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The Paul Johnson Story

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EVERY PRODUCER, DJ, dancer or fanatic will tell you that House music is in their blood. DJs drag their crates from gig to gig, from city to city, passing mix tapes on anyone that will listen.

Producers work the labels, waiting for their big break and a chance to immortalize the groove in their soul on vinyl. Househeads seek out the secret VIP rooms or upstairs lounges miles from home where they’ll dance for hours at a party that never ends and then stagger off to work after a couple of hours of sleep.

But no matter how deep the love goes, there’s still the moment of inspiration. For some, it was being dragged, half-willingly, to a place like the Music Box, the Loft, Sauers or the Warehouse and being initiated into this music, this scene – an underground community they never knew existed.

For thousands of Househeads worldwide, that moment of inspiration is named Paul Johnson.

To most of his fans and even some of his peers, Paul Johnson was an “overnight success” – a guy they first heard on 1999’s worldwide hit “Get Get Down” or the tracks he released on Dance Mania, Relief and Dust Traxx that set the protocol for the House sound of an entire era. But like the saying goes, there was a hell of lot of work put into being an “overnight success” – more than most people realize.



“The man released more than a hundred underground EPs,” Paul’s friend, DJ and producer Gant Garrard (aka Gantman), says. “Everybody had them and were playing them but not everyone knew that the beats they were playing were coming from Paul.”

Infighting and jealousy can be a sad reality in the House scene, just like any other. It’s human nature. But in a world where everyone has a beef, it’s amazing that you’ll never hear a bad word uttered about Paul Johnson. Walk up to any producer and they’ll go out of their way to show their respect. As we worked on this story, every person we contacted had a story to tell, and wanted to make clear the impact that Paul Johnson – both the artist and the man – has had on their lives.

 

The Early Years

If there was a single DJ that motivated Paul to get behind the turntables, “it’d have to be Farley,” he says. “I was breakdancing at the time – that was my thing. Then I went to my first party and saw the DJ mixing and wanted to do that. I was listening to everything: freestyle, hip-hop, House… I threw my first party for my 8th grade graduation.

“Listening to WBMX on the radio, basically all of the Hot Mix 5, Steve Hurley – those guys were an inspiration to me.”

Perfecting his skills in the early days of House, no party was too big or too small – including his own parties after school. “Before the rave parties, it was ‘hood parties, ghetto parties, black parties,” Gant says. “A lot of people don’t know this but Paul basically created the ghetto House sound. I remember the night I met him, it was at a high school party sponsored by WKKC. He had one turntable, a four track and about twenty cassette tapes he was mixing. Paul was one of the first to sample R&B songs that were out there over his own beats.”

Gant – who was all of 12 years old at the time as a turntable prodigy on WKKC – was amazed when he saw that Paul, who he had never met before, was in a wheelchair. “I never knew about that. I was amazed even more when I saw how he was. He wants to do everything himself and he’s accomplished more than just about any walking person out there.”

Paul was injured in a shooting accident in 1987. “One day I was mixing in my basement, and one of my boys who just joined a gang came in with his gun in his pocket. He started dancing so I told him to take it out. He started emptying the gun to the bullets out of it and it went off and hit me in the shoulder.” In the aftermath of the accident, he was in shellshock for a long time. He would jump whenever he’d hear a loud noise. Paul had initially wanted to join the army, but after the accident he realized that music was going to be his career.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he says. “I’m just thankful to be alive.”

Many of Paul’s fans who have never seen him perform are unaware that the man whose music gets so down and dirty on the dancefloor is in a wheelchair, like Gant was back in 1992. “It’s courage and a lot of heart. People don’t even know the real story of all he’s gone through because he’s such a private person, but his friends know. That’s enough.”

 

Master of the Arts

Paul resumed DJing and began to record his own tracks – the first of the hundreds of productions that make up the vast Paul Johnson catalog. He considered it a natural progression from beat mixing during his sets. He became known for a harder, edgier style of House that knowledgeable fans and DJs came to know after the first few seconds as the characteristic “Paul Johnson sound.”

According to Glenn Underground, a friend since the 1980s, the two of them ushered in a new era of House using looped disco voice samples. “It was a sound that we coined together,” he says. “Nobody has released more material in the city of Chicago than I have, but Paul Johnson is right on my heels. He’s right there.”

Frankie Vega, now marketing and distribution director at Sole Unlimited Distribution, was working at Hot Jams (now at 4814 S. Pulaski) in 1992 when the first tidal wave of Paul Johnson recordings hit the shelves. “In the first year of working at the store, one thing was clear: any Paul Johnson record that we had for sale sold and left the store just as fast as it arrived. I used to tell our customers, ‘You don’t even need to hear it. Just buy it because you and I both know that all his records are good and everybody is buying them!'”

