Parris Mitchell is a dynamic man. The way he tells it, helping to create ghetto house was just a pit stop on a musical workaholic life tour that somehow managed to include hip-hop production for Death Row Records and work with Toronto’s K-Os, who he met through their mutual friend, former NBA player and entertainer, John Salley. In the 16 years since his last release for Dance Mania, Chicago real estate dealings kept the Midwest’s Uncle Luke too busy to notice the rise of his style’s popularity around the world.
It’s been almost fully twenty years since Mitchell defined his ecstatic, pornographic take on dance music with ‘Butter Fly’ and ‘All Night Long’ – the latter so grimy it famously required a hilariously scripted phone message reprimand, functioning as a de facto disclaimer. Today, both tracks can still be found scorching dance floors across continents filled with kids no older than the records themselves, and barely older than the DJ’s themselves in the case of Los Angeles L.I.E.S. wunderkind-of-the-moment Delroy Edwards.
We first spoke with Mitchell about six months ago over Skype, when he was just about to poke his head back into the world of music. But that age old demon, the corrupted audio file, forced us to recreate our conversation playing e-mail tag. As we went back and forth, we started hearing his records played out with eerily increasing frequency. The demands of his ambitious schedule meant that by the time we were finished, Mitchell arrived back on the scene at the peak of a full-blown ghetto house revival. Clearly, he never lost his impeccable sense of timing.
We asked Parris Mitchell about the formative years of ghetto house, the future of Dance Mania, K-Os, John Salley, his return from sabbatical and how to butterfly.
You and Ray Barney are largely credited with the creation of ghetto house. Do you remember how and when it started?
Well, in the spring of 1993, Ray called me to ask me to do something hardcore, and gave me some titles and concepts to work with. I then gathered up a couple of friends to collaborate with, which were Reggie Hall and a very well known DJ in Chicago named Brian Frazier, to produce a record called Xplicit Lyric EP. But we didn’t call it ‘ghetto house’ at that time. That phrase came from Ray some months later, when I was actually managing the retail part of Barney’s Records. He just came in one afternoon and said, ‘Hey, let’s do some ghetto house!’ I do believe that DJ Funk, whom I met at this time, influenced Ray. Funk would come by Barney’s Record shop often, in 1993 and 1994, which was the beginning of the release of those records. So Funk was the first in my opinion to bring it forth in terminology and musical style. But the first ‘ghetto house’ style record I heard was Hula Mahone’s group, The Out Here Brothers. Hula by the way also appeared on my Xplicit Lyric EP in 1993.
What have you been up to since your last Dance Mania release in ’97? I understand you went on to produce other artists outside of the house and techno spectrum. Can you tell us a bit about that period? Was it difficult making the transition from underground dance sounds to more commercial music?
During the interim, I was working with an indie label named M.O.B. Records who had a huge hit with an artist named Casper, who recorded vocals on ‘The Cha Cha Slide’, through my younger brother Kevin Irving, another very well known incredible Chicago talent who recorded under the name Jack N. House and as the lead vocalist for Club Nouveau during the period of 1988 and 1993. I was also working with an artist named Bump J, the first premier authentic rap artist so far here from Chicago. I worked with some artists at Death Row Records. I worked with K-OS, the Canadian artist, through a friend and sports figure named John Salley. I have worked with so many artists. It would take up pages to name.
Making the transition is like going back to my foundation for me. I started as a musician taking music lessons at 12 years old. I was listening to every genre, from rock, folk, classical and disco to R&B, blues and gospel. Also calypso and salsa. So I came in to the genre of house with all of those musical influences and elements already. It’s much different being able to artistically play and mimic the music, knowing theoretically how to construct a piece of music, as opposed to being a DJ. But having a bit of both elements can mean a world of difference doing dance friendly music.
You started off on Dance Mania in 1988 with your housier outfit Victor Romeo, doing ‘I Want Your Love’. Around 1993, there was a shift to put out more of the ghetto house sound, with over 150 releases in the next five years. It seems like there was a huge following. Where did most of the attention come from?
Well, my first release was in 1987 on a label that Willie Barney started, Ray Barney’s father, called Brightstar Records. It was originally a blues and R&B label that Ray released his earlier house records through. The title of the track was ‘You Can’t Fight My Love’.
