Red Hot + Blue was released in October 1990. Red Hot + Blue would be a multimedia effort: a full-length album with several music videos serving as public service announcements, along with an hour-long TV show. The TV show, which featured Richard Gere and Whoopi Goldberg, was seen in more than 30 countries around the world. The ABC network in the U.S. demanded a different edit of the show, although Gere's introduction was one of the first mentions of the word "condom" on network television in the U.S., outside of news programming. Neneh Cherry's rap in "I've Got You Under My Skin" is considered one of the first detailed descriptions of HIV in song form in pop culture. The videos were directed by the aforementioned Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Jonathan Demme, Alex Cox, Jean Baptiste Mondino, Mark Pellington, and Neil Jordan, with artwork by Jean Paul Gaultier, Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Sue Coe, Barbara Kruger, Gran Fury, and Jenny Holzer. According to Billboard, the album sold 1 million copies worldwide and was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Red Hot Organization co-founder Leigh Blake described the response: "People were so happy to finally feel some support from the creative community, and it was widely beloved. I don't think we ever had a bad review. I think people felt like it was really earnest."
Sally Morrison agrees with her old friend.
"I think it was powerful in that it brought a generation of people -- younger people, people who were in the very sort of progressive areas of the culture, people who were creating new culture -- and bringing them in, giving them a kind of vehicle to participate, to raise money for HIV. Just the idea that anyone who loved music, who loved interesting music, could go out and spend $10 or whatever and buy a CD and help with something."
Morrison added, "I think that was amazing, but I also think that the level of artists that they engaged was a very, very, very creative response to a situation that culture finds itself in and also, obviously, raised a lot of money for lots of organizations over time -- and so important in a different way, in a way of engaging that younger community to say, "Yeah, this is our issue, too."
Red Hot co-founder John Carlin's keen instincts and cultural scholarship set him apart from other tastemakers.
"Red Hot worked in the '90s because I understood how record labels and MTV worked, and I was able to kind of sneak in, give them the hot music, famous people that they wanted -- but attach it to propaganda, to a public interest campaign," Carlin said. "MTV was the biggest youth culture brand in the world in the 1990s. That's what Instagram is today. But MTV was actually run by this lovely woman named Judy McGrath. Once Leigh and I were able to get to Judy McGrath, she became our champion and opened the door to us. They didn't give us money. They didn't give us really much of anything, but just access. We were able to make some shows with MTV, get our PSAs on the air. Didn't always work out perfectly. I think those things had an impact."
Red Hot + Dance was released two years later. Once again, the formula stuck: getting big-name musicians to contribute material. Yet, this second installment came with a welcomed surprise. Initially, the co-founders Blake and Carlin thought they'd resume life and move on to other ventures. That was until Andy Stevens, manager of pop royalty George Michael, called Carlin and Blake out of the blue, stating that the superstar, in his own right, wanted to give Red Hot a few songs in the midst of his ongoing battle against his record company, Sony Music Entertainment.
Blake recalls sitting in her kitchen in Clayton, England, when the phone rang.
"He said, 'Leigh, George Michael wants to give you three brand-new songs.' And I really, really couldn't believe it. I mean, I just couldn't believe it. It was so beautiful, so fantastic, so lovely."
Carlin remembers his response.
"Literally, my jaw dropped," he said. "You have to remember. This is like 1991. George Michael was maybe third to Madonna and Michael Jackson at that point. One of the songs George gave us was 'Too Funky,' which is really the only track that Red Hot has ever had that became a smash hit sort of independent of Red Hot."
"Too Funky" hit number 10 on the Billboard Top 100 after four weeks and sold more than 500,000 copies, catapulting Red Hot + Dance to smash-hit status. The album also features originals and remixes of music by Madonna, Seal, Crystal Waters, and the Young Disciples.
Carlin said, "I give David Byrne credit for being the first artist to say yes, but George Michael deserves credit for basically letting it continue and then leading to the 20 projects that we did over 30 years."
