Ask virtually any first-generation Chicago house DJ where they shopped for records in the ’80s, and you’ll hear a common refrain: Importes, Etc. This influential store, tucked into a garage in Chicago’s Printer’s Row, was house music’s hub. “It was like walking in another world,” recalls DJ and producer Ron Trent. “There were so many records in there that I had never seen before.”
“Importes, Etc. back in the day was the record store, where everybody went,” enthuses house pioneer Jesse Saunders. Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy visited weekly to pick up new singles. Detroit’s would meet Farley “Jackmaster” Funk at the front door. Some of the store’s employees, including Brett Wilcots, Chip E. and Derrick Carter, became important producers in their own right. In fact, Importes, Etc. was the original source of the term “house,” as a commercial genre.
Importes, Etc. owner Paul Weisberg began his career in the music business as a DJ, spinning at the Playboy Club in 1977. “I had a ball at Playboy, believe it or not, ’cause people were cool, and I had carte blanche,” Weisberg recalls. As much as he enjoyed DJing, Weisberg didn’t think there was much of a financial future in it. Since he was a Billboard reporter familiar with local record pools like Dogs of War, he decided to start his own pool in early 1979.
Weisberg ran I.R.S. (Independent Record Services) out of a garage owned by his father at 711 South Plymouth Court. Initially there was just a small counter, staffed by Weisberg’s friend and fellow DJ Danny Goss, where jockeys could pick up their singles. The pool was serviced by major labels Atlantic, Motown, RSO and Mercury as well as by independents, mainly from New York. “I was always the kind of person that was structured enough to say I’ll be here when we’re supposed to be open for you, and I was,” Weisberg explains. “We just kept growing.”
In March of 1981, Importes, Etc. opened as a storefront allowing DJs to purchase records that couldn’t be acquired through promotional channels. “I turned around and said to my father, ‘You know that loading dock you don’t use? Do you need it?’” remembers Weisberg. “And that was it. That’s the store.” Initial print ads omit the “e,” in Importes, but it was soon added. “The whole idea was to try to be a little more European,” Weisberg laughs. “It was a goofy thing, but it stuck!”
The store exclusively sold dance music, and its first employees were all disc jockeys from Chicago’s gay club scene. Brett Wilcots and his partner, Frank Sells, both DJed at Man’s Country, a gay bath, and became buyers at Importes, Etc. Wilcots also served as store manager. “We really started working on getting the music that was import and domestic, that was independent – stuff you couldn’t buy anywhere else,” Wilcots recalls.
When Frankie Knuckles played a new record at the Warehouse, members of the crowd watched Importes, Etc. owner Paul Weisberg to see his reaction.
Paul Weisberg established a close relationship with Frankie Knuckles, DJ at the Warehouse and later the Power Plant. “We had a great understanding between us. It was unspoken. We just had respect for each other,” Weisberg recalls. “I thoroughly enjoyed how that man expressed himself through music.”
Knuckles made regular trips to New York to find new records and establish label contacts. In a 2011 email, he described himself as an unofficial buyer for the shop. In return, I.R.S. exposed Knuckles to new music from the UK, Canada and Italy. “We’d play records for Frankie,” Goss recalls in an interview for Gridface. “We’d buy five copies at a time, and when those sold, we’d buy another five. I can remember that we were responsible for breaking Nick Straker [Band] ‘A Little Bit of Jazz’ and Bo Kool & the Funk Masters ‘Love Money.’ We’d get a record and we’d be hot on it, and we’d turn Frankie onto it, and Frankie in turn would go to the Warehouse and play it, and then everybody would buy it.”
When Knuckles played a new record at the Warehouse, members of the crowd watched Paul Weisberg to see his reaction. “People would run to me if he was playing something. They wanted to know what it was,” Weisberg recalls. Knuckles referred customers to the store as well. “People would run up to him, and they’d say, ‘Where can I get this record?’ He would just look at me and go, ‘Importes, where else?’” Weisberg laughs.
The store established a “Warehouse Music” section to help customers find the records Knuckles was playing. Dick Guenther, another former DJ at Man’s Country, was in charge of the store’s merchandising and displays. According to Gay Chicago Magazine in 1987 and confirmed by Brett Wilcots, Guenther was the first to shorten “Warehouse Music” to “House Music” on store signage.
As the store expanded, more disc jockeys began working there. Mark Vallese, who spun at Broadway Limited, did sales and A&R, focusing on Hi-NRG. He later became director of the I.R.S. record pool. Tony Mundaca, who spun at New City Tap, a blue collar club on Chicago’s southwest side, worked the store counter.
Many of the shop’s imports came from C.A.P. Exports, a nearby distribution company owned by Walter Paas. “It was too much work to try to buy from distributors in Europe, because you would have to make distributor buys, meaning the quantities would have been too high. So it was easier to buy from importers that brought them in,” Weisberg explains.
Between the record pool and the shop, however, I.R.S. and Importes, Etc. sometimes handled vast quantities of 12"s. “At times we could go for mega-numbers.... I used to get phone calls from the record labels in Chicago going, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Weisberg laughs. “‘You just purchased 500 copies on Monday. That’s a distributor order, and then you re-ordered Thursday...?’ I’d tell them, ‘This is what’s going on. Whether you know it or not, you’ve got a hit!’”
