A look back at one of the most influential dance music labels of all time through two of its key players.
Teenagers in Chicago whilst founding fathers of House music such as Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk were in their prime’s, it was inevitable that Tyree Cooper and Parris Mitchell would follow in their paths. A student at several music schools in the city, Mitchell would press his first record at 16 – going on to earn radio play in a series of short-lived bands, before hitting a lull in his career around 1986. He’d be helped out of his rut after meeting local record store owner Ray Barney, who put out his first House record – ‘You Can’t Find My Love’, under his alias Victor Romeo. After Barney later took the reins of Dance Mania, Mitchell was lined up to drop a series of raw and potty mouthed club tracks that would go on to herald the genesis of what soon became known as ‘Ghetto House’. The highly sexualised, insatiably danceable sound would become Mitchell’s trademark – with his classic tracks reissued and sampled countless times as the years went by.
Cooper meanwhile would get his break through dropping a demo tape at the behest of Vince Lawrence from former Dance Mania head Jesse Saunders’ Jesse’s Gang band. This would lead to him signing to popular underground label DJ International – on which he released a string of early day anthems, with late 80’s tracks such as ‘Let’s Get Hyped’ and ‘Let The Music Take Control’ bringing about the dawn of the Hip-Hop, Acid and House fusing hybrid of Hip-House. After overseas success (including an appearance on Top of the Pops), he’d eventually grow disillusioned with DJ International – and in the mid 90’s he landed on Dance Mania, where he would join Mitchell in driving the label through a golden age. With Cooper continuing to churn out tracks into the present day, his influence endures – a fact evidenced by the appearance of his chugging anthem ‘Nuthin Wrong’ on Ben Klock’s acclaimed ‘Berghain 04’ mix back in 2010.
Now positioned at the forefront of Dance Mania’s recent renaissance, the pair are living, breathing historical figures that refuse to rest on their laurels. Ahead of their set in fabric’s Room 2 alongside Bodyjack and Bok Bok this Friday 20th March, we got the two to reminisce on how the label became one of the most iconic imprints of all time…
Parris Mitchell: What’s poppin?
Tyree Cooper: I’m just in Amsterdam having fun. You know what I’m saying. Where do you wanna start? At the beginning? About how you taught me to play keyboards and shit?
P: How about we start with when you taught me to walk the tightrope? (laughs)
T: (laughs and sings classic ‘circus’ piano theme)
P: How about we start back when I used to try and convince you to come to Dance Mania –
T: But I wasn’t trying to hear you?
P: Yeah you wasn’t trying to hear me.
T: Yeah there was a time when I wasn’t trying to hear you – I wasn’t fucking with Larry (Sherman founder of Trax) either, but Rocky (Jones, founder of DJ International Records) was cool – at least I thought I was having a good time. Ray (Barney, head of Dance Mania) was much cooler though. When I used to work at Quantum Distributors I used to sell records to Ray, and he would always clown on me and shit, ‘Tyree man your sister can’t sing’. Just some funny shit like that. Me and him were always cool, I don’t know why I didn’t go to his label straight away.
P: Interesting. What made you actually decide to go there when you did?
T: My boy Harry ‘The Blade’ B. He said Ray was looking for some tracks and I was like, ‘really?’. What happened was I’d asked Ray if he’d distribute my label, and he said yeah. He sold about a 1,000 copies I think. After that in about ‘94 or ‘95, I gave him CD’s with some tracks and asked if he wanted to release it and he said, ‘yeah as long as it sells!’
I knew I was done with DJ International, I can tell you that much – I was done, I didn’t want nothing to do with them. I knew I wasn’t gonna fuck with Traxx either, so Ray was it. It worked out so much sweeter.
What made you start fucking with Ray?
P: Oh shit man. Well I had a meeting with Rocky Jones back in ‘85, then I had another meeting with Larry Sherman the next year or so, and I decided that if those were the only options for me releasing a House record, I was not gonna release one. Then Vince Lawrence and Dane Stewart – my partner at the time, introduced me to Ray. He took the deal that Larry tried to screw me around on and took care of the whole entire bill for the studio, and was really fair to me. That’s when I realised there was no point going anywhere else because Ray was a very fair businessman.
T: Yeah, both of us equally dropped some nice shit on Dance Mania. You know like, (sings the title) ‘Love Will Find A Way’, that kind of shit. As compared to ‘Nuthin’ Wrong’. I mean we dropped some heat, as did everybody else that dropped some heat on that motherfucker too. How did you go from ‘Love Will Find A Way’ to ‘Feel My Motherfuckin’ Bass’ type of tracks? (laughs) What did you think about that transitional period?
