Skip to main content

Interview: Tommie Sunshine- Does Activism Have A Place Within Dance Music?

Dance music historian and activist talks about how dance music can effect social change, but will it?

Tommie Sunshine is among the few in dance music fortunate enough to have lived through it all. He started going to clubs in Chicago in 1986 as house music emerged. In a career that now spans over three decades, he has become a deeply respected historian and champion of dance music, and his ability to navigate the changing landscape of the music industry over the years has allowed him to maintain his cultural and musical relevancy even while many of his contemporaries have become footnotes in dance music history. His versatility as a DJ sees him still dropping the heat all over the world. And his keenly acute ear has often put him ahead of the curve, most notably being the person who discovered Calvin Harris on MySpace long before he became a global superstar and posterboy for EDM.

He also embodies a spirit of activism seldom seen in dance music. A bit of an anomaly in dance music where the vapid hedonism of EDM has made it unsafe for most artists to have even the slightest bit of a public opinion, much less a divisive one. So last year after I found myself mulling over the thought of a Trump presidency and how the dance music community would react to that over the next four or (Sky Wizard forbid) eight years, I couldn’t think of anyone better to talk to than Tommie Sunshine.

Truth be told, I chased this story for two months as Tommie is a very busy fella. My persistence was rewarded with an hour-long conversation with Tommie just a day before he left for ADE Mumbai to participate as a panelist and throw down some wicked beats alongside collaborators and long time friends, Chocolate Puma. I was treated to some powerful insights about the election, the state of EDM, and the future of dance music as activism.

What mobilized you to be an activist?

When I was first inspired to act upon all this stuff, it was Occupy Wall Street. My wife and I were watching television and across the top of the screen came the ticker tape. "Police have evicted everyone in Zuccotti Park" and I looked at her and said “I'm going,” and she said “I'm coming with you.” And I have never in my life seen what I saw that night. That night we were teargassed, we were threatened, we were chased. I said to myself, “If this goes on while the city sleeps, what else do we not know about?” It was a hectic night. But there were about 5000 people on the streets of NYC that night.

Where were you on election night?

I headed to the city because my original intent was to go to the Javits Center to protest outside Hillary's thing. I was going to make sure that she understood that we weren’t going to put up with her hawkish, crazy shit. It was a good half-an-hour train ride and in that half an hour [was] when the results started to pour in. When I first got off the train, one of the first places I walked by was Fox News. There were about 2000 people standing outside of Fox News cheering on the results like it was the Super Bowl. And I was like "Oh dear God, no. Please no" okay now I’m going to hightail it to Times Square, the middle point between where I was and where I was going. When I made the turn I could see the Jumbo-tron and it was broadcasting Fox News, and I was like "that is not good." I met a friend, Abby Martin; she's an incredible investigative journalist. And she was with her producer/boyfriend Mike. We couldn't believe what was happening. And I looked at them as it looked like it was falling farther out of Clinton's hands and said "We have to get to the Hilton" where Trump’s thing was.

Earlier in the day, they had designated this one patch across the street from the Hilton as being the protest pen, the rest of the space was open for supporters. We arrived and realized that the protest pen had been taken over by supporters. And there was this insane vitriol coming from this pen of supporters that were in unison waving this "Make America Great Again" flag and a United States flag and an Israeli flag. And we were wondering what the fuck was going on. And then it started to become more real. And these people started chanting to the crowd "No blacks, No Gays, No Muslims, No Mexicans." And for the first time in 14 years [of] living here, I was afraid to be in Manhattan. I was actually concerned for my safety. I had my hair down that night and if there was obviously someone who was not there as a supporter, it was me.

What’s been the most striking difference between the kind of protesting that has gone on recently and what you saw that first night in Zuccotti park?

I was out [on election] night, I was out the following night at the big protest outside Trump Tower, and a few days later on Saturday. And I started to notice that this was not activists, 95% of the crowd was just folks. It was just people who were frustrated, angry, [and] afraid. People who just didn't know what to do or how to process what had just happened. This went from something that was activist driven to something that was citizen driven.

Judging from your Twitter feed you stay pretty well informed but is there something in particular that you are most interested in?

You can't shut everything down. You have to prioritize. Coming out of the Bernie thing I knew my focus was going to land in the environmental sect. That was right around the time that the NoDAPL thing in Standing Rock started to culminate and it was something we could really galvanize around. And that really wasn't just an environmental thing, it was a spiritual thing. Native Americans are extraordinary. They're the first people of this country. This is their country. I live in Brooklyn and 2 or 3 blocks from where we live is an eight-block stretch of Native burial grounds. And that's the blessing/ curse of activism when you start to peel the layers off of the onion then come the tears and you really start to understand how deep this goes. I think that, this moment at the very least has woken everybody up from their slumber. And I think that slumber is a recurring theme. Whenever there's a Dem president, everything kind of gets comfortable. Everyone stops protesting, they stop being active, because they don't feel like they have to.

So I have to ask, what does it mean for dance music?

If you really want to trace where all this comes together, where was the most critical moment of counter culture in music? If you are looking to the 60s and Woodstock and all of that, that's Nixon. And then you fast forward to the beginning of disco was Ford. And everyone forgets that Chicago house music and Detroit techno came about under a Reagan administration. And then of course the American rave scene came about under Bush, the first one. And then guess what, as the 90s rolled on, Clinton became president and everyone got comfortable and all of a sudden it all fell apart. Then again during Bush the second one you had electroclash here in NYC and the beginning of the whole blog house scene. If you are going to look at it that way that means-and it's ironic because the timing couldn't be better-we are at [a similar moment to] the end of the 90s when electronica had been railed to the gills and then all of the sudden it had run its course. And in comes the Republican administration and the dark days and then the RAVE Act blew in and destroyed the rave scene.

