How Dance Mania's raw, raucous and rare defined the sound of Chicago's inner city – and changed house for the ruder
Born in the mid 1980s, Dance Mania was the snarling upstart that tore through the streets of Chicago with its relentless breakdowns of italo disco, house and techno. Blood brothers DJ Funk, DJ Milton, Slugo, DJ Deeon and Jammin’ Gerald positioned Dance Mania’s style as the roundhouse kick to the gut of the smooth, sassy house music that dominated the city, and the world beyond. Splicing together little more than 808 kicks, rapid-fire piano hooks and vocal samples that were as filthy as they were funny, and playing it with a “fuck you, we’ve arrived” attitude, these pioneers shook neighbourhood parties and earned the new, raw style the name “ghetto house”.
Not everyone in Chicago took these aggressive, cheeky upstarts to heart: the kickback against the label was gradual but brutal. Dance Mania artists struggled for major bookings on home turf, so local affection waned. Frustration was channelled into the studio and, by the mid 90s, the Dance Mania sound had dug its heels in and become even nastier – and perhaps, more unwelcoming – than ever. After original co-owner Ray Barney closed the distribution company that powered the label, along with the iconic Barney’s store in Chicago, where Victor “Parris” Mitchell (amongst others) worked and hung out, Dance Mania’s physical catalogue effectively became gold dust in the dance music underground.
In a welcome twist of fate, however, it was the appetite of an international audience that kept the label alive. Unbeknownst to some of the artists, the increasingly rare Dance Mania product had penetrated the European and UK underground. DJs and producers from Erol Alkan to Bok Bok, from Jackmaster to Nina Kraviz, were obsessed with this deceptively simple sound, and the collecting of the near 300 release-strong output had become such a labour of love that demand for re-issues reached fever-pitch.
Duly, by the end of the 2000s, Ray Barney and Parris Mitchell re-launched the distribution arm of the label proper and, after teaming up with Strut, next week sees the release of a second compilation, Dance Mania: Ghetto Madness, which is playing exclusively below. From Jammin’ Gerald’s fist-pounding “Pump That Shit Up” to the robotic stomp-and-hiss of Steve Pointdexter’s “Computer Madness” and the smutty tease of Tyree’s “Nuthin Wrong”, it’s, quite frankly, a collection of some of the most essential tracks in house music. To mark the release, Dazed spoke to Dance Mania legends DJ Deeon and Parris Mitchell about the sound that’s lived one thousand lives.
Listening to the tracks now, what do you think it is about Dance Mania that still interests people?
Parris Mitchell: What’s important is that it followed a guideline, but it wasn’t inside a box. It’s still 4/4, with a kick drum and a house music tempo, but it fell outside of the typical house boundaries and that was what gave it that extra life.
Deeon: As far as nostalgia goes, whenever I toured overseas, I’m still surprised that when I went to the major record stores then, Virgin and Tower, I saw the vinyl in there. We didn’t have that here at the time. There was a prejudice against it as a style overall, to be honest.
Do you mean that you feel that Chicago wasn’t accepting of the ghetto house in the early days?
Deeon: Chicago was, and is, kind of fickle. It was like, “Oh that’s ghetto house, we don’t play that”, but when we’d hit the parties they’d be playing our records! We came from a street point of view, selling tapes on the corner. We even had to fight just to play downtown, but once we started playing overseas people started giving a damn. There’s still that prejudice, too. We just did a Dance Mania night last month, and the venue owner stopped the night because it “wasn’t full”. Chicago is still very racially and musically segregated, but we try to overcome that.
When it comes to the lifespan of Dance Mania, its aesthetic is pretty singular but the variation between the artists makes it a living, breathing thing.
Parris Mitchell: Exactly. A lot of people may not believe this, but Dance Mania is a very versatile label. It’s got big vocal hook arrangements all the way down to stripped-down beat tracks. Nowadays, though, people embrace it more so for the edgier sound of the 90s: its second wave. I’ve been with Dance Mania since 87, so I’ve been there for the whole course.
“Woodstock was a memory, the Vietnam War had shamed us all, and the crack epidemic was killing us. The world lost its innocence, but people would still hear our tracks and say ‘Oh my god, that shit is raw’” – Parris Mitchell
How did you see you label evolve?
Parris Mitchell: It got edgier intentionally. When I’d speak to Ray about the music business, when they were putting censors on NWA and Prince – for talking that political shit, or that sexual shit – it was in the air. Woodstock was a memory, the Vietnam War had shamed us all, and the crack epidemic was killing us. There wasn’t so much love going around no more. The world lost its innocence, but people would still hear our tracks and say, “Oh my god, that shit is raw.” We were no NWA, or DJ Quik, but it was our way to channel that craziness. It is a bit offensive sometimes, but it is personal, too. I was going through a divorce and Ray had the idea to do something raw. When you’re hurting in love, you don’t wanna sing no sweet shit. I really thought tracks like “All Night Long” was hilarious. Ray and I would laugh at it when we played it back.
Deeon: It got crazy raw because the DAT machine came out. For a time, the only way we could record it was to go to a studio and pay 30 dollars an hour. The DAT saved us. Every track we wanted to produce would be recorded at home, so we were able to do exactly what we wanted to do.
That agency is partly what keeps the Dance Mania sound fresh, yes?
Parris Mitchell: I believe in that. People will play a set of flawless blends, but after an hour of that all the beats sound the same. It’s one, hour-long record. I think it’s great if you can mix records that “fit”, but don’t sound alike. Dance Mania works with Dance Mania, but it also works with Jeff Mills. You gotta keep it fresh.
Deeon: It’s also about the resurgence. About teaching the young kids about our style. We’re still an underground sound, and I’d like it to stay that way, but you have to keep yourself out there. When the classic stuff gets pumped on Chicago radio they call it “throwback”, but Strut have kept it fresh with this one. It’s crazy how time goes by so fast, but if it’s still getting played in the club then it’s all good to me.
Strut will release Dance Mania: Ghetto Madness 26th January