Star Creature Universal Vibrations transfigures boogie for the 21st century | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Music » Music Feature

Star Creature Universal Vibrations transfigures boogie for the 21st century

Tim Zawada and Ben Van Dyke’s label helps turn the far-flung fans of this resurgent postdisco dance music into an evolving community.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment
Tim Zawada of Star Creature Universal Vibrations. The label’s other founder, Ben Van Dyke, lives in Los Angeles and couldn’t make a photo shoot in Chicago, so his spot is taken here by Zawada’s dog, Tugboat. - OLIVIA OBINEME
  • Olivia Obineme
  • Tim Zawada of Star Creature Universal Vibrations. The label’s other founder, Ben Van Dyke, lives in Los Angeles and couldn’t make a photo shoot in Chicago, so his spot is taken here by Zawada’s dog, Tugboat.

Tim Zawada began his DJ career in Chicago knowing he was an outsider. The south-suburban native had been DJing at parties while at Indiana University before graduating and moving here in 2009. Within a couple weeks, his skills had earned him a job with a local DJ company, which set him up with occasional gigs at clubs and bars, but he felt obligated to tread carefully when deciding what records to spin.

"I didn't feel comfortable playing house music anywhere, because I didn't know the history of everything," Zawada says. "I thought it was too much of an evolved thing for me to just walk in, disrespect, and start doing—I felt very uncomfortable playing house music for the first couple years here. Same with hip-hop too—I didn't feel like I was a part of the hip-hop scene. I didn't want to, like, bust into it."

Faced with the need to develop a niche without running afoul of a DJ culture that guarded its treasures carefully, Zawada gravitated toward a form of music that wasn't quite so ringed around with gatekeepers: boogie. "It's just an in-between genre of a bunch of different stuff," he says. It quickly became the core of his musical identity: in 2010 he cofounded popular DJ collective the Boogie Munsters, and in 2015 he helped launch Star Creature Universal Vibrations, a record label that specializes in new modern funk, boogie, and disco.

Boogie emerged in the late 70s, at the tail end of the disco boom, and though it preserves disco's crisp, mellow melodies, love-focused lyrics, and dance-floor orientation, it's generally slower and less flashy—perhaps a way of pulling back from the gold-rush excess that gave the world "Disco Duck" and The Ethel Merman Disco Album. Boogie foregrounds the lizard-­brain grooves and supple bass lines of funk, and as synthesizers took over pop music, it integrated them too. Few sounds scream "80s" like the cheesy neon synths of a boogie track, which can sound like a Commodore 64 trying to sing hymns.

Boogie had faded into obscurity by the end of that decade, but no bygone dance-music style ever truly dies. Zawada is part of an international community of DJs and musicians who've given boogie a second life—and not just by spinning old vinyl. Artists from the U.S. and around the world—Mexico City, Tokyo, even towns in Russia and France too small to find on most maps—are making new boogie music.

The contemporary tunes often borrow from other genres—most notably hip-hop, from which it takes loose, cybernetic beats and ghostly samples. The word "boogie," when applied to new music, is interchangeable with the term "modern funk," popularized in the late 2000s by California producer, DJ, and vocalist Dam-Funk. Last year he released a modern-funk mix as part of !K7's beloved DJ-Kicks series; on the label's site he describes it as "Funk, Boogie, Electro, House, Modern-Soul, Ambient tones . . . a push and pull of nostalgia and progressiveness."

"Dam-Funk pretty much gets credit for being the godfather of the movement," Zawada says. But the Star Creature Universal Vibrations label has played a vital role in building on what Dam-Funk began: the music it releases from its international roster of artists is snapped up by a small but tight-knit community of fans, who find one another online no matter what country they call home.

Star Creature presses 500 to 1,500 of each of its records—runs too small to get noticed by Billboard but not always large enough to satiate those fans. Some sell out their first runs within two weeks, most within two months. (The label's entire catalog is also available digitally through Bandcamp.) Discogs sellers have discovered how valuable these records get once they're sold out: they'll send you a copy of one of Star Creature's first releases, the E. Live seven-inch "Everybody" b/w "Be Free," for anywhere from $29.35 to $88.04.


Star Creature Vibes
Star Creature Universal Vibrations label showcase featuring Saucy Lady, K-Maxx, E. Live, Family of Geniuses, and DJ sets from Bell Boys and Tim Zawada & the Boogie Munsters. Sat 10/21, 10 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, $10, 21+


Star Creature's roster includes plenty of Chicagoans, among them Wings of Sunshine and Bell Boys, but it's also put out music by Mexico City's Shiro Schwarz, Tokyo's Liquid Pegasus, and Boston's Saucy Lady. The label has had a relatively busy 2017, so far releasing six 12-inches, six seven-inches, and two cassette mixes. And that's not counting the 12-inch from Belarusian producer Fitzzgerald on Zawada's other label, Tugboat Edits, or the five seven-inches Star Creature releases this week, in time for a Saturday showcase at the Hideout called Star Creature Vibes: two from E. Live, aka 37-year-old Bay Area producer and multi-instrumentalist Eli Hurwitz, one from German artist First Touch, and two re-presses of Saucy Lady's early Star Creature singles.

