Interview: Ray Barney

10/18/2019

Ray Barney is an entrepreneur from Chicago, Illinois. He's best known as the founder of Dance Mania Records, and currently runs New Life Health Foods.

I read that your parents had been running Barney’s Records for a while before you got into it - did you have anyone in the family making music, or was it all business?

It was business, it was business. I was like a r’n’b fan, I don’t think my dad was really into music. It was business to him. We used to get tickets to all the shows and stuff, I think he went to see Nancy Wilson one time. He’d get tickets to shows and just give ‘em to me.

Do you know what had made him start the business?

Actually, I talk to him about it often, and he’d started out with just a retail store. Other people with shops back in the ‘50s and ‘60s would come to him because he’d begun to have a name for having everything. They’d come and offer to buy stuff that they couldn’t get elsewhere. And that’s what actually got him into distribution.

Was taking over something that you’d always wanted to do, or were you interested in other stuff?

I thought about doing things, but it was like a foregone conclusion that I would go to college, come back and work in the business. I remember in college they would have marketing classes on how to do resumes, how to present yourself to companies. I would pay little to no attention in classes like that, because I kinda knew what I was gonna do after I got out of school. Whether I wanted to or not, I knew what I was destined to do.

Were you a pretty good student otherwise?

I think I was a little bit above average. I wasn’t a great student, but I wasn’t a bad student either. I got out of college in four years. I studied business and accounting, and I would always relate concepts to dealing with the record industry to make things clearer to me.

I’ve read a couple different accounts about Dance Mania’s founding, most of which involve someone named Jesse Saunders.

You know, Jesse Saunders tells that story, but actually, I never talked to Jesse Saunders about Dance Mania. I never received a transfer from him or anything. When I thought about doing Dance Mania, Jesse Saunders was working with a keyboardist named Duane Buford. He used to come by the store, sell me Trax records, I used to have fun with him a lot. When I told him I was thinking about doing the label, he said “Ok, I’ll do a record for you." We kind of kicked names around, and he had done a record on the label Dance Mania before. It was The Browns, he was really into James Brown. You know the key chords to “Bodyheat"? It was a song that was like “what’s that, what’s that, what’s that." So he did a song, and said “Why don’t you just use Dance Mania?" He was in a band with Jesse Saunders, but I never even talked to Jesse Saunders about Dance Mania. That was a surprise to me, when I first heard that story that he conveyed ownership to me. I’ve never disputed about it, but nobody’s ever asked me about it point blank like you did. I’m not a egotistical guy - I mean, who started Dance Mania? So what? But I spoke with Duane Buford, and he’s the one who suggested that I use the name.

Where had you gotten the idea to start your own label?

Around that time, ‘85, ‘86, ‘87, we sold every label. All kinds of music - jazz, r’n’b, customers all over the Midwest. House music was a new phenomenon, and it was really big in Chicago. The record guys would come to our store and look at the sales report and really marvel at how I was selling house music. It wasn’t widespread - it was a niche market - and I got into the niche. I just felt like it was something I could do - I had the distribution company, we had warehouse space, and it could be an asset to the business that I was already doing anyway. I was already doing what it took to do it, so it was easy to incorporate in what I was doing already. It was a business opportunity, it seemed to me.

Where was Barney’s located?

At the time, we were at 3400 West Ogden in Chicago. My family had business in Lawndale; since I could remember, my dad had always had business in the area. So I didn’t grow up in the area, but when people asked me I would claim this area because I was over here every day. At thirteen, fourteen years old, I had the keys to my dad’s warehouse. I was opening, closin’, everything.

Did you have a particular interest in house music?

I wasn’t ever a house head, I wasn’t a partier. Even with the r’n’b, I loved the music but it was kind of business to me. I mean, I liked the music, but some people, you know, it’s part of their life. It wasn’t really part of my life, it was a business thing for me.

I know a couple of the earlier releases have you credited in some form or another. Were you ever involved musically, or just in the room?

No, I never played on anything. I had a real good relationship with everybody I did music with, and some of them would mention me in their songs, some of them would put me down as executive producer. I never played an instrument or anything like that, I never fooled around with drum machines.

I know that Lincoln Boys record has you on there as Ray “Cola Nut Head" Barney.

Right, that was Terry Baldwin and Frankie “Hollywood" Rodriguez. That was their way of making fun of me, but actually we were good friends, you know? They would just come up with all kinds of different names for people and put them on the record. They never called me, never said “Hey, Ray, cola nut head!"

Do you remember where any of the different Dance Mania fonts came from?

