Right now pop music is as genre blind as it’s ever been. Though the Internet has encouraged the development of ever more specialized niche communities, it’s also erased many of the aesthetic and social distinctions between styles—rock bands are making EDM tracks, R&B singers are stealing moves from indie bands, and country music has recently found an unlikely source of inspiration in hip-hop.
Genre pileups like this are hardly unprecedented, but in predigital days they tended to be more geographically isolated. The late-80s Madchester scene, birthed from a messy collision of house music, punk rock, soul, and psychedelia, is one notable example. And in the years before Madchester, while the house tracks that would set it off were being recorded, another hybrid community emerged in Chicago—it never made it big, but it was even more stylistically daring.
This community coalesced in the mid-80s around a small group of DJs who were coming up in the city’s burgeoning house scene, among them Matt Warren, Miguel Garcia, and Ralphi Rosario. “We all started out as your basic basement DJ crew, doing house parties and stuff,” Warren says. “Then as we got kinda older, we moved into the nightclub scene. We started buying equipment, doing the wedding thing, doing the private-party thing. It just kinda grew and grew from there, because of our sound system and lighting, because we had the coolest stuff in town.”
The group quickly made connections in the upper echelon of the house-music community, including with the legendary Hot Mix 5 (Rosario was a founding member), but they were willing to spin pretty much any sort of record a paying gig might call for. “We were current DJs of the time,” Warren explains. “We were very familiar with the New York sound. The new-wave stuff was a big influence on us simply because my best friend got a job at the Limelight, and at the time it was very cutting-edge. We were spinning stuff like Depeche Mode and the Cure and Bauhaus.”
Warren and Rosario were among the first DJs from the house scene to go into the studio—Warren says they recorded their first single before Jesse Saunders recorded “On and On,” cut in 1983 and generally considered the first house record (though many other artists have made that claim). And when they did, they brought along the disparate collection of sounds they’d accumulated via their DJ gigs, including new wave, rap, and salsa. “Just because we were DJs, we were influenced by all of these things,” Warren says, “and we wanted to incorporate them into our sound.”
Some of the products of their heterodox philosophy appear on a new compilation named after Warren and Rosario’s first single: Kill Yourself Dancing: The Story of Sunset Records Inc. 1985-1989 came out last week on Still Music, the label run by Chicago DJ Jerome Derradji. It shines a light on an obscure episode in Chicago’s musical history that more people should be aware of, not only for the prescient thinking of the artists involved but also for the quality of music they produced.
Warren, Garcia, and Rosario formed Sunset Records (after some bad experiences involving other labels) with brothers Alex and Robert Rojo, who were already throwing dance parties under the name Sunset Mobile Disco. Garcia and Warren were largely responsible for scouting talent, and along with the Rojos they ran the business side of the operation out of the brothers’ parents’ garage. It was small by the standards of the music business, but for a house label it did very well. Warren wanted it to do better, though: “My intention was to get the attention of the majors.”
He managed to attract their attention at least briefly during promo trips to New York, but nothing came of it. That’s not terribly surprising—the majors didn’t begin to wrap their heads around dance music’s potential until years after Sunset folded. Still, it’s not hard to imagine an adventurous A&R rep being intrigued by what Warren had on offer. Many of the tracks on Kill Yourself Dancing could have been marketed to several of the distinct subspecies of clubgoer that existed in the 80s. The throbbing synthesizers and rigid drum programming of Master Plan’s “Electric Baile,” for instance, would’ve pleased black-vinyl-clad new wavers, while its vocal line and salsa flourishes would’ve appealed just as much to fans of Latin freestyle music, which was bubbling up at the time. And White Knight’s “Yo Baby Yo” is raucous, tear-the-club-up electro-rap, recorded just before 2 Live Crew turned that particular hybrid sound into a mainstream pop-culture phenomenon with As Nasty as They Wanna Be.
When Sunset failed to get the break Warren was hoping for, he left the label in 1987 to form AKA Records, which specialized in harder sounds such as acid house and industrial. (Still Music will release an AKA retrospective called Bang the Box! on October 15.) The Sunset catalog soon faded into undeserved obscurity—but with any luck, Kill Yourself Dancing will bring this scene some overdue exposure, like the New York Noise comps did for NYC’s 80s dance-punk movement. If that happens, maybe it will inspire some present-day musicians looking to figure out how to make natural matches out of dissimilar sounds the way that the Sunset material did. It’s already had an effect on at least one musician: Warren himself. “I hadn’t touched my drum machine in probably a year or two,” he says. “I’m actually starting to write new music with my old stuff.”