Tommie Sunshine Documents Dance Music History in 'After The Raves' Series
Earlier this year, Moby released his memoir – a signal that electronic dance music has reached a point of maturity where aficionados and veterans from the genre's early days can afford to take stock of its past. Tommie Sunshine is here to seize the opportunity: the longtime DJ serves as narrator in After The Raves, a docuseries directed by Danny Lee for Red Bull TV. All nine episodes dropped simultaneously on July 4th.
Speaking to Billboard Dance on the phone last week, Sunshine – who started going to clubs in Chicago in 1985 – embraces his role in preserving dance music's roots, while also emphasizing the genre's bright future. "I never thought this was gonna turn into something would get almost 500,000 people onto a racetrack in Las Vegas," he says. "To watch it turn into something so spectacular and to be a part of it – and now to be able to participate in spreading the word about the state of the culture and the history of the culture, is a really beautiful thing."
He portrays After The Raves as a necessary effort. "Up until this point, and no disrespect to anyone who has documented this before, I never saw anything that spoke to me and stuck out to me," Sunshine suggests. "Usually you see someone who's got fuck-all to do with EDM asking real banal question to someone who's an expert." He envisioned something different.
Sunshine connected with Lee in 2007, when Lee served as a director on a PSA about the dangers of ecstasy. The two hit it off and stayed in touch; they later concocted the idea for a series about the electronic music scene. Their sizzle reel drew interest from many networks, but none were the right fit. "We would get on the phone with these people, and within the first 30 seconds of being on the phone, some scumbag would get on the phone like, 'we can't wait to get our hands dirty with some EDM," Sunshine remembers. "And I'd hang up. I wasn't gonna be the captain of the ship so some media platform can sell EDM down the river."
Lee seconds this characterization during a separate phone interview. "Every network wanted to tweak it to make it cliché," he says. "So we kept holding out. I've had a very close relationship with Red Bull for about eight years now, directing documentaries for them. Immediately they were like, this is a no brainer." Though Sunshine and Lee shot the pilot in 2014, the series didn't get greenlit until the following summer. According to Sunshine, it was the very first show to get the go-ahead from Red Bull TV.
Lee explains the show's conceit, likening it – with several caveats – to one of Anthony Bourdain's TV shows: "[Tommy] is an elder that's respected, and he profiles different artists instead of chefs and seeks out these socially relevant stories that are baked into the music."
Sunshine adds that many of his friends suggested that he binge watch Bourdain's show before heading out to shoot. But he resisted the idea. "I was afraid that if I even heard the tenor of his voice, I would turn into him on the road," he says. "I was afraid to reference anything. I didn't want that to influence what I was going to do."
Once the two got the thumbs up from Red Bull, they prepared for five weeks before filming the series in a whirlwind. "We did eight episodes in eight weeks – in the U.S. in two cities and in Europe in five cities," Lee recalls. "We literally were sprinting around the planet with this caravan of 14 crew and 30 cases."
The minimal prep time and speedy filming did not have an adverse effect on the quality of the show's interviews. "I knew we had to go deeper," Sunshine declares. "Krewella talking about how difficult it was to grow up as a Muslim teenager in middle America – who's gonna ask that?" "That's not gonna come up in an album profile," he adds emphatically. The DJ also cites conversations with Hardwell – the two delve into his past troubles with anxiety – and Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim) – a chat about his decision to become sober – as the kind of material that's unlikely to appear elsewhere.
After The Raves comes at an important time for dance music, arriving during the latest wave of speculation about the genre's health. Sunshine dismisses "the doomsayers." "Maybe one moment of it is over," he suggests. "But we've reached that heritage moment that hip-hop has reached: it's never going to go away."
"This moment that we're in right now is a very special one," he continues, flashing the sort of ardent views that are valuable in a spokesperson for a genre. "The music that is commercial is only going to become more commercial. We have artists that came from our scene – Skrillex, Diplo, DJ Snake – who are now making pop records. As a response to this, the underground is the most exquisite that it's ever been. We have house music in the best place it's ever been in America. We have drum and bass happening for the first time in America. I think trance is about to make a massive comeback."
Sunshine is just hitting his stride now. He brings up the bright potential of young listeners, who have easier access to dance music than they've ever had. "All of the 12 year-olds have been listening to dance music on the radio for more than half their life," he notes. "They're 9 years away from being legally allowed into a nightclub. How can anyone with a straight face say this music is over? There's such a massive expanse ahead of us." "I don't think I'm being an eternal optimist," he adds, anticipating potential criticism. "I think I'm being a realist."
Regardless of your feelings about dance music's present or future, After The Raves received a valuable co-sign from one of the duos that helped the genre make some of its first inroads in the mainstream decades ago. Sunshine's favorite episode of the first season takes place in Paris, where he talks with longtime Daft Punk associate DJ Falcon and others about the roots of France's electronic music – the DJing of Laurent Garnier, the wide-ranging ears of Serge Gainsbourg.
But completing the episode required a formidable logistical hurdle. "In order for us to tell the Daft Punk story properly, we had to get them to sign off," Sunshine explains. "That's the biggest daunting task of the show. These guys literally do zero press."
He reached out to Paul Hahn, who runs Daft Punk's company Daft Arts, and received a response even better than he hoped for. "I get this legendary – in my eyes – email," Sunshine remembers. Not only did Hahn inform him that Daft Punk "loved the show," he granted After The Raves permission to use the famous "Around The World" video, which Sunshine hadn't even asked for.
"These are the two most important people in the fabric of EDM," Sunshine says. "They're the guys. That was the moment we knew we had done something special. When we heard that kind of feedback, I kind of looked at [Danny] and he looked at me, like, holy shit, what have we done?"