Question in the Form of An Answer: An Interview with Chicago Ghetto House Legend, Parris Mitchell

As far as Chicago dance labels go, the ’90s belonged to Dance Mania. Run by Ray Barney, owner of Barney’s Records, it fed the streets with a steady stream of 12″s for over a decade,...
By    March 17, 2014

Victor-studio-shotAs far as Chicago dance labels go, the ’90s belonged to Dance Mania. Run by Ray Barney, owner of Barney’s Records, it fed the streets with a steady stream of 12″s for over a decade, and is responsible in no small part for the birth of ghetto house. After a decade of inactivity, the label was reborn last year. Strut Records has just released Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records, 1986-1997, a celebration of the first phase of its life. We talked to Parris Mitchell aka Victor Romeo, one of its key artists about his work, the label, and what makes ghetto house so compelling. — Adam Wray

Adam Wray: Your musical life began way before you started making house records – could you tell me about some of your earliest musical experiences?

Parris Mitchell: Oh, wow. I started out playing guitar during the disco era. Like, 1976 is when I started playing guitar. So, I come from the era where there wasn’t any sequencers or MIDI. I come from the era where you had to be a musician to make a record, you know what I’m saying? I kinda started when disco was at the pinnacle of success, so I got exposed to a lot of those records, mimicking those records, and that whole style, that four-on-the-floor, that boom-chk-boom, that whole style that inspired house in the first place. So, we went through that whole Disco Demolition thing, but it was always rooted in me because that’s what I heard. That, a lot of soul, James Brown, rock like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. Rod Stewart, Donna Summer, Miles Davis, Teddy Pendergrass records my mom used to listen to, Jackson Five… so, I was exposed to an eclectic style of music, because I come from a family where everyone was a music lover and everyone had their own record collection.

The transitional period for me was when I was playing in bands live to the time that MIDI was invented in the early ’80s. I always wanted to make records but most of the guys I played with wanted to play live. I was more interested in playing on records. I kinda convinced the manager of one of our bands I played in when I was 16 to take us to a recording studio. We made a little disco record – a 7″, y’know – and it got some college radio play here in the city and that was about the extent of it. And it was a live record, because we didn’t have MIDI or anything.

A: What was the name of that record?

P: It was “Times Square,” and the name of the group was The Generation. I kinda left the whole disco thing alone, continued to play in bands. We had this whole phase of doing shows, playing cover tunes, and every once in awhile we’d dip into the studio and record originals. Making records was always my real passion, producing. When I was younger, I learned to play several instruments well. My grandmother was a pianist and she taught me how to play piano before guitar. I was always interested in playing drums so I bought myself a drum kit with my eighth grade graduation money. I borrowed a bass from my sister’s husband’s brother for awhile. At the end of the day, my favourite instrument was still guitar, but I had experience with all of those. I used to dissect music to hear what the different parts were doing, watching live bands to see how the music was put together.

My brother loaned me, like, $3000 to go make a demo and take to California and shop it. Well, I ran out of money, and the owner of the studio gave me spec time at Chicago Trax to go and make a record, ’cause he realized I was out of money. What ending up happening was I wanted to make a house record and get some radio play, ’cause I couldn’t get radio play with the stuff I was making. So, I started making a house record with the time I was given by Reid Hyams. And I started a track that I thought was good enough to take around to take around to people. But, y’know, I took it over to Rocky Jones (ed: head of famed Chicago house label DJ International), and it was just too crowded. I’m pretty sure it was a great company, great label, but too many people for my liking. I’m not a crowd follower. I like to be in places where I don’t have to try to fit into somebody else’s thing. I don’t Rocky liked the track very much, either, matter of fact – he told me to finish it up and bring it back. I took it to Larry Sherman from Trax Records – he liked it and told me he’d give me money to finish it up. Well, I went to finish it and he reneged on that and told me first I’d have to bring him the masters. I said, well, I’m not gonna bring him the masters ’cause he’s probably not gonna pay. I gave up on it ’til Vince Lawrence from Trax called me up and asked me what I was doing with the record. I said, “Nothing,” and he said, “Well, I got someone I want you to meet.” He introduced me to Ray Barney. Ray listened to, liked it, and asked to put it out. He cut me a cheque, paid the studio bill, and that was the beginning of Ray and I working together.

