Music » Music Feature

The return of Dance Mania Records

Twelve years after it folded, the Chicago label that helped birth ghetto house, juke, and footwork music makes a play for the new EDM crowd.

by

comment

Ray Barney has a basement full of old dance records, on shelves that stretch from the floor to the ceiling, but it's not his personal collection—it's leftover inventory from Dance Mania, a Chicago label he ran from 1986 till 2001. Barney and Victor Parris Mitchell (a producer who put out several records on Dance Mania) are relaunching the label, in part because they've learned that while this back stock has been gathering dust, original Dance Mania releases have become highly sought after, especially in Europe. "What I've noticed on Discogs and a lot of other sites, people are selling these records for ridiculous amounts of money," says Mitchell. "These records are in demand, and people are selling them for $100, $200, $300."

Dance Mania was born just as house music was finding its legs internationally, but it's best known for an uncommercial subgenre called ghetto house—raw, lean, and raunchy, it evolved in the late 80s and early 90s, and its natural home was in the club, not on the radio. The label racked up more than 200 releases during its 15-year run, and its best-known artists include beloved footwork producer Traxman (aka Cornelius Ferguson), ghetto-house pioneer DJ Funk (aka Charles Chambers), chart-topping DJ and producer Paul Johnson, and hardstyle techno master Robert Armani. It wasn't a hit-making machine—Barney says its biggest releases sold between 5,000 and 10,000 copies—but its influence was huge. "When you said 'Chicago' in the mid-90s midwest rave scene, you meant that kind of house music that Dance Mania was releasing," says critic Michaelangelo Matos, who wrote at length about Chicago house for the Reader last year and is working on a book on U.S. rave history called The Underground Is Massive. In 1995, when the Midwest Raves mailing list polled its subscribers, the best Chicago DJ winner was Paul Johnson.

Dance Mania's reputation wasn't confined to the States, either. In 1997, when French duo Daft Punk released their debut, Homework, it included the track "Teachers," which riffs on the song "Ghetto Shout Out!!" from a 1995 Mitchell EP on Dance Mania called Project. In it Daft Punk name-drops several artists who released music through the label, including Mitchell. The band even sent Mitchell and "Ghetto Shout Out!!" collaborator Wax Master Homework plaques after the album went gold.Today electronic music has been resurgent on the pop charts for a few years, and interest in house—including the Dance Mania catalog—is surging too. Dance Mania is "huge in clubland right now," says Matos. "That is the label to drop the name of, one of them."

The label's music is also great to drop into a mix—at least according to Steve Mizek, editor of dance-music website Little White Earbuds and founder of the labels Argot and Tasteful Nudes. "If you played a Dance Mania track, it would get people dancing," Mizek says. "People love getting down to music that has just no intention of being nice but is all about having fun, partying, and being real with our desires and what people actually want to do—which is smoke, drink, and have sex."

Barney says Dance Mania closed up shop because music retail was slumping and the audience for house was dwindling; at the same time he shuttered Barney's Records, a retail and distribution business he'd taken over from his father. Matos points out that Chicago's house scene began winding down in the early aughts, in part due to a spike in rave busts, and 9/11 dealt its own blow to nightlife in general. With the possible exception of the slump in record sales, though, none of those factors still holds—and dance music is more popular than it's been in years. Barney and Mitchell hope to release the first two records from the revived Dance Mania in June. The first is a re­issue of Mitchell's Project (the EP with "Ghetto Shout Out!!"), and the second is a new EP from Traxman called West Side Boogie Vol. II. There's no Dance Mania website yet—right now dancemaniarecords​.com belongs to DJ Funk—and Barney and Mitchell have pressed only 1,000 copies of each record. Business seems to be going well, though. "The first release practically sold already," Barney says. "We have more orders than we have records."

Barney, now 55, grew up in the music industry. His father, Willie, founded his record store, originally called Barney's Swing Shop, in 1953, and expanded into distribution in the 60s. When Barney returned to Chicago after graduating from Bradley University in Peoria in 1980, he went to work for his dad, taking over the distro side of the business as well as the store, where he got the chance to interact with ordinary customers. "I used to have DJs coming over buying music all the time, and they started buying this house music," he says. "I was very interested. It's not like I was part of the scene—I wasn't a big partier or anything like that. It started off as strictly business with me, and I just said, 'I may as well jump in.'"

Barney got the idea to start a dance label, and in 1986 he shared that interest with his friend Duane Buford, who played keyboards for house progenitor Jesse Saunders. "He told me he would give me the first track for the record label I was starting," Barney says. When Barney asked Buford to help christen the new label, Buford suggested Dance Mania—the name he and Saunders had attached to "What's That," a 12-inch single they'd released as the Browns in '85. The existence of "What's That" has led many people to assume that Saunders started Dance Mania—in fact Saunders makes that claim himself—but it's not in dispute that Barney took over the name after that Browns release. Dance Mania—or at least Barney's Dance Mania—debuted in '86 with a record from Buford, Hardcore Jazz by Duane & Co. Because the label was a relatively small part of an established business, Barney had a lot of freedom to run it how he liked.

