House Nation: Dance Mania’s Parris Mitchell on the birth of a genre
The prolific Chicago label Dance Mania initially released records from the mid-80s through to the late 90s.
Its catalogue was vast, numbering into the hundreds, with many releases poorly documented and existing in limited runs. In its heyday, the label was run by Ray Barney of Barney’s Records and Distribution, a local impresario and entrepreneur who was a key part of the era’s burgeoning house scene, a landscape which took in legendary labels like Trax Records and Dj International.
The Dance Mania story began with the release of enduring favourites like ‘House Nation’ by The House Master Boyz, Hercules’ ‘7 Ways’ and Lil Louis’ ‘Frequency’, going on to take in in early hip-hop and hip-house experiments. In the 90s the label became synonymous with the ghetto house movement led by DJ Funk, DJ Slugo, DJ Deeon, Paul Johnson, DJ Milton, DJ Clent, Traxman, Robert Armani and more, but the catalogue was always a reflection of the Chicago dance scene and street sound of the time.
Interest in Dance Mania history has seen a resurgence in the last few years thanks to Strut Record’s excellent compilations Hardcore Traxx and Ghetto Madness and frequent references from DJs and tastemakers like Bok Bok and Jackmaster, and the revival has brought one Dance Mania stalwart back onto the international DJ circuit for the first time in over a decade. Victor Parris Mitchell was a key figure in the label’s history, recording under monikers like Victor Romeo, The Dance Kings and the Parris Mitchell Project, and continually adapting his sound to the style of the time, from soulful house to stripped-down drum machine experiments.
I spoke to Mitchell to hear the Dance Mania story told on his terms, taking in the birth of house music as he saw it firsthand, the invention of ghetto house, and how it feels to be part of a revival all these years later.
“It just went from, ‘that sounds like something they play at the Warehouse’ to ‘that sounds like house music’. ‘Cause you know, in the black community we abbreviate and give everything nicknames.”
It’s been over 25 years since the label was founded, and it feels like Dance Mania is finally reaching a younger audience again. That must be surreal for you at times.
Definitely. Right now it feels like people are catching on. I’ll give you an example. I called the bank today, I had some troubles when I was in New York. See, my full name is Victor Parris Mitchell, right? But the promoter sent the wire to Parris Mitchell, and they won’t pay the money unless it’s in the right name. So I was talking to their call centre and the guy on the line said, “You know what, it must be cool when people get you mixed up with the guy that did that ghetto music!” It’s so funny, there are people that know about Dance Mania in little pockets all over the world.
I wanted to ask you about the term “house” music – how you first encountered it, and what the word means to you. Nowadays it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Wow, well, you’ve probably heard different versions of this story, but here’s my recollection. We were all influenced by people like Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Mickey Oliver, those guys from the Hot Mix 5. When I first encountered house music I still had a band, with “Jack N’ House” Kevin Irving, a close friend, who passed away last year. That was 1984. We had a gig in a big parking lot on the street with Vince Lawrence and Jesse Saunders. We did this gig with them and they had a record on heavy rotation at the time, ‘Real Love’. That was my first experience with that feeling, that sound of house music – ’cause you have to imagine that just a few years prior, we had had the Disco Demolition [an infamous anti-disco stunt where rock fans blew up a crate of disco records] here in Chicago. And not long after that, Frankie Knuckles moved here to try to keep the disco scene alive, ‘cause lots of people were eating from it, making good money, and didn’t wanna see disco die.
So when that died, it just was a matter of timing. The electronic world started advancing, technology moved forward. All these people that still enjoyed this disco thing were wanting to keep it alive, and you couldn’t hire bands ’cause they were too expensive! Studio time was expensive. Now you could use a drum machine and synthesisers and make the music all on your own. I remember people would use an expression, if they heard something electronic that sounded like disco, people would say, “that sounds like some house music”. It was abbreviated from the club name, the Warehouse – it wasn’t from any one person saying it. It just went from, “that sounds like something they play at the Warehouse” to “that sounds like house music”. ‘Cause you know, in the black community we abbreviate and give everything nicknames.
You mention Jesse Saunders, who had an early house hit with ‘On And On’ that year, 1984, and according to a couple of sources was the original owner and creator of Dance Mania.
