How Shifty Science Went From Skateboarding to Quietly Remolding Chicago House Music
Lifelong friends John Kardaras and Chris Ike reflect on the most experimental period of their collaborative output.
This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
Precious few cities have rightfully earned their status, history and mythology as Chicago. With a complex heritage rooted in blues, jazz, house and disco, there's no single musical story of the city. Instead, millions of unique perspectives intertwine, compliment and often contradict one another from Downtown to the sprawling suburbs. It's something Shifty Science, AKA, lifelong friends John Kardaras and Chris Ike, have quietly absorbed since their teenage years, whiling away carefree summers on their skateboards, traversing the vast grid of the city.
"I think skateboarding, the culture in itself—and presumably still today, although we're not really in that scene anymore—exposed us to a lot of multicultural experiences," explains Ike. "People from all walks, class, race and creed were involved. There was this one common thread, which was a love of skateboarding. And that seemed to transcend petty high school cliques. So, similar to the house scene, it bridged some cultural gaps that existed."
"It was a sort of a mini-melting pot," affirms Kardaras. "Just with the nature of skateboarding in general, there weren't a lot of skate parks back then, so we were either primarily going to someone who had a ramp, or we were street skating in the city—and that would take us great distances to different parts of Chicago."
Admittedly, it's a bit strange to start a THUMP article with an account of the state of Chicago skating two decades ago. In the early nineties, it was unsurprisingly a pursuit more enamored with punk rock and grunge than the legacy of local electronic pioneers such as Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. But it embodied a DIY aesthetic and experimental edge that would soon come to define the pair's work as Shifty Science. If you've never heard that name, fear not. Steve Mizek, co-founder of Chicago's leading house light Argot records, who have just released an inspiring retrospective of their music, Lab Work 91-96, only came across their music earlier in 2016. Specifically, six years since he was handed a recently rediscovered CDR of their material at a house party. Outside of collectors' fairs or the record bags of Chicago's most knowledgeable completists, Shifty Science were a name barely whispered on the city's relentless wind.
By the early nineties, house, acid, and techno were an established if not spent force, even becoming an elemental part of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The dystopian tint of Detroit techno and the transatlantic influence of experimental labels such as Warp were creeping into the club landscape. By their own admission, the laid back duo weren't attempting to subvert the scene or current sound, but their interpretations of the sound du jour are curiously offbeat even when they're joyously banging.
"At the time, we did have that affinity for Detroit techno, and still do, so that definitely colored some of our experimentations," Ike says. "But when we started, the gear was not that accessible, there wasn't much of it, so costs wise it was tough and we kind of made do with what we had. What came out in our releases was our unique take on what we liked."
Both being too young to have experienced the heyday of legendary Chicago clubs such as Muzic Box, the pair's musical education and experimentation also took place just prior to the explosion of the dusty, acid-tinged Midwestern rave scene. Instead, it emerged in unusually laid back surroundings.
"Instead of punk rock shows, we'd go to local juice bars," recalls Ike. "Juice bars, in the US, are kind of like dance clubs that don't serve alcohol. Or somewhere open to the teenage crowd for early nights, which would sometimes transfer into a proper adult club later in the evening. And you know, being a bit older and being into dating girls—there were definitely be a lot more access to the female types, in those clubs."
"There was one called Medusa's that was pretty famous on the North Side," recalls Kardaras. "They would play a mix of electro, new wave and house stuff, and acid house which was really big when we started going to clubs."
Chicago's public and college radio also provided a direct line to new music that Kardaras and Ike might not otherwise encounter.
"There was a station from a local college called WNUR, which has a show called 'Street Beat', which was still called the same thing 25 years ago, on a Friday night. It would be local college students playing records they would pick up from Gramophone, but they would have guest DJs come in and bring their records, and they didn't mix music typically, they would play the full track. We never heard that stuff! You'd get a full seven minute track! Like, what is this?"
Another influence on Shifty Science, particularly to Kardaras, the older of the pair, was a young Derrick Carter. The fledgling, charismatic house and disco mastermind was beginning to make a name for himself on the local party circuit, as well as occasionally within his own apartment.
"Someone would clean out their place, lock all the bedroom doors and just get the crates out and jam," recalls Kardaras, explaining the DIY party scene that catered for the city's dance fans away from more commercial clubs. "Derrick used to throw one at his place and they would just pack the place, you thought the floor was going to cave in. Then after that, they started taking over warehouses, they were abandoned or whatever. They'd buy off a couple of cops to watch the door. I would hear some really, really great music, and it'd just be the local underground Chicago DJs at the time."
"We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the Hot Mix 5, the WJPI guys," adds Ike. "There are DJs in the Chicago who never made a big splash outside the city, or inside the city, and they would show up third tier on the playbill of a party. There's probably too many to mention to be accurate."
Although Lab Work 91-96 accounts for a span of five years of relentless studio time from Kardaras and Ike, the pair have continued to record in subsequent years, even "when life got in the way." Helpfully, part of this life involved co-founding a local IT business, leaving the two in each other's pockets around a different variety of machines. Clearly their brotherly relationship and love for electronic music runs deep, but what about the period documented on Lab Work remains so special?
"It's probably the most experimental," Ike suggests. "When you're trying to get something going, you're just trying to learn your craft, and then once you settle on a certain mentality for it, in some ways, you end up being less experimental. You've kind of found what works. You're not twiddling as much, or throwing stuff at the wall just to see what sticks."
Lab Work 91-96 is out now on Argot.