Editors note: In this series, Billboard Dance is speaking with each 2022 Grammy nominee from the dance/electronic categories ahead of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards on April 3, in Las Vegas, NV.
For Ten City, the last year has been more than just a reboot of a 90s classic. After a 25 year break and a minor casting shakeup, the Chicago house duo is as fresh and relevant as ever.
As a first-time Grammy nominee for best dance/electronic music album, Judgment — released in 2021 via Ultra Records — is a breakthrough for house music in a field that has historically been dominated by EDM and electronica. Given that Ten City dropped its major label debut several years before half of their fellow nominees were born, it’s more than just genre that makes their nomination exceptional.
In the group’s original run, Ten City released four albums between 1989 and 1994, with eight singles reaching Billboard‘s Dance Club Songs chart. In 2020, vocalist and songwriter Byron Stingily embarked on a revival, with longtime producer Marshall Jefferson now as a group member.
The creative partnership between Stingily and Jefferson shines in their music, but their friendship — over thirty years and counting — shines brighter as they speak with genuine admiration for each other’s work while interjecting a steady supply of inside jokes, and smack talk to keep it spicy.
Where was Judgment made, when?
Byron Stingily: Starting in 2020, Marshall was living in England, one of our string and horn arrangers was in Virginia, our bass player was in Florida, one of our background singers was in L.A., and I was in Chicago.
Marshall Jefferson: Everybody was everywhere.
BS: Years ago, when we were in the studio working on one of Ten City’s albums, Marshall turned to me and said, “hey man, in 30 years, we can probably be making an album, and you’ll be in Chicago, and I’ll be somewhere else in the world. We’ll hit a button on a computer and send files.” I was just like, you’ve been watching Star Trek again. Marshall is a huge Trekkie.
MJ: It was inevitable. That’s just the way technology was going. I have other predictions about the future too, but… it’ll mess you up.
How long did you work on the album?
BS: Several months. Originally, our label said that they wanted five or six songs—
MJ: Byron knew it was going to be an album. We just kept doing songs, and it just blew up to the final total.
BS: I just said, we’re not doing five singles unless we do an album. EPs do not get nominated for Grammys.
Did you ask anyone outside your collaborators for feedback?
BS: Marshall and I tell each other the truth. The first time he met me in the studio, I was working on a song and he walked up and said, “Hey, I love the lyrics, I love the melody, but that music sucks.” He said, “How about I do some music for you and you do some lyrics for me?” That’s how we started working together. It was cool. I like somebody to be honest with me.
I remember when Marshall played me “Move Your Body” and I wasn’t really moved by it. He was like, “This is going to be my biggest record.” That weekend, I went to the club and Ron Hardy played it about eight times and people were slamming into each other running to get to the dancefloor. I was like, “Oh wow, he was right.” I was glad he was right.
MJ: Byron will write lyrics anywhere. I was in the car with him one time and he just said the words to [Marshall Jefferson’s 1988 solo release] “Open Our Eyes.” It just blew the top of my head off. I went home the next day and came up with some music. Same thing with “Devotion.” We went on a double date with two ladies, and Byron wanted to show off a little bit—
BS: No, he was like, “You know my boy B sings,” and I was like, “No, Marshall, stop!”
MJ: No! No, no, no, no. You started singing! That’s when we came up with “Devotion,” our first Ten City single.
Why do you think Judgment appealed to Grammy voters?
BS: Marshall is the creative force behind us. We complement each other. When he was doing records back in the day for indie labels, I told him, “You’re a big fish in a little pond.” So we went to New York to get a major label deal.
MJ: Byron called all the labels, and they took all the meetings. I wasn’t thinking about labels. Just like [with Judgment], I wasn’t thinking about Grammys. I was just thinking about making hot music.
BS: For me, I think what resonates is the quality of the musicianship. We used real violins, real horns, real guitars. We used some of the best singers like CeCe Rogers, Josh Milan. Some dance music is still made in bedrooms, and that rawness is good. But we start in there and keep adding layers.
What were you doing when you found out you were nominated?
BS: I was in a meeting for my day job, and my phone kept buzzing. I had all these texts saying “congratulations.” I was like, “What the heck is happening?” Until it hit me: we got nominated for a Grammy!
Along with your fellow nominees, the music in this category is sonically diverse, from future bass to bass, from house to deep house. What do you think this says about dance music in this moment?
BS: It’s interesting to me, because when I started out I had a love for dance music, period. I used to listen to artists like Yazoo and Chaz Jankel. I consider Boy George a great dance artist. Kraftwerk, the B-52’s, along with Philadelphia International Records. So when I thought of house music, it wasn’t one specific thing. To me, it meant the best of dance music — whatever would get played at the Warehouse.
MJ: That was my attitude from the beginning. It was whatever Frankie Knuckles or Ron Hardy would play in the club. Just the best and coolest dance music. If they didn’t play it, it wasn’t cool enough.
BS: I even listened to a record by The Police, “Voices Inside My Head.”
MJ: I was more a “Driven to Tears” man myself.
BS: I don’t pigeonhole dance music. I mean, Madonna. I used to love that people would look at me like I’m crazy for playing Madonna in the hood.
MJ: A lot of people get locked into subgenres. That means you’re listening to the same beat all day long. I think that’s detrimental to your musical education. You don’t want to listen to a specific genre. You want to listen to everything. That’s how I came up. The piano on “Move Your Body” came because I like Elton John. I thought on “Bennie and the Jets” he sounded like a Black church piano player from Chicago.
Would you like to see the Recording Academy in any way expand or update the way they handle electronic music?
BS: There should be a house music category.
MJ: They got a blues and jazz category, why not?
Are you excited to go to Vegas for the show?
MJ: It might be my only chance so I’m definitely going. I guess we’ll just enjoy the event.
BS: The year that Frankie Knuckles won his Grammy, I didn’t go to the awards, but I went to all the afterparties with him. He was a really good friend of mine, so it was just cool to be there with him and watch him celebrate. I was even more excited for him than he was. But now I think a lot of people around me are even more excited than I am.
You both were close with Frankie Knuckles. What would he think of Ten City being nominated for a Grammy?
BS: I think Frankie would be very happy for us. He would be thrilled. I remember working on my first few records and he would pop into the studio. He was very respected in Chicago, and to have him walk into my session when I was a teenager, that meant a lot to me. He broke down a lot of walls, a lot of phobias with a lot of people. He told me I was like his little brother. I think Marshall’s older than Frankie, so…
MJ: Oh! OH!