Red Hot

Red Hot is a not-for-profit, 501(c) 3 organization dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS through pop culture. It’s mission is to raise awareness and money around the AIDS crisis and related health issues. It was started in 1990 by Leigh Blake and John Carlin with the Cole Porter tribute album Red Hot + Blue, which raised millions of dollars, helped reduce the stigma around AIDS at the time and supported organizations and efforts such as ACT UP and T.A.G., which took a stand and made the world pay attention and develop medication that let people with AIDS survive.

Over the past 25 years, over 500 artists, producers and directors have contributed to 20 compilation albums of original music, videos, events and media to keep people thinking about the implications of the AIDS epidemic as well as donate millions to organizations around the world.


Some Contributing Artists

  • David Byrne
  • Sinead O’Connor
  • U2
  • Annie Lennox
  • Iggy Pop
  • Debbie Harry
  • George Michael
  • Madonna
  • Jean Paul Gautier
  • Wim Wenders
  • The Neville Brothers
  • Pavement
  • Nirvana
  • Smashing Pumpkins
  • Beastie Boys
  • De La Soul
  • Patti Smith
  • The Breeders
  • Michael Franti
  • Jean Paul Gautier
  • The Roots
  • Meshell Ndegeocello
  • David Bowie
  • R. Kelly
  • Keith Haring
  • Johnny Cash
  • Wu-Tang Clan
  • D’Angelo
  • Milton Nascimento
  • Willie Nelson
  • Maxwell
  • The National
  • Arcade Fire
  • Lou Reed

To see the full artist list click here

How Red Hot Works

The typical Red Hot project has been a compilation album of original music. All of the artists, labels, songwriters and many others donate their time, fees and royalties to support Red Hot’s charitable mission: fighting HIV/AIDS and related health issues around the world. Projects begin with an idea, typically a collaboration among many people, supervised by Red Hot’s co-founder and creative director. Red Hot then secures a contract with a record label to advance the cost of making the album. The label recoups its out of pocket costs associated with recording, manufacturing, distributing and marketing. All the profits go to Red Hot or directly to designated not for profit organizations. Red Hot does not have a permanent staff or institutional operation. It runs like a small production company that expands or contracts based on the projects it’s working on and the budget, with a volunteer chief executive and creative director.

Red Hot has not solicited or received donations. It sells products through commercial partners and donates a minimum of 80% of revenues received to support its mission. Selling albums in the 1990s was easier than over the past decade and a half due to changes in the music industry and the rise of digital music and the Internet. Overall, Red Hot has donated almost 15 million dollars to over 100 organizations around the world fighting HIV/AIDS. The company’s donations have often focused on innovative radical activities that typical corporate or institutional donors don’t support, such as ACT UP and needle exchange in the early 1990s and LGBT and African-American issues in the mid-1990s.


Red Hot occasionally produces awareness campaigns and multimedia to further its mission as well as support social and creative innovation. In the early 90s there was a street poster campaign featuring gay, lesbian and straight couples photographed by Steven Meisel, Steven Klein and Bruce Weber. As well as a related short video PSA campaign directed by Lance Acord. All of Red Hot video programs also had PSA elements that were shown on MTV, VH-1, PBS, Bravo, Channel 4, BBC, Canal Plus and other outlets targeting audiences affected by HIV/AIDS.

In the mid-1990s, Red Hot was a leader in digital interactive entertainment. The company’s first website featured interactive art pieces and games. It also produced online safer sex games before the World Wide Web. One of Red Hot’s videos was among the first to stream on the Internet. Red Hot also produced innovative CD-ROMs featuring digital animation and interactions such as The Beat Experience and Optic Nerve, an interactive catalogue for a one person exhibition of the work of David Wojnarowicz. The disc recreated the artist’s multimedia performances called Itsofomo. (Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related causes in 1992 and was one of the inspirations for starting Red Hot.) In that era, Red Hot also created interactive applications on its CDs, such as America Is Dying Slowly, that allowed people to remix tracks and access exclusive videos on their PCs. Red Hot also designed and created one of the first online documentaries: Red Hot + Africa as a companion to the Fela Kuti tribute Red Hot + Riot. The website featured documentary footage and interview shot in South Africa and Nigeria.