Saucy Lady, aka Japanese native Noe Carmichael, is one of three out-of-towners on Saturday's bill—E. Live and singer and multi-instrumentalist K-Maxx are coming from the Bay Area. Star Creature Vibes is the third such event the label has thrown this year. "That dude works full-time, does DJing full-time, and does the label stuff full-time," Carmichael says. For Zawada, whose day job is at a business-to-business consulting company, music is worth all the effort. "It comes with sacrifices," he says. "Like not living a normal lifestyle, not getting a normal amount of sleep, not being involved in what other people are normally doing with their lives."

Zawada initially resisted the pull of DJing. "I'd already seen other DJs that were really good," he says, "and I was like, 'I'm not gonna disrespect them by taking my crappy records out somewhere and playing whatever.'" Star Creature cofounder Ben Van Dyke has known Zawada since their days at Indiana University together, and their sophomore year he convinced his friend to DJ a party with him. "I didn't have enough records, so I needed Tim to help me out," Van Dyke says. Zawada caught the bug, and soon he was injecting a bit of Chicago music history into the IU party circuit, playing house, disco, and the occasional boogie track.

The two of them moved to Chicago together, and at that point Zawada began to immerse himself in boogie. He found a guide in Mark Grusane of defunct Morgan Park shop Mr. Peabody Records. "He's the one that told me what boogie music was and started pulling records off the shelf," Zawada says. "He's, like, our version of Dam-Funk."

In 2009 at Wicker Park's Between lounge, Zawada met Shazam Bangles, another local DJ who shared his blossoming love for boogie. "We were both outsiders to the DJ scene at the time," Zawada says. "I was coming in as a person that wasn't really from here, or wasn't involved with house music, wasn't involved with hip-hop. And he was coming in more as a turntablist that had a sick record collection and a crazy amount of musical knowledge." The following year they formed the Boogie Munsters ("I think I'm the Herman of the Boogie Munsters crew," Zawada says) and began spinning rare electro-funk, disco, and boogie at a couple spots in Wicker Park. These days the core of the crew consists of the two founders and Constance K, an Ohio native who joined in 2013, while Chicago expatriate DJ Moppy maintains a Detroit chapter.

Zawada and Van Dyke also threw parties at their Wicker Park loft, promoting them via travel and hosting network CouchSurfing.com. "We always had random people staying with us," Zawada says. "The parties ended up being super cool, because you'd get a couple hundred people there from all over the world that were just visiting Chicago."

Tim Zawada with Ben Van Dyke and members of the Boogie Munsters crew outside Funk Trunk Records' Rogers Park Music Swap in November 2015. Left to right: Zawada, Shazam Bangles, Constance K, Van Dyke, and Frankie Sharp. - COURTESY OF TIM ZAWADA
  • Courtesy of Tim Zawada
  • Tim Zawada with Ben Van Dyke and members of the Boogie Munsters crew outside Funk Trunk Records' Rogers Park Music Swap in November 2015. Left to right: Zawada, Shazam Bangles, Constance K, Van Dyke, and Frankie Sharp.

Van Dyke hasn't DJed since college, but he's grown to love boogie as much as Zawada does. He thinks some fans came to boogie in the early 2010s because they needed a refuge from EDM but still loved dance music. "Dance music became more of a mainstream genre, and there was just other interest in some of the peripheral music," he says. "I don't really know why in particular the boogie sound—that kind of 1981-to-1985 sound—has resonated."

Dam-Funk has been the most important boogie evangelizer this century. He's hardly the first—Montreal duo Chromeo broke out in 2004 playing pop songs flavored with electro-funk—but Dam-Funk went further by creating forums to celebrate the sounds that inspired him. In 2006 he launched a weekly club night called Funkmosphere in Culver City, California, which grew into a hothouse for modern funk. Pasadena producer XL Middleton, who'd go on to cofound MoFunk Records in 2013, became a regular at Funkmosphere—though he'd spent his 20s making hip-hop beats, it led him back to the music he grew up with. As he told LA Weekly after the release of his 2015 debut, Tap Water, "Funk is our first language, so we want to do our own take on it."

Some contemporary boogie artists have followed similar trajectories: Seattle vocalist and producer Proh Mic switched from hip-hop to smooth electro-soul (some of which he's released via the label of Chicago hip-hop collective All Natural), and K-Maxx was putting out rap tracks as early as 1994.

