One of the most ubiquitous dancefloor fillers of the 90’s, Paul Johnson’s ‘Get, Get Down’ is a a relentless incitement to movement that’s still being dropped by everyone from Seth Troxler to DJ EZ. For its creator the tune represented the commercial apex of his career, although in terms of his discography its very much the tip of the iceberg. Learning his craft in Chicago, the birth place of House music, Paul Johnson has been making music since the early 90’s and boasts hundreds of releases on a dizzying array of labels – with a steady stream of material continuing to flow into the present day.
Other than his aforementioned mega hit, one of the things that looms largest over his career is his association with the seminal Ghetto-House label, Dance Mania. Responsible for some of the most foul mouthed and Jackin’ cuts in club music history, Ray Barney’s label was revived last year and in the process reissued Johnson’s thumping mid 90’s banger, ‘Feel My M.F. Bass’, as well as a host of other classics. Still good friends with Barney and the Dance Mania crew, the label’s resurgence has provided yet another chapter in Johnson’s storied career – one which had already seen him tour the world and release countless records whilst being wheelchair bound (as the result of a shooting accident in the late 80’s) throughout. Ahead of his set alongside Dance Mania cohort Parris Mitchell at Jackmaster’s XOYO residency this Saturday, we caught up with the laid back and smoky voiced Johnson to hear his story…
You’ve put out a crazy amount of music. Do you ever keep track of it all?
Nah man. I’ve put out three hundred records and about nine albums. I lost track when it hit three hundred. I’ve already put out seven this year. Its not really up to me to keep track, I just love putting out music. Its fun forgetting which ones you put out like nine years ago and then somebody reminds you.
When you go to play out then it must be a challenge whittling it down and choosing what records of yours to bring out?
I hardly ever play anything of mine. The only thing that I play of mine is something that I just made that day or something that people expect me to play like ‘Get, Get Down’ that the whole world knows. Other than that I’m always playing other people’s stuff. That’s my whole thing, I never play my stuff. What’s the point? I make it for other people to play.
I have a very particular DJ style like nobody else. I like to play forward. When I get to wherever I’m playing, I go straight to the store to buy something to play that night. I never think about me when I’m spinning just the people who are dancing.
Let’s go right back to the start, before you even started making music. What did you listen to as a kid when you were growing up?
Oh that was a good thing, when I was coming up because both my parents always played music in the house. I’m a 70’s kid, so there wasn’t alot out but Disco, Jazz and RnB – it was just before Hip-Hop and House were even born.
And is that the type of music you look for when you go digging for records?
Oh yeah, when I turn the radio on I go right for those channels. The stuff that they make nowadays I’m not really into. I’ve always been really picky as a DJ and a producer, but when I just wanna listen to music I’ll go and turn on the old school stations.
So when you first came in to contact with dance music – what caught your ear? What clubs did you hit up?
Well luckily I got right into that pretty early, it was actually the same year I started to DJ. I helped my friend do promotion with Ron Hardy for Music Box – they were already in their 20’s and we were only 14. So we got a chance to go in the club when the adults weren’t in there, we got a chance to go in the club when the adults were in there and we were just kids. I got the full on experience right as I started myself, so everything I liked and everthing I saw that they liked all became one to me.
So being a kid I still liked the easier minimal stuff, but when I got inside the club and saw all the singing and the orchestrations, I was like ‘wow, its pretty broad – I like everything!’. I was like, ‘this is what its all about’. When I was 13 I told my mother that I wanted to do music for the rest of my life and I wasn’t joking – this is all I’ve ever done.
You knew Ron Hardy personally then. There’s a lot of stories of his greatness, but I’ve gotta ask, was he really as good as people say?
Absolutely. Whenever he wasn’t too fucked up. Back in the 70’S they did a lot of drugs – I mean we still do tiny things, but they really got down. So whenever he wasn’t too high he was perfect man. He had this nice way of spinning, he always used crossovers so he could completely take any section of music out. Like he’d be playing and then he’d instantly take the bass and the mids out and all you’d hear would be (makes the sound of tinny drums) for like three seconds and people would just be screaming and losing their minds.
When I saw Ron doing that I was like, ‘wow, he is really doing something other than just playing music like they do on the radio’. Like Farley (Jackmaster Funk) and all of them were doing it on the radio, but you know radio have standards so they can’t get crazy. When I saw Ron doing it in the club I knew I could do it both ways and mix it together, that’s why my style pretty much is different from a lot of people, because I always go from old to new instantly.
When you went on to release stuff on the likes of Dance Mania, a lot of it had explicit, sexual lyrics on top. Did that ever get you into any trouble?
Not at all, they just thought I was crazy. My family, my neighbors – they just thought I was being silly, you know? What that really came from was during the very beginning of sampling, you could only sample like one and a half seconds, so you couldn’t really say a lot. All you could do is say what you could as fast as you could. So that’s how a lot of that Ghetto stuff began – we had to say stuff as fast as we could to fit the sample time. What can you say in a second? Jack That Ass! Touch It Up! House! Beat That Bitch! (laughs) That’s all you could get out back then and that’s mainly why the tracks came out the way they did. Nowadays you can sample for a whole day! (laughs)
Actually that brings me on to something I was going to talk about later, but seeing as you brought it up, I’ll go ahead. Now you’ve got more money and technology at your disposal, does that change the way you do your tracks?