Well, when you say “owned” it, it was really Duane Buford, his writing partner. And Duane was the first person to put out a record on the Dance Mania label, with Jesse, as The Browns – a 12” called ‘What’s That’. What happened was, Jesse was about to seal his deal with Geffen. ‘Cause he already ran Jes Say Records, and Larry Sherman at Trax was also pressing up certain records of his. So they were looking for another label name to release records under and they came up with Dance Mania, but never patented it or registered it. The Browns’ [record] was distributed by Ray Barney [later the owner of Dance Mania]. So when Ray was looking to set up a label to run alongside his label Bright Star, around the time Duane was getting ready to release JB Traxx, Duane offered Ray the name “Dance Mania”. So to me, Jesse and Duane definitely created the label name, and to me it was always Ray’s label. After that they both signed to Geffen and went off to do other types of music, and they left the dance scene for a long time. They were looking for mainstream success that sadly never came – they never had the hit they wanted with Geffen.
“People try to tell me Dance Mania is a ghetto house label, and I’m like, nah – Dance Mania is a big vast variety of different sounds, and styles.”
When did you first meet with Ray Barney?
I met Ray in the spring of 1987. Vince Lawrence was having a listening party with loads of labels like Sony, Geffen, and he said, “Come round, you should meet some of these folks.” He introduced me to Ray, and we talked for a while. He said I should come by with some music. So I finished my record and took it over to Larry Sherman at Trax Records. Larry wanted my record but he didn’t want to play fair.
That seems to be a lasting part of his reputation, and a large shadow that looms over Trax history.
What was done was done, we all make mistakes and that’s all in the past now, but yeah, if Larry wrote you a check you knew if you tried to cash it, it would bounce! Vince called up and said, “What’s going on with your record? Let’s take it to Ray.” Me and him and my studio partner Dane Stewart took it over to Ray’s. Vince put the cassette in the machine, Ray turned round and said, “Which one of you made this?” And I got all bashful and embarrassed, ’cause I thought he was gonna say “Take that crap out now!” Ray said to me, “If Larry Sherman doesn’t take care of it, I will.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
It was called ‘You Can’t Fight My Love’, under the name Victor Romeo, on Bright Star Records, and it came out in the summer of 1987. It got heavy rotation on the East Coast and in Detroit, on stations like WJBL. Friends would call me up from Washington and say, “Hey man, they’re playing your record!” So it did pretty good, made some money and did good enough that Ray wanted me to do another. So we did another record, and another. Third one didn’t turn out so good, but hey ho. Then I came back with another big record, ‘Love Will Find A Way’, on Dance Mania in 1988, and I went on tour with Club Nouveau.
No way – that must be the same Club Nouveau that was sampled by Da Luniz on ‘I Got Five On It’?
Yes! It was all thanks to Kevin Irwing, who I mentioned earlier, who sang on ‘If You Only Knew’, ‘House Ain’t Giving Up’, ‘Jack Your Body’. He was a vocalist in Chicago. We grew up together, he was my lead singer in my band for years, and we made records together as Irving and Romeo and The Dance Kings on Dance Mania. We grew up in Beverley in Chicago, went to the same school called Vandepoel, it was a performing arts school. Matter of fact, Kanye West went to that same school years later. So Kevin went to try out to be in New Edition, and missed it, and ended up in Club Nouveau. I joined them on tour after auditioning ‘cause I can play instruments, guitar, bass, keys and so forth. I left that tour in 1988, 1989.
Dance Mania probably conjures up a mental image of a certain kind of ghetto-sounding record to lots of people, but the truth is there were hundreds of records on the label, and lots of different styles.
Well, that’s the thing. People try to tell me Dance Mania is a ghetto house label, and I’m like, nah – Dance Mania is a big vast variety of different sounds, and styles that Ray tapped into it. If it was good at the time, then Ray would be like, “Let me put that out.” Everyone came from really different musical backgrounds. You had Byron Stingly, he was on Bright Star. Darryl Pandy, with more of a vocal house type record. A lot of stuff, Ray was tapping into it. Even I did one of the first hip-house records – it actually came out on Express Records in Detroit, ’cause I was committed to a deal. Anyway it was under the name Diva, called ‘Get Up’. We also did one of the first rap records in Chicago under the name ‘MF Boys’, that was on Dance Mania. So personally, I’ve done hip-house and just about everything.