And we are looking at EDM as an ecosystem that spiritually can not continue. Up until 2009 when EDM began, people who were DJs and people who made dance records did it because they loved it. There are people who play to massive crowds who get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars who have never once in their life plugged in a set of headphones to DJ for fun. It's a job, it's work. It's a means to an end.

Part of this awakening that has come from politics is that people's bullshit detectors are on fleek. Every single person can hear something and be like "no, no way! I do not vibe with that, I can smell a rat" And I think that's important because what that is going to do is steer the music in a new direction. And hopefully in many new directions. As history has shown us, we're due for a Nirvana moment anyway.

For it to sustain, there's going to have to be more artists that twist it and turn it upside down and actually approach this as art not as a commodity.

I feel like there was a time when art and activism were kind of inextricably linked. How do you get back to a space where people can understand that art can inspire activism and vice versa?

That's an economic perspective. The reason these artists are being told by their big management to stay quiet on things that are divisive is because when you have fans all over the world, you can't take sides. You have to just whistle Dixie in the middle. And just be okay with the fact that you are not allowed to say anything.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

How does that land with me? I don’t fucking care. As an artist that came up in a time in Chicago where I got to watch house music become a thing, so why would I care whether or not my politics are divisive? To me, it's more important to be divisive and to have an opinion. Because all of the people who I've ever admired in music from Cobain to Lennon have always been unfathomably political.

That’s the one thing that over time sadly has been the most revisionist history about Kurt Cobain. He was insanely political. He was always talking about gay rights, women’s rights and all of these things. And that was so insanely uncool to talk about in the 90’s.

To me being in music is a political statement, it always was. House always has undertones of political. Yes of course it was escapist.

But it arose out of the ghetto at a time when the crack epidemic was taking hold of communities. It kind of makes sense that people would look at dance music as a form of protest to begin with.

The Black and Latino gay population of Chicago is wholeheartedly responsible for Chicago house music. Disco was exactly the same. I say this with love, because I participated in it. When you are living in a vapid world, vapid music is going to exist. Without having to name names, everyone knows who those people are. The reason why [that music] is successful in this climate is because of this climate. That is why it exists. Now there is a categorical shift.

A stepping-stone for all of this is the thing that Zedd put together. Zedd put together an event with him, Skrillex, Halsey and a bunch of bands April 3rd at the Staples Center in LA. . And all the money goes to the ACLU. Okay, now we're talkin'. It's very important that things like that are starting to happen.

Do you think that will empower others within the dance music community to mobilize?

For sure. We're moments away from when taking a stand and having an opinion is going to become quite chic . It's going to take a minute and a lot more terrible policies to go forward. But if you look at where we are at a year from now. People are going to see that there's juice in being a part of the resistance.

Youth has always been one of the largest mobilizing forces for social change. Will that help move things forward?

How could it not? It's incredibly important to remember that all through history the youth has always had the power. Standing Rock is a totally a youth driven phenomenon. The crux of the support of that movement have been kids who are woke. Who say “Fuck this, I'm going to stand up and fight for this.” I think that there are more people that are young that are active in this resistance movement than there were hippies in the 60's. And this is before it's hip, before it's okay to be divisive.

So it has the power to be bigger than anything that's come before it.

Ever. This could very easily be the biggest youth movement that the country has ever seen. And that's the irony. Because everyone has been trying so hard over the last 5 years for the big sell that millennials are lazy and they don’t want to do anything. The irony is that millennials are the ones that are going to save the world.

It is very powerful to think that we're in a moment like this. And the funniest part of this is that I've had people point out to me, “you have such a platform why don't you organize more?” And I tell them that if when I was 20 years old and somebody came to me who had a grey beard and told me what to do I'd have told them to go fuck themselves. I'm just not the guy to do it. It's going to take one of these kids who shows up to every one of these protests at Washington Square Park but also makes fucking sick beats to be that person. And that's also okay. Plus I'm not big on telling anyone what to do.

So what do you say to those who think artists should stay quiet about politics?

My comeback to anyone who says to me "I love your music, but I hate your politics you should shut your mouth" I say to them “Go link to my Soundcloud.” If you like my music, but not my opinions of the world then detach, I won’t miss you. But that's why Soundcloud is a non-politicized social media platform.

If you want to write pop songs that are aimed at rich kids that's great, do that because then those kids can like that music. That's the real breaking of the chain that's happening right now is that everyone has been told that since 2009 as an electronic musician you have to appeal globally to all people. And you need to write lyrics that are so down the middle and don't challenge people and aren't divisive and aren't political and aren't anything else. And as a turn of that you now have a world that is just down the middle. That's why we got who we got running the show.

Do you think there's a space for protest music in dance music?

The one biggest thing that keeps anyone from doing anything is the lack of precedent. So if I could give anyone any advice to anyone that's going to read this, I would say yes of course there's a space for it. And you would be on the earliest side of doing so. You would be one of the pioneers of such an exploit. If that's what you feel, and you feel that's something you need to express and put out into the world by all means run towards it. You would literally be like the first man on the moon.

But you can't say that there hasn't been any. In it's own twisted way “Internet Friends” by Knife Party is a political record. There's been social observation. And those guys are doing records with Tom Morello now. So they are fighting the good fight.

Is there a space? Of course. Whether or not that's going to be used, that's a different story. The numbers of the people that are active in this community of resistance will show you that there's support for it. If you make a smart record and a good video, who's not going to be on that? Just because of its uniqueness you’ll get a ton of attention. You would hope that the people who would do something like that would do it for earnest reasons, because they actually care. At this point everything counts and I look forward to time where the music that I'm hearing out when I'm doing things like food shopping would be less dense and more soulful.

Related Content