Though he remains a revered producer and a regular presence on the international DJ circuit, Parris Mitchell’s lofty reputation stems from his work with Dance Mania, one of the most influential labels in the genesis of house music. After playing in various bands around Chicago in the late ’70s, Mitchell witnessed the decline of disco and the birth of house firsthand, attending the now-legendary parties at The Warehouse, the fabled club opened by Frankie Knuckles where the genre was conceived, named, and brought to life by DJs, producers and dancers searching for a new sound.
Inspired by the new forms and rhythms he was hearing in Chicago, Mitchell began to experiment with drum machines and samplers, producing boldly original tracks that eventually found their way into the hands of Ray Barney, head of Dance Mania Records. After finding some success with 1987’s soulful “You Can’t Fight My Love”, issued on Barney’s side-label Bright Star, Mitchell began a long and prolific period in his career that saw a transformation in style, as he progressively released a series of defining records that pioneered a raw, stripped-back and overtly sexual sub-genre known as ghetto house.
Fast, dirty, and populated by explicit vocal cuts, improvised synth lines and blunt-force rhythms, ghetto house was deliberately rough around the edges: tracks were sometimes thrown together in a matter of hours, spontaneous jams laid down on tape and released a week later. The rawness of the sound captured the imagination of house fans who weren’t excited by the more smoother, more palatable variations of house that drew from jazz, soul and disco. With Parris Mitchell’s help, Dance Mania pushed ghetto house forward while continuously exploring other sounds and styles. Operating well into the ’00s and beyond, they’ve become one of the most respected labels in house music’s history, a name synonymous with authenticity, groove and raw talent.
Parris Mitchell remains as productive as ever. His latest release, “Feel My Butterfly”, sees him working alongside one of contemporary house music’s most notable producers to produce an irresistible fusion of fizzing acid synth lines and ghostly spoken word, riding that unmistakable ghetto house groove. After the man himself dropped in to grace us with an exclusive mix, we sat down with Parris to hear about the new release, his approach to production, and the history of Dance Mania.
Thanks for sharing this mix with us. Can you tell us something about the thoughts and process behind it?
Well, it was 50% random selections, with the other 50% having the thought of energy, funky rhythm patterns, and authentically raw tracks.
What have you been up to over the last year – any particular shows that have stood out for you as highlights?
Honestly, I’ve been playing my guitar a lot lately. I notice playing my guitar, running scales and rhythm patterns keeps my creativity flowin’, and my ear keen – for all types and styles of music. It’s my creative roots, so I need it. Selecting tracks, randomly, is similar to a musician’s jam session to me. Exercising all of my creative attributes is like preparing myself for an impromptu, spontaneous jam session.
“Berghain/Panorama Bar is undoubtedly the biggest bang to play. Creativity flows over there into the atmosphere filled with willing souls to accept it.”
How would you compare the music you’re playing in 2019 to the tunes you spun when you started DJing? How has your approach developed since you started out?
Wow! Okay, I started playing in 1989, late bloomer, hobbyist DJ, not an intentional career choice, just something I enjoyed doing in my spare time. So I actually started mixing early rap, from Eric B. & Rakim, East coast, to West coast AMG, mixed with James Brown beats. My cousin, who actually was a DJ for years before ’89, suggested I stick to the genre I’m known for.
The genre I started out in 1989 playing has changed. The only thing that has changed in the gear itself is the medium the music comes from. 1989 it was vinyl, cassette, analogue tape. Now it’s USB and hard drives, that’s mostly what has changed for me. My approach in selecting music while playing is the same. Become connected with the audience, that will in turn be receptive to my creative flow. I like to diversify.
Are you strictly vinyl-only, or have you incorporated digital gear into your performances?
It’s all digital for me. I don’t use a computer while playing. I never learned Serato or any other computer software to incorporate into my sets. I don’t want to learn them either. USB is the only digital device I have incorporated, besides the actual digital decks.
We heard about your upcoming release with Nina Kraviz – how did you two link up?
Yes – it’s titled “Feel My Butterfly”. It’s a single, with a remix pack, releasing on the Dance Mania/Snatch! Raw imprint. I did some records on Deep Moves, then Jamie Fry, who was running the label suggested we meet. Nina was here in the states and we arranged to record while she was in town.
Tell us about the new tracks – how would you describe them? What were you aiming for when you produced the EP, what inspired you?
Nina recorded her vocals in Chicago to a basic rhythm, intended for a rhythmic purpose only. We were limited on time, and we wanted to freshly collaborate, as opposed to me or her having any previous conceptions. It was an unrestricted session. Nina laid down some great vocal performances. Our aim was to be sincerely creative, while still holding on to our musical integrity, which is what I feel Nina and I have in common.
Inspiration for me was being able to record with Nina, because her beautiful spirit reflects in her art. I’d like to believe my spirit translates in my art, in a positive way also.
“It was an unrestricted session. Our aim was to be sincerely creative, while still holding on to our musical integrity, which is what I feel Nina and I have in common.”
What equipment did you use to produce the new release, and how does it compare to the set-up you would have used to record early Dance Mania releases like “All Night Long”?
If we’re talking “All Night Long”, for an example, I recorded that on 2” analogue 24 track tape, with all analogue gear. The new release was recorded with a Roland TB303, Casio RZ1, Akai MPC – X, and the DAW was Logic.
How do you feel your style as a producer and musician has evolved since your first releases – do you feel like you’re still searching for the same sound and groove?
When you say first releases, that could stretch back to 1980. I was a guitar player/keyboardist for a band. We played RnB, Disco, and Punk. So much has changed at different phases of my life creatively. I pull from all those places that I was fortunate enough to have been a part of.
The 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s are undoubtedly the three best eras of music. I combine at will from all my influences in music, from these eras, and even before… I never search for a groove. That could be perceived as contrived. At least searching for a groove would feel contrived, and ultimately feel unnatural, even if it’s sonically great, it would feel unnatural.
I do search for sounds and ways to use them. The best thing creatively I do is to start by allowing it to flow. The experience comes with the discipline of how to apply it to relate to the masses all at once, or as many people you can touch in some kind of way…
Almost thirty years has passed since Dance Mania was founded, and there’s no doubt it’s had a significant influence on modern house music. Are there any contemporary artists that you feel are still ‘carrying the torch’, so to speak?
Absolutely! I could go on and on about all the homage and influences I hear in music from Dance Mania. It’s so many that I like, it would take a long while to list. Definitely some funky cats out.
The story of Dance Mania is already well documented, but are there any particularly fascinating stories or anecdotes from the early years that you can share with us? Any lightbulb moments that made you feel like you were on to something special?
My lightbulb moment was first walking in the humongous operation that Barney’s wholesale was running in the music industry in 1987. Just this little small indie label operating as underdogs in the whole Chicago House scene during that era.
“What people hear is a first take, no sequencer on the keyboard strings, played live. We released a jam session, like James Brown did with a live band.”
Another was recording the collaboration with DJ Funk. I would compare this to an impromptu jam session. The record wasn’t planned – the jam session was planned, but not the creative part, that was spontaneous. What people hear is a first take, no sequencer on the keyboard strings, played live. No lyrics written down, drums programmed and arranged while all simultaneously doing vocals and queuing each other for breaks and changes. We released a jam session, like James Brown did with a live band.
Finally, can you select two tracks: one all-time classic, and something our readers may not have heard?
“E2 – E4” by Manuel Göttsching and Eric Martin’s “If U Ride N My Truck (Steady Rock Remix).”