A: And that track was “You Can’t Fight My Love,” right?

P: Yeah, 1987.

A: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Ray Barney and Dance Mania. He put out your records and you were working at Barney’s Records, but were you involved in the day-to-day of running the label, too?

P: No, I was never involved in running the label back then. That was 100% Ray Barney. There’s rumours about Jesse Saunders – there was nobody else but Ray Barney doing it. In the early days of Dance Mania, it was just guys coming by, dropping off tracks. It wasn’t, like… any loyalty. Ray would get tracks from… the mentality of guys in the ’80s was to give tracks to whoever had the cheques. You had Rocky with DJ International, they were still thriving. You had Trax Records, thriving. But come the ’90s, the success of those labels had all but faded, pretty much, and those opportunities were fewer. There were more in other parts of the country, but in Chicago, not that many. So, most of the people during the second generation – I call it the second generation, which is what I consider myself to be a part of – we were more loyal. I was always loyal, I didn’t really make records for the other labels like that. And in the ’90s, everybody had that same mentality. If you made records with Dance Mania, you didn’t have to go anywhere else. Ray wouldn’t dictate to you how the record should sound. He wouldn’t sit up there and try to tell you this or that. It was total creative freedom over there.

A: What enabled Dance Mania to give its artists that kind of creative freedom? Was that all Ray?

P: Two things: Ray never depended on the label as a source of income.

A: Right, he had the store and the distribution.

P: The distribution was the big one, but he had two retail stores. The retail store I worked in in ’94 – at first I was working there five days a week, 12 hours a day. And, hey man, this was the before the internet – it was very popular. Very good location. During the heyday heyday, oh, wow, it was booming. Matter of fact, it was almost like a little mini-mall, they used to rent space out to people inside that place. Yeah, somebody had a beeper shop in there, there was a health food store… Ray’s thing was, he could afford to do this thing without really panicking if a record or two didn’t sell.

A: Getting further into the ’90s, people generally associate Dance Mania with ghetto house. How did that sound come about?

P: It came out of the streets. You had Jammin’ Gerald, Lil’ Louis… I can tell you this: there were people making tracks that you can probably affiliate with it, like Chip-E, but they got away from it. Chip-E’s first record was really raw, hardcore – “tiiime to jack” – and that was musically, creatively influential.

A: And that track came out in, like, ’84 or something, right?

P: Yeah, but you gotta remember, they didn’t call it ghetto house. That was jackin’ house. And then you had Lil’ Louis coming out with the really raw sound, and those things were very influential in certain clubs. Like, the club that Jammin’ Gerald played at was called The Factory, he played there when he was a teenager. It was kinda like a juice bar, no alcohol. When you went to a party there, the music they played was really raw. It wasn’t hip-house. It was really raw tracks people would get into there. If you went to one of Lil’ Louis parties here in the city… He used to throw these huge parties at the Bismarck Hotel, and that’s the kind of stuff he would play. It wasn’t like the Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles stuff. It was like, the breakdowns those guys would mix out of would be the whole record.

A: So when did you guys start playing with those sounds?

P: I approach house music from a musician’s perspective. When I started DJing in 1989, I wanted to play other records than the stuff I was making. That’s when I started embracing it. I was leaning to more stripped down tracks. One day, Ray came in when I was working in the retail shop, and he walked past me, thought about it, then came back and said, “Hey man, you should do some really raw, ghetto-type tracks.” He got the phrase from DJ Funk, who came out with a record called Ghetto Trax. And other retailers used to call them ghetto tracks based on their lyrical content. From there, the term was coined. It all started out in The Factory on the west side, where people were embracing that more than the other styles of house Chicago was making.

A: So, different areas of the city had different styles of house?