Hip-house feels like a much maligned genre. I wonder if it’ll make a comeback someday. I love Fast Eddie.
Yeah, you never know, sometimes these things catch a wind with younger DJs who dig a little deeper, find their own twist on things.
When I interviewed RP Boo for FACT some time ago he mentioned that he had a Dance Mania record that never came out properly, and only made it to a limited test pressing stage. I wonder if Ray was quite a tough guy to work with at times.
Oh yeah, there were a couple of times when I went in to play Ray a record and he sat there with a sorry look on his face and didn’t say bye when I was leaving! [Laughs] But I knew when I’d played something he really liked ’cause his eyes lit up and he’d start blinking. He knew what he wanted, that’s for sure.
How did your style evolve from the soulful house you were writing with Kevin Irving to the more stripped down ghetto house sound?
When I came back from tour, the song ‘Love Will Find A Way’ was doing really good. I was spending a lot of time in Detroit at that time, and my cousin was DJing around the city and I would listen to him when he was playing. See, I was always more of a musician when I was 16, 17, 18, playing in bands and doing studio sessions, but he was into DJing. I was fooling around with his turntables and records and stuff at his house, and he would show me how everything worked, so I reckon I had a feel for how it worked back in 1989. So I started DJing and I felt I just heard the music differently, everything was different, ’cause I liked to play records with heavy beats on ‘em, not the ones I liked to copy on the guitar, which were more musical. I think that changed my thought process of making records, my approach.
That’s when I started making records like The Dance Kings’ ‘Climb the Walls’, ’cause I wanted to make records that I could play when I DJed. I wanted to have fun with it, but I didn’t want to confuse people. So I started using my real name, called it Parris Mitchell, not Victor Romeo, for those records. Ray called me up and said, “Let’s do some hard records, like really hard.” So I started making some, and that evolved into the double 12″, Life In The Underground, on Dance Mania.
A year before that I was working in Ray’s record store, Barney’s Records. I was there, like, 12 hours a day, nine ’til nine. Ray owned the largest distribution company in the Midwest, and that record store and the labels, so I would meet all the people passing through with their demos. And one of those, DJ Funk, I recognised this guy from The Factory club. I don’t know how any of those guys there at the time, ’cause no one was of age – Funk must have been like 15 at the time. There was this DJ at The Factory, Claude, who played stuff like Chip E and Hercules’ ‘7 Ways’. He was playing the more stripped down stuff, which was the precursor to ghetto house. He wasn’t into playing vocal records like Darryl Pandy. That club, The Factory, laid the foundation. When it burnt down it left a void. Anyway, I didn’t meet Funk properly ’til like ’94, he was one of the first to coin that phrase, “ghetto house”. He put the sound to the phrase, on record. ‘Cause those records were kind of a joke to some people. They would call them “ghetto records”. “Have you got any of those ghetto records?” [Laughs] So Funk took the term back.
So you would credit Ray and Funk for inventing that style of music? Some people must have found the content offensive, but in another way it feels like it’s drawn from a tradition that includes ‘French Kiss’ by Lil Louis and sicko black comedy like Blowfly.
Yeah, Ray definitely intentionally came up with the idea. Like I said, people were making jazzy house or hip-house. You have to remember, also, when N.W.A. bust out on the scene in 1988, it was kinda taboo to say certain things on records, and then there was a campaign going with people trying to censor music. It’s almost like the naughtier you were, the more attention you got. I’ll be real with you though – we just thought it was funny. I personally just thought it was hilarious! Sometimes when we were making records, we’d laugh through the whole session. We were having fun with the music, we thought people would have fun listening to it. There wasn’t a serious bone in our bodies around that whole time.
I read once that Steve Poindexter made ‘Work That Motherf*****’ by chopping up the vocal samples on a Casio RZ1 – it sounds like it was time-consuming work to make these records back then. What equipment were you using at the time?
Man… Well, back then I had an MPC 60. A Casio RZ1, a couple of other things I would play with. Funk used a Juno 60 and an 808. But the way we would record – most of us were going straight to DAT. We rarely went to tape – we would pass the sounds through the desk for EQ and power, but never multitracked. So recently when people ask for parts and things like that, I’m like, “Man, we don’t have any files for that.” To own that sort of equipment in the 90s, 2-inch tape and so on, well, the electricity bill alone would have been ridiculous. We didn’t have those luxuries.