P: It was real natural, because my cousin Jesse Davis in Detroit – I was hanging out with him back in ‘89 and we spent a lot of time DJ’ing. Once I started really getting into the art of DJ’ing it was like a natural transition, because I really started to appreciate the rawer stuff and what it does to the dancefloor and then because I knew how effective it was playing that stuff, I started to produce it myself. At first I was making records from a musician’s perspective, but then I got to the other side of it and I was able to incorporate the fact that I understood how to work the dancefloor better.
T: Ok, cos it went from like House to Ghetto – like ‘Ragtime’ to DJ Funk? (laughs) I had to get my head around making tracks again, because I thought that as a DJ you’re supposed to progress not digress. I felt like when the kids were doing Ghetto stuff, I’d already done that ten years before at a slower tempo. Once I got my head around it, it was like – ‘okay, I can do this’. Just getting silly with it – not facetious, but like silly creative with the hooks. It gave you a lot of freedom to say what the fuck you wanted to say on the record and not be constrained the way say Rocky or Larry had you – ‘you can’t curse on the record, you can’t do that on the record, you can’t say that on the record’. Ray just gave you total freedom and I appreciated that coming from a brother who’s in a class all by himself – at least by my standards.
P: Yeah Ray actually encouraged you to do you. He would never dictate how it should be like. Matterfact, when you turned in your DAT’s or your quarter inch reel, he wouldn’t even listen to it – he’d just send them off to be pressed!
T: Yeah exactly. You tell me what A&R would do that? There’s none – even as people are reading this article, there’s people saying: ‘I can do that’. No you can’t! You lying motherfucker… Ray did that. That’s 100% trust. What he did say was that if your shit can’t sell then he can’t fuck with you. What A&R or record company is gonna tell you that off the bat?
He gave me a jump off when I was coming back in the music industry from that whole DJ International period, cos I didn’t know who to talk to, who to trust.
You think he should have done a tour in the 90’s or is it better to do the tour now?
P: No, I think the reason why Dance Mania became such a sought after label was because we weren’t doing it to make as much money as we could or to become superstars. We did it because we loved the music – and I think that came across to the people who really appreciated it, they could see that we really sacrificed ourselves for the music. I think because its so organic and it wasn’t contrived at all, people like you and we all right now still have a career.
T: For sure. You know I used to tell Ray in the 90’s – cos Cajual was having tours, Strictly Rhythm was having tours, that we should have a tour so Ray could represent what he was doing. I guess though its like you said and its better that it didn’t happen, cos maturity needs to set in… Not that any one of those cats was immature or some shit like that. Its just that there was a whole lot of good shit coming out there, I remember back in the day out of three hours in a night, an hour and a half would be Dance Mania. I played a lot of Dance Mania, it was just Ghetto music…
P: It was music for – to pardon the term, ‘people with lower morals’ (both laugh)
T: I wouldn’t say lower morals, but if you lived in the hood you had a certain mentality – you listen to music in a certain way, you got kids growing up, life is fast, shit is fast. You know, Ghetto life man – Ghetto life ain’t slow…
P: It was definitely fun. I was kidding about lower morals, but it was all about being uninhibited…
T: Exactly, that shit was live as hell…
P: And it was for people who didn’t want to follow the status quo! I tell people that right now, the best way you can find success is by doing what you truly love to do – be yourself. The easiest person to be is yourself…
T: Copying motherfuckers ain’t right.
P: Copying a style or a sound – the flavour of the month, is always gonna mess up. With being yourself you’ve got a chance to succeed or fail – there is no grey area. Either people are gonna love you or they’re gonna hate you.
T: With Dance Mania it was always no rules: Fuck that and do what you wanna do. The sky was the limit – I mean Deeon, Slugo, Milton, Waxmaster, Paul, Eric Martin, Corky – you know what I’m saying? All kinds of motherfuckers came through there!
P: Even guys people wouldn’t think of like DJ Rush
T: Yeah, Steve Poindexter and shit. Ain’t too many A&R’s on the planet who gonna give you that kind of love, who instead of sitting you down and trying to control you and guide you, will just let you be motherfucking creative…
Tyree Cooper and Parris Mitchell play alongside Bodyjack and special guest Bok Bok in fabric Room 2 this Friday 20th March. Buy tickets here.
Interview: Christian Murphy