It would not be an exaggeration to say that Shaun J. Wright lives and breathes house music. As a precocious 11-year-old he would stay up late on Friday nights listening to house mixes on the local radio station, sneaking the occasional phone call to the station to make requests and enquire about new tracks. He recalls that his voice became so well-known that team members began to stop him mid-sentence. “At some point they would recognise my voice and say, ‘Shaun go to bed, it’s like midnight’.”
It’s not clear whether Shaun obeyed these orders, but in little time he would be working with the radio sounds and handing out dubbed mixtape cassettes in the school playground. He even booked Jammin Gerald for a high school dance and interviewed legendary vocalist Dajae for an English paper — it became a way of life. “House music was my worldview, it was my reference for everything,” he tells DJ Mag. “It allowed me to embrace the various intersections of myself in ways that other music [genres] didn’t allow. It helped me connect the dots historically.”
Wright was born and raised in Maywood, Illinois, a West Side suburb of Chicago. It was a place where house was so ubiquitous, it took him leaving the Midwest to realise that this hypnotic four-to-the-floor genre was far from a nationwide phenomenon. The teen was fully absorbed in the culture by the time he was ready for college, but for a queer, gender non-conforming person with limited experience outside the Windy City, staying didn’t feel like an option. “I couldn’t get out of Chicago fast enough,” he says, drily. “I graduated, left the next day and started a summer programme at my university. I was like, ‘I’m out of here’.”
Alongside his undergraduate studies in Atlanta, Wright walked in ballrooms and began to make the connection between these styles and West African dance traditions. Witnessing these artforms alongside one another in queer spaces was revelatory. “It was this melting pot of Black diasporic music forms,” he tells us. “It just blew my mind. Atlanta’s a very special place, in terms of American Black cultural movements.”
Atlanta was followed by a year in London studying fashion and partying at clubs like Ghetto, The End and HEAVEN, then two more in New York, living on “crumbs”, teaching fashion and following his musical inclinations. A chance encounter with Hercules & Love Affair founder Andy Butler changed the trajectory of Wright’s career and soon he was lending his vocals to the band as a new member. In 2009, he packed up the last of his things and boarded the plane for his first international tour with the group. It was then that he made a conscious decision to let music be his guide.
Wright made his professional DJ debut in 2011 and turned his full attention to the craft. His sets are steeped in the early iterations of house, with plenty of 808 drumming, retro vocals and euphoric synth. Their old-skool charm provides some insight into the house that Wright might have encountered as a child, as well as a sense of his history with the genre.
He met his future collaborator, Alinka, around the same time and they began planning what would become the much-loved Twirl party series, with editions in Chicago. By 2014 they had released their first single, ‘Journey Into The Deep’, on their newly-founded Twirl label, a forward-thinking vocal house cut that made it onto Annie Mac’s BBC Radio 1 Show and did the rounds in many underground music circles.
Wright has a few other releases planned for the label and is currently working on The Blessed Madonna’s debut album, but he seems most keen to highlight those who have inspired him, as well as up-and-coming Chicago artists, towards the end of our time together. He gives a special mention to Alinka, Stereogamous, MISTER WALLACE and other affiliates of the Future Hood Movement. “Oftentimes I feel like people tell their story, but they don’t tell the story of the people who support them and that is very important to me, because I’m not only riding on the shoulders of the ancestors but also being held up by the people alongside me.”