I recall a session when Funk and I went to record for my double 12”, we did it at his house on a 16-channel Soundcraft, straight onto a DAT. We did it all on the fly – he made the beats, I programmed the 303, we looked at each other like, “you ready?”. No rehearsal. And whilst I was playing notes on the keyboard and controlling the 303 he was speaking the words, he didn’t write anything down, just improvising, just like when you’re DJing and you don’t have a set playlist, you’re freestyling.
The only thing I remember ever doing on multitrack was the Paris Mitchell Project. That was much more high-end – Harrison console, AMS Neve preamps and units, some of the best microphones. I got that setup ’cause the owner of the studio gave me the room, let me learn the patchbay so long as I run the room for him, engineer on sessions. And the irony was, just as I had finally understood it all, the technology switched over to Pro Tools!
“I hadn’t even heard of Daft Punk’s ‘Teachers’ song until 2009!”
That studio sounds very high-end for the ghetto.
Oh, definitely, but it was in the ghetto, everybody lived in the ghetto at that time. It was really authentic! [Laughs]
How about people like DJ Deeon and DJ Slugo? Did you get to know them?
When Deeon and Slugo and those guys came in, I had been making records since 1987, and I did my last Dance Mania record in 1997, so I had been doing it for 10 years at that point. And I wasn’t around much after 1995, 1996, ’cause my good friend had started doing rap music over in California, so I started doing stuff for Death Row artists and working on R’n’B stuff. When those producers started coming in I was on my way out. It’s like a different generation. After working on those projects in California, I stepped out of music and went into real estate for a while. I had no idea of how popular Dance Mania was. I set up a Facebook account in 2009 and this guy Jamie Fry, who works for Rekids now, he got in touch and said, “Are you the same guy who did the Parris Mitchell stuff on Dance Mania? I wanna re-release these, ‘cause these are more relevant now than they were then.” I said, you’ve got to be kidding me – I was really shocked. DJ Funk got back in touch, brought me up to speed too, and I let Ray know as well. I called him up and I said, “Ray, nobody knows who you are. Everyone thinks its Deeon or Slugo or Funk’s label.”
In fact, you’ll laugh at this, but I hadn’t even heard of Daft Punk’s ‘Teachers’ song until 2009! The other guys knew about it. Funk told me recently that he had their phone numbers and they both had come round the studio, checked out the equipment and hung out, but he never thought they were gonna be as big as they ended up being, so he never kept in touch! Waxmaster went and played with them a couple of times. I tell you what they did send me and Waxmaster though – a gold disc of ‘Teachers’, ’cause of the interpolation of ‘Ghetto Shout-Out’ they did on that song. I thought that song was cool when I finally heard it, ’cause they shouted out George Clinton and all these well-known people, but also loads of us underground people. We weren’t exactly household names. I imagine a lot of people who heard it must have thought, who the hell are these people? [Laughs]
Have you heard of Bok Bok? He’s definitely someone who brought your sound to a new audience over here, with the Night Slugs parties.
I’ve heard of Bok Bok, yeah! He’s one of the new guys that I would honestly say, I really like Bok Bok. His style is so wild – he can be pop and R&B, and still dance, and I’ve heard really hard stuff from him too. He’s one of the talented newer generation, I really like his stuff. Jackmaster is another one!
Okay, so now I’m really confused there – do you mean your guy Farley from Chicago, or our lad Jacky from Glasgow?
Ha! I find that funny, I wonder if Farley does. That would be great to put them both on the same bill, wouldn’t it? I would definitely travel over to see that date. They’re both incredible DJs in different ways. I’ve seen them both play – I was very influenced by Farley and I really enjoyed Jack’s set when I saw him recently, they’re both really dope.
You’re playing Dance Tunnel in London on Saturday and then are heading straight to Panaroma Bar in Berlin – ever played there?
No, but you know, it’s a really hot techno scene over there, man. I mean wow, since I’ve never played there I don’t know quite what to expect. My style is very eclectic, I play a bit of everything, I just play what I feel man. I hope they get into it!