The Chicago Defender’s Black Music Month Special Edition
Vince Lawrence @slangmusicgroup
Before House music was declared a separate genre by Black and brown club kids partying in the late 1970’s, a young skinny, African-American teen witnessed thousands of disco records as an usher at White Sox park. The largest vinyl bonfire and biggest publicity stunt from a local Chicago radio disc jockey declared his dislike for the music that was perceived ‘overkill’ for most of white America.
Not moved by the roaring antics of the crowd, Vince Lawrence quietly grabbed a pile of undamaged records and brought them home. Little did he know, he would be a part of transitioning the narrative from soulful disco beats and its B-sides into a commercial movement that would net billions of dollars over four decades later.
Staying in Roseland with his mom, Lawrence would often visit with his father who was a DJ and member of Dogs of War Record Pool. Trips to the pool meetings would be some of his most memorable times—meeting his dad’s friends and discussing the music business.
Lawrence is the owner of Slang Music Group, a music production house that specializes in commercial, project development from major corporations to boutique music labels. His name and his legacy precede him, securing a place in music history by co-producing and distributing, “On and On”, the first commercially recorded House record in 1984.
Recently, he shared a shining moment along with former creative producer and partner, Jesse Saunders, when they were recognized by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Specials Events (DCASE) with the Lifetime Achievement award on May 27 at Chicago’s House Party at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
The Chicago Defender was invited to Slang Music recording studio for a one-on-one conversation with Lawrence.
What was your first break into the music business?
I worked, saved my money and bought my first synthesizer. From there I started a band. Herb Kent had the Stay Up and Punk Out radio show on WVON. I would tune in religiously and knew I wanted to make music that encapsulated the parties that we were going to.
The punk band was called ‘Z Factor’. For my graduation present, my dad got me some studio time. We recorded this record called “Fast Cars”. My dad took it around to the local radio stations, and it received some rotation on WGCI. As a band, we played at a place on the North side called Tuts—later it became the Avalon. I was 16 years old and I was reprimanded to the dressing room because I wasn’t old enough to be at the bar with our band headlining the event.
I was making other music and would visit the teen clubs. One night I took my music to Jesse Sanders, who was spinning at the Playground. He said, ‘We can make better records than this.’ We started hanging out and Jesse was a popular DJ; all the girls thought he was cute. If I could get him in my band, he’ll be my ‘Mick Jagger’. [he laughs] Jesse joined Z Factor and we made a bunch of records at that point. We were off to the races.
Was the record, “On and On” an accidental hit for you and Jesse?
We were waiting on my dad to put out a record called “Fantasy”. We had pulled in Screamin’ Rachel to sing the song. We thought it would blend in so many cultures with just her. We were waiting, and it had been a month being impatient as teenagers. Jesse had just bought a four-track cassette deck. Jesse needed some beat tracks so that he could play other popular mainstream records—R &B, Soul etc. at The Playground. We recorded four beat tracks that he made on one side and another crazy beat called, “On & On”. One thing lead to another and that record took off like wildfire.
You’ve had a great deal of success throughout the years as a producer but you’ve had bigger success becoming a music production house for advertising agencies. What was your first entry into this field?
Bill Daniels was a partner in Equinox, a Black owned advertising agency on Michigan Ave. He asked me about making a commercial for teens. He said, ‘If you can come down to my office and you can show me that you have the ability to communicate effectively with teens, I may have a proposition for you.’ I said, ‘Great’. I offered him to come to my office. They came to my loft studio at North Ave. and California, where we were throwing a rave in the basement. They were stunned at all of the kids dancing and dancing to my music.
From there, we created a song for an Ameritech commercial. That was my first television commercial. I was in charge of casting, along with writing the copy for the spot and we created the music.
That became part of our business. We grew into video gaming in a similar manner. Later, a DJ friend of mine, DJ Pele Fresh asked if I could make music for the Oprah Winfrey Show. Our company grew from one interest to another. But at the end of the day, I just wanted to be in the studio. I wanted to be in the studio so much—it was also making us broke.
How did you save your company from going bankrupt?
We bought a great deal of equipment to cut down on the costs. We cut a deal to rent this little inexpensive studio room on a monthly basis. I told the studio owner, ‘By the way, the gear you have in there–I don’t need any of that.’ At 23, I owned my studio inside of the Chicago Recording Studio complex. My next door neighbor was R. Kelly. He and I would sit near the pop machine at 3am in the morning and discuss the fact that our production teams had fallen asleep and we were driven to make music and to keep going. Robert and I became fast friends at that point. I went to produce dance and house remixes of “I Wish”, “Ignition” and a few other songs for him.
By working with artists like Rob, I started learning about the mainstream record business and that’s how we got into artist development.
Sometimes people get stuck in the same lane especially in the House music community. How do you maintain staying fresh with your company?
It’s been about the love for creativity. I just go where that is. I found the opportunity to be creative in music. I then found another opportunity to be creative helping other people make music. I grabbed my friend Marshall Jefferson and said we could make music together. My friend Byron Stingily stayed up the hall from me in college. I asked him to come and sing on my records. Ten City turned into one of the biggest House bands. I’ve been inclusive and willing to work with people. If people are trying to be creative and they can celebrate that creativity wholeheartedly, innovation is a byproduct of that.
How do you set aside quality time for your family as a husband and father?
Well, that’s a struggle. But, I have to say that I can’t take credit for creating that balance. My wife, Tara, does that and actually creates balance. I really try to take weekends off to spend with my family. My son is three and he’s always in the studio with me. For the most part, my mom raised me. I know from experience, what things I missed by having my father present on a daily basis—I suspected those things but I’m learning firsthand with London. I just want to be a great dad—I want to be excellent at that.