House Divided

Trax Records helped launch Chicago’s own music genre, but the artists behind the influential label say they weren’t fairly compensated. Now they’re fighting for what’s theirs.


eated behind the console in the basement studio of his Highland Park home, Vince Lawrence is in his element. This is where he produces dance records that make the floors shake, though now he’s cranking up an oldie: the Jackson 5’s “Forever Came Today,” the group’s 1975 disco-style remake of a Supremes song. As the beat blasts from the room’s 20 speakers, some of which rest on cinder blocks, Lawrence describes what a formative record this was for him and, by extension, for Chicago house music. “I think every good producer has to be a musicologist,” he says.

Evidence of Lawrence’s success lines the walls: gold and platinum records honoring his production work on Destiny’s Child’s singles “Girl” and “Soldier,” R&B crooner Joe’s “Stutter,” and former B2K member Omarion’s “Ice Box.” But long before Lawrence worked on these hits, the South Side native helped pioneer a music genre, one birthed in Chicago in the 1980s: house. Fusing disco with electronic instrumentation, house music artists packed dance floors and sold records not just in Chicago but around the globe. Trax Records, the label Lawrence helped found, was at the center of it all, putting the music on vinyl for the first time and releasing some of house’s biggest hits, including Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body” and Frankie Knuckles’s “Baby Wants to Ride.”

Dressed in a gray hoodie and sporting a trim goatee, Lawrence is a young-looking 59. He clicks on a project he’s currently working on, a series of new songs by Chicago singer Jeanette Thomas, who had a house hit back in 1987 called “Shake Your Body.” The speakers throb as the playback booms at a rib-rattling level.

Lawrence helped launch house, and house, in turn, helped launch Lawrence’s career as a producer. But not every artist was so lucky. Lawrence can recite the names of others who had hits for Trax yet face significant financial struggles today — even as their music has generated licensing income and royalties for someone. “I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 15,” Lawrence says. “I’m OK. But there are so many people who aren’t.”

The reason for that is the music business’s oldest story: Lawrence claims the label and its owner, Trax cofounder Larry Sherman, ripped them off. Sherman died three years ago, but Lawrence and many of his fellow labelmates are still around — and they’re taking action.

Last October, Lawrence filed a federal lawsuit against the current incarnation of Trax Records and its owners: Sandyee Sherman, who was married to Larry Sherman when he died, and Rachael Cain, Sherman’s ex-wife and a house artist known as Screamin’ Rachael, who received half the business in her divorce settlement. The suit alleges that the label failed to pay royalties on the artists’ music it licensed and sold — and that in many cases the label didn’t own the song rights in the first place. Joining Lawrence as plaintiffs are more than 20 former Trax artists, including house icons Jefferson, Jesse Saunders, Jamie Principle, and Ralphi Rosario.

But the lawsuit goes beyond music rights to the very identity of Trax. It asserts that Lawrence came up with the name and created the logo (an all-caps, slanted “Trax Records,” a nod to the graphic approach of the British dance band Frankie Goes to Hollywood). And while Cain and Sandyee Sherman pursue parallel visions for Trax’s future, Lawrence contends that he never relinquished his share of the label after he and Saunders cofounded Trax with Sherman. In the suit, Lawrence asks for at least $1 million in damages and ownership of the Trax trademark and the rights to all his songs. He also intends to see his fellow artists emerge with the rights to the music they created — and compensation for the use of their work.

“At some point someone has to stand up and punch a bully in the mouth,” Lawrence says. “It took me 30 years to realize that I was supposed to be that person.”

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