Big Black and later one of the most visible producers in the alternative rock underground, Steve Albini came to reflect better than anyone else the defining values of college rock -- a fierce sense of independence and complete refusal to be affected by major labels or album sales. As a young man, Albini wrote for fanzines between listening to Cheap Trick and funk bands like the Ohio Players. In 1982, he formed the first edition of Big Black -- himself -- to record an EP, Lungs. Gaining members as the group went on, Albini and Big Black became one of the hottest underground bands in the U.S., with industrial-strength art funk in the mold of Public Image Limited and Gang of Four, married to a rather bleak -- though by no means humorless -- dystopia of American culture.
Big Black released their debut album, Atomizer, in 1986, but just one year later, Albini split the group just before the release of their second proper LP, Songs About Fucking. In a move that came to be indicative of his entire career, Albini had refused any negotiations with major labels regarding the status of his band's contract, and he continued his independent ways after the dissolution of Big Black. He continued his production work for outside bands, and quickly gained a reputation as a difficult man with whom to work, but one who could bring out the best from any alternative group, from the Pixies, the Breeders, and the Wedding Present to Tad, Poster Children, and Helmet. The constants in the wide variety of Albini-produced albums were raw percussion, raging guitars, and plenty of mid-range punch. He often refused to be credited as a producer, preferring instead the more hands-on title of engineer.
Albini remained an artist as well, forming his second band, Rapeman, in 1988 with David Wm. Sims and Rey Washam. The group released just one album and an EP before trouble arose in pressing plants, where workers refused to handle any product adorned with the group's name. Just as Albini felt Rapeman was starting to work, the group fell apart; it would be awhile before he felt ready to join another. Instead, he committed himself to providing solid production for almost any band that came looking. In fact, his occasional clenched-teeth work for major-label groups like Nirvana, PJ Harvey, and the Auteurs provided the bankroll to give solid performances to obscure bands and personal projects.
Albini finally returned to the recording ranks with Shellac, formed with fellow producer/performers Bob Weston (Volcano Suns) and Todd Trainer (Rifle Sport, Brick Layer Cake). The trio gelled quickly at live shows during 1993, and the group's trilogy of 7" singles were among the tightest and most energetic of Albini's career. Shellac's debut album, At Action Park, appeared on Chicago's Touch & Go Records in mid-1994 -- in true indie form, it was released on 180-gram virgin vinyl several weeks before its CD issue. During 1994-1995, the group toured for a while, and Albini remained busy with his production career, working on the second album by high-profile grunge rockers Bush, as well as LPs by indie acts like Storm & Stress, Melt Banana, and P.W. Long (formerly of Mule). Shellac's second album, Terraform (which saw the trio working in the surprising locale of London's Abbey Road Studios), was released in March 1998.