I think I worked with a guy to make the font for me or something, it was nothing real complicated about it. And you gotta remember, Dance Mania wasn’t - at the time, you had Trax Records, you had DJ International Records, and then you had Dance Mania. Those were probably the three biggest players in Chicago. Trax and DJ International used to get radio play - they would play my songs once in a while in the mixes, but not much. The music that we were putting out was popular as far as club-wise, but commercially, out of the three major labels in the city, I think Dance Mania would’ve been third.

Looking back, I can’t say a lot of thought went into that. I wish I could say it was a grand marketing scheme or something like that, but I can’t take credit for something like that. It wasn’t like a stroke of genius, we came up with a great thing. It was just something that was done, you know? It wasn’t such a big thing. I would say the music in general, we were just doing what we liked. We had no idea the music we did back then would still be popular thirty years later. Nobody had the insight to think that. We was just doin’ something for the time, nobody thought it would last this long.

Once the label started doing more volume, how were you going about finding artists?

I think I was more interested in the street-level guys, non-commercial kind of guys, and… I don’t know man. You would think of guys like Paul Johnson, and Slugo, DJ Deeon, DJ Funk, and Parris Mitchell. These guys, I would just see ‘em on a daily basis and it was nothing. Guys who are really into the music now would be like “Man, you would hang with these guys daily?!" Those guys would just come by and we would kick it, it wasn’t a formal thing.

I know ghetto house came into its own in the ‘90s as very much a youth culture - was it something you connected to at all, or just something that you saw was happening that you could get involved with?

Ok, so this is what happened: we never even referred to the records we did as ghetto house. That was what other people referred to it as. I mean, when we were doing it, we weren’t like “We doin’ ghetto stuff now." We weren’t even considering ourselves doin’ ghetto music, we were just doing house music. Do you remember, around the time that we were doing music N.W.A. had came out, and you would get these explicit lyrics, like hip-hop stuff? It was the same thing, except we were doing it with house music. It was non-commercialized house music. We weren’t getting radio play, so it was like the wheels are off. We don’t have to do music for the radio because we’re not getting radio play anyway, so we just do music for the streets.

How were you balancing the need to run it as a business with that interest in the specifically non-commercial approach to the music?

If you’re gonna decide to do a label or something like that, you can’t… sooner or later, you just gotta let artists be artists. You can’t be like “Well, I don’t like this personally, so we’re not gonna put this out." You can’t censor art, you know? So I was able to separate business and my personal feelings from the music. I mean, this is not stuff I would take home and listen to. I had little girls at the time! It was not stuff I would play in the house, but that was it, man. If you wanna be involved in art like that, you gotta kinda let artists be artists, you know?

Totally, and yet I think that’s a pretty rare mentality. It’s a lot of trust to put in the artists.

Well, you know what? I got Deeon, and then he used to run with Slugo and Milton. And then he’s like “Man, I got these other buddies" and then he would bring them along. And then I’d get Paul Johnson, and then he would have buddies. I would know people, they would know people, and they’d be like “Well, they kinda do the same thing I do." A lot of times, I would just to A&R just by asking these artists that would stop by all the time “Hey, check this out - how do you like this?"

How many copies were you pressing usually?

At one time, there were like one, two records a week coming out. A lot of the pressings, I would do five, ten thousand. You know what’s amazing, even some of the stuff that I did that was not popular at the time I put it out became very popular later on. I would have an account at plants - I was using Sound Makers, it was an East Coast pressing plant.

Was there any kind of standard engineering process, or would people just drop masters off with you?

Well, people would drop masters of with me, and then I had Metropolis Mastering that would do the mastering and send the parts to the pressing plant for me. That was standard what I did, I would get DATs and I would UPS ‘em to Mark [Richardson] at Metropolis for mastering. A lot of the music I did, I don’t think it was done in a formal studio settings. A lot of ‘em guys used eight tracks to do music like that, most of it wasn’t formal studio. Some of the stuff was real basic.

Was there ever a point in the ‘90s where you were shipping records overseas, or did that whole revival only happen in the 2000s?

No, that was a big business for me. There were a couple of exporters in New York that were giving me records almost weekly for Dance Mania records. But it never clicked for me that these records were moving overseas real good. But I was getting orders from exporters all the time, I just never even questioned. Social media now, you’re more aware of things worldwide and everything, but at that time I was just basically concentrating on Chicago, you know? I didn’t have a real broad knowledge of what was going on elsewhere.

It was about 2001 when you initially closed up, right?

Let me see, when was 9/11? It was early 2000s, yeah. It was probably after 2000, because I remember, 9/11, I remember watching that on the news in the store.

What was changing in the business?