P: Oh, for sure. Ghetto house was born in the west side. South side was more Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, more of the jacking house, vocal house, know what I’m saying? The only person from the west side that was a popular DJ at that time was Lil’ Louis, all the other guys like Ron and Frankie, Farley Keith, all those guys were from the south or the north. The ghetto house thing is really raw. Like, really raw. The west side, at one point, was a really rough area of the city. It’s not like that anymore, it kinda flipped. West side is kinda in repair mode. But, at that time, that’s what was coming out of that area, that style of music.

It’s funny, during that period of my life – I grew up in a neighborhood called Beverley on the south side, but I was spending most of my time on the west side, ’cause I was working at Barney’s, doing records with Ray, and I had a lot of friends over there. And the people I was meeting on he west side were almost closer to me than people I’d known for years. There was a different feel. Even though it was a rough area of town… if you went into a barbershop on the west side, everybody was so cordial and friendly, and joking, and laughing. On the south side, people were more skeptical, more worried with how they looked, their fashion, things like that. On the west side, even though people were into fashion heavily and dressed nice, it wasn’t something that would validate you. You could be yourself.

A: Do you think that openness have any effect on the kinds of music people would gravitate to in clubs?

P: I tell you what, on the south side, it was like crabs in a barrel. There was a prima donna attitude. But on the west side, it was like, if you’re hot, then hey, man, get down with us.

P: To me, it was the swing. The swing of them. They had a better swing. They were looser. But they would breathe more. The rhythms… if you think about the rhythms of those tracks, they were more natural. To me, they were more dance floor-friendly.

A: People tend to identify a ghetto house track by the lyrics, which tend to be very raw, very sexy. How important do think the lyrics are to those songs?

P: During that era, the record industry was going through this period of censorship and everybody was rebelling against it. I think at that time it was important for people to prove that they had freedom of speech and could express themselves without being censored. For that time, they were very important. How relevant they are today, I’m not sure, because more so than the lyrics today, it would be all about the overall track. But at that time, I think it was very important.

A: Tell me a bit about Dance Mania’s heyday, through the mid-90s. Were you touring much, playing a lot of gigs?

P: Some guys were doing a lot of stuff. Funk did some things, Gant-Man did a lot things, Paul Johnson did a lot of things. But there were people like myself, and Gerald, and Deeon who didn’t do any traveling like that. I kinda got out of that because I wanted… I didn’t realize anybody was listening, to be honest with you. I wanted to explore some other styles of music.

A: You worked on a lot of different stuff between your last Dance Mania record in ’97 and – actually, I’m speaking to you from Toronto, and I know you did a record with k-os, which I thought was interesting. He was a big deal up here.

P: Yeah, I worked with him right before he blew up, so to speak. We did a record called “Take You There.”

A: What other stuff were you working on between that last record for Dance Mania and the stuff you recently put out on Deep Moves?

P: At the tail end of ’94, I did a remix for Janet Jackson that was very popular, went gold. In ’95, I did a record for this group I was in called Love Tribe called “Stand Up” on A&M Records that won two ASCAP awards. And I thought, “I wanna do more R&B stuff.” I met John Salley, and he was managing k-os and Tony Rich at the time. I was leaving to do a record for Tony Gwynn, the baseball player, Hall of Fame baseball player. What happened was, Kevin Irving, who I toured with in Club Noveau, was constantly trying to get me to move out to California. I got back to Chicago, and he found another opportunity for me to do a publishing deal at Chrysalis Music. But I was too late turning in my catalogue of songs, and the people handling the publishing situation had ended up leaving. One lady went to go work with Jamie Foxx, one lady, Tina Davis, went to go work at Def Jam. We stayed in touch with each other all through her Def Jam days, and I used to send music over to her, and I would call and ask how she liked it. She told me, “I never got anything,” and I thought, “Wow, she must really not like it, she could just tell me.”

