House music, for all practical purposes, started in Chicago. It’s great to see that now, after two decades of haphazard, hit-and-miss collections, that music is being anthologized properly. Compilations like Still Music’s Kill Yourself Dancing and Bang the Box, and Strut Records’ Only 4 U have placed some of the lesser-known but crucial Chicago house labels in their proper context, reviving not a few lost classics in the process.
Hardcore Traxx is a worthy extension of the trend. The focus here is Dance Mania Records, a relatively long-lived label that was active from 1986 to 1997. Even within house music, a lot happened over that 11-year span, and Hardcore Traxx tracks some crucial stylistic changes and innovations. As with its predecessors, Hardcore Traxx does not command everyday listening. But it does provide an ample history lesson as well as a handful of great moments from a time when house was still fresh and rule-breaking.
The two-disc, 24-track compilation gets started just as the primitively thumping initial stage of house was giving way to smoother, digitally-enhanced compositions. The former style is represented by leadoff track “7 Ways” from early house star Marshall Jefferson, masquerading as Hercules. Probably still the best-known thing here. The rhythm, with its slinky bassline and snares ‘n’ handclaps rhythm, is classic Chicago house. Over that, Jefferson’s deep, detached voice details various methods to “make you jack”. It’s like a new, space-age Barry White, and it’s still one of the all-time great house tracks.
Most of the music on Hardcore Traxx dates from the early-to-mid-‘90s, so putting the 1986-vintage “7 Ways” first makes sense. But it also sets an impossibly high bar for what follows, and not everything has aged so well. House Master Boyz’ “House Nation” was a success in its day, but nearly 30 years later its stuttering vocal samples are just annoying. Conversely, the full-on piano/diva house of Victor Romeo’s “Love Will Find A Way” still charms and invigorates.
The smoother, early-‘90s feel comes across on Vincent Floyd’s nice, appropriately-titled “I Dream You” and Da Posse’s mildly funky “Don’t Try to Fight It”. Club Style’s “Crazy Wild” is basically a pumped up version of 808 State’s landmark “Pacific”, a reminder of the freewheeling days before samples had to be licensed. Elsewhere, Strong Soul’s “Twinkles” tries its hand at drum’n'bass, while Romeo’s “Ride the Ride Rhythm” is a groovy example of that short-lived subgenre, hip-house.
While the first half of Hardcore Traxx is fairly eclectic, the second half is dominated by what became, for better of worse, the sound most associated with Dance Mania. This was “Ghetto House”, a style marked by tight, minimalist arrangements, pounding rhythms, sub-bass, and, often, ribald sexual references. The sleazefest gets started with Paul Johnson’s “Feel My M.F. Bass”, works its way through Parris Mitchell’s self- explanatory “Ghetto Shout Out!!” and Jammin’ the House Gerald’s “Black Women”, and winds up with Traxmen’s “Hit It From the Back”. Not much left to the imagination there. The music takes the commanding, no-nonsense feel of classic Chicago house and moves it to the logical next level. The almost tribal percussion effects, slicing hi-hat, and dizzy bassline of DJ Deeon’s “Da Bomb” are wicked indeed, and it’s easy to hear how this stuff would be nearly impossible to resist on the dancefloor. However, the meanness carries over to the lyrics. The concurrent Miami Bass sound, which spawned hits like Tag Team’s “Whoomp (There It Is)” dealt mostly in a machismo and sexism that was so outsized it was nearly tongue-in-cheek. But Tracks like “Da Bomb” and “Black Women” smack more of a troubling misogyny and seem to advocate outright violence toward women. They’re a long way from “7 ways to make you jack”.
Thankfully, Hardcore Traxx doesn’t end there. Robert Armani’s “Ambulance” is frantic techno-noise that almost predicts 8-bit. Deeon’s own “Hypnosis” is classic acid house. It’s a reminder that the mid-to-late-‘90s “golden age” of electronica was about to hit. With it would come more innovation, even if house itself would lose its freewheeling roots and stagnate. Hardcore Traxx is a nicely-curated, often-listenable reminder of those roots. And with founder Ray Barney having recently revived the label, the Dance Mania story isn’t over yet.