Chris Shively, aka Chrissy Murderbot or more often these days just Chrissy, is a firm believer in the significance of the 1990s rave scene as an agent of social change.
“I think what people were doing back then worked,” he argues from his home in San Francisco, “and now we're dealing with the last blowback of all the bigots and selfish rich assholes who just want to roll back all the changes before they're permanent.”
Shively is well placed to comment, having cut his teeth in the fabled Midwestern rave scene before settling in Chicago, the city he’s most associated with. In his eyes, the spirit of unity, equality and grassroots activism that went hand in hand with illegal parties in the early 90s provided a blueprint for how society could function in a cooperative, compassionate way. More than 20 years later, the tumultuous nature of so many global issues makes those ideals more pertinent than ever.
“I think on both sides of the pond the political situation is more like 1991 than it has been at any point in between,” he argues. “It's basically Bush and Thatcher but worse. I don't see why a political resistance movement focused on dancing and openness and community, across lines of race and class and gender and sexuality, should be any more unlikely now than it was in 1991. It just happened to evolve out of people who believed in it, and to be honest I think it worked for a while.”
Given the continued struggle for racial equality, ominous environmental forecasts in the shadow of industry, and inflammatory rhetoric across the political spectrum, Shively declares that, “now is the time where we have to reorganise and rededicate ourselves,” to ensure the progress the rave scene encouraged doesn’t get drowned out by more repressive values. He’s an exuberant optimist despite the larger issues that humanity faces right now, and he’s fed this energy into his latest album, Resilience, out in November on Chiwax.
“Resilience,” he declares. “Textbook definition; laughing through the tears and being able to smile and be hopeful, while acknowledging all of the shit that's raining down on us right now. For me that’s really helpful in fighting off apathy and maintaining the willpower to still work towards fixing things.”
Like other forms of political resistance, there are different ways music can become a vehicle for protest from the agitation of punk to reggae’s melodious rebel songs or the searing social commentaries of hip-hop and grime. Shively’s new album chooses to draw on upbeat songwriting and a rave-indebted sound palette as a clarion call to sympathetic ears.
“I think the spirit of radical openness that has existed through dance music since the 70s is stronger than ever in our conversations,” suggests Shively, “but sometimes I go to a club and I don't hear that spirit in the music as much as I used to. Sometimes the music sounds a little tracky and lifeless to me.”
Why vocals matter
From the airy chord sequence, punchy kick, bouncy break and wriggling acid line of opening track “Like A Fantasy,” it’s clear Resilience shirks dour-faced moodiness in favour of open-hearted cheer. Shively accepts that such notions can be sneered at in these cynical times, but it’s hard to refute their emphatic message when you’re listening. The effect is most acutely felt on the album’s vocal tracks, “Your Ghost” and “So I Go Dancing.” Shively wrote the lyrics themselves and sung his own “karaoke” versions to aid in his search for the right vocalists. The end results, courtesy of Maria Amor and Carrie Wilds, conjure up the same infectious pop spirit that made chart-topping icons out of classic house divas such as Paris Grey, Ultra Naté, Alison Limerick or CeCe Peniston.
“The thing I miss most about the 90s is vocal bangers coming out regularly,” says Shively. “I think it's important to have a little bit of actual word context in the art. Other songs on the album have little vocal samples and snippets hinting at the album’s themes, but I wanted outright songs like “So I Go Dancing,” which is about being broke and finding hope through the experience of raving, and “Your Ghost,” which is about all the important people you lose touch with, or point blank lose, along the way being in this scene over the years.”
Why sound retro?
The degree to which Shively recreates the sound of the past on Resilience varies from track to track, but he admits himself “Your Ghost” could be lifted from 1991, while “Hold On Tight” is an unabashed rave frenzy of acid snarls, euphoric piano chord breakdowns, rolling breaks and slamming 909 beats. Given the abundance of 90s-oriented music being released in the present day and his carefully considered approach to this album and its message, it begs the question of what Shively seeks to bring to the table with his own revivalist sounds. “I think it's hard to have a record that talks about the 1990s without sounding a little bit like the 1990s,” he argues.
“There are things in these records that will take 90s ravers back to a time they remember,” he continues, “but I don’t think you have to have been raving in that era for this album to work, hopefully.”
“I think we can learn a lot from the songwriting structures of the 70s, 80s and early 90s. We can use those structures as a tool to mix things up and break monotony in a club set.”
“Look ma, no synths.”
Shively has been producing since the 90s, and he’s more than earned his stripes with hardware production in his time. He reels off a kit list that includes plenty of classic synths and samplers, and talks with a bittersweet fondness for his years spent wrestling with Sony’s Acid Pro DAW before making the move to Live. With the plethora of old-skool sounds on Resilience, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shively produced the record using a vintage set up, but it was in fact produced entirely in Live.
“I know for some people being in a roomful of gear and working out a song in front of the machines is really beneficial for their songwriting process,” he says, “but I find that harmful to my songwriting process. I get an idea and I go on a bike ride or a walk and I'm humming this idea to myself and working it out in my head. When I get home I have a lot of the idea written in my head, and then it's just a matter of going to write that down into the computer in the least obstructive way. Not having a bunch of MIDI cables that I need to plug in, or editing a sample in hexadecimal like I had to on my Ensoniq Mirage.”
