The Chicago-based DJ, producer, and label head plays December 16 at Robinia Courtyard.
While we here at Tone Madison would never expect a DJ to simply dump their entire record bag full of secrets out in front of us, our goal with this column, Aces, is to chat with some of our favorite local residents, as well as visiting guests, about a few of their favorite, fail-safe floor destroyers.
For this edition of Aces, we sat down with one of the Midwest’s most agile selectors and producers, Chrissy Shively, a Chicagoan who hails from Kansas City. If you need any proof of Shively’s 20-plus year, batshit commitment to seemingly every microcosm of electronic dance music, then look no further than his now-inactive blog My Year Of Mixtapes, which features dozens of focused mixes that range from Latin freestyle to Eurodisco to UK Rave. Shively’s production career has wandered from the spastic jungle vibes of 2005’s Fi You 12-inch to the nasty footwork and juke-leaning sounds of 2011 Planet Mu outing Women’s Studies to the disco-house flavor that he’s settled into on his three self-released Cool Ranch 12-inches from this year.
Between running two labels (Cool Ranch and Nite Owl Diner), working in the studio, and DJing internationally—a recent tour brought Shively to Thailand and Vietnam—his grind is serious. Ahead of his December 16 appearance at the Jams series at Robinia Courtyard, Shively discussed his formative years of raving in Kansas City, why he stopped making footwork as Chrissy Murderbot, and the challenges of producing vocal house tunes.
Tone Madison: How did your relationship with electronic music begin?
Chrissy Shively: Well, everybody in my family was super into music, so I grew up around music all the time. My older sister, who is 10 years older than me, got into rave culture, house music, and techno around 1989 or so. So, I was exposed to the music through her and mainstream crossover stuff like Black Box, Technotronic, Crystal Waters, and Deee-Lite. I fell hard for it instantly and knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up.
Tone Madison: Honestly, if I heard Black Box at a rave today, I’d do a full backflip.
Chrissy Shively: [Laughs] I’ve played it before and people either love it or hate it.
Tone Madison: Yeah, it seems like a divisive move, but surely a great way to shake up heads who might take themselves too seriously.
Chrissy Shively: Exactly. Like maybe it alienates the “too cool for school” crowd, but people who think they’re too cool for Black Box deserve to feel a little alienated, to be honest.
Tone Madison: Dreamland is so far ahead of the game. Nobody is too cool for Black Box. At what point did you start taking DJing and production seriously?
Chrissy Shively: I started buying dance music around 1992 or 1993—like shitty rave compilation CDs or whatever. I started buying 12-inches around 1993 or 1994, initially because the good stuff wasn’t coming out on CD, and then I was like, “Hey, maybe I can be a DJ.” I played my first little local gig in 1996.
Tone Madison: And this was in Kansas City?
Chrissy Shively: Yep. And I kind of built from there. My first out of town gig was in 2000 and my first international gig was in 2005. During that whole time, I was trying to write music, but I wasn’t very good at the production or engineering side. I had some good song ideas, but everything sounded like mud. It took a long time for me to figure that out and actually make some release-quality tunes. My first 12-inch came out in 2004. Ever since I started DJing and writing songs, I’ve been trying to do it better and better. I’ve never really gotten to a point where I felt like I was finished or a professional. I think being a professional is really just a constant process of improvement, re-education, and trying to better yourself, you know? This is a long-winded way of saying that I got serious about it in the ’90s, but I still don’t take myself very seriously. There’s always room to improve and be better.
Tone Madison: For sure. The approach of reaching a certain level before you’re exposed to a wider audience has kind of mutated for some folks, who release one super hyped track at an early point in development, and then have to play catch-up with the expectations that follow—especially as a DJ or live artist.
Chrissy Shively: That’s true, but I mean, it was that way back in the ’90s for some people too. There have always been people who immediately blow up and can’t match the hype. We just don’t remember any of them from 1996 because they fizzled out. [Laughs.] It was a good eight years from my first DJ gig to signing my first record.
Tone Madison: Was that from your footwork days as Chrissy Murderbot?
Chrissy Shively: My first release was jungle, actually. I made a bunch of jungle records and then some footwork records, but I’ve always been a huge house and disco person as well. Honestly, the jungle and footwork records were kind of what I was able to realize at that time with the production skills I had. It’s a lot harder to write and record full vocal tracks and stuff like that. I ended up getting kind of tired of jungle and footwork and how defined and constrained they were as genres, which caused me to want to move toward house, disco, and all the sounds that first got me into electronic music.
