Twirl Records preserves Chicago’s dance music heritage

Twirl Records preserves Chicago’s dance music heritage

Twirl Records preserves Chicago’s dance music heritage

By Andy Thomas · March 15, 2024

In 2012, Derrick Carter, one of the initiators of the second wave of Chicago house, started the iconic Sunday party Queen! with Michael Serafini, owner of Gramaphone Records.

On the opening night of Queen!, two lovers who grew up in Chicago—Sean J. Wright and Alinka, aka Alena Ratner – bonded over their deep love of urban dance music. “We had so much in common and would sit for hours discussing house music. That was really the beginning of everything,” says Alinka from her home in Berlin, where she has lived since 2015.

“Everything” she means is Twirl, the house music label she founded in 2014 with DJ, dancer and Hercules & Love Affair singer Shaun J. Wright. Ten years later and after a brief hiatus, Twirl Recordings has relaunched with Alinka and Wright EPs that reach into Chicago House’s past to create music for the future.

The two shared many references to early house music. “I used to collect all the mixtapes of people like DJ Funk, Bad Boy Bill and Waxmaster,” says Wright. “Those tapes were hugely influential.” Alinka agrees. “Those mixtapes were also very important to me,” she says, “as well as the radio shows A sonic boom on Q101 and DJing on B96 where I was exposed to electronic music from an early age.”

After receiving her first turntables, Alinka dropped out of business school and began promoting clubs in the city. “Back then, there were great parties in Chicago every night of the week,” she recalls. “There was a Boom, Boom Room on Monday. Slick on Tuesdays, Centrum on Wednesdays and the other nights of the week were Rednofive and of course Smartbar.’

Alinka got her big break when Justin Long invited her to DJ his .dotbleep party at Smartbar, which began a 10-year residency. “That’s where I really learned everything as a DJ,” she says. Connections were quickly made with the royalty of Chicago house music. “I was great friends with Superjane [the collective of DJ Dayhota, Lady D, and Collette]. They were like my big sisters and through Dayhota they introduced me to Derrick Carter.

Wright’s entry into house culture was as a dancer on the juke, foot and fashionable ballroom scenes in Chicago and Atlanta before moving to New York to pursue a career in fashion. There they met Andy Butler, founder of Hercules & Love Affair. When I was exposed to this whole world that they had created, I immediately knew how special it was, but I didn’t expect to be a part of it,” says Wright, who toured with the band for three years and sang on their second album Blue songs.

After 12 years away from Chicago, Wright returned and joined Alinka at her Edgewater studio. They immediately set to work on the music, sending the tracks to Derrick Carter, whose Classic label, founded with Luke Solomon, would be the perfect home for the pair’s first productions together. “Sean had some vocals from another project and I wrote the music for ‘Love Inspired’ based on that vocal that was already there,” says Alinka.

The Twirl parties, which began life at Club Berlin in the spring of 2013, featured guests ranging from Derrick Carter to future Twirl Recordings remixers such as Carry Nation and Eli Escobar. “It was some of these artists’ first time playing in Chicago, and when you think about all that history, it’s really cool that we were able to bring our friends here,” Wright says. “I felt like we were all climbing at the same pace. And the parties were imbued with that essence.” Started in 2014, the Twirl Recordings label was a natural progression of live events. “Our mission was to shine a light not only on ourselves, but also on friends and other artists we loved who maybe didn’t get the recognition they deserved,” Wright says.

Now, after a brief hiatus, Twirl Recordings is back. “We’ve grown a lot as artists individually over the last 12 years,” says Anika. “So it’s nice to come back to the label and relaunch it with our own music and that progression of our production and creative direction. For now, it will remain a home for me and Sean’s releases, but we plan to open it up to other artists in the future.”

As they head into 2024 with their first two releases since the reboot, we asked Alinka and Sean to talk about 10 highlights of their label as it begins its 10th year.

