The Red Hot Project Was The First Sensible, Shame-Free Pop Culture Response To HIV/AIDS

Dave Holmes
·7 mins read
Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

From Esquire

It’s hard to imagine from today’s perspective, but there was a time when people were timid to talk about HIV and AIDS. When the epidemic did get addressed, it either got the Very Special Episode treatment or the prurient approach of a daytime talk show. The best-selling AIDS benefit single “That’s What Friends Are For” only mentioned AIDS in tiny print on its back cover. By the late 1980s, the mainstream was starving for a sober, sensible, shame-free take on HIV/AIDS, and if it could include some bangers, all the better.

The first Red Hot + Blue compilation album, released on this day in 1990, gave it all to us. Red Hot Organization founder John Carlin had a dream to create an AIDS charity album with the biggest pop stars of the day reinterpreting songs by Cole Porter, and not only did he realize it—Annie Lennox, David Byrne, U2 and Debbie Harry would all sign on—the record went on to sell a million copies. Music videos and a subsequent TV special put a defiant human face on the epidemic, and served up some much-needed frankness on safer sex and condom usage. Thirty years, more than 20 Red Hot compilation albums, and millions of dollars raised for AIDS charities like Act Up and AmFAR later, the Red Hot Organization is preparing the first-ever digital release of Red Hot + Blue, plus reissues of four more compilations from the series, coming October 23.

On the anniversary of the first Red Hot record, let’s take a look at some of the series’ finest moments.

Neneh Cherry, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”

The perfect example of the unflinching nature of the Red Hot + Blue project. Cole Porter’s classic got a slinky reboot from Neneh Cherry, with blunt new lyrics that took the title’s metaphor in a startling direction. It was serious, it was seriously sexy, and very possibly, somewhere in this world, a young Orville Peck would watch this video and get the idea for his future aesthetic.

U2, “Night and Day”

This version of Cole Porter’s signature song went to No. 2 on the Modern Rock chart, stayed in the band’s live set for decades, and served as a shot across the bow for the electro sound U2 would explore in the following year’s Achtung Baby.

Iggy Pop & Debbie Harry, “Well, Did You Evah”

But really, nobody leaned into the camp potential of the Red Hot + Blue project like Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry. They crooned, they said “swellegant,” and they got Jim Jarmusch to direct the video. We did not understand how good we had it in 1990.

George Michael, “Too Funky”

Though it also included tracks from Madonna and Seal, George Michael was the key to the success of Red Hot + Dance, the second album in the series. When Sony scrapped his third solo record Listen Without Prejudice 2, Michael donated three tracks to the cause, including this 1992 smash, very possibly Anne Bancroft’s first and last appearance in the Billboard Top Ten.

Buffalo Tom, “For All To See”

No Alternative was the third in the Red Hot series, featuring—as was the law of the land in 1993—contributions from Soul Asylum, Matthew Sweet, and Urge Overkill. It reflected the cultural moment perfectly, customary for a Red Hot compilation, and was a must-have in that glorious year when it honestly felt like Buffalo Tom might become the biggest band in the country.

Wilco, “The TB Is Whipping Me”

1994 being the heyday of Garth Brooks, line-dancing, and big color-blocked shirts, Red Hot went to Nashville for its fourth release. Red Hot + Country won two Grammys, and featured duets between vets and newbies like Johnny Cash with Brooks & Dunn and Carl Perkins with The Mavericks. But for a music fan of a certain age, the highlight is the recording debut of Wilco, then a straightforward alt-country band just formed from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo—who themselves had participated in the previous year’s No Alternative—duetting with Syd Straw on a cover of Ernest Tubb’s “The TB Is Whipping Me.”

Donald Byrd w/ Guru, “Time Is Moving On”

Later that year, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool paired the jazz-inflected hip-hop stars of the moment (Digable Planets, Us3, MC Solaar) with the elders who’d inspired them (Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Don Cherry) and produced what Time Magazine named 1994’s Album of the Year.

Freedom Cruise, “Sensational Gravity Boy”

Red Hot + Bothered: An Indie Rock Guide To Dating began its life as a series of vinyl EPs bundled together with parody teen dating manuals. A compilation CD came out in late 1995, and it’s a pretty accurate document of the post-Nirvana indie rock scene, a moment in time when we could expect to hear Lou Barlow on commercial radio. It opens with super-prolific Guided By Voices, recording under the name Freedom Cruise.

Soul Coughing, “Murder of Lawyers”

Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip combined hip-hop, ambient music and spoken word, paying tribute to the Beat poets in a sound clash that you would absolutely hear in the basement at Fez at 3 a.m. A pre-Play Moby took part, as did Meat Beat Manifesto, Mark Eitzel, and the weirdo jazz-rap stars of the moment, Soul Coughing.

Wu-Tang Clan, “America Is Dying Slowly”

The first real mainstream attempt to reach Black men with AIDS content, 1996’s America Is Dying Slowly contained interactive elements, including a feature that allowed listeners to remix its tracks. It inspired the MTV special Red Hot + Rap, which featured this, the last live performance of the original Wu-Tang lineup.

Astrud Gilberto & George Michael, “Desafinado”

Always ahead of its time, Red Hot ditched America for Brazil in 1996 for its Red Hot + Rio compilation, a celebration of the bossa nova sound, particularly the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sting duetted with Jobim himself, Everything But The Girl, Maxwell and Stereolab all took part, and George Michael made his Red Hot return in a duet with Brazilian legend Astrud Gilberto.

Cafe Tacuba y David Byrne, “Yolanda Niguas”

By 1997, HIV/AIDS was exploding in Latin America, so the Red Hot Organization focused its next compilation on rock en Espanol. Los Lobos and Sepultura participated in Silencio = Muerte: Red Hot + Latin, as did– in a rare non-food-centric track– Japanese trip-hoppers Cibo Matto.

Morcheeba, “Summertime”

After Onda Sonora, a Red Hot compilation targeting the Portuguese-speaking world, the Organization returned to its roots with Red Hot + Rhapsody: The Gershwin Groove. Duncan Sheik, Natalie Merchant, and Luscious Jackson all contributed fresh takes on George Gershwin standards, but the standout is Morcheeba’s version of “Summertime,” the very sound of an Andre Balazs hotel lobby.

Mary J. Blige, “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me”

Red Hot released an interactive CD-ROM of works by David Wojnarowicz in 1999 called Optic Nerve, then came back after a two-year hiatus with Duke Ellington tribute Red Hot + Indigo. It featured some of the smoothest sounds of the new millennium: Les Nubians, Propellerheads, Medeski Martin & Wood, and an update of an Ellington & Ella Fitzgerald standard from Mary J. Blige.

D’Angelo, Femi Kuti, Macy Gray and the Soultronics “Water No Get Enemy”

In 2002, Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti became the fifth Red Hot release to focus on the music of a single artist, and the first to focus on a musician who himself had passed of complications from HIV. Fela’s son Femi Kuti takes part here, as does Common, Mixmaster Mike, and Nile Rodgers.

The National, “So Far Around The Bend”

After a long hiatus, the Red Hot Organization released Dark Was The Night, a double CD set produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National. Red Hot stalwart David Bryne returned, along with indie superstars of the late aughts like Dirty Projectors, Iron & Wine and Feist. Six years later, the Dessner brothers would produce Day of the Dead, a 59-song, six-hour tribute to the Grateful Dead.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary, six new remixes of Neneh Cherry’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” have been released to the streaming services, and digital reissues of Red Hot + Blue, Red Hot + Bothered, Offbeat, Silencio = Muerte and Red Hot + Indigo are coming October 23. Learn more about the Red Hot Organization here.

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