|Dance Mania: Ghetto House's Motown
As it prepares to make its return, Jacob Arnold tells the story of the seminal Chicago label.
Few independent dance music labels have anywhere near the longevity and output of Dance Mania. It went through numerous transitions in its time, from the early house sound made popular by Lil' Louis, Farley Keith Williams and Marshall Jefferson; to the hard, fast sounds of Robert Armani and DJ Rush; to the repetitive, risqué ghetto house, which is currently undergoing a resurgence.
Dance Mania has roots in Chicago's soul scene. At the age of 25, Willie J. Barney opened a record store called Barney's Swing Shop. In the early '60s, he founded the distribution business Barney's One Stop Records and opened a separate retail location on Chicago's West Side. A "one-stop" distributor carried all of the major labels, which meant Barney's employees would pick up product from the companies' branches and deliver them to mom and pop stores throughout the area.
In 1965, Barney founded a record label, Four Brothers Productions, with one of his employees, Jack Daniels (who went on to work A&R for Mercury Records). Their biggest hit, G.L. Crockett's "It's A Man Down There" reached number ten on Billboard magazine's R&B chart. Barney also started a subsidiary, Bright Star, but both labels wound down after two years.
Barney encouraged his sons to work in the family business. In 1980, after receiving a degree in business and accounting at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Ray Barney took over management of the distribution side. Ray was 22 at the time. "We distributed music mostly in the Midwest," he recalls. "But all over the United States. We distributed to independent retailers. We dealt mostly with major label music."
Ray Barney met Vince Lawrence, Jesse Saunders and Duane Buford right around the time they started making records together as Jesse's Gang. He became fast friends with Buford, the group's keyboardist. Buford wrote a record called "What's That," which Saunders helped publish. Buford used the name Dance Mania Records.
"Shortly after that I was interested in starting a label of my own," Barney says. "[Duane] offered to do the first record. We were sitting around trying to think of a record label, and he said, 'Use this label,' and I said, 'Why not?'" The result was Hardcore Jazz (1986) by Duane and Co. On "J. B. Traxx," James Brown's shouts and grunts burst over 808 beats and a simple bassline. Occasionally a lady moans in response. Dance Mania was born.
Since the Dance Mania label was just a small part of a large, established business, Barney was able to take more chances. "When I first did Dance Mania, it was really as a complement to what I was doing as a distributor," he explains. "I already had employees. I already had infrastructure set up. I already had a warehouse. I already had computers. I'm already set up to handle the business."
At the same time, Barney revived his father's label, Bright Star Records, with "Climax" by Darryl Pandy. Vince Lawrence produced it, fresh off the success of "Love Can't Turn Around." "I was going to do songs on Bright Star and tracks on Dance Mania," Barney says. "But then I started doing everything on Dance Mania."
Despite its brief run, Bright Star Records released some memorable tunes, such as On The House's "Pleasure Control," produced by Marshall Jefferson with mixing by Ron Hardy. The dub version is nearly 12 minutes of reverberating vocals and colliding beats over a stripped-down bassline. Bright Star's third release was Parris Mitchell's first house effort, "You Can't Fight My Love."
"You had regular guys, in gangs and stuff, they would dance just to dance with the females" -- DJ Deeon
Mitchell grew up in a musical family in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood. "My grandma was a gospel pianist, my father played trumpet, my mom sang a little bit," he says. Mitchell attended the Vanderpoel performing arts elementary school, then studied guitar at the American Conservatory Of Music.
Mitchell formed a band with Kevin Irving called The Mixx. They were influenced by the music Herb Kent played on his Punk Out radio show—acts as diverse as The Time and Culture Club. "They called it 'new wave' at the time, but it was just Euro disco," Mitchell says. Mitchell and Irving discovered the power of DJ-mixed electronic music, "like everybody in Chicago," through hot mix radio shows on WBMX and WGCI. When The Mixx disbanded in 1985, Irving began working with Chip E.