E. Live played punk in high school, took up jazz piano in junior college, and in 2004 toured in Gabby La La's backing band, opening for Primus front man Les Claypool. But after moving to Los Angeles in 2005, he started making hip-hop tracks—a decision that would eventually lead him to boogie.

"I worked on hundreds of songs and none of them could feel finished for me," E. Live says. In hip-hop, the styles of the day were relatively minimal, but he loved full-bodied productions that simulated funk-band arrangements—a sound he calls the "Quincy Jones ensemble." His peers were skeptical. "They would generally be like, 'Wow, really cool tune, but dude, you've gotta take out those toms, you gotta take out those crashes, maybe just loop that one part,'" he says.

Many boogie and modern-funk artists use their new material to carry their love for older styles into the future. "I've always been listening to R&B and a lot of jazz, and I think whatever we call modern funk now is basically an extension of R&B, soul, and funk," says Noe Carmichael, aka Saucy Lady. "I've really been into that for some time, since grade school, middle school." Dam-Funk toiled in obscurity for decades—he was celebrating boogie and postdisco funk as a teenager in the late 80s, when no one else would touch it. In 2007 he signed to eminent indie hip-hop label Stones Throw, which in 2009 issued his watershed sophomore album, Toeachizown.

Dam-Funk, now 46, has become a sought-after producer and minor star, not to mention the best collaborator Snoop Dogg has had in more than a decade—in 2013 they teamed up on a self-titled album as 7 Days of Funk. The scene Dam-Funk nurtured has largely remained underground as it's grown, but it's much more cohesive now. In 2009, when Zawada met a member of San Francisco collective Sweater Funk at a Chicago bar, he had only a vague sense of what was happening in California. "He gave me a mix CD—I was like, 'I don't know any of these tracks,'" Zawada says. "I didn't even really know about Dam-Funk at the time." But these days he's networking with fellow travelers on both coasts and beyond.

Dam-Funk's cousin Turquoise Summers has released music through Portland boogie label Omega Supreme, whose catalog Zawada pulled from for Star Creature's September cassette mix Contemporary Jacuzzi Aerobics Volume 2. The tape also includes tracks from D.C. electronic imprint Future Times, and all three sell music through online retailer Earcave, founded by Andrew Morgan of D.C. label Peoples Potential Unlimited—which also reissues boogie and releases modern funk. "I probably know every disco DJ, every funk DJ—definitely in the U.S.," Zawada says. "I know every funk party, every boogie party, every crew that's playing boogie and funk, because of Facebook and all that."

Zawada describes releasing records as a natural step forward after years of DJing. He started with the vinyl-centric Tugboat Edits in 2013, then launched Star Creature in part as a way to stay close with Van Dyke, who was about to leave town. "I was moving to California to be with my girlfriend, and it was kind of a way for us to remain connected," Van Dyke says. "It's very much kept our friendship quite strong." They paid for the label's first release using the security deposit from their Wicker Park loft, and Star Creature still funds all its pressings up front, instead of asking artists to cover the expense and then get paid back with sales revenue.

Van Dyke handles the label's business side—accounting, online sales, e-mail support, wholesale customers—while Zawada, a self-described Soundcloud fanatic, tracks down music. "What we're specifically looking for is people that don't have any releases, people that are no-name, that nobody would know," Zawada says. "I want to find these people that are just making music for the pure love and because it's their nature to do so—without any intentions of doing anything beyond putting it on their Soundcloud page."

Zawada first contacted E. Live through Soundcloud. It's also how he found Jehan, a French producer reared on hip-hop whose featherweight, carefree Air Dancer EP is among my favorite Star Creature releases. "I live in a really small village in south of France and I make music for a big Chicago label," Jehan says. "That's dope!"

Star Creature is starting subsidiary labels for two of its most prolific artists: E. Live's Elivity (one of this week's five seven-inches is its debut) and Hotmood, which shares the stage name of its creator, Mexican producer Guillermo Gonzalez. Zawada is also eager to try out boundary-pushing sounds on Star Creature's audience, now that he's earned its trust. One of his September releases, a self-titled 12-inch by Russian producer Venus Express II, is better suited to headphones than to a sound system—Zawada describes its atmospheric tracks as "outsider boogie." The way he sees it, boogie has reached a critical mass that allows Star Creature to experiment safely—at this point he could easily DJ an entire set of exclusively new music.

"Being involved in the boogie and the disco scene, it's kinda weird to be, like, 'I love all this stuff, but it's all older than me—all the music I play is older than me,'" Zawada says. "It's cool to be able to have our own thing. Our own style of funk and disco that represents the times and what's going on now."  v

Add a comment