You know I was just having this conversation with somebody. The machines I have right now cost $12,000 – but the best thing about them is that they’re so fantastic that I can sound as old and dirty as I want to, or as clean and Grammy Award winning as I want to. So I can do it all, it doesn’t hinder me. It’s great man, it never changes my style. What the technology does is it keeps up with me. Cos I’m always thinking really fast, so I need a machine that can move fast – like a lot of clicking and mouses and all that crap, I’m not with that. I need workstations. I use Open Labs with the Neko XXL and the Miko LXD – those are my two machines.
That’s cool, you hear a lot of people moaning about how its not ‘real’ anymore with the abundance of technology around, but all the DJ’s themselves seem to think its a great thing.
It’s incredible! I love it. Everything I was trying to do ten years ago, I can do now. And I was trying to do that ten years ago so imagine what I’m doing now. I was already waiting for machines like these.
Do these new possibilities going forward keep you motivated?
Absolutely. Like I was telling you, I’ve always been different from all of my other friends because its all in me and I don’t know where it comes from. I just love making stuff – whether it be RnB, House or Hip-Hop, there’s just always something new coming out my head.
Boom, boom. ‘What you doing?’ ‘Recording’. ‘What you doing?’ ‘Recording’. ‘What you doing?’ ‘Recording’ (laughs). I mean I just put a post on Facebook yesterday where I said I’m a trackaholic, because I’ve moved 70% of my studio in to my bedroom, so all I gotta do is just hop out the bed and make something and then go back to sleep.
Are the you the kind of person who makes tunes on the road as well then?
Yeah man absolutely. But I love it, that’s the beautiful thing about it. I believe there wasn’t a term for it when I was younger, but I’m sure I have ADD (laughs)! Cos now I’m constantly on it and weed keeps me level. So I’m sure that’s what I had as a child, cos I was always different from everybody else – I was always running around doing everything, playing every sport – instantly got into DJ’ing and I just kept my focus.
The crappy life I’ve had health wise, that’s been nothing man. That’s just been a shadow to what I’ve been doing, I don’t even see it, nobody sees it. Its all about the music.
Like we’ve spoken about, you’ve released so much music – ‘Get, Get Down’ is nonetheless clearly the most succesful tune of your career and it still gets played today all the time. How did the tune change your career or life as a whole?
Yeah its crazy because it just took off around the world like I didn’t expect. It was just the easiest track I’d ever made. I just needed something to fill in my album – I had nine tracks and they’d asked me to make one more so I said okay. Who would’ve thought the last track that I made in fifteen minutes would be the biggest hit of my entire career! (laughs)
Its hilarious man, I laugh at that all the time – like you gotta be kidding me! It took me three months to make that album, it took me fifteen minutes to make ‘Get, Get Down’, because I couldn’t think of nothing else.
And you don’t get tired of playing it?
Oh no, I never get tired of playing it. I’ve made another version that starts out with all bass, then a piano comes in and its pretty dope. It gives you nostalgia again and makes you think of where you were when they first came out.
Other than technology which we’ve already spoken about, what are the main changes you’ve noticed in yourself and the scene around you during your career?
In myself I’ve just noticed that I’ve gotten more melodic. That’s crazy cos I didn’t think that I could but I like more melodies and more harmonies in my stuff. When I’m making something I like way more changes in a track.
As far as the scene itself, I’ve just noticed things have gotten harder-like the music itself has gotten harder. You know what I mean? Its grungier. Even the way that producers are producing and singers are singing has gotten harder. Not all of it though, but just lately. Especially here with Trap and ‘EDM’-which they’re calling House music in certain places. Its starting to get confused because there’s a lot of people being tagged under House and its not House music that they’re playing or listening to.
So I’m not from Chicago obviously, but a lot of what you seem to read and see these days makes certain parts of the city look pretty dangerous. Is that your experience of it?
The killing part is the only thing they’re showing. We never hear anything but horrible things. I know from travelling around the world that the news only reports what we need to see, not what we want to. This is the most incredible city in the world, I love it so much. All these shootings have nothing to do with the city itself. These are just kids with guns, its not even like they’re gangs or anything – its just a lot of stupid kids with guns.
Does it make you angry that people see Chicago in this way?
Oh yeah. I promise you almost everyone that’s been here has moved here. There’s about fifty different countries that live here in Chicago alone. You thought New York was diversified – you gonna be amazed when you come here. Its beautiful, it really is. The only down part about it is all the shootings that the kids are doing, but that’s neither here nor there man.
Thanks a lot Paul, I’m looking forward to seeing you play on Saturday.
Paul Johnson is playing at XOYO this Saturday alongside Jackmaster, Parris Mitchell and Deadboy. Buy your tickets here.
Top Photo: Delroy Cornick