New methods for old sounds
Despite the enhanced workflow of working solely in the box, the challenge in producing music with a classic feel is emulating the sound of the era’s hardware. On Resilience, the time-stretched breaks on “Call On Me” are a shining example of the unmistakable effect Akai samplers left on their sources when jungle and hardcore producers started pushing their machines to extremes. Where more sophisticated software processes do too good a job of altering sample speed, Shively turned to a basic, standalone freeware application called Akaizer, which has the sole purpose of reproducing the metallic time-stretch effect associated with classic samplers like the Akai S950.
Similarly, playing back samples at different pitches on older samplers was achieved by the machine altering the sample rate, so if you were playing a lower note the sample was effectively being downsampled as part of the process to achieve a lower pitch. It’s such details that feed into the overall feel and character of the music, and Shively created a device rack to serve this purpose specifically.
“Say I’ve got pitched up snare drums that play out like a melodic component within the rhythm,” he explains. “I'll map a Redux to where you play lower on the keyboard, and it'll actually very slightly decrease the sample rate on the sample, so you get a little sound quality variation between different notes of the keyboard.”
Shively has kindly shared this device rack, and eight others central to his process on Resilience, for the Ableton community to use. They include classic FM house chords, downsampled rave stabs, jungle bass, a breakbeat vocoder processor, and the iconic Lately bass. Originally a patch on Yamaha synths such as the TX81Z, Lately bass was a ubiquitous ingredient in 90s dance music. Download them all below, with a full description of each device from the man himself.
Ableton Live 10 Suite is needed to make full use of these devices.
Mixing up the reference points
While the influence of the 90s looms large on Resilience, Shively wasn’t beholden to a rigid formula when making the music. As a case in point, he argues that many records from 25 years ago or more sound dull and muddy in comparison to contemporary productions, so he took a modern approach to EQing and mixing his tracks while keeping his use of delay and reverb more classically informed (he nods to the Echo audio effect in Live 10 as being particularly useful in that regard).
Shively also exerts his own personal stamp on the music through his embrace of many different sub genres and stylistic tropes within the same track. It’s an approach that echoes his fabled My Year Of Mixtapes shows, where between 2009 and 2010 he uploaded a new mix every week to his blog exploring a different sub genre of music. From digi-dancehall to “hard gay,” Quebec disco to happy hardcore, the knowledge and skill Shively displayed on this series makes it revered to this day. Unsurprisingly, it all stems from the rave scene.
“When I went to raves in the 90s there'd be people playing ghetto house, jungle, 2 step, straight up Chicago house and hard trance or happy hardcore, all sorts of things, so on Resilience I wanted to do something that played with genre in that context,” he says.
“U Can’t Stop” has these signifiers of hip house and Chicago house,” he explains, “but then these synths that evoke British rave records and bass that almost sounds like bassline or 4x4 garage.”
Elsewhere on the record, Shively goes further away from familiar reference points. “2CI Fridays” takes on a futuristic lilt with its crisp breakbeat manipulation and delicate, star-gazing synth lines. In spirit, if not in sonic content, the track echoes the genre agnostic moves of 4 Hero, who helped lay down the blueprint for hardcore and jungle while equally exploring deeper strains of techno and broken beat. Shively happily accepts the comparison, citing their ability to strike out into experimental territory without completely shirking the relevance of structures and conventions related to the demands of the dancefloor.
From A to B to C
Beyond the production details, Shively also places great importance on the compositional aspects of his retrospective gaze on Resilience. Much like Tadd Mullinix’s approach as X-Altera, Shively looks to the song structure of early 90s dance music, where there would often be distinct thematic sections and a sense of progression from one passage to another. He argues, “I hear a lot of records today that sound like Berghain techno but with a 1992 rave sound font,” suggesting there is currently a tendency towards repetitive, linear tracks that stay in the same groove for their duration.
“I think we can learn a lot from the songwriting structures of the 70s, 80s and early 90s,” he adds. “I think we can use those structures as a tool to mix things up and break monotony in a club set.”
The songs featuring singers tended to be pre-ordained by the vocal content, but when writing many of the tracks on the album, Shively saw the song structure as being comprised of, for example, an A, a B and a C section. He often had those distinct parts built up individually, and then it was simply a case of stitching them together.
“Having those individual sections in Session View and being able to play with them in the Push to structure the song as if it were a live jam helped me come up with leaner, stronger tracks where the arrangement and the edit was better,” he states.
The topic of lean tracks is a hot one for Shively – he spends a lot of time editing the excess out of disco tracks he dearly loves, although he doffs his cap to 11-minute epic “Impact USA” by Orbital as “a perfect track” with “no fat” to trim. It’s this attitude, and his quintessentially Midwestern quick-mix style on the decks, that has helped shape the immediacy of Resilience.
“My DJing style tends to be, ‘get in there and get the fuck out,’” he chuckles. “Maybe play a minute or 90 seconds of a track and then move on to the next one. When I hear a record that's eight minutes long, I'm like, ‘you better have a damn good reason to have made this more than four.’ I just wanted to make records that are tight enough that a DJ like me wouldn't be impatient playing them.”
As compact as they are bold and melodic, the tracks on Resilience are like bullets of dancefloor energy, but there’s plenty of meaningful messages to go with the music. Whether they help foster a sense of revolution amongst the party population remains to be seen, but as Shively confidently asserts, “it's not something I'm going to be shutting up about any time soon.”
Photos by Bailey Greenwood and Ricky Kluge