Red Hot considered closing shop after Riot. Co-founder John Carlin was going to focus on digital design company Funny Garbage and other ventures. One of his former staff members at Funny Garbage, Aaron Dessner, had another idea: Continue Red Hot and produce a rock album dedicated to HIV. This became Dark Was the Night. Dessner's band The National was in incubation while he worked at Carlin's for-profit design outfit.
The success of Dark Was the Night led to a steady stream of releases -- albums covering material from specific musicians like Johann Sebastian Bach, Arthur Russell, and, once again, Fela Kuti.
Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell marks the second time the Red Hot team touched Arthur Russell's music. Dustin Reid co-produced the album with Carlin and Paul Heck.
Reid came to Red Hot in 2009 as Dark Was the Night was wrapping up and close to two years before the How to Survive a Plague soundtrack got underway. During his interview with Red Hot, Carlin asked Reid, "If you had the power to do any Red Hot records that you could, what would it be?" Reid's response: "To me, it makes sense to do an Arthur Russell record."
"This is serendipitous, because we're already working with Arthur Russell's catalog, and it is pretty much perfect for the story that they were trying to tell," Reid said. "He was involved in all these little social circles that brought together the people that formed ACT UP. We just felt like it was too perfect of a match."
Each of the recordings kind of happened in their own sort of unique way, Reid remembers.
"When it came to Sufjan Stevens, he's kind of a wizard of all things," he said. "It was one of those things that we had a couple conversations early on, and I kind of told him the song that I hoped that he would do. He ended up connecting with that song. He went into a cave and, a few months later, delivered us a fully real-life track. We didn't have to fix it or anything. All we had to do was master it."
When they approached Blood Orange, lead vocalist Dev Hynes wanted to tackle "Is It All Over My Face?" and "Tower of Meaning." Reid remembers the importance of getting Master Mix just right.
"We mixed it to our liking and then sent it back to him, and he had very minimal comments. The most he did say was, 'I need my vocals lower.' I think that happened like five times. Actually, this was like, 'We can't even hear your vocals,' and he's like, 'A little lower.' I don't know if that was just him not wanting the focus to be on his voice."
Red Hot's last music release was the 2016 album, Day of The Dead, which paid homage to the Grateful Dead, much as previous albums centered around one specific artist's work. In the meantime, Red Hot has been trying to find its place, especially in the streaming era. Record labels do not have the budgets for an undertaking such as Red Hot + Blue nowadays.
Carlin said he is retraining his brain and bringing on young, part-time assistants -- one from Taiwan, the other from Tanzania -- to help the organization think globally as well as adapt to the ever-changing world of streaming and social media.
"In the streaming era, we can't make albums, but maybe we can make pop collaborations, kind of hit pop songs and sneak them into some of these parts of the world where human rights are so abused," Carlin said. "I've really been focusing on Mainland China, because I figured there's got to be like 50 to 100 million LGBTQ people in Mainland China whose rights are completely suppressed. They don't have any rights. LGBTQ people in Sub-Sahara Africa are completely criminalized, can be jailed and killed. So that's really what I've been thinking about lately. Music is the thing that crosses borders.
"I've really been thinking about doing global anthems for human rights," he continued. "It's really been troubling me, not just the general state of politics, which is enough to drive you mad, but just how horrible human rights are around the world. The United States used to stand up for human rights. The president of the United States would be supporting protestors in Hong Kong. It just kills me that we're in a different place right now."
Carlin is confident in the already-converted. He, now, wants to expand the size of the audience actively engaged in social change.
"How do you reach the people who don't believe in it?" he asked. "I think that was really the strongest thing that I did. It's like when I said I looked back at Red Hot + Blue, and saying the fact that it wasn't just a bunch of gay people doing AIDS activism -- it was everyone. That, to me, was really important, because that record both affirmed the rights of LGBTQ people, but it got in the hands of some people who might have been homophobic."