Mitchell recorded his own dance demo, but when Chris Westbrook, AKA Bam Bam, took him to see Rocky Jones at D.J. International, he was put off by the crowd of young people "sitting around waiting to get their tapes heard." Instead, Mitchell formed a new band called Romeo, booking time at Chicago Trax Recording studio (unaffiliated with the label). The engineers there started calling him Victor Romeo.
Mitchell collaborated with drummer and keyboardist Dane Roewade, whom he met through Vince Lawrence. They recorded "You Can't Fight My Love," then took it to Larry Sherman at Trax Records. "Needless to say, the deal just went upside down," Mitchell says. Lawrence then introduced Mitchell to Barney, who listened to the tape and made him an offer.
Bright Star also issued two singles by Ragtyme, who became Ten City when the group signed with Atlantic. "Fix It Man" is chock-full of double entendre: "I'm your fix-it man, and here I stand, with my tool swinging in my hand." "I Can't Stay Away" features an all-star cast of mixers: Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Lil' Louis.
Meanwhile, Dance Mania was taking off with a slew of huge hits, including Hercules' (Marshall Jefferson) "7 Ways" and "House Nation" by The House Master Boyz and The Rude Boy of House (Farley Keith). Barney says that the success of his early singles helped launch the label. "I was very fortunate. I look back, and it's tremendous the amount of talented people I had come through."
Artists were attracted to Dance Mania because Barney was fair with them. "I wanted people I dealt with to be successful," he says. "I wasn't trying to make all of the money. I wasn't trying to take credit for everything."
A beginner's guide to Dance Mania
The Dance Mania catalogue is enormous, but newcomers need not be intimidated. Here is a brief guide to key time periods and artists.
The classics (1986-1988)
The label's early roster is a who's who of house music innovators, from Marshall Jefferson as Hercules, to Farley Keith as The House Master Boyz & The Rude Boy Of House and Yellow House. Lil' Louis' "Video Clash" was a big hit, but "Frequency" and "How I Feel" are just as essential.
Acid and hip-house (1989-1990)
Few house/hip-hop crossovers have aged well, but some of the acid tracks from this period still sound current, with contributions from Gary "Jackmaster" Wallace, Vincent Floyd and Da Posse (incl. Hula & K. Fingers).
After most other Chicago labels stopped releasing stripped-down rhythm tracks, Dance Mania made them its trademark, laying the groundwork for ghetto house with early releases by Robert Armani, DJ Rush, Glenn Underground and DJ Funk. Hidden gems include 3.2.6., Tim Harper, Victor Romeo as The Dance Kings and Rhythm II Rhythm.
Ghetto house (1994-1999)
This was the period when the label was most prolific and consistent. DJ Funk, DJ Deeon, DJ Slugo, DJ Milton, Jammin Gerald, Wax Master Maurice, Traxmen (incl. Eric Martin, Gant-Man and Paul Johnson), Drew Sky and Parris Mitchell were all regulars. Reissues may make it easier to collect them all.
Since Dance Mania was not his primary business, Baney could take risks without worrying about an unsuccessful single taking down the label.
After a brief flirtation with hip-house between '88 and '90, Dance Mania's sound began to shift. Releases by Robert Armani, DJ Rush and Traxmen all embraced a harder, faster techno aesthetic. Was this a conscious decision? "I wish I could take credit for it," Barney says, "but I think it had more to do with me having trust in what people were bringing me was actually what was happening in the clubs and on the dance scene."
Sensing a shift, and enjoying the freedom of his new home studio and DAT machine, Parris Mitchell released a series of stripped-down records, too, including "Climb The Walls" with Kevin Irving as The Dance Kings ('91) and "Computer" by The Track Stars (a '93 split EP with Jammin Gerald).
