Still Music label head Jerome Derradji is the man responsible for tracking down Mitchbal. He came upon him in a roundabout way: At the time, he was trying to compile a collection of Trax Records releases. Derradji's contact was Vince Lawrence, one of the principals involved with the early days of the legendary Chicago label. When Derradji realized how hard it would be to do something with Trax, however, he picked up a thread of conversation that Lawrence had mentioned only briefly. Lawrence's father—Mitchbal—had run a record label years before the start of Trax.
"My father said to me: Do something, don't do nothing," remembers Mitchbal. A simple idea. But it's one that is essential in understanding just how Mitchbal got where he is today. Unlike Detroit, where the ethos of building an empire from the ground up ala Motown seems ingrained in the city's DNA, Chicago never had a similar DIY lineage. It was Mitchbal that showed his son—and many others in the emerging dance music community—how easy it could be.
At first, Mitchbal's record label was simply a vehicle to get his own music into the world. He'd been chastened by a visit to New York recording studios where he and a partner had gone to present their songs—and came back home with no money and no record contract. Back in Chicago, Mitchbal recorded two songs and pressed them to wax on 45. Hooked up with Eddie Thomas, a former manager of Curtis Mayfield, he was already busy promoting records from labels big and small to black radio stations in the city. It was a natural jump to simply bring his own record along too.
The stations soon listened, and Mitchbal's son—who had been attending parties at The Warehouse and listening closely to radio stations like WBMX—became interested too. "My son Vince said, 'Dad, what's happening now is people are making dance records and they're extending the music for about five minutes or so and pressing them up on 12-inch records, selling them for $5 instead of selling a 45 for a dollar,'" explains Mitchbal. "You could do more with those numbers. Trying to divide a dollar between pressing, distributing and the whole nine yards… there wasn't that much money in that. That's where the dance records started."
Vince Lawrence and Mitchbal's relationship wasn't the closest. Vince remembers him as an absentee father in almost any other respect aside from music: "You go look up the stereotypical African American family structure in the late '60s, early '70s and that was us, but with music he kind of put me in an environment where I could learn some things on my own and I'm forever grateful for that."
Vince was a member of a band called Z-Factor, and Mitchbal's graduation present to his son was the chance to record their song "(I Like To Do It In) Fast Cars" in a proper studio. "We were really excited about [it]," remembers Vince. "Not having a drum machine at the time to really set the tempo and everything, we played it about 22 beats per minute faster!"
So...what made Z-Factor closer to house than most anything that had come before it? The answer lies mostly in the approach, says Mitchbal. "They had been listening to DJs spinning one record into another, on and on. So they were actually recording the records that way. That's what I believe was the beginning of recorded house music." Nonetheless, Mitchbal couldn't help but step in to help out. "When they would get to a certain point, I would add the so-called Mitchbal magic," he laughs. "One of my biggest songs was Jeanette Thomas' 'Shake Your Body.' I sat down and wrote the lyrics to that in 15 minutes. I would take it from the songwriter's perspective and not just beats, saying you could add a word or phrase here..."
"Shake Your Body" appeared on a label called Chicago Connection, an imprint that Mitchbal started up after the initial success of Mitchbal Records. "At one point I think I was releasing a record each month and so in order to not flood the market with Mitchbal records. Just like Motown did, they had Motown, Tamla, Gordy and probably a couple more record labels," explains Mitchbal. "In order for it to sound bigger than what it was or what I was, was to make it seem like it was a big company and to release a record every month. So one month I would release something on Chicago Connection and then Mitchbal until everything was Chicago Connection."
Young and impatient, one record per month wasn't nearly fast enough for Vince Lawrence and friend Jesse Saunders. Buoyed by the success of "Fantasy" and Lawrence's firsthand knowledge of how to start a record label, they broke away and started Jes Say, Trax and more. "I was kind of just showing everybody I knew, like 'Hey, if we keep these processes if we take these steps and invest this much money, the record will come out and we can play it in the clubs,'" says Vince. "I helped Chip E make his first record and, my friends Marshall Jefferson and Hercules, I kind of helped them too. I just wanted to make records."
Vince's devotion to just making records was admirable, but it also led to his eventual falling out with Trax. "I was kind of oblivious to all the business stuff [at that time]," he admits. Jerome Derradji, meanwhile, said in a recent interview that Mitchbal became "a cocaine addict. He partied way too much. He made a little money, and that was it for him; he was a man of the night. The crazy part about all that is that he forgot to release a bunch of records!" As Mitchbal puts it, "I could hardly tie my shoelaces, let alone release more songs and take care of business the way that it should have been taken care of."
Many of those records that were slated for release on Mitchbal or Chicago Connection have now seen the light of day on 122 BPM. It's a fascinating document of what might've become another Motown, had a familial bond been a bit tighter. Just imagine what might've happened had Mitchbal released things more quickly. Would Trax have even been necessary? Who knows? All that we know for sure is that with 122 BPM's release, we have yet another fascinating piece of the house music puzzle to contend with.