Remembering Paul Johnson: No Weaknesses
Written by ART & PROD EVENT on August 23, 2021
“Lo and behold, he left a beautiful legacy for us” —close friends and collaborators say goodbye to the Chicago house music genius and beloved “Professor X” mentor.
Paul Johnson tracks fit in everywhere, but stand out anywhere. “Feel The Music” opened Daft Punk’s 1997 Essential Mix, with Johnson’s trademark, revved-up sampling style serving as an obvious blueprint for the French duo’s sound.His 1999 house classic, “Get Get Down,” was a bona fide hit, charting in 14 countries and earning MTV airplay. Yet when Johnson tragically died of Covid-19 earlier this month, there was a sense that he was still relatively unsung compared to the impact he made on dance music.
There are artists who flip disco samples into classic house tracks, like Terrence Parker. There are South Side producers like Deeon and Milton who made tough-as-nails “ghetto” beat tracks. Johnson is one of the only artists—maybe the only artist—to excel in both of these classic Chicago styles.
“When Paul did shit for Dance Mania, he sparked the flame [for] Deeon and Funk and all them. He created that shit, they just took it and tweaked it and screwed it back,” says Paul’s close friend and collaborator Gene Hunt. “It’s like a pattern for a suit… Paul is one of the illustrators that helped create that ghetto shit…. all them boys lived in the projects, Deeon and Milton and all them. They got that flavor, but Paul was able to be diverse. Paul can make some soulful shit, Paul will sing on his record, he can make a jack beat. He was universal. There were no weaknesses in his production.”
Hunt is 50, the same age as Johnson when he passed on August 4th. They played at each other’s respective birthday parties. Johnson’s was a livestream earlier this year and Hunt’s celebration went down on July 10th in Chicago, with a lineup that included Johnson, Ron Trent and Sadar Bahar. Hunt and Johnson were also at work on a major project at the time of the latter’s passing—the stuff of house music dreams.
Hunt is an incomparable steward of Chicago house music, a repository of the genre’s artifacts, from reel-to-reels to show flyers. With the blessings and unreleased recordings of Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard’s Fingers Inc, he and Johnson were given free rein to take turns making new versions of the classic material—”the GH-and-PJ combo,” as he describes it.
In doing so, Johnson and Hunt honor a tradition that goes back to the origins of Chicago house, where DJs would drop signature versions of hit tracks, often playing exclusives off of reel-to-reel players. Or, in the case of Paul Johnson, a Tascam four-track, as observed by his protege and Dance Mania mainstay Gant Garrard, known by his moniker Gant-Man, back in the early ’90s. When I speak to him on the phone, he’s in the midst of a busy weekend with multiple DJ gigs. He has a new EP on Teklife, but Garrard’s career spans back the early ’90s when he started DJing clubs at just 11 years old. A year later, Garrard met Johnson, who was twenty at the time. Johnson served as an inspiration from the jump.