This is the transcript of our interview with Paul Johnson for The Armando Project. Paul was interviewed via phone on January 15, 2008. Errors in transcription are the fault of the interviewer.
PAUL JOHNSON: I met Armando in ’84. I wasn’t even DJing then. I was still breakdancing.
This is how it happened. I lived around the corner from Armando, about two blocks… I met my friend Michael Airhart. We met each other and both had one turntable and one speaker – one of this and one of that – so we put our stuff together. Mike lived right down the street from Armando, and Armando started to DJ at this skating rink. We used to go there skating. But after the skating was over, we started hearing House Music from the DJ. We were like, “What is this?” That’s when we met him and I realized I lived around the corner from him, so we all became friends.
We got into a lot of teenage BS together. One incident that I want to talk about is the best one. When “Move Your Body” came out in 1984, Trax Records put that out. They used to throw records into their garbage bin that had maybe two stickers on there, or a misprint, but the record was still good. Me, Armando and Mike Airhart used to drive down to 38th and Morgan, where Trax was. We jumped in the garbage can and for hours pulled out records – all the same record, “Move Your Body”. We were thinking to ourselves, “We could sell these records for a dollar! We could go anywhere and sell these for a dollar! They’re still good, they’re still good!”
We were filling his trunk up. The last time we got out of the garbage bin, the workers from the plant saw us and yelled, “What the hell are y’all doin?” and started chasing us. Literally, chasing us! Armando pulled off and left me and Mike in the street, so we’re running down the street with a box of records, being chased by these guys in a van. We’re laughing and crying at the same time. Every 15, 20 seconds, Armando would drive past on another street and yell, “Go that way! Go east now!” For about 30 minutes this went on! We thought we were going to go to jail. It was the funniest story. But we did get away.
And still managed to sell some of those records. Right out of the back of the trunk – no plastic, no covers – just piles of them lying there. We’d pull up around right after school, “Psst, hey, we got ‘Move Your Body’!” Nobody could believe we had it on record. Everybody wanted to become DJs at the time, and it was very very difficult to find that record. They only heard it at parties when Farley or Marshall or Pharris would play it. It was great, man. I really want to put more emphasis on how funny this was! But from that point on we just all became friends, hung out and did whatever together.
I was actually with him when he bought the 707. He was the first one with one, none of us had anything to make anything with. And this is how business-minded Armando was. Right from the very beginning – he didn’t have anything but this little 707 – but for us to make something on it, we’d have to give him records. Say I wanted to make a few tracks on half of a 30 minute tape. He would say, “Okay, you gotta bring me two copies of ‘I Fear the Night’. In plastic.” Crazy shit like that! I’d have to go find two copies of “I Fear the Night” just to make simple beats, just nothing. But it was so brand new that it was fun as hell to us. It was pretty cool, man.
Do you remember DJing with him?
PAUL: Yeah, we played in clubs quite a bit. Actually, Armando was the first person to introduce me to raves. I had no idea what they were – didn’t know anything about them. I was DJing at the Warehouse downtown – all of us did – and I was really good at it. People were like, “You know, Paul should play at these big ol’ raves. They’d love the way he plays.” So Armando got me my first gig in 1993 at a rave he played – I played after him. Sent the whole place up – I still have it on videotape. He said, “You know what? You need to get a passport because you’re going to start traveling soon.” I still didn’t know what he was talking about. But that’s exactly what happened, man. He was the first one who saw it. He said, “Paul, you’re really really good, man, you really make people dance.” I was like, I thought we were all just doing the same shit, you know? But there must have been something that made me stand out and he saw it first.
Well, that’s where I first came across his name. I’m 32, and I couldn’t get into clubs legally until 1996. So I grew up listening mostly to punk…
PAUL: Same with me! It wasn’t any different for us. I love that stuff. Rock music, punk music – man, please! I know those just like anything else I know – R&B, hip-hop, you know what I mean?
Yeah. But I still remember the first time, hearing the kind of shit you guys were beating – the accapellas, the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech – maybe over a beat, maybe just all by itself.
PAUL: Yeah, you know why? We were doing the same thing at the time in the clubs. It was pretty big in the clubs to do that, so they just took it straight to the rave scene. Armando said, “People have to see you. You’re cheating yourself just playing at the club every week.” That first rave was at the Rainbo skating rink on Fullerton. I mean, there were like 5,000 people in there, man. I thought it was just going to be something simple. But when we went in, my mouth just dropped. I stayed the whole party, all the way until the sun came up, because I never even knew this was taking place. I fell immediately in love. So I quit clubs and went straight to raves. I was like, “I want to play every rave!”