At one point Weisberg, Wilcots and Knuckles flew to New York to ask Salsoul to repress the Disco Madness LP, a collection of exclusive Walter Gibbons mixes and a favorite of Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy. The record had been pressed in limited quantities and was selling for $50 on Chicago’s used market. Importes, Etc. ordered 1,000 new copies, an unheard of amount for an independent store.
Importes, Etc. had few competitors. At the time Gramaphone stocked dance music but still carried rock and blues as well. “Our biggest competition was Loop Records,” Wilcots recalls. “Especially once the [local DJ crew] Hot Mix 5 happened, that competition became a great rivalry, and it was a very friendly rivalry. There was no animus among us.”
At first, gay and straight DJs in Chicago had different playlists and separate social circles, and some DJs stayed away from Importes, Etc. because they saw it as a gay shop. As Frankie Knuckles became more influential and the Hot Mix 5 popularized underground dance music on a wider scale via their regular show on WBMX, the store became a mix of customers from different backgrounds.
House music became a widespread scene in Chicago, with its own fashion, soundtrack and terminology. When local DJs began making their own edits and beats, it became a product that could be exported as well. Frankie Knuckles and his friend Erasmo Rivera began making tape edits of new and old music, much to the excitement of dancers. In 1983, through I.R.S. and Importes, Etc.’s close relationship with Salsoul, Knuckles was offered the chance to remix “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice. Tony Mundaca recalls Brett Wilcots letting out a scream of excitement when the first copies arrived.
Around the same time, local producers, including Jesse Saunders, began creating their own tracks. “Frank Sells, who was the head salesman at Importes, came to me one day and said, ‘You’re playing something that people are coming here asking for, but we don’t know what it is!’” Saunders recalls. Saunders recorded a tape for Sells to play in the store, and it turned out patrons were looking for the beats Saunders was programming himself. Sells said, “If you can get your hands on some copies of this, we can sell a shitload of them!” With help from Vince Lawrence, Jesse Saunders recorded “On and On.” It was pressed to vinyl at the beginning of 1984, and Frank Sells bought all 1,000 copies for Importes, Etc.
Meanwhile Brett Wilcots, who had studied classical music before becoming a DJ, decided to try his hand at production. He and Erasmo Rivera first collaborated on a remix of an unreleased Salsoul song in 1984. September’s “Are You Free Tonight” is the earliest record labeled with the phrase “house mix” – or the term “house,” for that matter. (Wilcots later went on to found the famous acid house label and distributor Gherkin Records with Dick Guenther’s partner, Jim Stivers.)
In late 1984, Brett Wilcots and Tony Mundaca left Importes, Etc. for C.A.P. Exports, while Frank Sells went to a rival record pool. The next round of employees to staff Importes, Etc. included Chip E., a student at Columbia College who had been shopping there since high school. In interviews, Chip E. claims he was the first to shorten “Warehouse” to “house” on store signage. Whether it was Guenther or him, Chip E. quickly realized the term’s marketing potential.
“A lot of times people don’t know the names of records,” Chip E. told Gridface. “[I decided] if I’m going to make a record, I’m going to put something in it that’s so dominant that it’s difficult for people not to know the name of the song.” Chip E.’s first release, the Jack Trax EP, contained “It’s House,” which beat listeners over the head with the phrase and established house music’s stripped-down, repetitive style.
Importes, Etc. continued to expand in the late ’80s, moving into a larger building next door to the loading dock, but retaining the same street address. Employees included Charles Williams, Stacy Wellons and Derrick Carter, before he worked at Gramaphone. The shop hosted plenty of in-store appearances, with artists such as Eartha Kitt, Paul Parker, Patrick Hernandez, Scherrie Payne, Colonel Abrams, Miquel Brown, Carol Jiani and Annie Lennox.
“We threw crazy-ass parties!” Weisberg laughs. “One time... I can’t remember the record – it was some kind of a Chinese motif, and we did 1,000 fortune cookies! The whole place was decorated that way.”
Around 1990, the music business began changing. Independent dance music no longer reached a wide audience through Chicago radio, and with the advent of CDs, most DJs weren’t buying vinyl. “We threw a lot of money into building a beautiful store,” Weisberg recalls. “I could see that it wasn’t going to last. It was not making enough money anymore.” A short stint selling used CDs at a different location proved fruitless.
Importes, Etc. closed in 1991 after ten years as the focal point for Chicago’s house music community. I.R.S. was acquired by rival record pool Let’s Dance. Today Paul Weisberg co-owns a pipe shop, Pipe Mart, in Palm Desert, California.
Without the business savvy of I.R.S. and Importes, Etc. employees, Chicago house music may never have become a commercial success and a worldwide movement. “What we gave people is what they wanted. The best music, the best selection, imports and domestic, a healthy classics catalog and we gave them price,” Weisberg concludes. “And they came by to listen to our shitload of music. Stuff used to go out in twos like crazy!”