The names DJ International and Trax have become synonymous with the golden age of Chicago house music in the 1980s. But these two prime movers were not the only small, independent labels cranking out the new, post-disco dance music. With Kill Yourself Dancing and Bang the Box!, Still Music provide an opportunity to check out Sunset Records and AKA Dance Music, respectively. These two labels are lesser-known than their more famous counterparts, but no less influential, and the evidence is here over the course of four CDs or LPs and nearly four dozen tracks.
Like other house pioneers, Matt Warren, Miguel “Michelangelo” Garcia, and Ralphi Rosario had been on the Chicago club scene for years, spinning records and creating their own ad-hoc mixes and combinations of styles. The advent in the mid-’80s of portable, relatively inexpensive electronic instruments meant they could start creating tracks from scratch. Thus, the Sunset Mobile Disco crew became the basis of Sunset Records, which released its first 12-inch in 1985. In 1987, Warren Sunset formed his own label, AKA Dance Music, which served mainly as an outlet for his and Garcia’s tracks.
It is difficult to know what to do with these kinds of releases because you can approach them in two different ways. From a historical perspective, they are invaluable. Most classic Chicago house music was never issued on CD. Attempts to anthologize it for the digital era have been haphazard when they have taken place at all. Therefore, Kill Yourself Dancing and Bang the Box!, both compiled by Chicago DJ Jerome Derradji, offer a treasure trove of rare tracks that literally changed the course of dance music.
Chicago house reflected the character of the city itself at the time. It was engaging, but it was also hard, no-nonsense stuff. Not even the love songs were sentimental. The tracks here crisscross several different styles, but everything takes on this steely, unwavering character. The frenetic, motorik rhythms, cyclical basslines, and minor-key synthesizer lines do not so much invite you to dance as command you, and they take a similar approach to sex. The best of the bunch here can still pull it off.
Kill Yourself Dancing in particular contains several genre-spanning classics that could be heard thumping out of clubs in Chicago and elsewhere. “Electric Baile” combines a strident, Prince-like beat, glassy synths, Latin percussion, and sultry female vocals to make you feel like you’ve been let in on some secret, risqué cabaret show. The self-explanatory “Jailbait” makes statutory rape sound like about the most sublime, natural phenomenon you could imagine. “Pump It Up”, perhaps the highlight of either set, induces total dancefloor rapture with little more than a syncopated drum track and cowbell.
One of the keys to house music’s success was that rather than merely updating disco with electronics, it combined disco rhythms and production techniques with other forward-thinking forms. Such innovation is on display on both Kill Yourself Dancing and Bang the Box!. “The Way To My Heart” takes a dirty-mean funk bassline and uses it to pin down moody new wave synths and r&b-inspired vocals. “Close Your Eyes” sounds like a house take on a Latin take on new wave.
“Pump It Up” hints at the industrial dance music that was taking shape at the time, eventually finding an outlet on the seminal Chicago-based Wax Trax! label. By the time of AKA Dance Music, tracks like “Pleasure Dome” and “Shake It” were incorporating even harder beats and Krautrock-influenced basslines that more than nodded to an industrial influence. It wasn’t just zeores and ones coursing through the synths and drum machines. It was disco, soul, industrial, new-wave, alternative, and whatever else these DJs-turned-producers were listening to.
And this is where a bit of a paradox comes into play. The very technology that made the music on Kill Yourself Dancing and Bang the Box! possible has, some 25 years later, rendered much of it hopelessly dated. Some tracks, such as “Alternative House” sound more like equipment tests than actual compositions. On others, the stuttering vocal samples don’t take long to start to grate.
Conversely, it doesn’t take long to realize how influential this music was, either. English acts like New Order and Pet Shop Boys who helped influence Sunset and AKA Dance Music soon returned the favor, incorporating house into their synthesizer-driven sounds. Indie bands took the danceable, percussion-heavy rhythms and put guitar hooks on top, sparking the “Madchester” craze. In Europe, acts like Technotronic and 2 Unlimited rode a more pop-oriented approach into singles charts the world over.
“House music” is now a generic term with mixed connotations. In 1980s Chicago, though, it was a dynamic synonym for fun and the future. These two compilations are worthy documents of that special time.