Making you dance to a beat that's pumping,
Keeping you dancing and the party jumping,
Party people standing around, go and dance, yo,
You ask why, cuz the Rick Rock says so,
And once on the floor, spinnin' and trippin',
And dippin' and boppin', yo, there's no stoppin',
So dance to the rhythm that I'm throwin' down,
This is hip house Chicago style . . .
--from "Dance to the Base," by MC Rick Rock and the Untouchable Posse
He's flying up and down the stairs at the Cubby Bear, this skinny dude everyone knows as Vince, racing from the dressing room to the stage and back again, trying to get the damn show on the road. The first act hasn't arrived yet. Well, it has, but the backup tracks aren't here, and let's face it, these days you can't go on without a show tape.
It's already past midnight, an hour behind schedule, and the crowd's growing rabid. The manager, a burly white knight looking out of place in a ski jacket, is barking up Vince's lean tree to get somebody onstage. Downstairs, it's a zoo. Rick Rock and his patent-leather posse are on the couch making out with a couple of flaxen dolls. A rapper named Inner G, with knuckles full of huge gold rings shaped like dollar signs, is spinning around doing some hip-hop version of calisthenics. And "Krash" Burton, decked out in shimmering rayon and a bolero cap, is busy exercising his jaw muscles, muttering things like "I'm a walking, talking porta-party; everywhere I go, I bring the party with me."
These are Vince Lawrence's kids, his acts, not-quite-postpubescent scraps of raw talent that he produces, and he'd better get them on before the house folds. He does. The show's a smash, and not only on the scale of perspiration and epileptic heaving per square foot of dance floor. The rappers are getting their long-awaited spotlight, uncaged from the Cave in Humboldt Park, where they record for days and nights on end. Coco Cortez is there, B-96's late-night jock, and she promises to take back raving reviews. There's a tour promoter on hand, too, and she recruits Rick Rock (Rickie Bradshaw) for a few midwest dates.
Vince is primed. Back in the dressing room, he's running around slapping high fives, repeating "Yo, dude, man." He's got to duck to avoid head-butting a ceiling pipe, this lank Jimmy Walker look-alike in his stone-washed jeans and black leather jacket. He passes out receipts and announces news of more work, if you can call it that. Seems a record company wants them to put together an all-female version of 2 Live Crew. "We're going to the Shelter to find us some hot girls," he says. "Then we're going to take 'em back to the studio and write some slamming music."
Try to reach Vince the next day at noon, and somebody on the line says, "He's out cold." Come by at six, and he's just getting cranking. He'll be mixing in the studio most of the night.
There're no windows in the Cave, no clocks, no artificial light except for a pink and green neon sculpture in the center of the basement space. A couple of bodies are sprawled out on the futon bed; a kid in a Batman T-shirt and 'do with the ducktail in front is rolling in and out of the shadows on a skateboard; and there's rainwater leaking through the rafters and dripping onto the cement floor in some faint corner.
"Being underground is one reason we picked this place," says Vince, guiding us into the control room, situated on the highest plane of the leaky basement. "You lose track of time--all the time. The world-clock day and night ain't happening down here."
Out of the darkness comes color, "paintings of sound," as Vince says, with 28 synthesizers spitting out hybrids of every kind of music under the black-urban umbrella: house, rap, techno-pop, R & B. Under this tattered roof, between these crusty brick walls, behind the barricade of steel doors and high-tech security sensors (this neighborhood is ruled by the Latin Kings), a mini-Motown is in the works. Any hour of the day sees singers, dancers, instrumentalists, producers streaming in and out of the place. Maybe they're renting recording time, at $750 a day. Maybe they're buying his production expertise, at $3,500 a tune. Or maybe, like Rick Rock, Krash, and Inner G (Gerald Lott), they're signed to receive unlimited studio time and assistance in return for a share in any record contracts.
"Vince has got like his own little record industry in Chicago," says Linda Mensch, a local entertainment attorney. "It's just an amazing number of people he's involved with." Not bad for a 26-year-old. Marvin Gleicher, president of Smash Records, an arm of Polygram Records that recently opened here to tap black-urban talent, says of Vince's studio, "I don't know of a better wellspring in town for rap artists. It affords them a quality place to record without having to lay down an exorbitant amount of money."
The studio, not even a year old, is the creation of Vince and Evelyn Camp, who used to play with him in a duet called Bang Orchestra and is now his business partner. Evi, as she prefers to be called, takes care of the nuts and bolts of their production company, playing resident house mother to these rapping bachelors. ("My entire day was trying to get the dryer functioning, fixing the doorbell, and organizing the contracts that the guys mixed in a drawer with their porno mags and hobby cars.") She's a versatile singer-songwriter with Deborah Harry sex appeal, and she's currently negotiating an album deal with Smash. Vince, on the other hand, is content to play producer.
"I don't want to perform onstage," he says. "I don't want to bounce around on a tour bus. I want to do studio work. People ask me what instrument I play, and I go, 'The 24-track recording studio.' I look to find artists that I believe in. I sign them, teach them, develop them, produce them, and then I go out and get them a record deal."
Ask Larry Sherman at Trax Records (one of the early house-music labels) who originated the "house" phenomenon, and he'll tell you Vince Lawrence. "The real deal why there's such a thing as house music is because two young black kids brought me some material they didn't have any money for, and told me it would sell a lot of records. I pressed the records, and they were right." The kids were Vince and singer Jesse Saunders, and their record sold several thousand copies.
