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Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-1997 Charlie Frame , February 6th, 2014 08:35

An inherent problem with dance retrospectives is that unless you already happen to have a vested nostalgic or archival interest in the era, it can be hard to find reasons to dip in. While it's not unusual for new ears to get turned on to latter-day rock and pop via oldies radio, compilations and the like, the forward thrust of electronic music leaves a scorched trail that proves tricky to travel back down. Dance fans are not expected to know their history. We've yet to see an AM Techno Gold for gurning gimmers to wax on about how dance music used to be better in the old days. There is no Classic 'Ardkore magazine being touted at participating branches of WHSmiths. And it's not as though today's club kids are queuing round the corner to attend Megadog reunion nights with their dads, not yet anyhow.

For now, as far as dance audiences are concerned it's still the present moment which matters most. Even the most retro-enthusiastic of today's producers (Special Request, Burial, Lone to name a few) tend to repurpose early rave and jungle through a modern production lens. In these new productions we end up with sampled 'echoes' of an earlier era - ghost sounds sprinkled around bigger, denser compositions designed to evoke a distant longing for the halcyon days of dance while ironically leaving their source materials sounding comparatively shallow. A DJ might drop a carefully-placed classic into a set and veteran producers might still talk up the importance of Detroit forefathers like Juan Atkins and Derrick May, but dance music largely builds upon itself, ever evolving but never quite sprouting a tail and plunging back into the primordial sea.

It's hard to ignore the curatorial aspect of a compilation like Hardcore Traxx…. Even for the time, the Dance Mania sound was considered rougher and more primitive than its rival Chicago house labels, Trax and DJ International. The limited qualities of such a sound are felt ever-stronger by today's ears, attuned to the highly-polished textures of modern deep house and other styles. Though it may be considered a classic of the genre, listening to all eight minutes of Housemaster Boyz' 'House Nation' in the context of a double-CD collection feels admittedly more like an education than something to get actively engaged with. It begs the question of who, other than the antiquated crate-diggers and dance historians of this world, would be interested in these fossilised clubland showstoppers?

The oft-debated differences between early Chicago house and early Detroit techno tend to boil down to minutiae. Essentially, house and techno were born of the same embryo but grew up within two different cities. However it is Detroit that has retained the lion's share of hip cache over recent years. Revered by techno DJs, IDM producers and electro revivalists worldwide, it's that city's Kraftwerkian futurism which has weathered the storm most favourably. Chicago's own trajectory sent it in a rather more grounded, more carnal direction, lending the tracks a loose, all the more human quality. While the house sound of Chicago did indeed go on to influence huge swathes of pop and dance music around the globe, it remains a tight-knit, localised scene to this day. The likes of DJ Deeon and DJ Funk have a huge amount of admirers, but for one reason or another they're rarely given the same level of critical accolade enjoyed by Jeff Mills or Theo Parrish.

We have come to appreciate Detroit projects like Juan Atkins' Cybotron as a retro-futurist ideal - a hotbed of inspiration for successive producers and one which has come to manifest itself within electronic music’s predilection for technological advancement. Listening to Hardcore Trax… it's apparent that the Dance Mania brand was more concerned with the dancefloor as centre of the communal universe, the movement of bodies, the act of having a good time and living for the moment. Opener, Hercules' '7 Ways', with its deep clubby pulse and raunchy dance instructions, sets the scene for a style that is inherently social, inherently political and inherently sexual; not so much concerned with acting out a vision of the future as providing a soundtrack for that very evening.

Perhaps as a consequence the raggedy drum patterns, jazzy piano chords and ribald shout-outs that make up some of Dance Mania's key tropes can feel pretty hokey in a modern context. But this isn't to say that Chicago’s early house sound hasn’t retained many of its most valuable and unique qualities. The untreated vocal and bare-minimal production on Victor Romeo's 'Love Will Find A Way' might be a bit dated, but there's also a rare melancholy groove locked away at its heart which might not be so easily recreated using modern techniques. Similarly, the bitty drum machine patterns on Duane & Co's 'J.B. Traxx' (Dance Mania's first release in 1986), sound (and most probably were) played-in by hand rather than programmed and quantised on a computer.

While the rest of the world was quick to embrace the steady regimentation of digital composition, the technique of playing-in beats and samples using MPC-style drum pads continues in Chicago today. One notable example of this can be heard in the anarchic, non-linear rhythms of today's Chicago footwork and juke styles, born directly out of the ghetto-house scene which Dance Mania helped pioneer through the nineties. The rough-cut fusion of hip-hop and dance found on ghetto-house tracks like Jammin Gerald's 'Black Women' or Top Cat's 'Work Out' were a direct influence on the likes of footwork artists including DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn and Traxman who all cut their teeth at the label before its subsequent collapse.

If dance is, by definition, about appreciating the movement and the moment as it happens, then why should its proselytisers be so preoccupied with what's to come next? By playing fast and loose with their arrangements the Dance Mania producers were able to work to quick turnaround times ensuring dancers were constantly riding house music's ephemeral wave. While the electro and minimal house movements that dominated the 2000s worshipped at the altar of Detroit's techno titans, the house sound of Chicago's Dance Mania label can now be heard resurging in the music of everyone from DJ Sprinkles, Daft Punk, Actress, Chrissy Murderbot, Benoit & Sergio, Dean Blunt and a whole host of producers' work from around the world. We're slowly seeing a return to the slipshod-but-sensual human-made vibes of Chicago and as such Hardcore Traxx, couldn’t have come out at a more opportune time.

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