When Christopher Shively, aka producer, DJ, and label head Chrissy Murderbot, was pursuing his master's degree in American studies at the University of Amsterdam in 2005, he had an epiphany. "I'm gonna sound like a horrible nationalist," he says, "but I became convinced that when it comes to dance music, midwesterners and also the British get it in a way that other people don't, because it's native to us and we grow up with it. You can do your homework and be really knowledgeable about it, but you'll never have that. It's like speaking a native language versus a language you learn when you're 15."
Just as native speakers are best equipped for subtle forms of wordplay, only a practitioner who really knows and loves dance music can treat it as unseriously as Shively does without sounding shallow—his approach can best be described as well-informed irreverence. It's something he shares with a few notable collaborators—including Scream Club, who appear on his new self-titled album, due September 1 on his own Sleazetone label—as well as with some of the bigger names he's opened for, among them the Bug and Kid606. So far most of the attention he's gotten has been from within the midwestern scene—he's old friends with Cody Critcheloe of Kansas City electro-punks Ssion and has recently fallen in with the local Ghetto Division crew—but despite his relatively low profile he's far from an inconsequential player.
Shively came to Chicago from Kansas City, which as far as I know has never produced a breakout dance-music star or even a hit track. He doesn't exactly dress the part either: though the club scene is intensely fashion conscious, his style is somewhere between preppy and nerdy, and his hair looks like his mom's been giving him the same cut since he was nine. But he really did grow up immersed in dance music, and his old hometown really does have a scene. "Yeah, I mean, Kansas City is a different paradigm than here," he says. "There's this huge hyphy scene in Kansas City. It's a trip. There's a house-music and dance-music scene that's very much in that kind of Chicago-Detroit-Saint Louis-Memphis kind of orbit."
Now 27, Shively got into dance music thanks to his older sister's taste for late-80s and early-90s pop techno. He places his musical awakening around "that moment when Technotronic was on the radio and Utah Saints were on MTV. It really seemed like 'Gosh, this is really gonna blow up! They're gonna be the next big thing!' And it never materialized."
By the time he was 13, Shively was landing DJ gigs with the help of a promoter who noticed him buying vinyl at a dance-friendly record store. ("A lot of the stuff was not coming out on CD," he explains.) He soon moved on to producing, though he admits he confronted a much tougher learning curve on that front.
"I had a bunch of ideas," he says, "but everything I made sounded like it was recorded in the bottom of a well—it just sounded like crap. It took me a while to figure out engineering and mastering and things like that. I guess it was about five years ago that I first put out a record, and I've just been plugging along since then."
He's being modest—it'd be more accurate to say he's been on a tear. The discography page on his Web site lists two albums, two EPs, and eight singles, plus around a dozen compilation tracks and remixes, all since 2005.
Just looking at Chrissy Murderbot gives you a pretty good idea where Shively's coming from. The cover tweaks the iconic sleeve art Columbia used for its disco singles—part of a woman's face in profile, her glossy lips almost touching the center label—by adding Magic Marker stubble and a curlicue of mustache. A song called "JACK YR BODEE" is followed immediately by "WORK YR BODEE," and a third is titled "Music Sounds Better With Me"—a goof on the 1998 Stardust single "Music Sounds Better With You."
The title of "100% of ORCH5" refers to the sampled Stravinsky "orchestra hit" that came with the Fairlight CMI, the first real pro sampler in the late 70s. (You can hear the original sound, which Shively re-creates persuasively here, on everything from "Owner of a Lonely Heart" to "Planet Rock.") In terms of dated cheesiness, orchestra hits are up there with Zubaz pants, but Shively's sharp ear for composition and skill at pulling together disparate styles make it easy to take his music seriously despite its jokiness. On one hand "100% of ORCH5" is a wink-and-a-nudge tribute to the blippy, corny pop-techno records he grew up on, but on the other it's a cunning fusion, incorporating a bit of drum 'n' bass in the form of a fuzzy, degraded-sounding snippet of the "Think" break (not as foundational to drum 'n' bass as the "Amen" break but still well-known) that adds a weird, dark tension to the track. Elsewhere on the album traces of Italo-disco, juke, ghettotech, and electro emerge, among a raft of other references and hybridizations.
"When an artist works across genres, sometimes there's a little bit of a brand-identity problem for people," Shively says. "But dance music in itself is such a narrow slice of the pie that if you limit yourself to 'Oh, I just make dubstep' or 'Oh, I just make bleep house' or 'Oh, I just make this or that,' there's gonna come a time when you've painted yourself into a corner and it's hard to keep working."
Needless to say, Shively doesn't have any trouble staying busy. Along with making his own music and running Sleazetone (whose best-known alumnus is still Ssion), he's got another label called Dead Homies, which focuses on what he'll call his favorite sound if you force him to pick just one: dark drum 'n' bass influenced by reggae and gangsta rap. The most notable Dead Homies release so far is by bizarro Brooklyn polymath Crunc Tesla.
In June Shively dedicated himself to releasing a mix tape every week for a year, and so far he's on schedule: the 11 he's already posted at yearofmixtapes.blogspot.com even have themes, whether stylistic (vocal house, new jack swing), historical (a tribute to Hi-NRG disco producer Bobby Orlando), or whimsical (songs with place names in their titles).
Most of Shively's gigs are at off-the-grid house parties, but he has one local club date lined up—September 18 at Smart Bar—before he heads to England and Europe in October for a series of DJ gigs, which he plans to give a midwestern theme. "Juke and ghettotech have just very, very recently made their way to Europe in this sort of substantial form," he says. "It's important for us midwesterners not to miss the boat on adding to our cultural clout as a music-producing region, you know what I'm saying? Even though it's a tiny little contribution, going over and playing, like, ten club dates or whatever, it's nice to be able to expose people to a kind of music that they wouldn't necessarily be able to find out about."
And also to represent the midwest, I say.
"Yeah! Exactly! I just want to be able to 'rep my hood,' as it were."