Mark Pellington was an up-and-coming filmmaker from Baltimore then. He was working for MTV's Buzz, an internationally broadcast series based in London, when he met Blake. She was impressed with Pellington's talents, and he was admittedly blown away by her energy and enthusiasm. She liked his work in hip-hop, especially De La Soul's "Say No Go" video. Recognizing a kinship of sorts, Blake recruited Pellington to direct the video for De La Soul's fellow Native Tongue members, the Jungle Brothers' "I Get a Kick Out of You" for Red Hot + Blue.
When Red Hot + Dance emerged, Blake thought of Pellington. As the visual component, Red Hot wanted to capture people dancing in raves and clubs in various cities. Pellington recalls Blake handing him the game plan: "We're going to get all these dance artists around the globe doing the live performances, instead of Red Hot + Blue with the videos. So, we'd like to ask you to tie it all together contextually with all of the graphics and all of the interstitial interviews with people."
"Basically, everything that wasn't the concert was under my purview to design and execute," he said.
Pellington went on to direct Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" music video, along with videos for Madonna, Public Enemy, Malcolm McLaren, U2, and Foo Fighters. He still views his Red Hot participation with pride.
Following Dance's success, Carlin remained captain at Red Hot. Blake started delving into other creative pursuits -- especially developing a screenplay that the world would soon know as the film Kids, a cult classic. Although Red Hot did not have a staff, people were taking notice of what this small but mighty outfit was doing and wanted to be a part of the mission. One was Paul Heck.
"In the early '90s, I was a kid in New York out of college. I was living downtown in East Village, and AIDS and death were all around, as you could imagine. Reading about it every week in the Village Voice," he said. "I was kind of a music fanatic, going to shows three to four nights a week, just obsessed with music. And I was not involved with Red Hot + Blue or Red Hot + Dance, but I was inspired by it, and I was aware of it. And I had this very tangible feeling of, 'There needs to be more of these. Those records are for old people,' you know? I was 22, and I felt like those were for 30 year olds. Which is funny now, considering how old I am."
Heck, joined by his friend Chris Mundy, a writer at Rolling Stone, and Jessica Kowal, approached Red Hot, putting together an AIDS benefit proposal. This was going to assemble the best in this new burgeoning genre called "alternative" music, "grunge" even. They pitched it to a slew of record labels.
"And the one that we thought was least likely to be interested was interested, which was Arista, which taught me a lesson in counterintuitive logic," Heck said. "Arista wanted a foot in the door with all of this exciting, new area of alternative rock.
"The thing [No Alternative] was my idea, my baby. I was the one most obsessed with seeing it happen. I probably had the most at stake, considering I went on for 25 some odd more years, and made many more records with Red Hot. Producing, it almost was producing, not to be pompous or pretentious, but in a fulfillment sense, so bringing all the elements together."
These elements ranged from gathering the talent, bringing the financial deal structure together, bringing the artists who designed the album artwork, then managing that whole process.
"I look back now, and we made that record in six months, barely. It seemed like forever, like why is this taking so long? Years later, it would take us two to three years to make records. But there was definitely a fire in me to make it as fast as possible," he said.
"I really asked everybody on the record, 'Could you write a song that addresses the issue, or speaks to it, from your own personal point of view? However that works for you.' Dealing with love and loss, directly, indirectly," Heck remembers. "A lot of brilliant songwriters on this record."
The Breeders, Patti Smith, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Foo Fighters all contributed to this compilation album.
"I think that's what gave No Alternative a depth and a richness and a relevance to what the AIDS crisis was then, which was a death sentence, largely," he added. "It's like, this is preventable, we've got to just talk about it. We've got to keep dragging this out of the shadows."
This was indeed a learning experience for Heck, who was still very green.