Tone Madison: Yeah, recording and arranging vocals is an intense process. Do you do any of your own vocals or do you typically bring in session vocalists?
Chrissy Shively: I’m not really a singer, so every song I’ve released with vocals has a guest vocalist collaborating with me on it. Usually, I’ll write the lyrics, but sometimes they do.
Tone Madison: What are some of the biggest challenges you face when producing a vocal dance track?
Chrissy Shively: Oh, just the process of learning how to arrange a vocal and not overpower it with a bunch of instrumental production flourishes. Or learning how to let a song be about the singer and not about your ego, as the guy making the background music. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: So it’s largely an exercise in restraint?
Chrissy Shively: Yeah, restraint is a big part of it. Also, it’s just a different set of skills to learn—recording a vocalist and mixing down their performance into something that sounds like a professional recording. It’s totally different than writing melodies on synths or recording electronic instruments, so it took a long time to get the hang of it. Like the DJing and songwriting, it’s a work in progress that I’m always trying to improve.
Tone Madison: How do you balance the two practices? DJing and production are obviously two very separate crafts that require a lot of attention to detail.
Chrissy Shively: I tend to go in real phases. For a few months I’ll be all about DJing and focusing on that—digging for records all the time and practicing. Then I’ll get kind of burnt out and spend a few months where I barely touch my turntables at home, and I’m just writing songs in every spare moment. Then I get sick of that , go back to the DJing, and then my keyboards start gathering dust.
Tone Madison: When did you leave Kansas City for Chicago?
Chrissy Shively: 2006, I think.
Tone Madison: I know that Chicago has a pretty insane legacy for dance music, but I’ve also heard that Kansas City hosted some pretty serious raves and parties back in the day. Do you have a particular memory of attending or DJing a Kansas City rave or party that you found especially formative?
Chrissy Shively: Yeah, Kansas City had some great parties back in the day. The whole Midwest had a really strong scene, actually. It’s nothing compared to Chicago, of course, but still a strong scene. There were loads of parties that really blew my mind. I remember DJing at a horse racing track in Kansas City, Kansas where 2000 people showed up. Juan Atkins was headlining and it was just a really positive feeling to be around all these people who were there for the same music as you were, and at a time and place where that music felt very marginalized, fringe, and unaccepted. Somehow it felt meaningful to be partying in an illegal or quasi-legal space at a time when the entire culture was being targeted by the police. And let’s be real, when has it ever not been targeted?
Tone Madison: What were you spinning back then?
Chrissy Shively: It was all over the place, to be honest—jungle, happy hardcore, Detroit techno, ghetto house, rave, and piano-y vocal-house. Pretty much anything that was song-oriented, as opposed to tracky stuff. Not much has changed.
Tone Madison: This doesn’t surprise me and it brings me to my next question—looking back, if you had to recommend three mixes from your My Year Of Mixtapes project, which ones would you pick?
Chrissy Shively: Oh golly, the New Jack Swing one for sure. The Ambient Jungle one I think is pretty good and focuses on a kind of slept-on genre. Also, I think the Hi-NRG is pretty good too. I can’t believe that was almost 10 years ago that I did that. I have to go and look back through the list to remember what’s even on there.
Tone Madison: OK, so let’s talk about these tunes you picked out. First, we’ve got this Blaze remix of Diana Ross’ “Take Me Higher,” under their Klubhead moniker. I just love the pacing and the mysterious pads on this one. Do you remember how you found this tune? How would you use it in a set?
Chrissy Shively: I found it in a record shop in London, actually. And yes, it’s all about the pacing with this one. The intro is super drawn-out and it takes forever for the drums to kick in. I love the tension, anticipation, and buildup of it all. I’ll use it as a set opener to kind of reset the room after the previous DJ. Or, if I’m playing a long set—like four-plus hours—and I want to reset the room in the middle of it, I might gradually take the tempo down to something slower over the course of five or 10 records, or take it really fast. And then, when I’m ready to go back to house tempo, I’ll let the previous track end, bring in this mysterious pad intro, and kaboom—you have a neat little moment.
Tone Madison: Blaze has such an incredible knack for these big, beautiful, and cathartic deep house tunes. Not too little, not too much, just right on the money.
Chrissy Shively: Totally legends. They have so many bangers.
Tone Madison: It’s pretty sweet that you can find a lot of records with awesome Blaze remixes in cheapo bins everywhere. I can thank Damon Palermo of Magic Touch for bringing Blaze to my attention. OK, so next up we’ve got some psychedelic, supersaw techno in Love Inc’s “Trance Atlantic XS.” How’d you get introduced to this one?
