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Various Artists – Jerome Derradji Presents 122 BPM: The Birth of House Music review

Given that the story of the birth of house music is well documented, it’s perhaps surprising that there are still errors in the official version of events. It’s an undisputed fact that Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, at the Music Box and Warehouse respectively, kickstarted Chicago’s love affair with Roland drum machines, peppering up their disco, Italo, new wave and “R&B” sets with the clanking machine rhythms of the TR-808 and 909.

Aside from that, and the undisputed influence of local DJ crew and radio hosts the “Hot Mix 5”, the exact sequence of events that spawned house music is difficult to accurately date. Most credit Jesse Saunders with making the first true house record, “On & On”, in 1984. Yet, as this compilation from Chicago stalwart and dance music historian Jerome Derradji proves, there was house music before house music, crafted by a group of local teenagers inspired by European disco and new wave records, and promoted by a local record producer and entrepreneur, Nemiah “Mitchball” Mitchell Jr.

Mitchell owned and ran his own label, Mitchbal, mostly releasing his own productions and those from friends in the disco and soul scene. He is perhaps an unlikely hero in house music terms; in the sleeve notes to this compilation, he readily admits he didn’t understand the obsession of kids, particularly his teenage son Vince Lawrence, with the slowly developing, drum machine heavy “house” sound coming out of Chicago clubs.

Lawrence, though, was mad for house. Or, more specifically, European new wave and Italo disco. He recorded his first track, “(I Like To Do It In) Fast Cars” in 1982, under the Z Factor alias. It was the Mitchbal label’s first foray into electronic music. As it was released in early 1983, it pre-dates house, but you can hear the pulse of Chicago’s clubs in its distinctly lo-fi combination of furious disco drums, lo-fi Italo synths and eyebrow-raising camp pop vocals. Although it has dated, it still sounds fabulous. It doesn’t sound that Chicagoan, mind; if anything, it sounds like it could have been made in Milan or Dusseldorf.

The same can’t be said of the next Z Factor track Lawrence recorded, this time with his high school friend Jesse Saunders (described by Lawrence as “the coolest kid in our local party scene”). “Fantasy” took the proto-house formula to the next level. Rhythmically, with its incessant bassline and skittering drum machine production, it sounds like house. Musically, it still bears the hallmarks of both disco (check the clipped guitars) and Italo (some distinctly Bobby ‘O’ ish synth riffs), with a bit of new wave thrown in (a ludicrous guitar solo). Although recorded in 1983, it didn’t get released until ’84; by then, Saunders had re-recorded it, removed the disco elements, and called it “On & On”. History was made.

“Fantasy” was still a hit in Chicago, prompting Mitchell to invest more in house music. He even went so far as to start a second label, Chicago Connection. The records that followed refined the house sound further. There was Libra Libra’s “I Like It”, a classic example of early Chicago house – think bold basslines, clattering 808 percussion and an uplifting vocal – and, most famously, “Shake Your Body”, a Libra Libra production credited to vocalist to Jeanette Thomas. That was Mitchbal’s greatest hit – an early house smash that was licensed to numerous European labels. It still sounds futuristic today.

122 BPM: The Birth of House Music – so called because Mitchell believed that was the perfect tempo for house, and demanded that singles released on the label all be that tempo – also chronicles many of the other curiosities released by both Mitchbal and Chicago Connection at the time. Check Mitchell and Larry Williams’ “Do Dat Stuff”, a fearsome slice of electrofunk-meets-house that sounds like a cross between early jack trax and the inspired proto-house productions of New York’s own Paul Simpson. Or, for that matter, McGhee’s “I Got Broke Breakdancing”, an eccentric Chicago electro tune that boasts the silliest, campest guitar solo you’re ever likely to hear. McGhee would no doubt have taken himself far more seriously than cheesy breakdance-pop crew Break Machine, but the gap between the two isn’t all that great.

As a history of the Chicago house music’s “missing link”, 122BPM is a bit of a winner. While arguments will still rage about who can really claim the rights to the birth of house, Mitchell and Lawrence have as good a claim as any. With sleeve notes that chronicle the father-and-son team’s early ‘80s adventure in great detail, it should be essential listening for anyone with even the smallest interest in the history of house.

Matt Anniss

Tracklisting (2x LP version):

1. Jeanette Thomas – “Shake Your Body”
2. Z-Factor – “I Am The DJ” (feat Jesse Saunders – Jazzy mix)
3. Mitchbal & Larry Williams – “Do Dat Stuff” (dance mix)
4. Libra Libra – “I Like It” (club mix)
5. Z-Factor – “Fantasy” (instrumental)
6. Risque Rythum Team – “The Jackin Zone”
7. Z-Factor – “(I Like To Do It In) Fast Cars”
8. MC Ghee – “I Got Broke Breakdancing” (instrumental)