Sean J. Wright and Alinka
Journey Into The Deep (Kim Ann Foxman Remix)

Alinka: It was our first release on the label and really meaningful for us. We wanted to start the label with friends that we love and are inspired by, so Kim Ann [Foxman] and Stereogamous were two obvious choices. Kim Ahn delivers an iconic remix of “Journey Into The Deep.” It really embodied her unique sound and also the direction we wanted to go with Twirl. We were very excited when we first heard it and couldn’t wait to play it in the club. I still love playing it nine years later. It sounds just as fresh.

“Don’t Fight It” (Alinka Remix)

Wright: Stereogamous and I worked on this slim number in their home studio in Sydney. We had already created a few other songs together, so there was a well-established workflow. Also, they are such dear friends that working with them comes so organically. The text opens with an invitation to an evening of fun, but journeys to the possibility of an enchanted love affair. Alinka turned the original into a dark, haunting remix that still captivates me. It really gets better with each listen.

Sean J. Wright and Alinka
“Wait for Love” (Eli Escobar Remix)

Alinka: I still clearly remember the first time I heard this remix after Eli [Escobar] send it I was driving in my car and just burst into tears at how beautiful it was. I feel he brought out the best in this song. When we did the original, I think it came out a little darker musically and Ellie took the lyrics and turned it into a love song. I still get very emotional listening to this remix and Shaun’s beautiful vocals. Eli is a musical genius and one of the best DJs and people. I’m very glad we were able to get him on the label as well as a guest at our party.

Sean J. Wright and Alinka
“Romantic Friend”

Wright: It was a great song and EP to work on. It felt like a turning point where Alinka and I were expanding our sound and experimenting more freely. The title and concept for this song was inspired by a conversation I had with a close friend. I was so amused when they said the phrase “romantic friend” and I remember writing it down in my notes. Alinka and I wanted to break away from our typical 4/4 tracks, and her energetic and sassy production was the perfect vehicle for the tongue-in-cheek lyricism.

Lupe feat. Josh Coffee
“give me a body”

Alinka: Josh [Caffe] and Lupe are legends in their own right and bring so much fury and flavor to house music. “Give Me Body” is timeless and brings timeless energy to any dance floor. It has been a pleasure to watch them grow artistically and play all their music over the years.

Negrot Air
Pisco Sauer

Wright: I spent a lot of time in Berlin in the 2010s, mainly living with my sister, Aérea Negrot. I remember coming back to her house in the wee hours of the morning after a long night of partying and she was playing the sexiest, most stunning song I had ever heard. She was also out that night spinning at another party and was so inspired that she ran home to create the base of what became the “Pisco Sauer.”


Alinka: I first encountered The Carry Nation [DJ and production duo of Will Automagic and Nita Aviance –ed.] when I picked them up at the Chicago airport to play our Twirl party before the label existed in 2013. I was a huge fan of their music and DJ sets and we became instant friends after that weekend. A few years later I became friends with Justin Cudmore and also instantly fell in love with his productions. When we were told they were starting the Majorettes project together, we were very excited and very happy to release this release. It’s super beautiful.

Serge G.
“Work It Out (DJ Holographic Remix)”

Wright: Twirl has always been a family and friends oriented label and Alinka and I are fortunate to have a strong network of really talented artists. Serge G. is a multifaceted creative who is equally skilled in the music studio as well as behind the camera, capturing incredible photos and films. His song “Work It Out” has the classic, haunting flavor of the 90’s New York sound. Detroit DJ Holographic brings the funk with his remix in a smooth, sensual style. Combining these two seemingly different but complementary worlds is at the heart of what Alinka and I intended when we conceptualized Twirl.

Sean J. Wright

Wright: This was such a fun song to make. It started with the drum pattern and soon followed the melody for the chorus. At first I wasn’t quite sure where it was going, but the word “superficial” kept bouncing around in my head. I left it for a few months and when I revisited it, the rest of the song just flowed. The lyrics were already raunchy, so I thought the cherry on top would be some cheeky banter with my dear friends Sir Jacobs and Jeff Lewis. They definitely add more color to the story.

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