In '93 and '94, Mitchell was working in Barney's retail store at 3400 Ogden Ave., downstairs from the distribution business. There he encountered a new generation of DJs who were playing Dance Mania's raw tracks in the projects. "I would see everybody coming through," he says. "I used to see Paul [Johnson] come through there. I would see Eric Martin come through there. DJ Funk was on regular. I would see him at least two to three times a week, and he would just hang out downstairs with me." DJ Funk, Jammin Gerald, Waxmaster Maurice and DJ Deeon were all part of a thriving mix tape scene.
Deeon Boyd grew up in the housing projects behind Comiskey Park on the South Side. He and his friends listened to the Hot Mix 5 on WBMX and were inspired to learn how to DJ. Electronic beats drew Deeon in. "That Kraftwerk stuff, that's what really sparked interest," Boyd says. Early on, he got a Mattel Synsonics drum machine and played acapellas over the top. Boyd didn't go out clubbing much. He worked a job at a gas station to earn money to buy double copies of dance singles at Importes Etc. At first, Boyd just spun at private parties. "I guess my name got pretty big in the project areas," he says. "Then the El Rukns, they paid me to DJ at the El Rukn Temple." He was the main DJ there from 1986 to 1989.
El Rukn was led by Jeff Fort, a former leader of the Blackstone Rangers. Fort claimed his group was an Islamic religious organization associated with the Moorish Science Temple of America. He operated out of an ornate former movie palace, fortified with giant steel doors. The group, which wore red fezzes, black robes, and large medallions, organized political activity and community outreach. "They had a pretty big dance room," remember Boyd. "Everybody would come from all around to go there."
In the early '90s, Boyd continued to DJ large parties in rented spaces, such as an Elk Lodge and a Boys And Girls Club, and he began producing. "I got a hold of a Roland 606 drum machine and a 303 and started just customizing the tracks with the different projects where people were from, different areas... 'cause everybody came from every area of the South Side to the parties," he says. "By that time we were doing the mix tapes, the color tapes and everything, pretty popular."
According to Boyd, raunchy lyrics, partly inspired by gangster rap, made it OK for men from the ghetto to like house music again. "You had regular guys, in gangs and stuff, they would dance just to dance with the females. That crossed it over to that because once it got to the ghetto house with profanity in it, with tracks like 'Where The Hoes' and tracks for the women and stuff like that, it bridged the gap. If the girls like anything, the guys are going to follow suit."
"When we made ghetto house... we made music for the bitches," DJ Slugo explained in an interview for 5 Magazine. "That shit was for the grinding shit and all of that."
At first, Boyd and his friends just sold their mix tapes around the projects, but as demand grew they ramped up production and started selling from Chinese-owned stores around the South Side. "I went and got a stamper made," he says. "I would take the sticker from the tape, lay it across the tape, and then I would stamp my name on it—'DJ Deeon Works The Box'—and I would take it to the Chinese store and put 'em in there and they would sell 'em. They would sell out within days."
Boyd met Ray Barney after he discovered Armando had sampled one of his unreleased tracks from a mix tape for The Traxxmen's "Yo Mouf" on the Nothing's Stopping EP (Muzique Records, '94). "I met Armando, and he apologized," says Boyd. "We got everything straight in the end." Barney asked Boyd to bring some tapes. After listening to them, Barney wanted to work with him.
Boyd released over thirty singles across four years for Dance Mania. "Some of the guys, they'll tell you, they'd be kind of mad at me," Boyd admits. "Cause I would go in and I would master four or five 12-inches. That's how many tracks I would accumulate. I would make, and I would have ready to press. If Ray didn't stop me, I just did it."
Chuck Chambers, AKA DJ Funk, also started out as a DJ, influenced by Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and Fast Eddie. He started making tapes with exclusive tracks, using his TR-808. "About 20 years ago an 808 cost two grand," Chambers recalls. "It was so expensive."
