Persona Records launched the recording careers of Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle and showed the world that house music could really sell
Danny Alias cofounded the mysterious and short-lived Persona Records, the precursor to Chicago's house-music boom
by Jacob Arnold
For decades, one of Chicago house music’s first record labels has been shrouded in mystery. Before Trax and DJ International, there was Persona Records, home to Jamie Principle’s first hits, “Your Love” and “Waiting on My Angel,” and to the obscure “Civil Defense” by label cofounder Danny Alias. Persona is the missing link that launched Frankie Knuckles’ career as a producer and showed the world that house music could really sell.
Originally published as “Pillars of the Underground” in Wax Poetics Issue 53, Winter 2012–’13
Danny Alias is now in his early fifties. Even over the phone, his mischievous sense of humor shines through. Alias jokingly refers to his birthplace, the Chicago suburb of Norridge, as “John Gacy Village,” after the notorious serial-killer clown. Asked if his name is a pseudonym, he replies, “Danny Alias is an alias! Correct!”
Alias attended Northeastern Illinois University on a poetry scholarship. After graduation in 1980, he did some student teaching, but, he explains, “That kind of money just wasn’t going to keep me afloat. I became a paralegal and actually hooked up with a couple of music attorneys, and that began my musical career.”
Around the same time, he met David Bell, former road manager for Chicago progressive-rock band Pentwater. Bell’s touring credits included Chick Corea and Ted Nugent. By contrast, Alias “was certainly into dance—the gay dance clubs, the Black dance clubs.” He also loved new-wave music. Two of his main inspirations were Yoko Ono and Klaus Nomi.
Alias turned his poetry into performance art with David Bell’s help. “This is pre–poetry slams. There were no such things,” explains Alias. “[Bell] was really tight with DJs, and he would go out there as my quasi agent and say, ‘I got this guy, he’ll come and do a show for forty-five minutes.’ ” Adds Alias, laughingly, “ ‘And we’re not charging you anything!’ ”
He continues, “I started with recording poems and then recording poems to dance music and then taking instrumentals that I really liked and writing lyrics to those songs. Many of these things, though they certainly are obscure and will remain so, at the time were played heavily on college radio, and people ate it up! Because it was just very, very different.”
His first success was a 1984 cassette tape, published by Bell Associates, named “Big Brother – The Answer,” a response to performance artist Laurie Anderson’s U.K. pop hit “O Superman.” Alias jokes, “If this is the last thing it says on my obit, it will be that I [was] the first and only guy to do a parody of a Laurie Anderson song!”
In 1984, Bell and Alias became partners in Persona Records. Their first release was Alias’s “Civil Defense.” Remembers Alias, “We wanted a follow-up to ‘Big Brother,’ and we wanted something that was original, that would be all our own. So I’m music and words on that. And then David and I—we actually went to Columbia College—would look for student musicians to play on tracks.” They recorded the single at Seagrape Studio, owned by Tom Haban of the rock band Wilderness Road and his partner Mike Konopka.
Alias and Bell hired local DJ Brett Wilcots to remix “Civil Defense.” Wilcots was heavily involved in the Chicago dance scene, working at the Curtom record pool Dogs of War, then Sounds Good, and finally Importes Etc. and its pool I.R.S. In 1984, he started creating “house” mixes for Rams Horn, before the term was being used on other local productions.
The resulting single is a distinct blend of dark humor and Cold War paranoia. Over test tones and air-raid sirens, Alias rants animatedly, “I’ve had enough radiation to last a lifetime / Or at least / An hour and a half.” The dub version is longer than the vocal. Wilcots slowly builds orchestral elements as phasers blast. This version became a favorite of Ron Hardy at the Music Box. Today, the single can sell for over $250.
Alias believes 2,500 copies of “Civil Defense” were pressed, but most of them went overseas. “Our goal was to break this in Europe and bring it back,” Alias explains. At the time, European imports held a certain cachet. “There was no distributor,” elaborates Alias. “There were even no sales! We weren’t selling anything. We were selling an image; we were selling a concept.”
There was a Chicago release party, however, at Seagrape Studio. Tom Parks reported in Gay Chicago that it was “well attended by many local talents, disc jockeys, and record industry people.” In fact, one of the attendees, Frankie Knuckles, was particularly impressed. “That’s how I met him,” Alias recalls. “We just saw some things that we all had in common, which was, basically, promotion.”