You almost did!
PAUL: It was so much fun! It was like, “Wow, this is me!” You know what I’m saying? I didn’t do any drugs – nothing. I even quit drinking. I was a fuckin’ alcohol at that point – that’s what clubs do to you as a DJ, because they’re handing out free drinks all night. So I was clear-headed but having so much fun.
Are there any of Armando’s records that really stand out to you today? “Land of Confusion”, “151”…
PAUL: Actually, when Armando made “Land of Confusion,” I was in the hospital. I had just gotten shot. It was right at the same time. I got shot in May 12, 1987. I was still in rehabilitation, and one of the nurses used to let me slip into the recreation room. WBMX would be on until two in the morning, and they’d let me sneak in and listen. I was like, “Y’all don’t understand – I’m a DJ. I still want to do it, and I’ve got to hear what people are playing.”
So one day I was listening and I heard “Land of Confusion” and I almost died, man. I never heard anything like that. But I knew something was really familiar from it – it was that damn beat that Armando kept making! I’m like… Wait a minute. I think I know this. Oh, man, once I got out of the hospital? He had blown up by then because of that.
So yeah, “Land of Confusion”… “151”… He didn’t make a lot of records, but he did make a couple that were a staple of the tracky part of House Music, you know what I mean?
Kevin Starke was telling me about one night at the Warehouse when Armando played “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, something just completely out of left field for a House DJ – and you told me earlier that you were there that night?
PAUL: Yeah, I was there that night. I was in the front – I always stayed in the front to see all the females when they came in. [laughs] So when I heard the Nirvana song come on… I said, “Man, what the heck is that? I know I don’t hear that.” I just started cracking up. I went back there right when the chorus says “With the lights out…” Man, it sounded so good! The crowd started going crazy! It was so loud and so good!
Wasn’t the sound system there sort of legendary?
PAUL: Well, before you say anything about that – it was never the same. Armando used to hire somebody to bring sound in just for his night. Mike Dunn, too. But they were the only two who were doing that. So it was extra extra poundin’ whenever they’d DJ at the Warehouse. Every other night, it was alright… You could maybe hear yourself talking. But when they DJed, it was just boom, boom boom. Always great sound, all the time.
>So I’d guess they’d pay these sound guys out of their own cut for DJing?
PAUL: Right, but it was only maybe $75 bucks. It didn’t cost much to rent good sound back then. You could get really good sound so cheap because there were a few people competing against each other to rent their sound. So they’d always bring the best stuff – way more than you needed for that room. I think it kind of caught on – why House Music is so loud in clubs. It needs to be way extra loud. I don’t know why – maybe we’re crazy…
Some say that one’s ever gotten the 303 to sound the way Armando did. A lot of have tried…
PAUL: And I tried too! He never would tell us how he got it to run two different sequences at once. That’s what he was doing. But he never told us how he got it to do it. We all had [a 303]. So what we did – you’re going to laugh, man – we had an 808, a 707, a 909, a 626, a 727, and then we’d have two 303s. We’d make sure we had everything MIDI’ed through and a couple of things that synced. So we figured it out – if we could sync two 303s together, we could get two different sequences going at once. And that’s what he was doing. He had two of those motherfuckers and he didn’t tell us!
So you had to kind of reverse engineer what Armando was doing.
PAUL: Right, we had to figure it out. He never told us he had two! But he had two. The 808 triggers the 303, the 909 triggers the 303, and the 707 triggers the 303. So if you had any of those three machines, you could trigger three 303s, if you had them. That’s what he was doing. But he would never let us come over when he was making tracks.
I kind of got that from him too. Nobody ever sees me make anything. I realized if somebody’s in here, they’re either going to move or cough or ask me something – something’s going to take my mind off the thought in my head about what I’m going to make. Most people spend all day in the studio. My stuff is back there right now turned on, turned up and everything, but I’m never going to go back there unless a thought is coming into my head for a song. And when I say “a song”, I mean it starts with the melody – everything up to the vocals, almost. And that’s when I go back there and I completely do that until its done. That’s how I’ve always recorded. So people will leave my house and come back in two hours and a whole song will be done. But yeah, I was just like him in the sense that I never let anyone see me record.
Were you around when Armando became sick?
PAUL: Yeah. I’m going to tell you about this. Nobody knows this but one person – DJ Emanuel.
Me and Armando were extremely close when he got sick. But I couldn’t handle that. The whole time he was in the hospital – months – everyone was going to see him. He kept saying, “Where’s Paul at? Tell Paul to come.” I feel so sorry and ashamed, man, but I never went to see him. I couldn’t see him. And I was already in a wheelchair myself. See what I’m saying?