Peter Staley left TAG and became the co-founder of another group called PrEP4All. PrEP, short for pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a medical regimen proven effective at preventing HIV transmission. PrEP, in the form of Truvada (emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate) or Descovy (emtricitabine/tenofovir alafenamide), is manufactured by Gilead Sciences. Red Hot has supported PrEP4All's national campaign efforts.
"[PrEP4All is] disrupting the AIDS world and shaking the trees and making folks, including the AIDS establishment, very nervous," Staley said. "[I along] with a bunch of other people, mostly millennial activists, are pushing for wider PrEP access and [have] very much declared war on Gilead, which funds about two-thirds of the AIDS service organizations in the country."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1.2 million persons in the U.S. could benefit from using PrEP. Though PrEP prescriptions have continued to increase, the CDC's Dawn Smith, M.D., M.P.H., writes in Clinical Infectious Diseases, "[PrEP users] are still less than 10% of those estimated to have indications for PrEP use, with marked disparities by race/ethnicity, age, transmission risk group and gender, when compared to rates of new HIV infections."
"We're calling for real access for PrEP nationally, and not just for middle-class, over-30-year-old gay white men who got their health care and got their co-pay assistance card and are all set and have no problem, Gilead," Staley said. "We're saying, no, that's not enough. In fact, that's far from enough. In fact, that doesn't even skim the surface of the real problem here. So, we're shaking the boat -- and within weeks of our formation, Red Hot stepped in and helped us. That's their history. That's what they do."
Red Hot's history of supporting syringe exchanges may be lesser known; however, this isn't new territory for them either. Red Hot was involved in these efforts before harm reduction became the popular nomenclature. In fact, the Beastie Boys insisted that a portion of the proceeds from the 1993 No Alternative album go to Clean Needles Now, an organization serving injection drug users in Los Angeles.
With the incidence of opioid-related overdoses climbing higher, Paul Heck from Red Hot wanted to mobilize efforts to address this. Heck started by sending an email to a trusted group of music-industry associates, asking, "Is anyone doing anything by bringing artists together?" "No," was the response, but one person suggested reaching out to Open Society Foundations. Open Society wanted to focus on overdose prevention specifically in West Virginia and North Carolina, two of the states in the epicenter of what's commonly referred to as "the opioid crisis."
Heck devised a proposal. The "Love Is the Drug" campaign was born, then kick-started in North Carolina by connecting harm-reduction and drug-user advocacy groups with musicians -- all based in North Carolina. Harm reduction has been prioritized, rather than abstinence-centered programs. Making Whole is a program in Asheville teaching men in recovery how to build furniture while providing a space and community for relationship-building.
Steady Collective, also based in Asheville, North Carolina, provides syringe access, referrals for care, and naloxone distribution for overdose prevention. The Urban Survivors Union of North Carolina, based in Greensboro, and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, operating out of Wilmington and Raleigh, support people throughout the state with direct services centering drug users. "Love Is the Drug" brings these groups together with musicians deeply invested in supporting drug users in their journeys. The musicians, who offer music, concerts, and interviews, range from the funk rhythms of Boulevards to the smooth raps of Kelly Kale.
Though the production and the promotional budgets have changed, and the MTV era is long gone, Red Hot's central premise remains firmly intact: Meld pulsating music with timely public health messaging. Red Hot has invested 30 years executing that mission and connecting the dots where others lag in seeing the intersections. Red Hot's impact isn't so narrow. Grants from album sales fueled agitators' protests, which helped push governments to create programs and policies to support people living with HIV and those most impacted. Red Hot supplemented condom distribution efforts, expanded syringe access programs, and boosted sex worker advocacy. Before the buzzwords "harm reduction" or "safer sex" became mainstream, Red Hot was there championing those ideas in the grassroots. The music served as a soundtrack.
Leigh Blake, John Carlin, and their rag-tag cadre built something inspired by their respective communities, which welcomed droves of artists, activists, organizers, and advocates into the fold, spurring creativity, raising awareness, celebrating the deceased, and saving lives.
This is still heard and felt today.