Asked why he started making faster, more stripped-down tracks, Chambers laughs, "That's the way the fuck I felt. That's me." DJ Funk's "Pump It" and "Work It" were huge hits. By all accounts, his Street Traxx II EP was the first appearance of the phrase "getto house" [sic] on a record. "I was doing dance music when this was like hardcore in the hood with niggers and gangsters and bitches and whores," says Chambers. "We grew up in a different environment, but we still had respect for dance music. You probably never could really understand how we was growing up.... We grew up in the hood, that was it! We was ghetto."
"For some reason when ghetto house came on people used to be knocking people out of the way" -- Waxmaster Maurice
Maurice Minor, AKA DJ Waxmaster Maurice, was also discovered by Dance Mania through his mix tapes. "I guess I can say it kept me out of trouble," Minor says "Cause I grew up in a real bad neighborhood, so when everybody was gang banging and shooting, we was busy getting our records together—going down to Importes and Peaches and Coconuts."
In the early '90s, his mix tapes started to take off. "At first I'd go to the record store and get ten cassettes," he says. "Before you know it I was buying TDK tapes and Maxell tapes by a hundred." The tapes were sold at record shops and mini-malls. "Our music was everywhere—in the clubs, in the car, in the beauty salons and the barber shops—everywhere," Minor says.
Minor started producing on "toy stuff," but once he got an SP-1200 drum machine and sampler, his music was transformed. "That SP-1200 changed my life," he says. "I started tapping up stuff on that thing and there you go. The classics from 'Waxmaster In This Motherfucker' to 'Who You With' to 'Scratch Trax' to you name it."
Mitchell heard Minor's "Project Shout" on one of his mix tapes and thought it needed a proper release. "I propositioned him to produce the record," Mitchell says. "I had my little twist to it, and we released it." The track reached an even wider audience when Daft Punk used it as the basis of their track "Teachers," and played it in their BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix. (Daft Punk recently sent Minor and Mitchell plaques.)
Barney encouraged Mitchell to adapt to the new style. "Ray would have these requests like, 'Just do a track, get me a track. Not real musical house stuff, just a track,'" remembers Mitchell. "With my stuff, anyway, if he had an idea for the explicit lyric... he'd tell me, I'd do it and he'd just send it off to the plant."
Nonetheless, Barney insists the label didn't reflect his taste as much as his business sense. "My taste in music wasn't what people went to parties for," he says. "I think I was able to separate that." At home, Barney listened to R&B by acts like Stevie Wonder, The Spinners and Gladys Knight and The Pips.
Barney also helped Minor and other artists manufacture and distribute their tapes, even if they were never official label products. "I always encouraged artists that were on Dance Mania to do mixes," Barney says. "I actually encouraged them to play Dance Mania records on their mixes. It was a way of making the music more popular."
Top: Waxmaster Maurice. Bottom: Jammin Gerald.
A teen club called The Factory at 4711 W. Madison St. (about three miles from Barney's One-Stop) became known for playing Dance Mania's tracky style. The original DJs were Greg The Master and Quick Mix Claude. A 1990 Chicago Tribune article described the club (then called Heads Or Tails) as a place "where gang members must check their hats behind a bulletproof glass cage and pass a sign announcing 'No hat wearing. No gangs. Neutral territory.'"
Gerald Henderson, AKA Jammin Gerald, began spinning there in '85. During that time he played everything from house to hip-hop, Miami bass, reggae and R&B. Gerald noticed the crowd began to respond better to beat tracks. "I had 'It's House' and 'Time To Jack,' 'Virgo Tracks,' 'No Way Back' by Adonis, but that wasn't enough," he says. "So I got a little drum machine and SK-1 Casio sampler and started making my own tracks."
Every week, Henderson played four or five new tracks he had created exclusively for the club. "Every week the crowd grew bigger," he recalls. "We had a big dance floor. Man, we had slam dancers in a big circle when certain tracks came on. We had foot-workers in a circle when [their] certain track came on, and we also had the house heads losing their minds by the speakers."
