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This Old Chicago House: EDM's Family Roots

A fan of soul and disco, Nemiah Mitchell, Jr. (left) let the taste of his son, Vince Lawrence, shape the output of his record labels Mitchbal and Chicago Connection.
Courtesy of the artist
A fan of soul and disco, Nemiah Mitchell, Jr. (left) let the taste of his son, Vince Lawrence, shape the output of his record labels Mitchbal and Chicago Connection.

There's no mistaking the Year Zero quality of early Chicago house music from the mid-'80s. The product of youthful ambition, cheap gear, heady dance floors and a good dollop of camp (listen to The It's "Donnie," from 1986, if you don't believe me), Chicago house sounded utterly alien in an era when R&B stars largely tried sounding like Prince or one of the Jacksons — Michael or Freddie — and "dance music" meant the clanging, cavernous mixes of Shep Pettibone and Arthur Baker, or the icy fantasias of Hi-NRGand British synth-pop. Reducing newfangled electronics to their absolute simplest and driest, early house worked on an unaccented, straight-four thump, an implicit bird-flip in the general direction of anyone who'd ever believed the phrase "disco sucks."

Jerome Derradji.
Kylie Alyssa Kinsolving / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Jerome Derradji.

Early Chicago house blossomed rather quickly once its basic format was in place — lots of inexpensive drum machines and synths, off-the-cuff vocals, and two-finger keyboard riffs, with feel mattering more than precision. But it too underwent an evolution, an early training ground that can now be heard for the first time on the new three-CD box set, 122 BPM: The Birth of House Music, which Still Music releases on July 9. Compiled by French-born Chicago DJ Jerome Derradji, 122 BPM chronicles the output of twin Chicago imprints Mitchbal Records and Chicago Connection, the former of which put out house records before Trax Records, long cemented as the preeminent Chicago house label (and thought of as having come first). At a moment when house music has become global pop's lingua franca, it's a major historical coup.

Two generations working together, in the same family, to create something they didn't know they were creating.

Mitchbal Records was founded in the late '70s, and operated by Nemiah Mitchell, Jr. and David Baldwin (Mitch + Bal). They concentrated on funk and soul. That changed in the early '80s, at the prompting of Mitchell's teenage son, Vince Lawrence, and his friend Jesse Saunders, who were going out to local clubs and hearing DJs like Ron Hardy (at the Music Box) and Frankie Knuckles (at the Warehouse). Hardy and Knuckles' styles and tastes (lots of Italian disco imports, British synth-pop, old Philadelphia International classics, and a drum machine, plugged into the board, running beneath it all) would eventually make up Chicago house's foundation. Lawrence convinced Mitchell to cock an ear to the new style, and in 1983 father and son collaborated on an electro record called "(I Like to Do It In) Fast Cars," by Z-Factor. Soon Saunders joined them for a single called "Fantasy." (Both appear on 122 BPM.)

In 1984, Saunders, on his own Jes' Say label, put out "On and On" — widely regarded as the first-ever Chicago house record — under his own name. Hence, "Fast Cars" and "Fantasy" are the dance-music equivalent of Elvis Presley's recordings from before his arrival at Sun Records. When house music took off — thanks in part to the pressing plant where Mitchell made his 12-inches starting its own label, called Trax Records — Mitchell spun off Chicago Connection exclusively for house records. That label's releases make up the majority of the 122 BPM track list, and stand tall with the era's finest.

They also feel present tense. We're in a dance-music era that looks back with fondness to that one, with lots of current dance records utterly, shamelessly aping early Chicago house. (Three at random: Night Symmetry's "Moon," DMX Krew's "Mustard Parasol," and Alessio Mereu's "Distraught Again.") And, as Jerome Derradji — who, in addition to compiling and producing 122 BPM, also DJ-mixed the set's first disc — told me, DJs are always looking for a great obscurity.

MICHAELANGELO MATOS: Where, chronologically, do Mitchbal and Chicago Connection fall in the Chicago house story?

JEROME DERRADJI: It all starts with Mitchbal. Mitchbal Records is truly the first "house" music label. There's none other. It's really the only label, before Trax, before D.J. International, before everything else, that released 12-inches of music that was a mix of new wave, dance, with electronic instruments and drum machines — and that had a way different sound than anything else at that time that was coming out from Chicago.

