The Rise, Fall & Rise of Chicago’s Dance Mania Records

DJ Funk Dance Mania

House music took root in Chicago in the ’80s thanks to a perfect storm of innovative producers, forward-thinking clubs and indie labels with the cajones to document the pulse of the burgeoning scene. Disco, soul and R&B informed the foundation of the house that Jack built, but a rawer sound evolved in the Windy City, one that was tough-as-nails and even a bit bawdy. Dance Mania Records accidentally stepped on the live wire that would come to be known as ghetto house and set off a shock wave that’s still being felt all these years later.

Launched in 1985 by Duane Buford and Jesse Saunders, who was fresh off his success with the genre-shaping track “On & On,” for the release of “What’s That” by The Browns, Dance Mania was resurrected a year later by local music man Ray Barney for the release of Buford’s Hardcore Jazz EP. Since Barney didn’t have a label name, Duane suggested that he simply take the name Dance Mania and use it ongoing. Saunders never used the name again after that and was not involved in Barney’s operation.

Dance Mania’s signature was rough, tough and street-smart. During the label’s 15-year run, Barney’s imprint released an onslaught of bristling tracks by DJ Funk, Paul Johnson, Robert Armani and too many others to mention. As the Midwest’s underground rave scene took off in the ’90s with parties like Further attracting thousands of ravers, the audience for Dance Mania’s rawness expanded beyond its wildest dreams.

In the same way the stars aligned for Dance Mania to take shape, a similar string of circumstances — the massive shrinkage of music sales, file sharing and changing musical preferences — the label closed up shop. But in its dormancy the label’s records never lost their intensity and inadvertently sowed the seeds of juke and footwork.

Fortunately, Dance Mania has kicked back into full gear, now releasing small runs of underground records that remain true to their trademark sound. To commemorate the label’s vast history, Strut Records have compiled Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-1997, a whopping two-disc collection celebrating the label’s catalog. According to Ray Barney and Paris Mitchell (who recorded under the alias Victor Romeo), despite having released influential records and having perennial cult status, they still feel like they haven’t quite made it yet.

Let’s go back to 1986 when Dance Mania started. What was the local music scene like, and why did you want to run a label? What led you both to believe that you could make a go of it?
Ray Barney: We used to service a lot of DJs in the city through Barney’s, and I noticed that they were buying house music — [from labels such as] Trax, DJ International — and a lot of tracks they were playing in mixes. At all the parties, they were gravitating to house music and what we were selling in Chicago became different to what was selling regionally and nationally. In the early days, people outside of the city were surprised that house was going so good for us — it did better than rap at the time which was hard to believe. When I first started running a label, I was originally going to create two: I already had Bright Star, which I had intended to keep for song-based tracks, and I would then use Dance Mania for the trax. But, after a few releases on Bright Star, I just thought that it would be easier to do everything on Dance Mania. I knew there was a market, and I felt that running a label could work for me because I was already shipping the records, I had staff, people unloading trucks, I had the team in place already. I just wasn’t sure what level it could go at.

“I felt that running a label could work for me because I was already shipping the records, I had staff, people unloading trucks, I had the team in place already.”

Did any labels in particular influence you? Did you have a business plan?!
Barney: I can’t say that any particular label had an influence on Dance Mania. The whole thing was something completely different from anything I had been used to before. Marketing was through mix tapes and CDs and it all happened by word of mouth. As the label grew, I just learned how to find other ways to market what we were doing and I knew it was less traditional than what we had been used to as a distributor. I had a vision for what I wanted to happen with the label but I never actually wrote out a business plan for it.

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Tell us a bit about the sound that Dance Mania would come to be known for. Were there any other labels at the time who were championing such a raw sound?
Parris Mitchell: In my opinion, there weren’t any labels that really focused on that style of house music in particular. Dance Mania was in a field all itself. There were artists like Chip E.’s earlier recordings that were very raw.