At around the same time, Vega and Angel Alanis were throwing rave parties. “I first approached legendary rave promoter Roger Pedraza (RP Smack) of Ripe Productions with the idea to work top selling artists who were also DJs into rave parties,” Vega says. “The music at the time was strictly techno, trance, break beat and some House. But when Paul Johnson hit the rave circuit he blew up! Before you knew it, one promoter after another was booking him.

“I mean to actually think back and understand that we were the first to have guys like Paul Johnson, Robert Armani, Felix Da Housecat and others playing our parties before anyone else in North America… That was really something!” It was something. It was the introduction of House music to a new generation that had never heard it – the same thing that had happened in Chicago ten years before.

A few years later, Paul hooked up with Relief and Cajual Records and released some of the imprint’s seminal material, both original productions and remixes. Label owner, producer and DJ Cajmere/Green Velvet remembers loving an EP of Paul’s on Clubhouse Records with the underground classics “I Feel Good” and “Nice and Fast”. “He brought a lot of creativity to the labels,” Cajmere says. “He’s a very warm person and he really tries to be as positive as possible.”

“It’s in my head before I touch the equipment,” Paul says of his writing process. “I can do a track in about 30 minutes. As I’m making the track, the vocals come to me and it goes from there.”

In 1993, Paul brought Gant into the studio with him. There was no million-dollar rig behind his sound. “He had a mixing board and a Roland beat machine. That was it. It was about working with what you’ve got and making the best music out there with it.”

 

Home & Abroad

From those beginnings came a string of hits in the 1990s, many (including “Doo Wop” featuring Candi Staton) on the Dust Traxx label, which he helped start up with label head Radek.

“I remember before Radek and I worked together,” Vega says, “he was telling me about travelling to France with Paul. They were going bananas over him and his records. It’s no doubt why Radek would’ve wanted Paul Johnson for one of the first Dust Traxx releases and if not to help head up the label.”

 

Master of the Arts

Paul is amazed at all the love he gets from countries you would never expect to be up on House. Like in Turkey – they were all over him. “In Chicago, it’s been here so long that everybody’s used to it,” Paul says. “It’s nothing special. Over in Europe, it’s still new.”

Europe acted as the proving ground for the 1999 smash hit, “Get Get Down” for Moody through Bad Boy Bill’s former label, Mix Connection.

Ironically, he originally wrote it as a filler song. “When the album came out, ‘Get Get Down’ overshadowed every other track on the album. I had no idea it would be that hot. I was actually kinda upset when that became big, because I worked hard on all the other tracks and that was what blew up.”

“We were in Paris, all those places on tour,” Gant Garrard remembers. “After all of those EPs, it was amazing to see how he blew that place up with ‘Get Get Down’. I wish people back home could see how people went crazy to that song.”

Frankie Vega was hired by Mix Connection to write the official press release for the album. The song had a “major impact. You heard it on MTV, both in America and Europe and it was everywhere a dance record was heard or sold.”

 

Giving Back

“One thing I remember is that Paul was always bringing people to Cajual,” Cajmere remembers. “That’s sort of rare. You know, a lot of artists are really about their own stuff, and maybe they’re afraid that bringing in someone else might threaten them. Paul isn’t that way at all. He’s extremely unselfish.”

Stories about Paul discovering and mentoring younger producers and guiding their early careers abound. Gant Garrard was similarly taken under Paul’s wing at the age of 12. “He was becoming a man and I was becoming a teenager,” he says with a laugh.

These days, Paul’s high on Que of the group the Monkeynuts. “He keeps me motivated,” Que says. “He’s been majorly influential in the way I write and produce. Aside from all that, he’s like a big brother to me.”

Paul met producer and DJ Stacy Kidd through a mutual friend at a House party in 1989 when Stacy was 17 years old. Afterward, they sat in a car for about three hours, listening to tracks. “I had all of these unreleased joints on cassette that Paul was checking out,” Stacy remembers. “It turned out that some of them were from his own recordings.

“It was a huge honor for me. After that night for probably the next two years we’d be together every single day.” Paul also hooked up Stacy with his first record deal with Dance Mania. “If it wasn’t for Paul,” he says, “I wouldn’t even be in this business.”

He’s not the only one, whether they know him or not, who feels that way about Paul Johnson.

Czarina Mirani is the editor-in-chief of 5 Magazine. You can contact her at czarina@5chicago.com, via twitter and facebook.