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RIP Paul Johnson: The Chicago icon whose life epitomises the miracle of house music

If ever needing proof of house music's spiritual essence, look no further than Paul Johnson

  • Words: Marcus K. Dowling | Photo: Marie Staggat
  • 5 August 2021

Roughly one in 500 Americans has died of COVID-19. Now, among that immensely tragic number is Chicago-born house music DJ and production icon Paul Johnson, at the age of 50. Known for his vast catalogue of sublime house classics, including the 1999 globally top-10 pop and dance charting single 'Get Get Down', his impact is both unique and monumental.

House music is a spiritual, African-American sound that unifies the churches of soul, jazz, funk, disco, gospel, and the blues under one magical, thumping groove — inspired by those aforementioned genres' most sanctified moments. At its Chicago-borne root, house is a transformational, religious experience.

Chicago's house DJs who worked behind the decks and produced tracks in the era between 1980-2000 are the sound's apostles. Like reading a musical Bible, we can still play Paul Johnson's 'Get Get Down' and glean why jack had a groove, and house music - even after greats like Paul Johnson pass on - lasts far longer than all night long.

Being a great house DJ requires being in service to the record because the record is in service to the people. There's a level of selflessness required to sustain this as a career that few ever achieve the humility necessary to accept. Perhaps, because Paul Johnson's life was both euphorically defined by house music and also nearly tragically destroyed by violence, he best understood this unique selflessness. Maybe, more so than anything else, this is why he had a career that made the music industry, and people who love music, better for being on his dancefloor.

Paul Johnson's baptism into house relates to the revered happenings presided over by DJ Ron Hardy at Chicago's Music Box. During the mid-1980s house music height, Johnson, already a DJ and break dancer, was a regular attendee. Hardy's sets were legendary, and the words people use to describe them - upon one listen to Paul Johnson's catalogue - make perfect sense as inspiration to how Johnson created and played music.

In a Red Bull Music Academy interview, Hope Faulkner-Ridley, another person who frequented the Music Box to dance, noted, “Every fiber of your being was tingling with excitement and exhaustion...he [was] just getting started at 3:30 AM, and he had a look on his face... [like] he is going to serve you."

However, a few years after discovering some semblance of who he'd be for the rest of his life, in 1987, Paul Johnson was hit by a stray bullet and suffered a leg injury that was so serious that it forced him to use a wheelchair. By 2003, his injured leg was amputated, and in 2010, a serious accident claimed his other leg.

If ever needing proof of house music's holistic, spiritual essence, look no further than Paul Johnson. In one instant, he's a teenager having spine-tingling experiences blissfully jacking the night away. In yet another, those same experiences were wantonly snatched from him at a formative moment in his life. Johnson was undeterred. He became a producer in 1992, by 1997, he was honored on Daft Punk's track 'Teachers' as a heroic influence on the French touch tandem, and in 1999 released 'Get Get Down'. Johnson discovering not only the fortitude to live, but the ability to thrive, feels miraculous. His drive and dedication that made this possible.

In a video clip posted alongside the announcement of his passing yesterday on Facebook, Johnson reflects: “Ever since I was young I always had this inside me, to just go. Go, go, get out, faster. I never let anything hold me back, I never let type of experiences put me down.

"I knew everything I wanted to do, nobody else was in my brain, so I knew it couldn’t stop me. Even this disability couldn’t stop me. Nothing could."

In a 2014 interview, his honest humility is apparent. “I have a very particular DJ style like nobody else. I like to play forward...I never think about me when I’m spinning – just the people who are dancing... 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. It’s all about the music.”

Through house music, Paul Johnson made his life paradise. He made the dancefloors he played to feel like paradise.

Marcus K. Dowling is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter

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