The Number Ones

February 9, 1991

The Number Ones: C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” (Feat. Freedom Williams)

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Disco didn’t die; it just went (back) underground. Chicago is city where the infamous Disco Demolition Night provided a symbol and catalyst for the big backlash. It’s also the same city where house music started. Frankie Knuckles, a club DJ from New York, moved to Chicago in 1977 and started spinning records at a gay Black club called the Warehouse. At the Warehouse, Disco Demolition Night didn’t mean shit. Knuckles wasn’t playing commercial disco records, so the whole backlash didn’t matter to him. Instead, Knuckles played hard records, driven by drum machines and keyboards, and local producers eventually started making music that fed into that style. That’s the nutshell version of how house music — short for Warehouse music — was born in the ’80s.

House music spread through underground scenes in the Midwest, but it really caught on in the UK in the late ’80s. There, house and Detroit techno — basically an offshoot of Chicago house — merged with a new drug culture and became a straight-up mainstream pop phenomenon. Through Europe, more and more producers started using the basic building blocks of house and adding more and more sweeteners — howl-it-out choruses, clumsy but authoritative rap verses — and transforming it into a new kind of dance-pop. (You could hear some of that European take on house in Milli Vanilli, a group who’s been in this column a bunch of times.) At the dawn of the ’90s, house music truly broke out in the US, and something strange happened to it.

In 1990, Madonna’s “Vogue” became the first real house song to reach #1 on the Hot 100. But “Vogue,” in a lot of ways, was an outlier. The other crossover house hits of the early ’90s came from production teams with interchangeable names and often-uncredited guest vocalists. Most of those groups came from Europe. In 1990, for instance, the Belgian group Technotronic reached #2 with the hypnotic “Pump Up The Jam.” (It’s a 10.) Later that year, Snap!, from Germany, hit that same #2 peak with “The Power.” (It’s a 9.) At the time, the vast majority of Americans had no idea that this was a whole genre of music that was born in gay Black clubs in the Midwest, that it represented a whole culture. Instead, this music seemed like fun, disposable European shit, music for middle-school dances and teen-movie montages where people get ready for parties.

Tracks like “Pump Up The Jam” and “The Power” hit the radio with all context removed. Most of America experienced those songs as silly, reliable energy-bursts. At sporting events, those crossover hits became utterly inescapable — to the point where Tommy Boy, in 1995, released the first volume of a compilation series called Jock Jams. Jock Jams collected tracks so mainstream that they were defined, in the popular imagination, by how often they got played at football and basketball games to hype up crowds. Those Jock Jams compilations were totally dominated by house music.

As it happens, the first non-“Vogue” house track that reached #1 on the Hot 100 did not come from Europe. Instead, it was the creation of Robert Clivillés and David Cole, two fixtures on the New York house underground. Clivillés and Cole were the driving forces behind a project known as C+C Music Factory; they were the C+C. With the first single released under that Music Factory name, Clivillés and Cole came up with something so distinct and memorable that they immediately bulldozed their way into the mainstream consciousness. The actual circumstances behind C+C Music Factory’s only #1 hit were complicated and shady, but the song itself worked as a bracing blast of absurdity, and it briefly turned these two club producers into something like pop stars. With that one smash, Clivillés and Cole made everybody dance now.

The C+C Music Factory story starts at Better Days, an underground gay black nightclub in Times Square. At Better Days, Robert Clivillés, a Brooklyn native, was a resident DJ. David Cole, who’d come from Tennessee and who’d grown up playing gospel in Southern churches, also became a fixture at Better Days. While Clivillés would DJ, Cole would play keyboard over the records. In 1987, the two of them joined fellow producers David Morales and Chip Nuñez to form a house group called 2 Puerto Ricans, A Blackman And A Dominican. They released a few singles together, including the minor UK hit “Do It Properly.”

Clivillés and Cole kept working together through the late ’80s. They had another group, the 28th Street Crew, who released one album in 1989. They remixed Grace Jones and New Kids On The Block. They produced for the Cover Girls and Stacey Q. In 1989, Clivillés and Cole assembled a girl group called Seduction, and they produced that group’s album Nothing Matters Without Love. Seduction didn’t last long, but they briefly became a big deal, and their single “Two To Make It Right” peaked (appropriately enough) at #2. (It’s an 8.)

“Two To Make It Right” was not Seduction’s only hit. Seduction first reached the Hot 100 with the 1989 single “(You’re My One And Only) True Love,” which charted as high as #23. This achievement is complicated by the fact that the members of Seduction only sang background vocals on the song. The lead vocal came from a furious belter known as Martha Wash, who would soon play an important role in the C+C Music Factory saga. David Cole, who’d known Wash for a while, brought her in to sing on the “(You’re My One And Only) True Love” demo. On the final version of the single, Clivillés and Cole left Wash’s lead vocal intact, pitching her up slightly so that she’d sound more like the members of Seduction. In the video, the members of Seduction lip-synced Wash’s vocals. In the liner notes, Wash was only credited with backup vocals. She was rightly pissed off, and she sued.

