“We thought that we would get maybe a 5 percent return on flyers. So we’d print 10,000 flyers and hope we get a thousand kids. And we would.” Courtesy Vince Lawrence

Not only is 2020 the Year of Chicago Music, it’s also the 35th year for the nonprofit Arts & Business Council of Chicago (A&BC), which provides business expertise and training to creatives and their organizations citywide. To celebrate, the A&BC has launched the #ChiMusic35 campaign at ChiMusic35.com, which includes a public poll to determine the consensus 35 greatest moments in Chicago music history as well as a raffle to benefit the A&BC’s work supporting creative communities struggling with the impact of COVID-19 in the city’s disinvested neighborhoods.

Another part of the campaign is this Reader collaboration: a series spotlighting important figures in Chicago music serving as #ChiMusic35 ambassadors. This week, we hear from businessman, producer, and promoter Vince Lawrence. A key figure in the early history of Trax Records, he shares credit with high school friend Jesse Saunders for what’s widely considered the first house-music release, the 1984 classic “On and On.” Lawrence’s vast music-business resumé also includes cowriting the 1986 Farley “Jackmaster” Funk hit “Love Can’t Turn Around,” the first house record to chart in the UK.

This interview was conducted by Ayana Contreras, who’s a DJ, a host and producer at WBEZ radio, and a columnist for DownBeat magazine.

Ayana Contreras: Why do you think Chicago has this history of creating artists that resonate worldwide?

Vince Lawrence: I think that Chicago being divested from the mainstream record business has created a different standard of excellence for artists that are requesting support. The record business will sign ten acts, knowing that one of them will cover the cost of all. But with a typical investor in Chicago, rather than try nine shots at the apple, they just want to get one that works.

And because of that, the bar for excellence is just astounding. Chicagoans are hardened, groomed, and polished until they’re the best that they can be.

A few years after the first Izod Fest, Vince Lawrence and Jesse Saunders collaborated on what’s widely considered the first house release, the 1984 track “On and On.”

What’s one of your favorite Chicago music moments?

There was a party that we threw at Sauer’s called Izod Fest. I want to say [the first one] was ’79 or ’80.

Our peer group had come to distinguish itself by the straight-leg Levi’s, K-Swiss, and Izod movement that took over middle class Black America in the early 80s. And we faced a dilemma of less-than-desirable factions busting up our parties with fighting and other disruption. We banded together and said, “How can we keep these bad kids out of our parties?”

We decided that our desired customer was this kid from Hyde Park who wore Izod. So we said, “Let’s throw a party that requires you wear that for admission. Or at least require that you wear that to get a discount.” And we had Farley (Farley “Funkin” Keith was his name at the time), Jesse Saunders, and a bunch of other DJs. Our party would go to three or four in the morning, and it was a pretty awesome time.

You guys were young, right? Late teens, early 20s?

Seventeen-year-old kids, renting restaurants [after hours]! We would take all of the tables and move them to one side of the room. Then we would bring in the sound system, put some police lights on top of that, and have DJs.

We’d pass out flyers all over town . . . in front of schools that we didn’t go to. We thought that we would get maybe a 5 percent return on flyers. So we’d print 10,000 flyers and hope we get a thousand kids. And we would.

That’s powerful, especially for folks so young.

It was a great time to be a young Black person trying to do something, because you could. And it seems that all of us that were involved in that are, in one aspect or another, self-employed businesspeople to this day.  v