I knew he was going to die. I couldn’t look at his face because I knew. I knew it’d be the last time I’d see him. I didn’t want to remember him that way. I wanted to remember him as the man I’d always known – smiling, laughing, cracking jokes with each other. And that’s how I kept it. He was so close to me and trusted me that the 707 that he used to mix with? The reel-to-reels? He left those with me and those were his most prized possessions in the world. With nobody else. I felt pretty good about that, that he felt that good about our friendship, because everybody was his friend by this time.
I just feel bad because I didn’t go see my friend. I couldn’t see him that way. And I understand why half of my friends never come see me in hospitals. They never come. And I always say, “Why don’t you guys come?” They never really give me a straight answer but I get it. I couldn’t see him, either. So I finally get it. At his funeral I just sat there and cried, grabbing his arm. Nobody touched me and they let me stay up there. That was my boy…
What do you think is Armando’s legacy today?
PAUL: The thing about Armando that everyone will remember… maybe not the world, because he didn’t travel as much as we did – he didn’t really like it. But he did do it now and again. But Armando’s legacy is always going to be throwing parties. Oh my God, from around 1987, when he started to throw parties himself… Every single party, he would get every single person’s name and address. Every person, every party. There’s a list right now that still exists – I believe Emanuel still has it, a computer list – and it has thousands of names of people from Chicago. Whoever came to his party, he’d let them in free the next time. His guestlist would be damn near everyone. It got bigger and bigger – I can’t really explain it but he always gave you a great party and you didn’t have to pay to get in. And if you did, you didn’t have to pay much. If your name was on that list, you definitely were on the VIP. I mean, thousands of people – they’re my age now, but they totally remember it. His reasoning was that if you were at this party on this date, and five years later you’re still coming, you’re a loyal fan. It was great, man. He started something with that.
You guys came up when people thought House Music was dead and a flash in the pan. Frankie had moved to the UK…
PAUL: You know the crazy thing? When Frankie was doing this, I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t learn about Frankie Knuckles until… probably 1986. Those three years, all I knew about was Ron Hardy, Steve “Silk” Hurley, Farley… Frankie was playing was for a gay crowd, in clubs… I was only 13, Frankie was 28. House Music in a club versus House Music in the street were totally different things. Once they started fusing together, once they accepted that we liked to play beatin’ tracks that didn’t have much to it but it sounded good – then they let us come by and play. And then around 1988, you didn’t hear anything but tracks. It was crazy, just tracks, everyone loves ’em and everyone wants to hear ’em and we were all making them, just tons of tracks. We made so much stuff that never even got released, it’s just ridiculous.
It’s funny, but at the time I actually thought Relief Records was your label. Every single track on Relief from that era sounded like you.
PAUL: I remember Curtis [aka Cajmere] just sitting in my kitchen listening to 30 cassette tapes and picking out sooo many tracks. After three artists, I couldn’t think of anything else to call myself. So we started letting our friends make records without really making records, if you know what I mean?
That’s actually been rumored for a long time. If you listen to the catalog without any names, just 9 out of every 10 tracks sounds like you.
PAUL: I didn’t realize that people had already figured this shit out. I couldn’t cover it up anymore. There were at least 20 people that made records that don’t even exist.
What really changed it for us was when they introduced cassette decks with pitch controls on them. Those came out early enough that we could make a cassette tape, bring it to the party and play it. I saw Pharris Thomas do that – he was the first person I saw do that and it freaked me out. Everyone loved those big old reel-to-reels then. It didn’t sound that great because we didn’t didn’t have much to record with. But when Pharris started playing cassettes, it changed everything. I had to start playing cassettes because we could make our own stuff and play it without having to get a record pressed. That did it right there, man. Bringing it to the party and switching out tapes. People would look at us and say, “That’s not a record, what are you doing with that?” Well, “I made this” or “He made this” or whatever. That’s why so much of our recordings from then are on old cassette tapes. It was the coolest thing, man. It’s even that way now but technology has come so far since then.
Anything else we didn’t get to?
PAUL: Actually, if you could just let people know I’m doing good. People keep coming up to me and acting all concerned, “You alright, man?” I couldn’t figure out why. But then I saw that Steve Hurley and Skip just released that DVD and my part is over three years old. They got me in the hospital when I was fucked up and on medicine. I was just allll fucked up. People are just now seeing it and they think that’s how I am now. Just last week, three people came up to me. “I saw the DVD, man, are you alright?!” [laughs]
But yeah, my health is fine and I’m all ready to do a gang of parties again.