Chrissy Shively: I found it in a dollar bin in Kansas City more than 20 years ago. The rest of the cuts on it haven’t really held up, but that one is still a huge banger. It’s a really great thing to play at peak hour and just drive everybody in the room mental. It’s one of those tunes that a lot of people don’t really know, so it gets a lot of crazy reactions and head turns like, “Oh my God, what is this?” That’s a thing I always love.
Tone Madison: Yeah, this definitely feels like a track you’d need to build toward—can’t just drop it on someone’s head like an anvil.
Chrissy Shively: One-hundred percent. And, just like the Blaze tune, it’s got that overly long and dramatic intro. So, you can mix it in or just let the previous song end, and use this two-minute intro to build everyone into a frenzy.
Tone Madison: OK, so I absolutely love this Sylvester tune you picked out—”I Need You.” I really like Sylvester, but admittedly had never heard this tune before. That weird, descending bass line and string section are just mind-blowing. Where’d you dig this one up?
Chrissy Shively: I actually can’t remember, but I’ve always been a huge Sylvester fan, so any Sylvester record is buy-on-sight for me. This one is just so gorgeous and has such an uplifting piano part and amazing vocal delivery. I play this one a lot.
Tone Madison: Not to be that guy, but after checking Discogs, it seems that the “I Need You” 12-inch is actually pretty rare.
Chrissy Shively: I believe there have been a lot of bootleg represses, but an original press is hard to come by.
Tone Madison: How do you feel about Discogs shutting down the buying and selling of bootlegs?
Chrissy Shively: It’s idiotic and changes absolutely nothing. First off, Discogs is almost entirely a second-hand marketplace. Artists make zero dollars from a Discogs sale, so to a rights holder, there isn’t much difference between a bootleg being sold on Discogs and a used copy of a legit pressing. Secondly, trying to stop piracy in 2017 by policing the sale of bootleg vinyl is ridiculous. Music is being given away, stolen, and devalued in literally every corner of the marketplace and there’s this one little corner where music is valued so much that people are willing to illegally repress rare, out-of-print titles just so people can own a physical copy. And that’s what they choose to crack down on? As a real tactic, it’s just laughable and as a symbolic gesture, it’s misguided.
Tone Madison: Fair enough. Returning to the tracks, you’ve selected Buddy Miles’ beautiful “Pull Yourself Together.” This one seems quite a bit slower than the rest of your selections. How does it fit into the patchwork of a Chrissy set?
Chrissy Shively: I’m a big collector of catchy slow jams with lyrics about leaving to pull out at the end of the night when the lights come on and I have to kick everyone out of the club. Stuff like “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here” by Deborah Cox or “Gotta Leave” by 702 or even “Turn Off The Lights” by Teddy Pendergrass. I like songs that kind of cleverly say, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” in musical form. It gives people one last song to dance to, but in a slowed-down way that gets them mentally ready to leave.
Tone Madison: What is your favorite way to transition into one of these tunes?
Chrissy Shively: This song is a great “get the hell out of my bar” song. I’ll just let my set end naturally, and when people are like “aww cmon, play one more,” you whack one of these on.
Tone Madison: To wrap up, you’ve selected a reggaeton-sounding jam here with Chester X Sandman’s “Hole It Dong.” This one is pretty crazy.
Chrissy Shively: It’s soca actually, from Grenada. I’ve always been a big fan of Caribbean music. Soca, in particular, is one of my favorite genres.
Tone Madison: Thank you for the correction there.
Chrissy Shively: No sweat. Soca is from Trinidad and it descended from calypso, but also has a lot of reggae and dancehall influence. It’s kind of a more uptempo, party-focused genre—centered around carnival and the party culture surrounding it. Anyways, lately there has been a lot of really great stuff coming out of some of the other islands in the area—Grenada, St. Lucia, Barbados, and St. Vincent specifically. They have a lot of Kuduro influence mixed in with the traditional Soca sounds and are just these kind of dark, driving, and drummy bangers. They remind me of tribal house or UK funk, in a way. Anyways, “Hole It Dong” is one of the Grenadian soca tunes that I’ve been playing a lot this year.
Tone Madison: I really dig the slanted groove here. It probably does a lot to inject freshness into a four-on-the-floor set.
Chrissy Shively: Exactly.
Tone Madison: So, what’s next for you as a DJ, producer, and label head?
Chrissy Shively: I’m keeping up with the two labels—The Nite Owl Diner and Cool Ranch. I’m also working on a new album for next year, and just trying to play as many gigs as possible—across the United States, Europe, and anywhere else that will invite me.