We've done a lot of research to make sure that claim is actually true. You're talking about Vince Lawrence and Jesse Saunders going to see Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy when they were 16 years old. Vince was throwing parties and DJing, and then he invited Jesse Saunders to play at his party because Jesse was a better and more popular DJ than he was. Vince let Jesse Saunders DJ so he could focus on making music with Z-Factor. Naturally, Vince ended up inviting Jesse to join Z-Factor and that's where it all started.

The first recording sessions that we've had access to are from Z-Factor back in 1981. They're professional sessions. Even though the kids were not professional musicians back then, the sessions were state of the art. At that time, they were producing and recording house music in established Chicago recording studios. It was really the first time. Nobody else had ever done it before. A lot of the people that were producing house music at the time were doing it in their homes, or they were making edits on tapes. All of that stuff was being made to be played straight in the clubs. It wasn't available commercially.

MM: What's startling about the music on 122 BPM is how present it is as house music. You don't think it's something else on its way to house music. It's house music.

JD: Yes, it is.

MM: Was that a surprise to you when you started to hear the tapes?

JD: Not really because I had a decent knowledge of the catalog. But what was surprising to me was how early it was recorded. The Chicago Connection stuff wasn't that surprising, but the earlier Mitchbal stuff I was really surprised with, because it was a mix of new wave and pop. I thought, "That sounds completely different." You're talking about a label owner that was a fan of soul and disco. When you see Mitch and you're talking about music, that's what he loves most.

What happened in their heads at the time? What made them like it so much that they spent time in the studio making these songs? One of the reasons, they recalled, was that they were trying to put on the record what they heard in the clubs [played by Chicago DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy]. Jesse and Vince were teenagers; they were ahead of the game. They had the stuff they liked, and they liked different stuff. They didn't like the R&B stuff that was played on the radio so much.

Their story is pretty similar to what happened in Detroit with [radio DJ and decisive early techno influence] the Electrifyin' Mojo.

These people were hearing Kraftwerk and all this new wave music, that not a lot of people were producing in Detroit. That entire generation of kids was like, "Let's try it" — but they were doing it their way, with their own backgrounds and their own machines. They were trying to sound like all this stuff that's coming from Europe, with a crazy mix of hip-hop culture and dance culture and DJ culture, and it ends up creating techno in Detroit and house, here, in Chicago. The story of [Detroit's] Derrick May giving Frankie Knuckles a 909 [drum machine]: it's right there, the crossbreeding of influences.

MM: I think this is true of any kind of scene run by young people who want to make their mark: They obviously thought of themselves as artists, without necessarily putting art-school type of baggage on themselves. But at the same time, they weren't necessarily thinking this stuff was going to be important in 20 or 30 years.

JD: Absolutely. When I speak to Vince about Z-Factor, [Lawrence's early band with Jesse Saunders, with four tracks on 122 BPM], he's like, "When I hear this, I feel like you're giving all this importance to [early] drafts. I don't think it's great, because that was my baby steps. That's where I learned. When I go back to it, I don't feel like it's actually that important compared to what I've done after."

MM: Did Mitch have an ear for this stuff, or did he trust his artists?

JD: He was completely involved, all the way. He has a great ear. He was a songwriter, a hands-on person. He was not going to sit in the back and wait for stuff to happen. On "Shake Your Body," he wrote the lyrics. He had his own vision. That's why the stuff is so soulful, because Mitch was a soul songwriter.

When Chip E. came to Mitchbal to get signed and played him "Like This" [eventually released on D.J. International in 1985], Mitch said, "I didn't like it." [laughs] "It was repetitive and boring. I didn't see anything in it." But Chip E. released it and it became a huge house hit. Mitch said, "I regret it, but at the time that's not what I wanted to hear." Mitch was on an alternative path from everybody else in Chicago because he was older than most his artists.

MM: How did you become interested in Chicago house?

JD: I'm from France. I used to be a mod, well into jazz and soul. I used to collect Northern Soul records and go to Northern Soul all-nighters. I had my first DJ gig at 15. I was always drawn by DJ music — it was just not electronic.

A good friend of mine started playing me house music in France almost 20 years ago. He told me, "You may like this: It's kind of what you're listening to, but newer." and it was house music. The first house 12" I bought was Roy Davis Jr.'s "Someday" [1999], on Peacefrog. I also remember listening to Lil Louis's "Blackout" [1998].

I met my wife in Chicago while on vacation 14 years ago. We met at a club, Smartbar. I remember, when I came here in 1998, going to see Roy Davis playing in a club in downtown Chicago. I went to a bunch of clubs, actually. So yeah, I was totally digging it. But I had no knowledge at all of what was from Chicago, what wasn't, who was who, and all that stuff.