Some of the signs were, I don’t know if you can recall back then, but our main business was distribution. We used to sell to music stores, although we had two retail stores of our own, our biggest business was still distribution. Our natural progression was that you may lose a few customers in a year, but on the other hand you’ll gain three, four, five customers in a given year. Well, there was a three, four year period where we only lost customers. And this was a switchover from vinyl, CDs, cassettes - well, cassettes were already gone before then - but this was a change that was happening in the music industry, not just me. The sources that we were selling to was dryin’ up. This used to be a music store on practically every corner, and there were less and less stores to sell to. And it wasn’t enough stores to sustain business after a while.

Would you have liked to keep it running if you could, or were you started to get interested in other things?

Well, I was kinda perceptive enough to see that the business was going through a change. Like everything else, it was evolving, like right now instead of going to a record store you download your music. I knew that music probably wasn’t going away, but it was a change going on that things were probably not going to continue.

Was this something that you talked about with your artists at all?

Most of the guys I dealt with were DJs, they had other things going on besides just music. They weren’t trying to just be music stars - they would do parties, and festivals, things like that. So that wasn’t their only livelihood, they had other things going on.

At some point after the label shut down, you opened a health food store right?

Yes, I’m in the health food store right now. What happened was, when I came home from college, you know supplements and herbs? That was a big love of my dad’s, and when I came back, he was kind of like “Here, you take [the distribution company] now." He kind of did what he wanted, that was where his interest was. So he actually started the health food store. That’s kinda what he did - while I was doing the music, he would always be there for me, but he basically let me do what I wanted to do.

Do you know what had drawn him to that?

From personal health things he had experienced, and then I had a brother with health issues. He became more interested in natural healing, that kind of thing, you know the power of mixing different herbs together and coming up with different formulas. He really was drawn to it. One thing about me, I was probably one of the few guys in the music industry that didn’t drink, didn’t eat meat. I always did exercise regularly, my dad was interested in it and any son would take interest in what his dad does.

That’s an interesting contrast to the distribution company, business as finding a market that you can make money in versus something that’s very much personally motivated.

It was personal, and I can say that I really love this business. I don’t like it, I love this business. My health food store is in an area that you wouldn’t normally look to find a health food store, but knock on wood it’s been received very well. It’s in Lawndale, and for this side of town I don’t know of any other black-owned health food stores in the middle of a black neighborhood. If somebody wants to point it out to me and show me where I’m wrong, I’ll have to take a step back, but I don’t know of any.

I know that there were some legal conflicts around the Dance Mania name relatively recently - back during the heyday, was it ever hard to get people to agree to work with you? Was there a sense that a lot of artists were getting taken advantage of?

Oh, yeah. I never experienced that, but there was a perception that people were being taken advantage of. I guess I kind of got this from my dad, I really wanted success for guys. If I was successful, I wanted them to be successful. I didn’t have to make myself shine by steppin’ on other people. If I made money, I didn’t mind the next guy making money, you know? I didn’t have to make all the money. I guess it was just the way I was brought up in business, I never really took advantage of people.

The guys I dealt with - this may sound kind of funny now - you know, Jammin’ Gerald and DJ Funk, they actually lived in my building. These guys knew where I was, and I slept good at night. These guys knew my address, they would come by the house sometimes. I dealt with people on the up and up. I had nothin’ to hide, I had no reason to come in, do what I did during the day, and go back home to the suburbs at night. I didn’t want to make it into music by taking advantage of people. So I never really had problems getting people on board; I probably had more people wanting to get on board than I could handle.

Even having done well at the time, I imagine it was a little surreal to have this sudden resurgence of interest years after the fact.

Right, it’s a whole new generation of kids that are into music. And what it is is that when something is started new, there’s no phoniness to it. It was nobody tryin to “This is how you do ghetto tracks, you do this, then you save this," or whatever. People were just doing what they felt at the time, a lot of times just reflecting on what was going on in they areas, or they neighborhoods or whatever. It’s just amazing that it’s still relevant now; it was just people doing what they felt.

What’s the current state of Dance Mania? I know it’s back in your name, but is it active beyond licensing?

We did a couple of licensing deals, we did a couple of compilations, nothing real big. We may be working on some things in the future, but right now just doing a couple of reissues. We did a couple of licenses for television shows, but just taking things as they come. We may have some things in the works right now, but I really don’t want to talk about it right now. The couple of things that were re-released are going through a distributor called Basic Frame out of Italy right now, and we’re just looking at what would be best to re-release next, taking some suggestions and doing things kind of slowly.

That’s about all I had for the interview - is there any particular photo of you that you’d like me to use?

Just make sure you show a photo that’s showin’ my good side.