Greg The Master brought Barney a tape with one of Henderson's tracks, and Barney asked for more. Henderson brought Barney five new tracks and a remix of Factory favorite "Get The Ho."
Tragically, the Factory burned down December 31, 1993, killing the owners, "Big Tom" Lewis (a former disco DJ) and his wife Thelma, who lived on the premises and had converted the building from an athletics club in the early '70s.
As the music evolved, so did the dancing. Boyd made tracks for a youth dancing troupe, House-O-Matics, led by Ronnie Sloan. "That was my favorite, my dance team. Before I even DJ'd and got really major, just in the city, they were always performing in parades or at school talent shows or anywhere. They just had a presence," Boyd recalls. "That was the [earliest] footwork. They would do footwork in all kinds of styles. There would be some breakdancing, there be some poppin', there would be some house dancing, there would be some freaky dancing. That's what made it so good. It was a combination of all of the dances."
Of course, in the clubs it was less formal. "People used to say they bouncing off the walls!" says Minor. "People move their hands and bob their heads to hip-hop, but for some reason when that ghetto house came on people used to be knocking people out of the way. It was almost like slam dancing. They used to be wild and spinning over all on the floor."
In the late '80s and early '90s, House-O-Matics had boy and girl members, but now footwork battling is mainly a male pursuit, and the music has changed, too. "Now it's like the footwork thing is a whole new genre, it's a whole different sound," says Boyd. "It's a lot faster."
From '95 through '98, Dance Mania was at its height. DJs would stop in for test pressings every week, many bringing DATs with fresh music. "I think as time went on people would see that I treated them fairly," Barney explains. "It just happened to be a snowball effect."
Then a combination of factors, from tax troubles to changes in the music industry, led Barney to close Barney's One Stop and Dance Mania. Many of the stores served by Barney's distribution business closed in the late '90s. According to public records, the warehouse at 3400 Ogden Ave. underwent foreclosure in '99, leaving behind an empty, grassy lot.
"I just stepped away from the music business and tried other things," Barney says. "I worked with computers for a while." He currently manages New Life Health Food in the building where his brother, Reynaldo, used to run a retail music store. A faded sign still proclaims "Barney's Music Distributors, Records Cass & CD's at Everyday Low Prices" and "Dance Mania Productions, The Dance Traxx Headquarters of Chicago."
After the label closed, DJ Funk started a Dance Mania web site with Barney's permission. Some vinyl reissues began appearing with "Dance Mania Inc." on the label, but Barney wasn't involved in these.
In February of this year, word began to spread of Barney's plans to revive Dance Mania. Several EPs are already being mastered for vinyl, and a European distribution deal is in the works. Barney is drawing up contracts with artists from his old roster, including DJ Funk, DJ Deeon, Marshall Jefferson, Parris Mitchell, Robert Armani and Traxman. Boyd continues to produce new music despite a series of serious health problems. DJ Funk is bitter that EDM artists are "multi-millionaires" from copying Dance Mania's style, but he's about to release a new album which he calls "the best CD I ever did in my whole life."
Minor now creates theme songs for neighborhood social groups such as motorcycle clubs. "I ain't saying I'm no superstar, but I've had superstar episodes," Minor says. "I had women stand screaming for me... meet me with my names on their fingernails and charms around they neck."
Parris Mitchell worked with major-label artists in the '90s, including Janet Jackson, Jewell, and k-os. He's making new remixes, and his Life In The Underground LP was recently re-issued by Ghetto House Classics. Planet Mu's footwork releases have drawn worldwide attention back to Dance Mania's ghetto house roots. And Barney has a list of the most requested singles. "I think the time is right to get back in. From overseas especially, there seems to be a lot of demand, and I might as well take advantage of it," he says. "You should be seeing some new stuff on Dance Mania by this summer."
Published / Wednesday, 15 May 2013