Jump Up Records rescues Chicago ska band Rude Guest from obscurity


Jump Up Records' Rude Guest cassette - CHUCK WREN
  • Chuck Wren
  • Jump Up Records' Rude Guest cassette

Cassette Store Day is a slightly ridiculous concept (ever been to a cassette store?), but its list of U.S. releases includes a substantial Chicago contingent—reflecting the healthy interest that local labels and fans have in the format. This year it falls on Saturday, October 8, and several Chicago imprints that regularly issue tapes—Girlsville, Dumpster TapesGrabbing Clouds Records & Tapes—have put together special releases. Among them is long-running reggae, ska, and rocksteady label Jump Up Records, which is releasing a handful of full-lengths—including a compilation from defunct local ska group Rude Guest, Lost Chicago Ska 1982-1993. Rude Guest only ever put out music on tape during their original run, so the occasion fits. "My brother used to joke that we're totally dedicated to the cassette format," says Paul Schroeder, who formed the band with brother Kurt in 1982. 

Tapes helped inspire the Schroeder brothers to start their band. After graduating from college in the late 70s, Paul spent a couple months backpacking through Europe, where he got to experience ska's second wave in person. "I saw Madness and UB40 at that Pinkpop festival in Holland," Paul says. "Madness came out and they just crushed it."

Paul began sending cassettes of music he dug to Kurt, who was living in Atlanta and playing in a Top 40 cover band called Pzazz. "This band had eight big-hairdo guys with flashy clothes—every one of them could sing lead vocals, and [Kurt's] talents were just underutilized," Paul says. "He was having a ball traveling around the country, but there was no artistic outlet for him." Kurt took to the ska and two-tone tracks that Paul sent him, and after he left Pzazz, he moved back to Illinois and got to work with his brother on launching what became Rude Guest.

Lost Chicago Ska is largely indebted to the genre's second wave. Often the skanking guitars motor at a pace that makes original Jamaican ska seem slow as molasses, and many tunes shimmy with new-wave flair. When the keyboards bust out flamboyant melodies, they hint at the nervy third-wave sound that arrived in the mid-90s.

Paul says the original members of Rude Guest each brought something different to the table, which allowed the group to bring something different to ska. Front man Kurt was the pop songwriter; lead guitarist Darrell Pennell, who also played in Pzazz, had a southern-rock style; bassist Fran Kondorf loved the blues; horn player Michael Levin, who went to Oak Park High School with the Schroeder brothers, cut his teeth on jazz; Paul, the group's drummer, grew up on a fusion of rock styles. "You get these five guys in a room with different things—you can hear a little country twang in the guitar," Paul says. "You can hear some of the jazz stuff in the sax."
Jump Up founder Chuck Wren wrote a band bio for the Rude Guest release where he explains that few folks understood what the band were going for when they started in the early 80s. Paul says they struggled with bookers, and recalls a time that Rude Guest were added to the bill of a country show. "My brother would just go off on that stuff," he says. "He's like, 'These people are just total idiots—let's book it ourselves!'" As Rude Guest found their legs, a couple members would camp out at Paul's office during work hours and try to promote the band. "We would just sit there and pump the phone," Paul says. "We got a listing of every college within 500 miles, and we just sent them a cassette and bio." The band not only performed at schools throughout the midwest but also got chummy with local clubs, which helped them get gigs at Tuts, Metro, Park West, and the Vic, among others.

Despite playing out regularly, Rude Guest didn't have enough money to record and distribute their music, so they needed to cut corners. Fortunately they had a connection at Chicago Recording Company—Paul was friends with engineer Tom Hanson. "We would just go in there in the middle of the night, set up stuff, try not to make a mess, and sneak out before anybody got there in the morning," Paul says. Rude Guest recorded four cassettes, all of them self-released—they never managed to get a label interested. The rejection letters weren't always so bad, though. "I think the best one—I'm trying to think of who it was—they say, 'We really like you guys, but we just signed UB40,'" Paul recalls. "We love UB40. We're like, 'OK, that's not such a bad slam.'"

Rude Guest found a niche in the midwest: they once opened for ska-fusion heavies Fishbone, and in 1991 they played at the first annual Midwest Ska Fest in Milwaukee. The title of Jump Up's Cassette Store Day compilation, Lost Chicago Ska, speaks to the band's legacy, not to their visibility around town when they were active—and they've been forgotten in large part because their recordings were never released commercially and came out only on tape, the only format the band could afford. They recorded what turned out to be their last one in 1993, and within a few years Kurt was diagnosed with cancer; he died at 40 in 1996. Rude Guest broke up just as ska's third wave crashed into the mainstream.

An original Rude Guest cassette - CHUCK WREN
  • Chuck Wren
  • An original Rude Guest cassette

Paul, now 59, got a message about six weeks ago from Wren at Jump Up, who'd reached him through one of his nephews and wanted to discuss reissuing Rude Guest's old material. Paul felt like he needed advice, so he called Mitch Goldman, who plays trumpet in third-wave ska band Skapone. "I said, 'Hey, what about this guy Chuck?'" he remembers. "And he said, 'Oh, he's an honorable guy.'"

Paul put the wheels in motion to get the Jump Up compilation ready for Cassette Store Day: he reached out to every surviving member of Rude Guest he could track down and went to work digging up old photos and cassettes. "My parents have the pristine ones," he says. "They go, 'I've got a couple Rude Guest tapes!' Pulls them out, they've never been played." Paul is even trying to persuade some of his old bandmates to play a Christmas party for Jump Up. Paul speaks warmly about Wren's evangelical work on behalf of Rude Guest, though he admits to nursing an unfulfilled wish. "I really wanna push Chuck into pressing a vinyl record of the product," he says. "That'll be the best thing for me."

Jump Up Records hosts a Cassette Store Day party at Logan Hardware on Saturday, October 8. Vic Ruggiero & Jesse Wagner will perform an acoustic set, and King Tony and Chuck Wren will DJ with cassettes. Reader contributor Chema Skandal will exhibit posters and paint on cassettes.


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