At the time, I was actually thinking of moving to London, but I moved to Chicago in 2000 instead. Right away, I started working for Dr. Wax, which was at the time a chain of record stores, buying electronic music for them. What I did, actually, was to import French and European house for them.

MM: What prompted you to start Still Music?

JD: In 2004, I got tired of buying records from people in Europe. I was like, "All these people I know here are making this music, and nobody's really releasing it." Ever since I was 15 years old, I wanted to have a label, so I was coming full circle on a childhood dream. You know, I'm in the middle of it; let's try it and see what happens. In Chicago, where I lived, [and] in Detroit, there was all of this stuff going on. These guys were making records all the time. I remember buying the first Omar-S record because Rick Wilhite called me and said, "You need to listen to this." I ended up giving a deal to Omar-S through Groove Distribution.

I'm a fan of underground stuff, so I thrived by it. And there was all of this underground stuff going on that nobody really cared about. On the other hand, you could see all this stuff coming from Europe and nobody gave a crap about American music. They had no media attention.

What I like about Detroit is that those guys have their stuff together. They know where they come from. They know where their music comes from. Berry Gordy — that's the model for all the guys in Detroit still to this day. That's why they all own their labels, they all produce music, they all release artists, and they'll sell stuff, because they have that Berry Gordy mentality. It works. In Chicago, that never really happened. All these producers made some money with [labels like] Trax, D.J. International, Dance Mania, but rarely started their own imprint.

That's why the story of Mitchbal is so interesting. He comes from that background. Mitch wanted to do a label like Berry Gordy. Mitch was like, "If Berry Gordy did it, I can do it." He was a soul DJ. He had all these soul bands that he was managing. He had the business side set up. He had all these connections. He had access to the radio. But the magic is really Mitch's vision, and Vince saying, "Stop fooling with that music; fool with this instead."

That's the only time it's really happened in Chicago: Two generations working together, in the same family, to create something they didn't know they were creating. But they had a business sense, and that's why Mitchbal was a house label, and why Chicago Connection was a house label.

What Mitch did, basically, was show the kids how to make records, and how to release them, and how to sell them, and how to get them on the radio. All [Lawrence and Saunders'] friends were like, "If they can do it like this, we're going to do it like this."

MM: When did you first meet Vince Lawrence?

JD: Almost four years ago I was working on a project with the people from Trax Records that never came out. We were on the phone and they passed me on to Vince. Vince was like, "You should stop by the studio." I went there and he told me the story of his father's labels, basically. I was like, "We should talk to your dad about putting stuff out again." That's when I started researching Mitchbal and Chicago Connection, about three-and-a-half years ago.

MM: Was it hard to convince Mitchell to do it?

JD: In the beginning, I was mostly talking to Vince. I remember Vince introducing me to his dad. We sat down and I showed him The American Boogie Down [a Derradji-compiled and mixed DJ set from 2008], with rare boogie and disco tracks from the Midwest. The American Boogie Down project gave me the confidence to approach Mitchbal and offer him to do a similar project with his labels. That's why I was trying to connect with these guys that I didn't really know.

I made a proper pitch: "This is how I think it should work." We did a little back and forth for a good year: "Is it interesting? Is it not interesting? Should we do it? Should we not do it?" I remember Vince being like, "Yeah I think you're ready now." We went over it together again, and Mitch said, "Let's try it." It then took a minute to get everything set up. Mitch kept everything super-tight. He owns all the rights, has all the tapes, paperwork, contracts, everything.

MM: Does everybody who's on the box set know they're on the box set?

JD: Some of them do and some of them don't, because there are some people we couldn't even find. The compilation [will be] released around the time when pretty much everybody [involved] is going to be in town for the Chosen Few house picnic, and we can finally talk to them. But not everybody knows about it yet, no.

MM: Does 122 BPM contain everything from Mitchbal and Chicago Connection?

JD: This compilation is just the first chapter of the Mitchbal and Chicago Connection story. There's all the music that he recorded before that never came out — all soul, funk and disco that he never released. There's a lot of really fantastic unreleased house as well. I don't really want to say what it is, because I kind of want to surprise everybody with it, but there's a lot more music. Keep in mind all this stuff was recorded in professional studios. It's all very well preserved.

When I found out about all the unreleased stuff — and I think we have it all by now — the first thing I did was to transfer it.

As a DJ, that's the stuff we're the most excited about. [laughs]. We're crate-diggers. We want to hear all that stuff. We want to play it out. It's kind of our culture.

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Michaelangelo Matos