Vince and Jesse were high school pals from the south side who came upon the music by accident. What they were really hoping to do, says Vince, was get laid. In the early 80s they were renting out banquet houses and throwing dance parties every weekend for their classmates, a sure way to meet girls. Spinning old disco tunes from the 70s, they discovered they could re-create the sounds on high-tech drum machines and sequencers, making unique ghetto hybrids that would attract people to their parties.
House music, most recall, got its name from a south-side club called the Warehouse, where DJ Frankie Knuckles was doing a similar thing, altering and remixing disco music right on his console. But it was Vince and his friends who were making records. The original pair soon expanded to three, with Duane Buford, today an independent producer working out of Vince's basement, playing keyboards. The trio paid Sherman $300 to press their first 12-inch single, called "On and On," recorded on a four-track cassette deck and etched on a cheap lacquer disc. Blasting it at their parties and taking it on blitzkriegs to underground record stores, they brought in the cash they needed to make more records.
Vince carted boxes of their third record, "Funk You Up," on commando raids to Detroit and New York, helping sell more than 30,000 copies. "First thing," he says, "I'd get a hotel, open the phone book, call until I'd find a store that I would buy records from. I'd go to these stores, let them play the fuck out of it, and it would sell itself. By the time Jesse and Duane arrived in New York, I had two hotel suites. I had girls. I could go to any club in town and get in with no problem to see a DJ. I'm like, 'Dudes, I've got an exclusive on this whole town. This is my town.'"
The stage was set for "Love Can't Turn Around," house music's first big hit, sung by Darryl Pandy and written by Vince and a host of musicians, including DJ-turned-producer Farley Funk. Had there been a royalty check he might have retired to Tahiti right then and there, but house artists at the time were getting reamed. Kids from the projects were jumping at deals that stole all their publishing rights. They were also being accused--sometimes rightly--of selling their masters to more than one label and ripping off old tunes. In 1989 MCA Records claimed copyright infringement in the case of "Love Can't Turn Around" and grabbed the money, although Linda Mensch insists the artists were blameless. "They filed a lawsuit [against MCA], but they didn't have the money to pursue it," she says.
Vince's only major record contract was also a disappointment. He was signed by Geffen Records in 1986 to cut an album with Evi, whom he'd met during a recording session at the north-side Chicago Trax Recording. While their single, "Sample That," sold more than 60,000 copies and landed top-ten on the Billboard dance charts, the album flopped. Marvin Gleicher, who worked at Geffen at the time, recalls, "The direction that Geffen wanted Vince to go in was more mass appeal than the experimental types of industrial and house music that he was making, and the result was an album that sounded like it was manufactured as pop."
The album might have been a smash if released today, what with suburban housewives rapping about dishwashing on Good Morning America and every Tom, Dick, and Madonna laying down dance tracks. Maybe that's why record companies are now more adamant than ever that Vince water down his colors. "Vince's dance music is a little too alternative for my tastes," says Wayne Williams, director of A&R (artists and repertoire) at Jive Records, which has signed one of Vince's more pop-sounding artists, Terry Boston, and is producing hit records by the local rap sensation Mr. Lee. "It's got a European edge, more techno and less soulful. Whenever he sends me tapes, I send it directly to our European office."
Check out the action at the studio: Vince at the microphone piping high weirdness into a synthesizer, creating background tracks for his artists. He's got sound samples from TV shows--"Kirk to Enterprise, Kirk to Enterprise"--digitized and distorted, looped and cut to blend with the beat. "I use whatever sound I can get ahold of to paint my picture," he says. "I don't believe in stealing anyone else's sound or groove, but a drumbeat here, a bang on the wall, a dog barking, a yell down the hallway--who cares where the sound comes from?" He pushes over a guitar stand, and says of the metal crashing against cement: "That's a neat sound. If it fits the song, we'll sample it and use it."
The sound tracks are laid over a constant, hard-driven beat, dominated by thundering bass and drums. "Our music is accented more in Chicago," says Rick Rock, a slight kid with a sheeny crop-top and diamond stud earring who's pounding on the drum machine. "It's harder. It's punchy. We're hungrier here." They call this hip-house, a local blend of rap and house. The lyrics are upbeat, anything but angry, a departure from the 2 Live Crew-style tone that has given black dance music a bad rap. "Most of the hip-house lyrics in Chicago speak about going to the clubs and dancing and having fun," Rick Rock continues. Vince chimes in, "But there's a message too. They're saying, 'Hey, you can have a good time and you don't have to be out there gang-banging.'"
Later Vince gets on the horn to transform the message into money. After a decade in the music business, he's a master at bending ears and cutting deals. Find him on the phone as often as at the controls, pressing the right buttons with a record company A&R man, informing the guy of two--no, three--other labels, real or imagined, that are vying for his artists. Find him digging up numbers on his pocket Atari, numbers for DJs to work over, booking agents to bombard, equipment wholesalers to bargain down, and hot women to set them all up with. ("I've got this zesty Latin chick named Gigi for you," he tells this music writer.) Find him racing to the Fed Ex office just before the 9 PM closing, or to his manager's house at dawn to slip him a tape to take to a meeting that day in New York.
"I could slow down," he says. "And I could probably make more money in the short term renting out the studio all the time. But I'm willing to hold out for the big hit. Dude, one of these kids is eventually going to sell a million records. When that happens, I'm going to cash in."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.