are you going to get that now? Not on Beatport or iTunes. It’s the wild west now. You have music blogs and I read a lot of them, but often they’re just barfing up music on a webpage. There’s no A&R, no selection, just “Here’s everything, you figure it out…”
I can name for you five records that really did it for me, and it was based more on a shared experience like that than the sound.
Go ahead, I’m curious what makes the cut.
First I’d have to say “What Acid?” by Bigod 20; Voyou’s “Germany Calling”; “Welcome to Paradise” by Front 242; Adonis’ “No Way Back”; and of course “Acid Tracks”.
What is it about “Acid Tracks”?
“Acid Tracks” is not a track that you dance to. You process it. It goes for more than 10 minutes and you better play it from beginning to end. It inhabits your body. You might think, okay, I can’t dance to that, but four minutes in, it breaks you down. As a DJ, I’ve never mixed out of it. It’s not a track that you just “reference”. You have to play it from start to finish. When I came back to the Midwest to play Furthur in ’99, I started off my set with that track, the whole thing. It was a matter of, “Okay, this is how it’s going down, this is a precursor of what we’re going to do here tonight.”
It wasn’t about the sound when these records got made, it was about your experiences. Some of it has to do with the record, but that’s the fundamental difference between House versus Rock. In Rock, you fall in love with a song and then you hear the band play it. In House Music, you hear it and then you run out to buy it. These are about moments, not records. I know it’s a cliche, but House Music is a feeling, a disposition, and the culture is about sharing that feeling.
You can listen to a great set in your car. That can be awesome. Or you can listen to it while getting down in a club. Who wouldn’t rather listen to it in a club than in your car?
You know, we started this interview when we were talking about Spencer Kincy and his sets. You mention getting stress from some Chicago DJs, but there are certain things about being from Chicago that just can’t be faked.
I’ve never lost my love for Chicago. I don’t always understand Chicago, but this is a city that created the biggest and most relentless new genre of music in the world.
The way I see it, in the last 30 years there have been four new genres attached to cities. Hip Hop can probably be attributed to New York. You could say the Bronx, and I think that’s widely agreed upon. It definitely wasn’t Munich or some place like that. House was from Chicago, Techno from Detroit and Grunge from Seattle. The biggest was Hip Hop, but the second was House. Nobody would put Techno ahead of House. Grunge faded after a couple of years.
House was a game changer. But in the city itself, it’s invisible. The city that created it is the city least interested in it.
The thing is that this has happened before, right in Chicago, with the sort of schmaltzy records that came out when the major record labels discovered House Music. What happened? You had the second wave, people like Mark Farina, Derrick Carter, Spencer Kincy, who had their own slant on the music. It was something new that reinvented the whole Chicago House sound.
With Guetta, LMFAO and Skrillex, you get this riotous response that’s off the charts. But it’s exactly the same as it was then. What’s happening on the other side? There’s some really inspiring music that’s just phenomenal, from Julio Bashmore, The 2 Bears – music that’s going on under the surface with these thick electronic basslines that hearken back to the sound in the beginning. This other stuff will keep on truckin, getting bigger and bigger. Spring Awakening is going to sell out and you won’t be able to get a ticket to get into Soldier Field. All of that has nothing to do with us. This major label stuff? It’s not our concern. God bless the guys who get a giant check and full creative control and all of that. Bless you! But it’s not our concern.
History gets rewritten. Today you say “Disco” and there’s a different perception of it. People think of Blondie, the Village People, Donna Summer… that’s Disco, but Disco came from the agony and pain of living a lie. The people in the early days of Disco were from the gay community and often minorities as well. It was a difficult life in the 1970s. That pain and anger and anguish is expressed through their music. That’s Disco. House Music in Chicago, too, was very black and very gay then.
The culture of electronic music had to be sacrificed for its popularity. They slit the jugular for its success. They had to take away the nostalgia, decimate its history, push Masters at Work and Morales and Frankie Knuckles all out of the way for a new breed who look good on TV and in videos. That’s the way it’s always been.
Pioneers get the arrows, settlers get the land. If you innovate, you’ll always get the street cred. People will give you your due. And then they’ll forget. Someone will rip the idea off and get the money before you do.
For example, I saw Defected’s House Masters series did a volume with Murk. All those Murk records on a CD is very exciting for me. But I’m 41 years old and I can’t imagine anyone 20 years old caring. There are some who do but they’re an absolute minority. I asked Oscar G once, did you realize how big those records were in Chicago? He had no idea. The labels were typed out on a typewriter, they had no idea people in Chicago loved them. Farina was a Murk disciple but they had no clue.