The history of music, not just house, but blues, rock n roll, rap, etc, has been that undercurrents usually manifest into mainstream at some point, or dictate what’s to come. I think the streets of Chicago is where the attention came from, and from there everyone else just noticed the rawness and realness that the elements of ghetto house, juke and techno was all about. Whereas the commercial house records were more about attempting to appeal to the masses, we in the 1990’s were all about making you dance by any means necessary, and sometimes even make you laugh. Basically have a good time and keep it real.
I mean, lets keep it 100% real. Everybody has said the word ‘shit’ and more. We just took average everyday frivolous conversations and subjects to express ourselves. I mean, if it were the disco age, we probably should have done lyrical content about love and relationships, etc, etc. But the world gets less innocent through the generations and decades. The attention came from the rawness and realness of the lyrical content and beats by people who were not embracing the statuesque.
Can you tell us what set Dance Mania apart from labels like Trax and DJ International at the time, and why you choose to release your music with them?
I never wanted to follow the crowd. I was introduced to Ray Barney at a listening party that Vince Lawrence was having at a studio in Chicago, called Chicago Trax Recording Studio (not to be confused with Trax Records), the studio (not the label) was owned by Reid Hyams. I originally did my first record for Trax Records, but found out very fast that it would be a mistake, so Ray made me a proposition in 1987, and we just kept releasing record after record.
Dance Mania was a place where the underdogs were. I mean, still today in the scheme of things it’s still underground. If it’s creative, not mediocre or typical, then it’s for Dance Mania.
Dance Mania has and always will be for the open minded. So if one thinks inside of a proverbial mental box, Dance Mania is not for that person.
You float so well between musical styles. A lot of artists can only fare well in one genre but your catalogue transitions from more musical house to sleazy booty almost seamlessly. You grew up around guys — like Paul Johnson, DJ Funk, DJ Deeon, and Eric Martin — who also seem to be able to transition seamlessly. What kind of influence did you guys have on each other and each other’s music? A lot of them are still active. Do you see them around?
Well, each and every one of those guys that you named is talented and very creative in their own right. Which means that the streets and or the dance floor would influence most of the things that came out on Dance Mania from each and every one of us. Whatever moved the crowd is all that matters. Not so much borrowing one another’s style.
I spoke with DJ Funk recently. Jammin Gerald and Waxmaster also. Those are the guys that I worked with before I stopped releasing ghetto house records on Dance Mania in 1997. I do believe that it went on for another three years until 2000, releasing records from artist like Deeon, Eric Martin, Traxman, Slugo, Paul Johnson, Robert Armani, Tyree Cooper and a few others. But during 1997 and 2000, I was back and forth to California, and I actually was dabbling in real estate investments in Chicago. So I didn’t even realize the impact my music had made in other parts of the world at that time. If I had known, you would’ve heard more from me in that genre. Seeing that I love all styles and genres as long as it’s good, its kind of fun to be versatile.
Were the Dance Mania artists working out of a centralized studio at the time? Are there any unlikely collaborations that took place that we might be surprised to hear exist?
We worked out of our personal home studios mostly. Which were straight to DAT, or maybe even a multi track ADAT machines at times, but rarely. I did a couple of records in a full 24 track facility, where I had two inch tape and the access to proper outboard gear, pre amps, and microphones. If you have an ear, you will be able to recognize the extreme difference in a home vocal recording, and a professional quality vocal recording. I actually did my entire Parris Mitchell Project at the Chicago Trax Recording Studio. Which included ‘Ghetto Shout Out’, ‘All Night Long’, ‘Bitches and Money’, and ‘Fuckin With The Drums’, which I engineered, mixed and produced myself. But mostly we just jammed out of our home studios.
Yeah, there are some collaborations. Records that were not released that I feel will still work today, because it wasn’t contrived. It was a bit ahead of it’s time.
I’ve heard whispers of massive amounts of unreleased music from the Dance Mania heyday sitting around and collecting dust. Do you think we’ll have the pleasure of hearing it someday soon?
Well, I will put it out there now. Dance Mania is resurrected, and yes, there are releases and reissues coming this year. Spring of 2013.
Reggie Hall does vocals on a number of your tracks. How did you two meet each other? What’s he like to work with?
