Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 14, which explores the history of the C&C Music Factory, their biggest hit, and a strange time for pop music with the help of writer Craig Seymour.
“Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” One of the biggest hits of one of the wildest eras in pop-music history, in dance-music history. Early ’90s pop radio was bonkers. Just chaos. A decade does not begin right away, culturally. The previous decade dissipates, slowly. It can take a year or two. The future, for quite awhile, can sound uncomfortably like the past. Or delightfully like the past. Do you know what Jazzercise is? Got huge in the mid-’80s. Lotta Spandex. Lotta dance music that was never quite as vapid or pedestrian as it appeared. One way to summarize the early ’90s is that upbeat dance music—including honest-to-god house music—could simultaneously be both super-mainstream and super-super weird.
Which is to say that everyone and everything got a propulsive dance beat for a while, whether they asked for one or not. An early-’80s tune from folk singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega got a propulsive dance beat, courtesy of an English electronic duo called DNA, and suddenly “Tom’s Diner” is a top-five hit stateside. It did even better in Europe. They had a better grasp on the nuances. In 1991, country superstar Tammy Wynette got a propulsive dance beat when she hooked up with the much, much weirder English electronic duo the KLF for a smash pop-house remix of the song “Justified & Ancient.” The KLF’s whole deal is way too confusing for me to even begin to summarize here, but just trust me, this was a total jam.
Gregorian chants from a German choir recorded in the ’70s got a propulsive dance beat, courtesy of the German group Enigma, and suddenly “Sadness (Part 1),” or “Sadeness (Part 1),” is a top-five hit stateside that did even better in Europe and beyond.
The C+C Music Factory almost made sense by comparison, but there is chaos aplenty here, also: musical chaos, fashion chaos, ethical chaos, legal chaos. Possibly ongoing, present-tense legal chaos. Some people in the C+C Music Factory took the factory part a little too seriously. For example: The single most important element of “Gonna Make You Sweat,” the musician most responsible for it becoming an enduring smash hit—it took her quite awhile to get the credit she deserved, to get the proper name recognition, to get named at all, really. I’ll give you a hint: it’s Martha Wash; disco, gospel, house, and radio-pop diva extraordinaire. At first it was not readily apparent, to most people, that this was Martha Wash’s voice. You didn’t see her on the album cover; you didn’t see her in the video. This is absurd in retrospect; in retrospect, who the hell else could this possibly have been?
It turns out that one’s opinion of the factory depends on whether you own the factory or just clock in there. So first let’s meet the owners: the two C’s in the C+C Music Factory, Robert Clivillés and David Cole, who met in the late ’80s at the famed New York City dance club Better Days. Robert primarily was a DJ, David primarily played keyboards. Early on they worked together as part of a group called 2 Puerto Ricans, a Blackman and a Dominican, and then another group called the 28th Street Crew. But just as a duo, Clivillés and Cole would soon flourish as writers, as producers, as remixers, as talent scouts, as Svengalis, as ethically dubious hitmakers and pop stars in their own right.
They worked with Mariah Carey on her 1991 album Emotions. They worked on Whitney Houston’s remake of “I’m Every Woman.” They remixed Taylor Dayne, and Natalie Cole, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, and Aretha Franklin, and New Kids on the Block. They shepherded young pop-house and Latin freestyle groups, including one called Seduction and another called Trilogy. In 2016, Clivillés told Vice that he and Cole first offered “Gonna Make You Sweat,” the song, to Trilogy, who turned it down; next thing you know he and Cole are playing an early version for Sony/Columbia superstar music executives Tommy Motolla and Donnie Iiener, and, boom: five-album deal for the newly christened C&C Music Factory.
Gonna Make You Sweat, the album, came out the week before Christmas in 1990. Pictured on the cover: Cliviles, Cole, a Liberian singer/model/actress named Zelma Davis, and a Brooklyn rapper named Freedom Williams. There’s your Factory. A monster Side A, as cassettes go, starting with “Gonna Make You Sweat,” and then two more minor hits: “Here We Go, Let’s Rock & Roll” kicked off with some Prince-style guitar shredding and had one of those rad MTV videos set in, like, a sexy factory. A very popular tableau. “Things That Make You Go Hmmm…,” on the other hand, was inspired by a slightly bawdy Arsenio Hall routine, and was a playful showcase for the slightly bawdy Freedom Williams, who met Clivillés and Cole while he was working as a janitor at a studio they were using. I’m guessing Freedom was not shirtless, while being a janitor, but as a minor pop-star rapper he’d be shirtless a great deal of the time and somehow sound like it.
But “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” was the one. It was dance-pop to its core, but that cut-up guitar riff sounded just rock ’n’ roll enough, I guess, to make it a crossover hit, to make it a coveted Jock Jam. Then and now, this song is like a giant sentient T-shirt cannon.
It is hard to do—it is legitimately a profound artistic achievement—to create a song whose first 10 seconds are immediately a punch line, almost without accompaniment. To craft a hook with that much personality, that much cultural weight. That’s not a joke on them. That’s a joke they’re in on, not to mention financially compensated for. Even if the song always sounded campy to you. Even if it’s disposable. You ignore the impact of “Gonna Make You Sweat” at your own peril. I couldn’t say how many people first heard a rapper on the radio thanks to “Gonna Make You Sweat,” but it’s not zero people. You will not see Freedom Williams on anybody’s list of the greatest 50 or even 5,000 emcees alive, but he got the job done. The job was to sound sexy and cool, primarily to people who didn’t much give a shit about actually being sexy and cool.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.