But that wasn’t the case at all. She had a receptionist that used to intervene, and if she heard something she liked, she’d take it home with her. And she was taking my stuff and giving it to other people! So, I get this call out of the blue, and it’s somebody working with one of Tony Gwynn’s artists named Legail Gillespie, who was on Death Row at the time. And they tell me that they really like my music, and I’m like, “What music? I don’t even know you guys, how did you get my stuff?” Eventually they told me, ’cause they didn’t want to get her in trouble. That was ’96, ’97. I did work with Jewell during that time. She wanted me to come and join Death Row but my attorney advised me against it. He witnessed Suge Knight beat up some guy in the studio. That was before anyone knew who Suge Knight was. I was really off into exploring my musical side again. I did a Whitney Houston remix called “Same Script, Different Cast.” I worked with a rapper before I got back to this was a rapper signed to Atlantic named Bump J, out of Chicago.

A: Safe to say you’ve been pretty busy outside of Dance Mania.

P: There was even a time I stopped doing music altogether and started doing real estate. It wasn’t bringing in the kind of money I needed for the lifestyle I wanted for my family. My youngest son was born in 2000, and I just thought I can’t be selfish and keep doing the music if it’s not gonna bring in a good income.

A: That’s about the same time Dance Mania closed up shop. Can you tell me about the decision to shut things down?

P: Ray and I weren’t in contact a whole lot during that period. But before that, he would tell me, “Before long, people are not gonna want record stores. They’re not gonna have to go to the record store.” I thought he was crazy, like he was losing his mind, going through a mid-life crisis or something. He told me that way before that happened. He predicted it. A lot of ma & pa stores shut down, so his distribution in the city was getting smaller and smaller, and that was that.

A: So, tell me about the decision to re-launch the label.

P: I started a Facebook page in 2009, and that was kinda, like, mind-blowing to me. I started it with one of the alias names I used, Victor Romeo. And when I started it all sorts of people started coming out of the woodwork. Like, “Hey, are you the Victor Romeo that made this record?” And I’m going, “Yeah…” And they would tell a friend, a friend would tell a friend, and before you know it I had all these friends telling me how popular the records were in Europe. I had no knowledge at the time of those records being popular. I kinda just took it at that. Okay, great. I didn’t follow through with anything until Jamie Fry from Deep Moves approached me about releasing the record. He told me the stuff I was doing back then under the Parris Mitchell name is probably more relevant now than it was back then. You had Daft Punk and other people paying homage. I didn’t find out about that Daft Punk “Teachers” record until 2010, I was so far away from the genre.

A: That’s an interesting record because, for me, I was a teenager listening to it and thinking, “I don’t know who any of these people are.” So that was my first exposure to any of the Dance Mania artists.

A: Do you think Jamie is right in thinking the records you put out as Parris Mitchell are more relevant today?

P: People embraced it in places that we didn’t realize, an the youth dictate what’s hot. When we were making music, the fans of that music were kids. Now these kids are in their late 20s and 30s. Back then, we were in our late 20s and 30s. Those kids that were influenced by the music started making it. It’s that whole 20-year cycle thing that happens.

A: Can you expand on that?

P: I believe everything comes back around after awhile. In the ’90s you had people focusing on the retro fashion of the bell-bottoms and that was popular in the ’70s, ’60s. At one point in time in the ’80s you had people wearing skinny ties like people used to do in the ’50s. So, it’s like a 20 or so year cycle in fashion and music. It comes back with a twist to it each time.

A: Sure. There are a lot of younger artists – Nina Kraviz, Bok Bok – who’ve remixed you. What do you think it is about the tunes that resonates with them?

P: It was different. It didn’t seem contrived. It seemed real natural. If you hear a lot of the other house stuff – and there are some really good records – some of it sounds really contrived. Like they’re intentionally going after the market. “Hey, we’ve gotta do a hip-house record that sounds like that one so we can get on the radio.” With this stuff, it was like, “Shit, nobody’s gonna play it on the radio anyway. It was just raw and natural. I saw something on the internet the other day, it was a video of a festival, and nobody was dancing, everyone was just sitting on the grass, watching the DJ play. One guy got up and started dancing, having a ball, and because he was doing what he felt everybody joined in. Next thing you know it was a party. I think if you be yourself and if you’re natural, people will notice that and feel the integrity in whatever it is you’re doing and who you are. People will appreciate that. You can fool people sometimes, but people will hear that. People appreciate authenticity. With ghetto house, we weren’t trying to make hip-house records or records you could play on the radio.