Reggie and I met one day at a recording studio in Chicago, which was Chicago Trax Recording studio. I think he was in a recording session with Frankie Knuckles, and I was in another recording session down the hall. We lost contact for a few months, then Chicago gave this really cheesy house music award show. He and I met up again there, and decided to try to work together. We both discovered that we have a mutual extreme musical background, and started collaborating together. I started music as a rhythm guitarist, and Reggie was a singer and dancer who also has instrumental abilities and skills, so we both just clicked instantly. Reggie and I always had a great time working, because if he had an idea I already knew it was going to be good and vice versa.
On the album Life In The Underground, tell me about some of the equipment you used. Was there a piece of gear you couldn’t live without? When you released the album in 1994, how was it received locally versus internationally?
Mostly, I used an MPC 60 on a great deal of the Life In The Underground.
Funk had a Juno and an 808 also. We used that on ‘Follow Me Ghetto’ and ‘The Underground’. We just actually did a live performance, one take, on ‘Follow Me Ghetto’. One chance to get it right and jammed out. Mixing the drums as we went along with the knobs on the 808. Recording the keyboards, 303, 808, and vocals all at the same time. It actually was a live performance. On ‘Rubber Jazz Band’, I used an MPC 60 with my Mu Tron lll to phase and tweak it as I was recording it to DAT. I used my MPC on almost everything though, along with the Casio drum box that I used on the Parris Mitchell Project.
Well, I knew that the record was popular here in Chicago, but internationally? I was completely clueless. I mean, like I said, I was doing so many different genres. I wasn’t really paying much attention to one release after I was finished recording it. It was all about the art man.
Who do you feel the true unsung heroes of the Chicago underground are? Which artists or DJs had the largest impact on you both locally and internationally when you were growing up?
Well, here in Chicago, during the 80’s there was a radio show called The Punk Out by a DJ name Herb Kent on the radio station WVON, which played a lot of B-52’s, Italo disco and new wave records. But when I would visit Detroit during the early 80’s, where my DJ cousin Jessie Davis lived, it would be DJs like Dwayne ‘In The Mix’ Bradley and Jeff ‘The Wizard’ Mills. I mean, everybody in Chicago would typically say Ron Hardy, and clubs like the Power Plant, Music Box and Warehouse. But as far as unsung heroes for me, those were the ones that did it for me. Speaking in terms of ghetto house, people would typically say The Factory. But during the 80’s, The Factory with DJs like ‘Quick Mix Claude’ was as house as deep house could get! The Factory still was rawer than other clubs in Chicago though.
What sort of music are you into these days? Is there an artist or label you keep your ear on?
I have a young protégé named Omar Contri, aka Shinoby, based in Italy. He’s extremely talented.
Also I like Jamal, Hieroglyphic Being, here in Chicago. He’s another really great talent as well.
I also really dig the stuff that Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990 are doing. They did a really dope remix of ‘All Night Long’ reissued on Wicked Bass Records.
As far as labels, Deep Moves Records are very versatile and has great ears for hit records. Jamie Fry and label owner Ilario Alicante run the label.
How did your recent string of represses come about and what made your decision to put them out again? Do you also have any new releases on the way?
Well in 2009, Jamie Fry from Deep Moves Records contacted me about reissuing tracks from my Life In The Underground double 12 inch. We talked, and I felt that it was great timing for reissues also, because I just started realizing that my music had an influence on the younger generation of DJs and producers in the underground scene that exists today. Jamie told me, ‘the sounds that you were using then still work today, because they were ahead of the times.’ He was absolutely correct, as I discovered.
Oh yeah, man! I have a new release on Deep Moves Records called Juke Joints Vol. 2 that includes three all new tracks that were a collaboration with Shinoby. The titles are ‘Across My Machine’, ‘Near My Eyes’ and one of my trademark underground style joints called ‘The Track Stars (Millennium Style)’. I’m really proud of this release. We have slated remixes from Nina Kraviz, Tyree Cooper, DJ Cassy, a few others to be announced and myself.
I am constantly creating new music.
Any final words for the readers?
Yes, I know that people really appreciate the integrity in music, thus the reason why Dance Mania was so unique. I will continue to express myself with the utmost of musical integrity that I have done throughout the years. I also would like to thank everyone whom embraced what I have created. It’s pleasantly overwhelming!
Stay tuned for updates of Parris Mitchell on Twitter, https://twitter.com/parrismitchell1