Martha Wash was a veteran of disco’s first era. She was a powerhouse singer who’d grown up singing gospel in church and who’d gone on to study opera. In 1976, Wash and her church friend Izora Rhodes became the backup singers for Sylvester, the theatrical and openly gay disco icon. Wash and Rhodes, known as Two Tons O’ Fun, sang on Sylvester hits like 1978’s “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” (“Dance (Disco Heat)” is Sylvester’s highest-charting single, and it peaked at #19.)

Wash and Rhodes were both large women, and their size was part of their stage persona. They owned it enough to be OK with being known as Two Tons O’ Fun. Eventually, Wash and Rhodes found success without Sylvester. In 1982, calling themselves the Weather Girls, Wash and Rhodes recorded “It’s Raining Men,” a knowingly campy club track that had been turned down by stars like Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand. “It’s Raining Men” peaked at #46, but the song’s chart position doesn’t tell the whole story. “It’s Raining Men” has endured as a deeply silly cultural touchstone, and it’s stuck around in large part because Wash and Rhodes belted it out with such straight-faced intensity.

The Weather Girls kept recording, but “It’s Raining Men” was a one-off. Martha Wash mostly spent the ’80s as a backup singer, adding her voice to hits like Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock” and Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway Of Love.” (“Like A Rock” peaked at #12. “Freeway Of Love” peaked at #3. It’s a 7.) Wash also recorded demos. David Cole had briefly served as keyboardist and musical director for the Weather Girls, and he brought Wash in to sing “(You’re My One And Only) True Love.” Around the same time, the Italian house group Black Box hired Wash to sing a bunch of tracks. A couple of those songs became part of the wave of crossover early-’90s house hits. 1990’s “Everybody Everybody” and 1991’s “Strike It Up” both peaked at #8. (They’re both 8s.)

Martha Wash wasn’t credited for those Black Box tracks. Instead, the French model Katrin Quinol lip-synced Wash’s vocals in the videos and posed for the cover of Black Box’s album Dreamland. These songs were hitting around the same time as the Milli Vanilli lip-syncing story blew up, and so the ongoing story of Martha Wash getting no credit for these big songs worked as one more example of a truly depressing music-business practice at work. Martha Wash had a perfect voice for her moment, but record labels and dance producers didn’t look at her and see someone who they thought they could sell. So all these videos had much-smaller women pretending that they could sing like Martha Wash. Wash sued Black Box, too. (Last year, Nate Patrin wrote a great Stereogum piece about that whole Martha Wash saga.)

When Seduction hit, Clivillés and Cole started up a new project that they called C+C Music Factory, and they signed a multi-album deal with Columbia. The whole idea for C+C Music Factory was that Clivillés and Cole would be the only consistent members and that they’d work with different vocalists. When Clivillés came up with the backing track for the song that would become known as “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” he offered the track to Trilogy, another group that he and Cole had put together. Trilogy turned the track down, Clivillés and Cole released the song themselves. They included vocals from demo tapes that Martha Wash had recorded for Cole. They also included a guy named Freedom Williams.

Freedom Williams, a Brooklyn native, was an amateur rapper and aspiring music engineer. While studying to become an engineer, Williams worked as a janitor at Quad Recording Studios in New York. Clivillés and Cole thought that his voice was cool, so they brought him in to rap on “Gonna Make You Sweat.” Williams’ rap on the song is ridiculous, but it’s what it needs to be. Williams does have a cool voice. It’s deep and commanding, and he sounds unflappable to the point of being bored. When he tells you to dance, he sells it, even if his actual lyrics look dumber than fuck on paper: “It’s your world, and I’m just a squirrel tryna get a nut, so move your butt.”

Freedom Williams works on “Gonna Make You Sweat” because he’s not the vocal point of the song. Maybe the focal point is Martha Wash’s voice, which hits like an adrenaline-needle to the heart. Wash brings a raging passion to the song, and Clivillés and Cole chop her voice down to tiny sound-clips, using the catchiest parts. So maybe the real focal point is the beat, a relentlessly giddy attack. Drums fall all over each other. Bells ding. Synths whirr. Saxophones honk. There’s a processed-to-death four-note guitar riff that actually rocks in that deathlessly simplistic “Smoke On The Water” sort of way. “Gonna Make You Sweat” has no real structure to it, though Freedom Williams does somehow get two verses. (On verse two, we learn that he paid the price to control the dice and that he’s more controlled, to the point, he’s nice.)

“Gonna Make You Sweat” is goofy and immediate and shameless enough to turn a transgressive underground dance sound into pure mainstream kitsch. That’s a difficult thing to do. Some of the track’s success probably comes down to the video, which fucking rules. If you were a kid in 1991, as I was, then the “Gonna Make You Sweat” video works as a blast of Proustian memory. Marcus Nispel, the German director who would later make the utterly pointless ’00s reboots of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Friday The 13th, crams in so many extremely 1991 details that the video has an unreal time-capsule quality. Everything about it screams of one short and specific cultural moment: The high-top fades, the oiled-up shirtless dancers, the doorknocker earrings, the words like “hype” and “slammin'” flashing across the screen.