What was the division of labor between yourself and Ray?
Mitchell: I was just one of the producers/artist in the early days. My involvement wasn’t then, like it is now. But, nowadays, we split the efforts together dealing with marketing, distribution, and Ray deals with most of the day-to-day monetary aspects.

What was the highest point for both of you? Was there a moment when something great happened and you both said, “We’ve made it!”
Mitchell: We haven’t said that yet! I don’t believe that any real ambitious person ever feels content and complacent. I think that [entering a] comfort zone can at times lead to becoming stagnated.

The label closed after 15 years and too many great releases to mention. Did you have any regrets about anything that happened? What about some of the risqué song titles?
Barney: Looking back, maybe I could have taken more advantage of what was happening and made things better for the artists. But, at the time, we were doing it all locally and we really had no idea of the reach that our music was getting internationally. If there’s a regret, I wish that the artists I was working with had benefited more from what we were doing.

“Seeing the value of Dance Mania releases increase online, it’s definitely a compliment.”

On the risqué lyrics, I grew up in the music industry and I knew how to separate the music I listened to around my children at home with the music I dealt with in my business. I knew a lot of people that took the music home and made it part of home life. With ghetto house, I just knew that you couldn’t censor creativity. You couldn’t put limits on it and I couldn’t give people restrictions. With me, people were free to do what they wanted to do and that’s how the music naturally evolved. So, I have no regrets about that.

Barneys Records

During the label’s hiatus, how did it feel to see many of the releases fetching good money on the Internet?
Barney: That was one of the main reasons that I got back into doing the label again, because I wanted to see the artists benefit from what they had done. Seeing the value of Dance Mania releases increase online, it’s definitely a compliment. I understand supply and demand. But the artists never see a penny from those sales and they should be able to benefit from their records so that’s why I’m trying to reissue some of the biggest releases, work with Strut on the label compilation and start releasing some new music.

Speaking of the web, I read the dancemaniarecords.com belongs to DJ Funk. How did that happen?
Mitchell: Ray owns the label name legally, without a question, since the formation and still does.

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Dance Mania helped sow the seeds for juke and footwork. Did you ever imagine how influential the label’s releases would become?
Mitchell: No. No one really expected anyone outside of the city of Chicago to even care about the music that we released. It’s a real surprise to us all.

The new compilation on Strut has been a long time coming. How did it come together? Were there any tracks you couldn’t include due to space restrictions?
Mitchell: It was meticulously put together by Quinton Scott from Strut/!K7 Records. There were numerous tracks we all would have liked to appear on there. I think with the selection, made by numerous very popular DJs all over the world; it shows a very broad span of the history of the label.

Chrissy Murderbot put together the label’s history for the compilation. How did he get involved in the project?
Mitchell: Chrissy was selected because I believe that he is extremely knowledgeable about the music released throughout the years on Dance Mania. I myself am very impressed. Being an artist on the label for years, from 1987 through 1997, quite a few releases slipped passed me. I believe a few may have even slipped past Ray.

Marshall Jefferson at Last Dance Studio

Marshall Jefferson at Last Dance Studio, 1988

I heard the label has released a few select records. Where do you go next?
Mitchell: We just want to stay as authentic as we possibly can. I don’t believe any real creative soul will be content with following the cookie cutter mentality of mainstream. If you stay true to whom you are, your chances of continuity are greater. As opposed to being contrived and chasing the flavor of the day. We intend to stay true to who we are, and hopefully the people will enjoy what we are doing.

What went through your mind when Daft Punk name-checked Dance Mania in “Teachers”?
Mitchell: As an artist myself, and the fact that they did an interpolation of “Ghetto Shout,” that appeared on my Parris Mitchell Project. I must say that it was very nice indeed to see that someone paid homage to their influences. You see how huge they are now? This is because Daft Punk are truly authentic, and all around extremely creative, and talented people. Talented people don’t fear giving credit where credit is due. They never feel intimidated.

Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-1997 is out now on Strut.

Darren Ressler

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