"In the early days I was just interested in putting out music and being fair with people; it wasn't making money or anything," he says. With that attitude, Barney had no trouble taking chances on producers such as Mitchell, whom he'd met in 1987 through Vince Lawrence, a key figure at Larry Sherman's foundational house label, Trax Records; Mitchell had been in a disco group but was unknown in the house scene at the time. Now 49, he'd gotten hooked on dance music in his early teens, when disco was at its peak ("That was my era," he says). He'd had no luck breaking into house, though: when he met Barney, a deal with Trax to release "You Can't Fight My Love," a single he'd recorded as Victor Romeo, had just fallen through. He was about to pull the plug on his dance career, but in '87 Barney issued the record via a resuscitated imprint his father had founded, Bright Star. Soon Mitchell was working for Barney's distro operation too.

Barney also took chances on releases that clashed with the clean style of house that was already transforming pop on several continents, and by the early 90s Dance Mania became known for primitive-sounding, stripped-down music. "That's how guys used to call in and ask for music on Dance Mania—they were saying, 'Gimme some of that ghetto stuff,'" Barney recalls. He's sometimes credited with coining the term "ghetto house," and though he says he didn't—the first time he saw it was on a DJ Funk record—he adopted the name to describe the label's sound.

Mitchell has his own take on the term. "When he started talking about ghetto house to me, my interpretation of 'ghetto' is deprived, like, missing elements," Mitchell says. "My interpretation of that was—well really, I thought he was just tired of paying for studio time, so I just assumed that we were gonna do it really raw. So I just thought 'really raw' when he said that. So we started doing things really raw, and instead of going to studios and paying studio bills, we would do stuff at home in our bedrooms, or in the basement."

Quick and dirty was the rule. "Follow Me Ghetto (Acid)," a track on Mitchell's 1994 Dance Mania LP Life in the Underground, is an unrehearsed jam session with DJ Funk. "He got the drum machines and started programming the beat," Mitchell says, "and I think while he was programming I was working out notes on the keyboard." A 1994 Mitchell EP called Traxx, more commonly known as Explicit Lyrics—its song titles include "Masturbation" and "Whose P___y Is This"—was "75 percent" Barney's idea, Mitchell says. Barney isn't too eager these days to discuss his role in such salacious projects, though—he's got four kids, including 16-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.

Beginning in the mid-90s and continuing through its final days, Dance Mania worked with Gant-Man and Traxman to release early forms of juke and footwork, fast-paced styles that branched off from ghetto house and have since become international phenomena. Critic David Quam, who wrote a detailed overview of juke and footwork music for Spin last year, says the styles were going through a critical development period around the time Barney pulled the plug; most of it happened underground once the scene lost Dance Mania as an incubator.

With his label, record shop, and distribution business gone, Barney seemed content to focus on a life outside music—he worked in computer support and in 2010 began running a health-food store near Kedzie and Roosevelt that his father had started in 1994. But Mitchell wouldn't let Dance Mania go quietly. "When I stepped away, Victor must have called me at least once a month with propositions," Barney says. Of course, interest in the label had yet to blossom as it has over the past few years, and even when it began to grow, Mitchell didn't know about it.

He got clued into Dance Mania's newfound popularity in 2009, when a Berlin label contacted him on Facebook to ask him about Dance Mania. Barney started getting Facebook messages from fans around the world—he still seems perplexed about it, because he says he's never posted anything about the label on his profile. This rising Dance Mania fever was enough to convince him to give it another go.

Rumors that Dance Mania would return had been circulating for a while already—probably because several artists, including DJ Funk, DJ Slugo, and a few other Dance Mania alumni, had begun releasing music using the Dance Mania name in the mid-aughts, sometimes on CD-R. (A quick search at Discogs turns up about a dozen just in the past two or three years.) Barney and Mitchell are still setting the gears of their label in motion: they're drafting a new artist contract, learning how to sell digital music, and trying to figure out what to do about their website.

Given Dance Mania's reputation, plenty of producers are sure to be eager to release music through the label, but for now Barney and Mitchell are sticking with the artists they know from its original run. Traxman, for instance, met Barney on visits to his family record store in the late 80s, and he's remained loyal to the label and to Barney through the years. "Ray Barney was the guy that pretty much got me started on my career," he says. "I'm proud to say that I recorded with this label, and I'm proud to say that I'll still release music on this label."

Add a comment