Coming up in the early days of house music’s ascent, his influence has helped transform that fledgling sound from Chicago into a global phenomenon. Comfortable weaving disco and soul samples into lush arrangements, racing through sweltering ghetto house, injecting personality into chopped-up beats, and much more, he blazed a trail as a torchbearer of the genre over a decades-spanning career, showcasing the sound’s versatility. The music of countless artists today bears his influence.
We’ve picked out 20 of his most essential tracks in the list below. Check them out. (Find a Spotify playlist with a more limited selection at the bottom.)
‘A Little Suntin Suntin’
From his 1996 album ‘Feel The Music’, Johnson takes us on a sonic journey with pitched samples, vibrant xylophone, brass and strings perfectly complimenting the sharp and snappy drum patterns he was so well known for.
'I'm Alone Until You Show Me'
Johnson samples George Benson’s ‘Turn Your Love Around’ on this track, taking the vocals and pitching them up. The prolific musician had a knack for sampling, with the vocals on this track elevating it among his best.
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‘The Groove Goes On’
Taken from the ‘The Groove I Have’ album (1999) that spawned massive tunes like ‘Get Get Down’ and ‘Love Thang’, ‘The Groove Goes On’ samples Ripple ‘The Beat Goes On’ (1977), showing Johnson’s disco sampling prowess in a blissful track. It’s perfect for when you want a disco moment in your set without the hassle of the unquantized drums (and with a huge kick).
Featuring on his album on the seminal Peacefrog label - a goldmine of all things deep and house - ‘Autobahn Cruise’ shows a more acid side of Paul Johnson’s sound, deviating from the catchy soul sample-based hooks. You’ll hear the influence of this all over Daft Punk’s ‘Homework’.
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Taken from his ‘Vol. 1’ EP from 1992, we hear the raw Chicago house foundations of the Paul Johnson sound - a drum machine and machine noises. Very similar to the mesmerising early FXHE releases that meandered through a variety of minimal drum workouts and seemingly structureless arrangement.
‘Give Me Ecstasy’
While tracks repeating the word ‘ecstasy’ are not that rare nor original, Paul Johnson’s 1995 Dance Mania cut is genius. It’s pure Paul Johnson: quite ridiculous in places, tongue in cheek, and absolutely slamming. The lyric “I’m so high. Where is my balloon?” is a warm reminder that 27 years later fun hasn’t changed that much.
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‘You Make Me Say Do Be Do’
Another from ‘Feel The Music’, infectious vocal samples help along the grooves that Johnson created so effortlessly. A catchy romp that got club-goers dancing in the past, and one that is sure to get them up and dancing long into the future.
'Feel My M.F. Bass'
Show me a purer example of Paul Johnson’s impact on sampling - the vocal from 'Feel My M.F. Bass', the B-side from 1994’s ‘A Night Life Thang’ is featured in everything from Aden’s ‘Feel’ to Ricochet. “Feel my mother fucking bass in your face” being declared over Paul Johnson’s bouncy kick drums, however, is easily the most iconic - creating an intense, bass-heavy club tune with the perfect amount of cheekiness.
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Sex encapsulated, 'So Much' has a couple both dirty talking and pronouncing their love over a steady, soulful melody - with declarations ranging from “do you wanna spend the rest of your life with me?” to “I love you so much.” The unceasing, but relaxed progression of the beat allows this anthem to fit into both the bedroom - and the dancefloor - with both seductive melody and punchy synths.
Read this next: 30 of the best Chicago house tracks
'Get Get Down'
The 1999 smash hit is easily Johnson’s most famous track - topping the charts in five countries, and gracing the top 40 of many more, it’s even been listed as one of the songs people played the most at the turn of the new millennium. But don’t let any of that distract you from why ‘Get Get down’ works - the reason you can feel yourself smiling from just the opening bars isn’t its success, but it's a purposeful mix of simplicity and nostalgia. An expertly chopped up sample of Hamilton Bohannon’s 1978 disco banger ‘Me And The Gang’ is levelled to just its drums and built back up again in a crescendo throughout; that one lyric “down” (or two if you count the ecstatic ‘woo!’ at the end of the second chorus) is as much instruction as an agreement - all designed to have you humming it all the way home from the club.
'Get On My Camel'
Simple! Fun! Disco! 'Get on my Camel' is everything you want from a euphoric, bassy house tune. Paul Johnson's joy and humour are so clearly evident in this track as the beat slowly quickens with the constant calling to 'Get on my Camel and ride'. It signifies everything that made the late producer and DJ so great - he was always having fun with it, it was always about having a good time. It makes you wanna get straight on that camel and ride ride ride.
'What Ever U Do’
This Riviera released banger refixes a Sister Sledge sample into a fist-pumping arrangement. With a disco infusion, it carries those exultant house vibes Johnson pulls off so well, as well as maintaining a sludgier edge with its slippery foundations.
'I Ain't Got No Soul’
Teaming up with DJ Skip on a double-side EP, Johnson’s ‘I Ain’t Got No Soul’ flaunts his self-taught DJ skills within his production, with vocal loops and filters embedded into the track. It’s a masterful jackin’ house classic - but go easy on the filter if mixing this record, Paul’s got you covered.
'Let Me See You Butterfly’
Released more than two decades into his career in 2014, ‘Let Me See You Butterfly’ showed Johnson’s hunger for making bold and racy sounds hadn’t waned a jot. The Chicago favourite was later remixed by a collection of artists from ghetto house legend DJ Deeon to James Curd’s nu-disco spin-off. The original mix pumped a darker style than Johnson's familiar house classics.
'Music’s In Me'
As soon as you hear Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ sample stutter in, you know you’re in for a treat. The sleazy bassline drives the tune but the lush piano riff, awash with plenty of filter action, is the icing on top. It’s sweet, melancholic and the perfect closer to a big, sweaty night out.
'She Got Me On' (vocal mix)
‘She Got Me On’ (vocal mix) is a pretty delightful collage of fizzy textures and cheeky, pitched-up vocal samples. Across its 10 minute length, it strikes the perfect balance between sweet, silly and seedy.
‘Feel The Rhythm’
Kicking off with a jerky, filter-drenched riff, ‘Feel The Rhythm’ bounces along with serious steez. An absolute groover, this one is guaranteed to get people moving and does exactly what Johnson set out to do.
Here, Paul Johnson reimagines the ‘70s funk single ‘White Wind,’ chewing it up and spitting it back out as an absolute pumper. It’s heady and seductive with chops and changes that tease. Lush!
‘Don’t Stop Movin That Ass’
Released on the number one outlet for ghetto house, Dance Mania, ‘Don’t Stop Movin That Ass’ is a booty-shaking banger. Moving at a slower tempo than some of the genre’s racier records, it conjures up a hot and heavy atmosphere that's impossible to resist.
'I Can Make You A Big Freak'
Among the final releases before he sadly passed, as part of the ‘I Can Make You A Big Freak’ EP, this track is eight-and-a-half minutes of euphoria with a sample of Miri Ben-Ari’s ‘Overnight Celebrity’ violin playing. It epitomises all of what Johnson was so good at in his time.