As a pre-teen, I was a consummate pop-culture fanatic. Music videos were my favorite. Armed with curiosity and a TV remote, I was glued to Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City. In 1996, I saw Lost Boyz had a video with a guest appearance from Pete Rock. The song was called "The Yearn." Soon, I saw Eightball & MJG's "Listen to Me Now" video. Both groups were talking about condoms, safe sex, and injection drug use in vernacular that resonated. What I previously knew about HIV and AIDS came from Magic Johnson's NBA retirement, TLC's "Waterfalls," or Pedro Zamora from The Real World -- all pop-culture entry points. Still, there was a disconnect. Already being a super fan of Lost Boyz, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and Eightball & MJG made receiving their messages quite digestible. Months later, I discovered these songs were part of a full-length album, titled America Is Dying Slowly.
The album featured some of my favorite artists -- then and now -- including Wu-Tang Clan, Goodie Mob, Organized Konfusion, Common, De La Soul, Sadat X, O.C., and Mobb Deep. Each song featured HIV-related content. The project was led by Grace Harry and Rene McLean. It took several years for me to put together that the title was a backronym for AIDS. Thankfully, Masta Killa spells it out on an interlude on the album. Nothing is diluted or contrived. America Is Dying Slowly was the hip-hop community's response to losing Eazy-E, one of their own. When it was released, I was not sexually active at 11 years old, yet the lyrics were firmly planted in my mind. As I got older and became sexually active, words from Mr. Cheeks and Raekwon came rushing back to my consciousness. I was an impressionable child, so it would not be far fetched for me to take a cue from a rap song. How could I go wrong? Thankfully, these artists -- my superheroes -- steered me in the right direction.
When it came time to apply to graduate school, those songs once again returned. I submitted my GRE scores and letters of recommendation to various public-health programs across the nation. For my personal statement essay, I wrote about the influence of America Is Dying Slowly and how this album informed me on HIV and how HIV disproportionately affects African Americans. I was probably too young for Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, but America Is Dying Slowly had perfect timing for me entering my heightened hormonal journey. This personal statement, vetted by mentors and friends, found its way to the admissions offices of University of Massachusetts Amherst, Columbia University, Duke University, and George Mason University. Rejected by some, accepted by others, I chose George Mason and spent two years diving into biostatistics, epidemiology, and infectious diseases.
In 2016, I was fortunate to revisit America Is Dying Slowly on its 20th anniversary for Noisey/VICE. I interviewed Pharoahe Monch of Organized Konfusion and T-Mo from Goodie Mob. I was able to recount the power of their songs in our conversations. Little did they know that an 11 year old would listen to their songs, find inspiration, then go on to earn a Master's in public health, work in HIV for almost a decade, even be invited to the White House for World AIDS Day in 2016 -- all stemming from this compilation, courtesy of Red Hot.
What John Carlin and Leigh Blake built 30 years ago in response to HIV decimating their friends still stands, still inspires. That community has extended the world over to strangers and persons who know nothing about Blake's friend David from the West Village, Cole Porter's compositions, ACT UP's demonstrations, Ray Navarro's performative Jesus, or the Breeders' "Iris." Red Hot has produced more than 20 albums, with a string of full-length documentaries and music videos. In doing so, Red Hot has donated $15 million to groups and organizations dedicated to providing advocacy and direct services for people living with HIV. Blake's black book of musician contacts and Carlin's legal know-how and fundraising abilities in 1989 laid the foundation for three decades of exhilarating creativity. It becomes difficult to name musicians who have not participated in at least one Red Hot project -- from pop icons, reluctant country music activists, jazz masters, and rock legends to top-tier MCs. Red Hot's releases have earned critical acclaim, raised awareness and funds, and amplified voices on a global scale. Carlin and Blake recruited budding and veteran filmmakers who lent their talents to provide sex-positive, harm reduction messages with aesthetic appeal. Red Hot's mark remains.
Beco Dranoff, a longtime Red Hot producer, theorizes what's made Red Hot such a lasting entity.
"I think the real magical part is getting these huge, big stars with their very busy schedules and everybody pulling them in a different direction. To be able to get this list of 500 world-class names of people involved for an epidemic, fighting an epidemic, fighting a disease, fighting a virus, fighting something that was a total death sentence in the '80s and '90s. I think that is the legacy," he said. "That involvement of big names brought so much visibility to the cause, and to the issue, and to the disease. And people were less afraid, and were open to it, and were accepting. And the ignorance, in the beginning, was so big. People were afraid of hugging, or kissing, or doing anything with anybody with HIV."
Paul Heck, now 52, came on board in his mid-20s, as he devised No Alternative with his former college friends, Chris Mundy and Jessica Kowal. He remarked, "It's Red Hot's story. But for me to know, personally, that John and Leigh set up something that really, really had an impact when it was most needed, and then, I played my small part, too, was meaningful -- is meaningful."
Dustin Reid, the producer behind Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell, said, "Red Hot is, for us, very much a labor of love. These records and projects did not enrich us in any kind of way, shape, or form. We're probably poorer because of our work, how it's done. It's just the power of music that really moves generations and people. And I think, I wonder how much a lot of us would care about HIV and AIDS [if it weren't for Red Hot]."
Each Red Hot album serves as a time capsule. Carlin's "rag tag" group exercised remarkable timing in capturing emerging sounds, paying homage to musicians of days gone by, and infusing messages about HIV.
How to Survive a Plague documentarian David France offered this: "That's the thing that is so phenomenal about the work that they do. They've done nothing to build the reputation of the organization beyond discussion of this music, and [it] was all done without big overhead. No penny has gone to sustaining Red Hot as an organization. It's all gone to the production of the music and then to the ultimate recipients of this fund. That makes them the most unique AIDS organization in the last many decades of the epidemic. Nobody has done that. AIDS Inc. grew and grew and grew from day one -- and they were never AIDS Inc., and they did that as a matter of principle and as a matter of philosophy, and they stuck to it."
France continued, "It was a gift. It is a gift. And I'm so glad you're working with them. Who knows what they've done? Who knows what they continue to do, and why they've done it? And they should be celebrated."