A: I know Deeon has said in interviews before that he wasn’t necessarily trying to make really raw, sparse tracks, that was just the sound he could get out of the equipment he had – like, all he had was a 707 and a sampler or whatever, so that’s why the tracks sound the way they do. What do you think about younger artists who have the technology to make really clean sounding records but process their tracks to make them sound lo-fi, adding tape hiss or whatever?

P: I think it’s great. As long as that’s who they are naturally. Of course, if someone is intentionally trying to go after that, you can sometimes feel if it’s not really sincere, if it’s a little contrived. When I was making those ghetto house tracks, like a dummy I sold my 909, I sold my 303, the only thing I had was an MPC-60. And I bought myself a Casio drum machine. Most of my ghetto tracks came out of there with a MuTron phaser pedal. Funk had a 303, we used his. We were limited on gear, that’s what it was. The record I did on 2-inch tape for Parris Mitchell Project, that was nothing but a [E-mu] SP-1200 and a Casio. I think the keyboard was a CZ-1.

A: Do you think it’s a good thing for artists to be limited? Do you think it makes you more creative?

P: I think if you lack discipline… Even if you do a raw track, you still should understand arrangement. If you’re gonna do dance music, it’s very important to be a DJ. So, when I started DJing, that gave me that extra edge. It’s almost impossible to do dance music if you don’t have an understanding of DJing. Whatever you’re gonna do, be sincere about it.

A: Were you involved in picking out the tracklist for the Hardcore Traxx compilation?

P: No, Strut and K7 had a group of DJs pick the tracks they thought would be great to appear on the compilation. For the most part, I think they got a great deal of the good, rare things that people want to hear from Dance Mania.

A: Any tracks you really wish could have been on there?

P: No, I’m pretty much happy with it the way it is.

A: It seems like Chicago, maybe more than any other city in the world, creates so much important dance music. We’re over 30 years deep now of constant innovation coming out of Chicago, from the beginnings of house right through to footwork and bop. What do you think it is about Chicago that enables people to create all this music?

P: Man, it gets fuckin’ cold in the wintertime. Seriously, that started way back in the blues era. Just like New York. No different than New York. In my opinion, New York is the reason we have house music. New York created the sound of house music. We took it electronic. I don’t believe house music came from Chicago. I’m talking about hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of disco records. Even records that right now, today, people go, “I’ve never heard that.” They were pressing records up, man, and sometimes they didn’t have proper distribution on them so the records would kinda just sit places. So maybe a couple hundred, a thousand of them would get out. They weren’t considered classics, but they’re really good records.

It’s the same thing. You got quarter-note kicks, four on the floor – boom, boom, boom, boom. That was the basis of house music, right there. I think the Disco Demolition was the birth of house music. It ended one thing, but it started something else.

A: That’s a nice way of looking at it. The last thing I want to ask you about is the stuff you’ve put out recently on Deep Moves. The first thing they released was a re-issue, but you released some brand new stuff last February. What made you come back to making house tracks after such a long hiatus?

P: It was Jamie Fry. He got me back into it, telling me about how much people liked the music.

A: Did you have a hard time getting back into the swing of making a house tune, or was it just like riding a bike?

P: Well, to tell you the truth, I never stopped dabbling, I just wasn’t releasing anything.

A: I’ve got three quick questions for you – just answer whatever comes to mind. First one: what’s your all-time favourite Chicago track?

P: So many of them. I gotta say “Promised Land,” Joe Smooth.

A: You’re playing a party and the energy’s dipping a bit. What do you play?

P: DJ Funk’s “Work It.” The remix.

A: Last question: what’s your favourite sound?

P: Gotta be two of them: 808 kick and a nice clap.

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