Dance Mania are opening up shop once again
The Chicago label’s approach famously took the loved-up house template of the day and threw it to the gutter, stripping it back to heady dancefloor functionality. While pioneering 80s labels Trax and DJ International maintained a stronghold on the scene, Dance Mania was the deranged underdog of the three. Following its closure, the imprint reached cult status, with prices for remaining records skyrocketing and a new generation of outspoken Dance Mania-indebted artists dutifully paying homage.
For owner Ray Barney, re-opening the label seemed like a practical business decision, he explains to us. “I grew up in the record business. It’s all I remember from birth.” Located in Chicago’s West Side, Ray’s father Willie Barney opened Barney’s Records in 1953, and it soon became the city’s premier outlet for RnB, soul and house. When Ray made it a hub of distribution after returning from college, it was soon to form the infrastructure of Dance Mania.
After selling his contemporaries’ records in large volume, Ray was eager to get into the business and took on the opportunity in ‘85 after close friend Duane Buford self-released Duane and Co.’s Hardcore Jazz EP on his own imprint, Dance Mania. The lead single from the release J.B. Traxx layered chopped-up James Brown grunts and squeals over a stripped back beat; it was raw, jocular, proto-ghetto house.
Within his first year Ray had released house heavyweights Lil Louis, Marshall Jefferson and Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk. As Dance Mania was unable to breach the radio- friendly European anthems coming from their contemporaries, their firm rooting in the underground led to a freedom in creativity. Ray admits there was something liberating about the fact that money wasn’t the main motivation. “The music was less commercial, let’s say. The music we were putting out wasn’t conducive for radio play, it worked for DJs and it worked for the club but it didn’t work for the radio. The artists were free to do whatever they wanted to do.”
It’s this outlook that birthed the label’s calling card: ghetto house. Fuelled by dance groups like the House-o-Matics and Chicago footwork crews, ghetto house drove up the BPM to 140 and beyond, spewing out a raunchy, unapologetic take on house music. As early 90s European audiences turned their attention elsewhere, the localised scene was driven into an ass- shaking frenzy.
Label mainstay Victor Paris Mitchell, who released on Dance Mania under aliases such as Parris Mitchell, Victor Romeo and Rhythm II Rhythm, looks back lovingly on one-take recording sessions and “mini-parties” in producing such ghetto house staples as his extensive Life In The Underground release. “Originally it was just a term used, because of the style it was done in and the way it was just raw and gritty,” says Mitchell, who is now heavily involved in the resurrection of the imprint. “DJ Funk had a record and he was the first one to use that term in correlation with the actual sound. It was kind of like putting a name to a face.”
Cooked up “from the ghetto, for the ghetto” those initial, crude trax were hailed for reaching out to girls so that guys would follow suit. So what was it about ghetto house that got guys dancing again, and why might men in their community have had reservations about embracing house music? “It wasn’t so hardcore, as opposed to when the 90s rolled around and the whole hip-hop culture became a little bit more masculine, and guys just wanted to hear something a little more raw”, Mitchell relays. “Everybody wants to hear something dirty, when you’re in that environment and in that atmosphere you don’t want to sing about love.” Mitchell admits that the shock value of some of the more explicitly graphic lyrics (such as his own sleaze-house mantra All Night Long’s ‘Clap your hands if you wanna fuck/ Stomp your feet if you wanna suck’ refrain) was encouragement enough. “And it’s funny!” he laughs. “It’s shocking. The whole shock thing is amazing, it’s like ‘I can’t believe he said that!’”
Mitchell explains that such outwardly explicit lyrics were also of political significance, directly correlating with a wider clampdown on artistic freedom. “That’s around the time where they were having this big debate about whether they should include these parental advisory stickers on records, so I think a lot of people felt like their freedom of speech was being violated.”
As dance crews pushed the BPM to fevered heights, the routines got faster and a symbiosis began between crowds and DJs. “From my experience, if you see something in the club, you see that it worked and you see someone doing a dance to it, then you would go and make a record about it,” Mitchell explains. “So just by seeing what they were doing someone would come up with the title … footwork. So in other words, life didn’t imitate art, art was imitating life, which is the way it should be.”
As with everything, the scene evolves. When Crack managed to track down the legendary DJ Funk for an interview back in 2012, in amongst all the dirty talk he offered an interesting perspective on musical developments. “These guys are making more of the newer jukey style, but obviously there’s been a major bounce off from ghetto house styles, and another bounce-off from the likes of Lil Louis, the Hot Mix 5, and the guys who made the Trax records. And it just got mixed up, it got faster, and that’s what those guys are feeling … I feel kind of honoured that the shit I been doing has inspired some other shit.” The evolution goes something like this: Ghetto house sparked juke, and then, as DJ Clent and RP Boo commandeered the style, juke became footwork.
Among the artists to reference Dance Mania are Daft Punk directly aped Parris Mitchell – as well as DJ Funk, Wax Master and Jammin Gerald – on Teachers, their ode to Mitchell’s Ghetto Shout Out. He reflects on it with pride. “When I heard the interpellation they did, I thought it was great how they paid homage to everybody that they felt influenced them, it was definitely an honour and a privilege.” Since the label’s closure in 2000, a swathe of Dance Mania-influenced artists have helped keep the legacy alive. Ghetto house-indebted UK collective Night Slugs’ L-Vis 1990 has worked closely with the label since its return, and he speaks passionately of his respect for the label. “The first time I heard Dance Mania was in Daft Punk’s Essential Mix in ‘98. This was the mix that really made me want to start DJing,” he reveals. “Dance Mania records are made to move your feet and shake your ass on the dancefloor and nothing else, the music is not spiritual, it’s functional.”
Selling to a rapidly dissolving market led to the label’s closure in 2000. Ray Barney announced the rebirth of the label in March 2013, after Mitchell called him almost every day to bug him with this exact mission statement. As demand for Dance Mania grew increasingly since its closure, releases became incredibly sought after and equally pricey, with the transition from the pre-digital age connecting Ray to fans he never knew he had. “With social media and the internet I was seeing the demand for the music. The price that some of the records were fetching on the internet…” He pauses. “It’s flattering to know that they’re in demand, but the artists aren’t seeing any of it. I wanted the artists to benefit from it.” Applying his business-mindedness to the goldmine of Dance Mania records collecting dust in his basement, Barney reformed the label and re-released essential issues from The Parris Mitchell Project, Steve Poindexter, DJ Deeon and Traxman before the year had ended. This year he released the glorious Hardcore Traxx retrospective to “help the artists and expose the music to a whole generation.”
Finally, Ray reflects on the label to reinforce its untainted intentions. “I think there was something real special about the label, it wasn’t done as ‘this is going to make us a lot of money, let’s do this.’ It was like neighbourhood friends hanging out.”