1989 - 1993
Early Years


Red Hot was started by Leigh Blake and John Carlin in 1989. They were both involved in the downtown New York creative scene that was devastated by the AIDS epidemic. Carlin began his career as a curator, professor and art writer. His friendship with David Wojnarowicz inspired him to do something to help. He reached out to Leigh Blake, a friend who was involved in the music and film world and had been instrumental in the early Punk scene. She convinced her friend David Byrne to be part of the project, which got things going, and brought on some of the greatest musicians and filmmakers in the world.

Red Hot + Blue became a landmark by using popular culture to raise money and awareness to fight AIDS as well as popularized the tribute album by using the music of Cole Porter to bring generations together and talk about love and loss through beauty and emotion. The millions raised helped change the face of the epidemic, particularly by supporting ACT UP and TAG, whose activist heros help bring the drugs to market that let people live with HIV.

Blake and Carlin followed up Blue with a pioneer DJ/remix album, Red Hot + Dance, focusing on th e club kids most affected by AIDS. The album also featured three exclusive original tracks by George Michael, including the global smash “Too Funky”. The TV program was directed by Mark Pellington and combined performance with hard hitting interviews.


1993 - 1997
Safe Sex is Hot Sex

In the mid-1990s other people joined Red Hot to help produce a wide variety of albums. Paul Heck and Chris Mundy worked on the influential, “No Alternative”, and Paul stayed to work on a series of amazing projects; Earle Sebastian brought his flair to the jazz hip hop masterpiece “Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool”; Grace Miguel helped bring AIDS awareness to the Hip Hop community, against the odds, with “America’s Dying Slowly”; Brian Hanna and Kathy Mattea did the same for Country; and Beco Dranoff and Andres Levin started a series of projects focused on Brazil and Latin America with “Red Hot + Rio”.



At this point, Blake left Red Hot to expand her humanitarian work with brilliant campaigns such as “Ain’t Nothin’ But A She Thing” and “What’s Going On” and co-founded Keep A Child Alive with Alicia Keys, saving and improving millions of lives. Carlin continued to run Red Hot along with the landmark digital design company he co-founded, Funny Garbage; as well as continue to add art into the mix with projects such as “The Beat Experience”, a one hour documentary and CD-ROM, which was the first interactive exhibition catalogue published by The Whitney Museum of American Art.



1998 - 2003

By the late 1990s, Red Hot’s economic model of selling albums to raise money began to slow down because of changes in the music industry such as consolidation of radio format ultimately file sharing and the paradigm shift brought by digital.


So Red Hot shifted to use its platform to continue to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic as it continued to devastate the Global South, particularly in Africa. We focused on the music and activism of Fela Kuti on the album Red Hot + Riot as well as leveraging digital media to create a groundbreaking online documentary about AIDS in Africa, including interviews with people affected in South Africa and Nigeria.


2004 - Present
Dark Was The Night

In the early aughts, Red Hot stopped most of its production and considered ending its mission. But through good fortune, Aaron Dessner, a key member of the band The National, was working at Carlin’s for profit digital design company. When he left and The National conquered the world, he and his brother Bryce worked with Red Hot to produce the groundbreaking indie rock compilation “Dark Was The Night”.


The album was a success and revived Red Hot’s activities and good work. This led to a tribute to the influential musician, Arthur Russell, who died from AIDS-related causes in 1992, produced by Heck with Dustin Reid; a sequel to Red Hot + Rio, and a groundbreaking iPad App and related album re-imagining the music of Bach, thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Finally, Red Hot’s quarter century of great music for a good cause came to an end with the Grateful Dead tribute, “Day of the Dead”, the Dessners produced as an inspired follow up to “Dark Was The Night”.