One thing the “Gonna Make You Sweat” video does not have is Martha Wash. Later on, Clivillés and Cole claimed that they’d planned to make Wash a part of C+C Music Factory but that her lawsuit over the Seduction track made them change their plans. At various points, they’ve also said that Wash didn’t want to be part of the group. Instead, they got Zelma Davis, a skinny young singer who did the vocals on most of the tracks from the group’s debut album, to lip-sync Wash’s parts. Once again, Martha Wash was pissed. Once again, she sued. When Wash and Sony settled in 1994, MTV agreed to add a disclaimer to the beginning of the “Gonna Make You Sweat” video whenever they showed it, clarifying that Zelma Davis had not actually sung those vocals.

Even with the bad publicity of that Martha Wash lawsuit, C+C Music Factory were hugely successful for a brief window of time. Follow-up single “Here We Go, Let’s Rock & Roll” peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.) Another single, “Things That Make You Go Hmmm…,” made it to #4. (It’s an 8.) Zelma Davis really did sing on those songs, so her presence in the videos didn’t piss anyone off.

Billboard eventually named “Gonna Make You Sweat” the #3 single of 1991. C+C Music Factory’s debut album, also called Gonna Make You Sweat, sold an astonishing five million copies — way more than the LPs from any of those other crossover-house artists. At the same time, though, the whole Martha Wash story had kept anyone from ever taking them remotely seriously — something that would’ve been an uphill climb anyway, given the silliness baked into a song like “Gonna Make You Sweat.” At the American Music Awards in 1992, David Cole thanked the audience for “not falling prey to this whole lip-syncing thing, ’cause we are not a lip-sync group. We are for real 100%, and Miss Zelma right here can sing.” She could, but it ultimately didn’t matter too much.

In the years after “Gonna Make You Sweat,” Robert Clivillés and David Cole produced music for bigger stars; we’ll see them in this column again in that capacity. Freedom Williams left C+C Music Factory to go solo, which didn’t turn out too well for him. (Williams’ highest-charting single, 1993’s “Voice Of Freedom (Dance 90),” peaked at #74.) Once her lawsuit was settled, Martha Wash actually joined C+C Music Factory as a full-time vocalist. In the video for “Do You Wanna Get Funky,” the lead single from the group’s 1994 sophomore album Anything Goes!, Wash lip-syncs her own parts. By that point, though, that whole house-pop wave was over, and the song peaked at #40. It was C+C Music Factory’s last time on the Hot 100.

In 1995, David Cole died of spinal meningitis. He was 32. It’s been widely speculated that AIDS was the real cause of Cole’s death, but as far as I can tell, that’s never been confirmed. Robert Clivillés finished the group’s third album, and then the Music Factory closed. Eventually, Freedom Williams got ahold of the trademark rights to the C+C Music Factory name, and he started playing live shows under that name even though he doesn’t even have the letter C in his name once. Robert Clivillés was furious, and he wrote a long Facebook open letter about it, but Freedom Williams just blocked him. There was a whole Vice story about it in 2016.

Martha Wash kept recording. (Her only solo Hot 100 hit is 1993’s “Give It To You,” which peaked at #90, but she’s had a lot of hits on the club charts.) These days, Martha Wash stands as an avatar for a moment where singers, especially Black women, were treated as interchangeable voices in the music industry. She made it out of that moment with her dignity intact, and she’s now widely recognized as the real voice of the strange little early-’90s house boomlet. I hope she’s proud of that. The story behind the song is shady as hell, but Martha Wash told a whole lot of people to dance, and a whole lot of people danced.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment from a 1991 Fresh Prince Of Bel Air episode where Janet Hubert, the original Aunt Viv, crushes a still-famous dance routine to “Gonna Make You Sweat”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a perfect little video of 10-year-old Ryan Gosling, who hadn’t yet been cast on The Mickey Mouse Club, doing a “Gonna Make You Sweat” dance routine with his sister Mandi at a Mormon talent show in 1991:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: There’s a classic 1997 Simpsons episode where Homer suddenly gets very worried that Bart is gay. In a misguided lesson intended to impart manliness on his son, Homer takes Bart to visit a steel mill, where he discovers that everyone who works there is gay. “Gonna Make You Sweat” serves as a punchline to the scene. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The French duo Justice sampled the “Gonna Make You Sweat” guitar riff on their remix of Britney Spears’ 2005 Madonna collaboration “Me Against The Music.” Here’s the remix:

(Britney Spears will eventually appear in this column. Madonna has been here a bunch of times, and she’ll be back. Justice, somewhat incredibly, have never been on the Hot 100.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s UK grime king Skepta rapping over a “Gonna Make You Sweat” sample in the video for his 2012 track “Make Peace Not War”:

(Skepta has never been on the Hot 100 as lead artist, but he raps on A$AP Rocky’s 2018 single “Praise The Lord (Da Shine),” which peaked at #45.)

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