Knuckles wanted Bell and Alias to sign Jamie Principle, whom he had discovered. According to Alias, the goal was always “to break him on a major label.” After listening to his demo tape, Bell and Alias were excited to give it a shot.
Principle’s first record, “Waiting on My Angel,” was released in May 1985. Knuckles is listed as producer. “Pretty much, they handed us a quasi-finished tape,” remembers Alias, “and we just took it to the next level and made it into a product.” The single was the first Chicago house track to break into Billboard magazine’s “12 Inch Singles Sales” chart, where it peaked at 40. “That was our big hit, as it were,” Alias enthuses. “It would sell a thousand copies a day in Chicago. Kids would stand around the corner, lined up for the release. Actually, the pressing plant could not keep up with it, and that hurt the record. We had, like, five thousand printed and thought, ‘Well, this will be fine.’ And those were gone in a weekend.”
Bell and Alias pressed their records at Masterdisk in New York, because they had been warned to avoid Chicago’s only pressing plant, owned by future Trax Records head Larry Sherman. Nevertheless, within weeks, the plant was churning out an unauthorized cover version by none other than Jesse Saunders. Bell and Alias decided to file suit. Alias explains, “We were never even asked. Jamie didn’t agree to that! Absolutely, Jamie wanted it stopped. Frankie wanted it stopped.”
Ultimately, the case was dismissed. “We got in front of a judge who was really unfamiliar with copyright law,” Alias says. “You know, in the end, it probably made Jamie even more famous, or at least famous enough to get signed to a major label, which had been the goal all along.”
Principle had one more record on Persona. “Your Love,” released in April 1986, was the label’s third and final release. Knuckles had already been playing a demo version in his club, the Power Plant. The original was little more than a snare march with vocals. In the studio, local DJ Mark “Hot Rod” Trollan, who had already done some work for the Hot Tracks remix service, was brought in to beef it up. He introduced arpeggiating synthesizers and a bass line inspired by the obscure Italo track “Feels Good (Carrots & Beets)” by Electra.
In a Billboard review, Brian Chin noted the “lush European feel.” The record didn’t chart, but, mysteriously, a year later, both DJ International Records and Trax Records released a slightly different version with Knuckles as the lead artist. In a recent interview with Czarina Mirani for 5 Magazine, Principle complains, “I’ve never been signed to Trax! So they literally just stole my stuff.”
According to Alias, there was another drawback to doing business in Chicago. “We would sell, just being honest, a shitload of records. But getting paid for them was a whole ’nother story.” Alias continues delicately, “Back then, there was a lot of, let’s just say…mob control.” Nonetheless, Jamie Principle would go on to major-label deals with FFRR and Atlantic.
Tragically, Mark Trollan was an early victim of AIDS. He passed away December 19, 1986, at the age of thirty-one. David Bell tested HIV-positive as well. In an interview with Cindy Ruskin for The Quilt: Stories from the NAMES Project, Bell explained that after Trollan died, his priorities changed. He stopped buying records or listening to the radio. “I switched gears,” said Bell. “Now I’m lobbying for people with AIDS.”
Bell helped organize two Chicago AIDS activism groups. In August 1987, he chained himself to the fence of Illinois Governor James Thompson’s residence for two hours during a protest against mandatory contact tracing. Despite harassment at work and even on the radio (from an anonymous caller to WLUP-AM), Bell married his partner John Tudor in a large ceremony. David Bell passed away at the age of thirty-three on April 18, 1989.
Danny Alias continued variations on his live act, hosting a devil’s ball on Halloween at Avalon, and even dabbling in stand-up comedy. In 1990, he opened a large antiques market in Chicago and began propping movies. Internet fans have reawakened Alias’s interest in music. “To this day,” he exclaims, “I get emails from people in England who heard [‘Civil Defense’] on the BBC when they were fourteen years old, and they only heard it once—I’m not bullshitting you—and they wrote it down and said it was one of their favorite songs ever.”
Last year, Alias signed to Ivan Smagghe’s Kill the DJ label, which issued contemporary remixes of “Civil Defense.” An album of new material is also on the horizon. Alias admits he’s amazed by the attention. “If somebody says there are no second acts in life, tell them you talked to Danny Alias and that simply is not true. It can happen.” Danny continues, “If it took them twenty-five years to come around to ‘Civil Defense,’ they’ll come around to the other stuff I’m doing.” Adds Alias, laughing, “I’ll be underground till I’m under ground. I’m okay with that.”
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