The Future’s So Bright

Last Saturday at the Empty Bottle, DJ Tommie Sunshine opened for Oval with an hour-long set that for the first 45 minutes seemed to draw in all of two people. That’s not unusual for Sunshine, and he doesn’t care–in fact, his burgeoning international reputation is based largely on his don’t-give-a-fuck approach. In a culture where slick production and predictable beats are the norm, he’s as likely to spin cuts from Suicide, Fear, Neneh Cherry, Serge Gainsbourg, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as he is trendy electro hits by Fischerspooner, Selway, or Adult. “Who came up with the idea that things have to flow together?” he says. But occasionally he does spin a set of “proper dance music, whatever that means,” and when he’s having an on night, audience members have been known to stop dancing and gape.

Sunshine, who declines to reveal his real name, grew up in Naperville, the youngest of four siblings. Both his grandfathers were “crazy accordion players,” and he says some sort of music was always playing in the family’s house. At age four he made tapes of himself singing to Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.” By third grade he was making himself mix tapes to listen to in art class. In the late 70s and early 80s, his sisters were going out to disco parties five or six nights a week, and while they pranced around to their favorite records and slathered on shiny eye shadow, Sunshine, who was still in grade school, would bop along with them. That was his introduction to dance music. His interest in other genres has seen peaks and valleys, but dance is “still extremely underground, and it’s where my allegiance lies.”

Once he turned 16 he would drive into the city almost every weekend to dance at Medusa’s and shop at Gramaphone Records and Imports Plus, where house music innovator Derrick Carter was the buyer. By age 20 he was working in record stores himself and following cryptic flyers to private parties in loft spaces, where DJs would spin house from midnight until late in the morning. He’d dress up in the ugliest 70s duds he could find, bury his head in a speaker, and dance until the party ended. People began to call him “Sunshine” because he was always one of the last people on the floor when the sun came up.

In 1993 Sunshine DJed a party for Drop Bass Network, the big midwestern rave promoter. “I did Stone Roses into Wu-Tang and Primal Scream into Howard Jones in the second room, while some German dude was in the front room playing, like, 180 bpm techno,” he remembers. “I went over tremendously well.” He spun at a few more parties and decided he might like to become a producer. But he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. So in ’94 he moved to Atlanta, where his brother promised him a valet parking job.

Sunshine “got sucked into the mid-90s slacker lifestyle” in Atlanta, but after six months he heard that Satellite Records, the predominant dance-music store in New York, was planning to open a branch there. He got on the phone and made calls until he found owner Scott Richmond. “I’m the only person in this city who can run your store,” Sunshine told him, and he got the job.

In 1995, when the Chemical Brothers came through Atlanta on their first North American tour, Sunshine got to open for them. “I was ‘the guy from the record store,'” he explains. It was his first gig in his new hometown, and he was sweating bullets. “I was trainwrecking in and out of every record,” he says, “and the Chemical Brothers were standing backstage screaming and high-fiving each other and being like, ‘This guy is crazy! It’s 1995 and he’s spinning old acid-house records!’ After that some guy opening a new club gave me the Friday night residency.” He learned on the job how to seamlessly layer records: “I sucked. I had no idea about programming, but I just got up there with sunglasses and attitude and people bought it.”

One day in 1996, Felix da Housecat, a Chicago house pioneer, came in to Satellite. Intrigued by Sunshine’s outfit–fingerless gloves, sweat bands, a cowboy hat, obnoxious surfer shorts, and a Sassy T-shirt–Felix remarked, “There’s no way you’re from the south.” Sunshine replied that he was from Chicago, and after a brief conversation Felix asked him to join his band, Thee Maddkatt Courtship. Felix became something of a mentor to Sunshine, and by the end of 1998 they’d produced their first track together. Around this time Sunshine also made a double LP called Wait, It’s Fantastic with Mark Verbos, a techno artist he’d met at parties when he still lived in Chicago, under the name Binge & Purge; it’ll finally be released this month on the Swiss electronica label Mental Groove.

Sunshine started coming to Chicago for weeks at a time to work on projects, and soon he was keeping two apartments. He promised himself he wouldn’t come back permanently until he was serious about producing; that moment came in the spring of 2000. He remixed a song called “Sunshine” for V2 recording artists Tin Star, recorded a 12-inch single, “1-2-3 Miami,” with Atlanta house hero Chris Brann under the name Jackass & Mule, and started his own label, Xylophone Jones Recordings, to release it. “1-2-3 Miami” is now getting regular airplay on B96.

Last fall Felix went to Switzerland to record a single with disaffected techno seductress Miss Kittin, best known for her work with retro-techno enthusiast the Hacker. He played the song for Sunshine over the phone and told him he had ten minutes to write lyrics and E-mail them to him. An hour later Felix called back and played him the finished product, a sleazy pop gem called “Silver Screen (Shower Scene).” Two weeks ago the song was featured on Pete Tong’s influential show, Essential Selection, on the BBC’s Radio 1. Last month Sunshine went to London to DJ with Derrick Carter at Carter’s bimonthly residency at the End, and while he was there he recorded a single with Felix and producer Arthur Baker (who produced Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal electro hit “Planet Rock”) under the name the Crazies; it’s due out on Paul Oakenfold’s Perfecto label in October. And when he got back, British DJ turned TV host Seb Fontaine came here to interview him for his dance-music program, Big Weekend With Seb Fontaine, on the Play UK cable channel.

Sunshine’s not as popular in the local dance community as he seems to be internationally: Fontaine conducted the interview at Gramaphone, asking Sunshine questions about house music in front of guys who’d been spinning it for nearly 20 years, but when I called the store for a comment on Sunshine’s work, neither the buyer nor the manager I spoke to would cop to being familiar with it. Sunshine, true to his aesthetic, doesn’t care. “I don’t have this big subversive plan to piss people off,” he says. “I live my life true and the process is all that matters. If people like me, great. If they don’t, they can go fuck off.”

Currently Sunshine is preparing to make a video for “Silver Screen” and spins almost every Wednesday at Rednofive. And starting on July 25, on the last Wednesday of each month he and Jim Magas and Bridgette Wilson–proprietors of Wicker Park’s Weekend Records and Soap–will cohost Warm Leatherette, a night devoted to music rooted in “Italian disco, early break-dance music, and electro.”

Peter Margasak is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.