"There's some pretty sharp elbows in the music industry, but I also learned there's some incredibly generous and passionate people who were thrilled to be a part of this, including everybody at Arista. They really, really got behind the project, and were excited about it. So that was infectious. As well as all of the people at MTV, who were involved with making the 'No Alternative' TV special. So that was, like I said, it was a thing I just started in my shitty apartment in East Village in 1991. And to have all of these people involved was really gratifying," he said.
Kathy Mattea, country music star, wanted to do something to speak about the urgency of HIV awareness. By 1992, Mattea had been nominated in the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category in the Grammys three times and won in 1991 for her album, Where've You Been. Mattea, a "reluctant activist," learned her voice carried power beyond music. She began speaking out about HIV in 1992 -- still at a time when the move could have alienated her from her fan base, spelling commercial doom. She chose the annual Country Music Awards -- or perhaps the moment chose her. She said: "I wasn't up for an award that year, but I was presenting, and the CMAs had decided they were going to pass out green ribbons for environmental awareness. That was fine with me, it was great -- but all the other award shows had sort of become a little platform for people to show their support, to say, 'I'm a safe person. I'm with you. I'm standing in solidarity with people who are struggling with this.' There was an article in the local newspaper here in Nashville a few days before the CMA awards said something to the effect of, 'If Mattea gets a hold of a microphone, I hope she speaks out about this because she's spoken about it.' If people wear red ribbons in the country music world, there's a good chance that a lot of people will not know what they mean.
"I was challenged publicly to say something. I was in a very interesting position. At the time, we called my manager, called the CMA, and said, "Look, we want to be a team player here, but here's what's happened. Can you help us script something that we can align up with you, we can line up with the challenge that's been issued and hopefully everybody feels OK about it.' We never got a call back. I was sort of left on my own to decide what to do, and I'm not a person who likes to rock the boat. I really want to be a nice guy. I want everyone to like me. I didn't really decide until right before I walked on stage. I went back in a little corner backstage at the Opry House and I just searched my heart and I was like, OK, I don't want to grandstand, and I don't want to be dramatic, but I also don't want to back down from this challenge.
"So, I just walked out, and there was a script on the teleprompter in front of me, which I ignored, and I said something to the effect of, 'You might notice we're wearing ribbons tonight. We're wearing green ribbons for environmental awareness, and I am wearing four red ribbons for my friends,' and I named them, 'who have all died of AIDS in the last four years.' And then I just went on. Oh God, I have never watched it back. I've never been able to watch it, a video of it. It was a life-changing moment for me. It was the first time I bucked authority, or whatever, and to buck authority on prime-time national TV is pretty radical for someone who's wired like I am. But it changed everything for me."
The next day came with a flood of people whispering their gratitude. Fellow award ceremony attendees approached Mattea along with fans, roadies, and radio personalities. Each one had a story and suddenly disclosed bits of their lives and those of their loved ones in their shared embraces with Mattea.
Her CMA moment sparked country music's active participation in HIV awareness, which culminated in Reba McEntire's "She Thinks His Name Was John" and the driving force behind Red Hot + Country in 1994, two years later.
"As I understand it," she said, "[Red Hot] hadn't even thought about doing a country project. But when I spoke out and began to reach out to say, 'Can I be of service? Can I help here?' they said, 'What if we did this project?' This was really new for me. I'm a reluctant activist. I try to follow my heart, but like I said, I'm not programmed to be this radical, on the podium, stumping person. I just remember feeling super vulnerable."
Red Hot + Country features Mattea alongside Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Randy Scruggs, Wilco, Billy Ray Cyrus, and others. Mattea said she hadn't looked at the tracklist in some time.
"I'm like, my God, all the people and the songs that showed up. I'm really touched by this lineup. It's amazing," she said.
Red Hot was picking up momentum by 1994, releasing two albums that year and at least one album annually up until 1998. In four years, Red Hot had rejuvenated Cole Porter standards, hijacked clubs with electronic dance music, showcased grunge's vulnerabilities, and infiltrated country music with the message of HIV awareness.