The untold story of the family that helped found house music.
Before Vince Lawrence founded Trax Records, he and his dad founded Mitchbal.
We know DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and labels like Trax Records. Many even know Vince Lawrence, an integral player in the classic imprint’s start. But it wasn’t until French expat and Still Music label owner Jerome Derradji met Lawrence that the world got the full story of Lawrence’s dad, Nemiah Mitchell Jr., and the impact the pair had on the Chicago house-music world.
On 122 BPM—The Birth of House Music, a new triple-disc retrospective for Still Music dropping this month, Derradji connects the dots between Mitchell’s days in the late ’70s, crafting upbeat and soulful dance-floor numbers aimed at the R&B charts and his time A&Ring and recording some of the earliest examples of Chicago house on his label Mitchbal throughout the ’80s.
Meeting up with me in the shady backyard of his Humboldt Park home, Derradji, 40, and Mitchell, 68, share the creative spark behind the label—the Mitchbal Magic, as Mitchell likes to call it—which could be considered the missing link between soul, disco, new wave and house. It all began with a little son-to-father business advice back in the early 1980s. “[Vince] said, Dad, you’re doing it all wrong,” Mitchell explains. “What they’re doing now is making dance records, extending the music and putting them out on 12" singles.”
At this time, in 1982, Mitchell was finding moderate success on local stations from the label’s first two singles, cut to 45. This was also when Frankie Knuckles and the Warehouse were at their height. Lawrence and his pal, DJ and producer Jesse Saunders—who were in their late teens at the time—knew it. They were throwing similar parties at an underground club called the Playground, and one night, Lawrence invited his dad along.
“I was amazed,” says a constantly smiling Mitchell as he thinks back on it. “This is, like, lower Wacker, downtown. You’d walk in and get a contact high. There was one little blue light in the corner, and I think sometimes someone would cut that off.”
Recognizing his son’s passion for the music, Mitchell started buying him equipment and eventually a recording session that turned out “I Like to Do It in Fast Cars,” Lawrence’s debut, under the name Z-Factor, and Mitchbal’s first 12".
“We were making the records like they were mixing it in the club,” Mitchell says. “They were mixing tapes together with drum machines and Frankie Knuckles was very well known for his house music and spinning one record into another, but this was the first recorded version of house music.”
The next few years play out much like the sex, drugs and dancing of Boogie Nights. Youthful impatience drew out Lawrence and Saunders, who went on to found Trax (and are still producing music today), and Mitchell kept plugging away on his own, scoring a handful of international hits before a cocaine addiction got the better of him. In 1989 he checked himself into Mercy Hospital and has been sober almost 23 years now.
It’s clear from Mitchell’s glow while we chat that his project with Derradji has given just as much life back to him as it has to his label. He reminisces about seeing James Brown and Stevie Wonder, and how that era of performers helped him push his artists in the studio. Then he takes me back to the very beginning, sharing one he’s not even sure he’s told his son.
“It’s because of a dance, that’s why he’s here,” Mitchell says. “Me and his mother met at a club called the Woodlawn Club. We won a dance contest and the prize was a turkey. I went over to her house to share the turkey, and from that relationship we cooked up Vince.” Well, Vince, now you know.