While it’s generally agreed that Chicago is the birthplace of house music, its paternity is widely disputed. With how huge house music became even in the 1980s, it’s no surprise many of the artists producing at that time laid claim to the “father of house music” title. The lack of a well-researched history of house music — unlike disco before it — only adds to this uncertainty. Jesse Saunders is often cited by himself and others as having the most credible claim as author of the first house song, but until recently there weren’t many facts to back him up. For an established digger with a nose for overlooked moments in dance music history, Jerome Derradji, impresario behind the Still Love, Stilove4music, and Past Due labels, this was a challenge just waiting to be taken up. The fruits of his painstaking research, the 3×CD/2×12″ compilation 122BPM: The Birth Of House Music, aims to set the record straight and reveals some tantalizing details — including previously unreleased tracks and mixes — along the way.
As the compilation’s extensive and impressively decorated booklet lays out, the first house music recordings were made by Z-Factor, a group that included Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence, son of Mitchbal Records’ labelhead, Nemiah Mitchell Jr. Influenced by new-wave music and early releases by Chicago’s Ministry, the group began with the post-punk flavored “(I Like To Do It In) Fast Cars” before recording the historic “Fantasy” in 1983, both for Mitchbal Records. While this latter tune was released around the exact same time as “On & On,” Saunders’ solo version (no one is absolutely certain which arrived first), there’s little doubt in my mind which was better and which was a reaction to being stuck in label limbo for more than a year. Although labels like Trax Records (founded by Larry Sherman and Lawrence) and Dance Mania (founded by Saunders) would reach wider acclaim, Mitchbal and its off-shoot, Chicago Connection Records, have discographies littered with classics, as well. Many of these are collected on 122 BPM, both individually and as part of a mix by Derradji.
Perhaps the most striking part of this compilation is how stark the difference is between the lush and well-written tunes released by the Mitchbal camp and the spartan, machine-driven tracks that would come to define Chicago house. Nemiah Mitchell and his son were songwriters, and it showed in the music they recorded, with the former often having a big presence on the end result no matter whose name was on the record. One potent example is the previously unreleased “Do Dat Stuff” by Mitchbal & Larry Williams, a tune which wraps the vigorous jacking rhythms and stuttering, titular vocals in keen sonic flourishes and a sultry bass line so rich in tone it could have been played live. This essential balance is also at play on personal favorite “The Jackin Zone” by Risque Rythum Team, the trio of Mitchbal, Lee Haggard, and K-Alexi. While admittedly a bit campy, its groaning bass line and sassy, crowd-baiting vocals are infectious like a plague that turns audiences into delirious dancing zombies.
Departing from the popular perceptions of the Chicago house aesthetic also leaves some tracks feeling more dated than others, simultaneously revealing the sizable influence of artists like Kid Creole and Prince. In many respects this isn’t a bad thing, because it provides a fuller understanding of Chicago house history for both veteran house heads and younger admirers whose perceptions of the genre have been shaped by recent revivalists. While not arranged chronologically, the compilation highlights how the rock-based synth music of Z-Factor evolved and helped spawn house music as we know and love it. Derradji deserves praise for all the work that went into researching the genre’s earliest days, restoring and remastering these songs from their original tapes, to create a compilation that goes beyond obvious favorites and showcases a part of musical history that’s so often overlooked despite its importance to nearly everything that came after.