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John Summit: bending the rules

The secret to John Summit's success lies in his work-hard, play-hard mentality, which has led to the former Certified Public Accountant to become one of the most in-demand DJs around. Ahead of his set at DJ Mag's Miami Pool Party this month, Megan Venzin hears his story so far

It’s 6:25am and John Summit is still spinning fire. He’s in peak form as he delivers a dark and drilling after-hours set on the sports court of Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas. When his vocal-forward stunner ‘Human’ pumps from the speakers, the riotous crowd morphs into a being all its own, undulating like the waves that crash along our starboard and port sides to the lush synths that set the original apart from his others. It’s a big festival moment — one of many for the fun-loving producer who’s been going hard since yesterday and shows no signs of slowing down yet. 

Anyone who’s attended Groove Cruise can attest that the four-day event is a floating marathon. Lucky for us attendees, this former distance runner-turned-DJ accepts the challenge like a pro. 

Summit’s warm up began yesterday afternoon when he went b2b on the sun-drenched pool deck with French house darling Dombresky, dropping disco and upbeat selections for a glistening, swimsuit-clad audience. Chugging along later that evening, he hosted a top-shelf tequila tasting at the Schooner Bar, even as his visibly tipsy entourage of not-so-secret admirers struggled to keep pace. 

Being mere mortals, we indulged in several naps over the same period. We’re admittedly flagging while the morning creeps up on us, but the complete opposite is true for Summit, who’s waiting patiently with his dreamy Sofi Tukker collaboration, ‘Sun Came Up’, in the queue. “I’m only dropping this if I can time it up perfectly,” he says with conviction. Unfortunately, beams of light crest the horizon at 6:55am, just after his performance comes to a close. Next time, Johnny. Next time.

Summit marches off in a flurry of hugs and high fives, but his absence backstage is fleeting. “I’m back!” he exclaims, throwing his hands in the air to reveal a clean button-up shirt and freshly-washed hair. Count that as another successful wardrobe change —  we’ve witnessed at least four over the course of his current booze-soaked journey. That’s the nature of the beast when champagne showers are in the job description. 

He reaches for a lone, less-than-chilled beer, takes a swig, and grimaces. “What the hell is this?” he exclaims in disgust before finishing it anyway. There’s an adage that states “every time John Summit drinks the last free beer, the nearest Chad will somehow produce for him another even warmer free beer” … or something like that. He hangs a bit longer until the complimentary bucket runs dry, then retires back to the cabin (we think). It’s time to pack up. A deadline is looming, and the finishing touches still need to be applied to a high-profile remix. It’s an eminent project, though stress appears to be the last thing on his mind.

John Summit out in a blue shirt

An Instagram story later informs us that a homeward-bound Summit made it to the Nassau airport — his shoes, however, did not. The camera zooms in on our cover star checking in at the ticket counter before panning down to bare feet on linoleum. “Someone send me home, bro,” he pleads with the lens in a way that suggests he’ll soon surrender to sleep. All in all, we’d expect nothing less from the guy who throws himself a “Sweet 16” birthday rager every year, and who repeatedly takes to Twitter to declare: “My life is a bender. Deal with it.”

“When you think about it, the whole meaning of bender is just to go non-stop,” the Beatport top-selling artist tells DJ Mag on a video call that takes place after we’ve both recovered. “It’s not very on-brand, but I don’t have a sip of alcohol when I’m here. I don’t even go out really, because it’s like my zen spot, you know?”

The place he refers to is Chicago, the birthplace of house music, and John Summit himself. “It’s that work hard, play hard lifestyle,” he insists, acknowledging a respect for balance. He’s got this act down to a fine art — you bet your ass he finished that remix on time, and yes, he really did forget to wear sneakers to the airport. “That was ROUGH,” he admits. 

But every time his plane touches down at O’Hare International, it’s as though a reset button gets pushed, and so on our catch-up call, Summit is sharp, bright-eyed, and full of smiles. He’s “stoked,” and reasonably so — a deepening partnership with Defected Records, his self-launched label, and a summer of European shows only scratch the surface of what’s in store. He doesn’t seem to mind juggling all responsibilities while living out of his devoted suitcase either. Her name is Sexy Samantha and she’s “always rolling.” Follow her @samanthathesexysuitcase.

“My room literally looks like a college dorm,” Summit says. The sanctuary that fills our laptop view is undeniably sparse. But despite its simplicity, the room is a place of power for the jet-setter — it’s a setting to make music, a zone to regenerate, and an essential home base where focus comes first.

“People ask me how I manage the anxiety that comes with partying and traveling all the time, and this is how I do it. This is where I snap it all back together,” he says, referring to his sanity like a puzzle that gets reassembled each week. 

There’s an ease in his delivery that makes us feel like we’re talking to an old friend. Or maybe he reminds us of our younger sibling who’s always in trouble, but somehow never seems to get caught? This relatable quality is the very nectar that draws so many new fans and scene veterans alike to Summit’s DGAF persona and vibrant sound. It’s why the 27 year old artist has become a sonic influencer of sorts; his trademark fiery kicks, deep basslines, and racing BPMs were absent from festival main stages just a few years ago. Times have changed, and he deserves at least some credit for the paradigm shift. 

 

“I think I’m getting to the point where no specific sound defines me, besides good drums and a good bassline, because if there’s no bassline, you can’t dance.”

Summit, whose real name is John Schuster, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago with a supportive family and an artistic streak. He took introductory piano classes in his youth, and eventually became enamoured with amateur filmmaking in high school. His close proximity to the Windy City meant cultural events were always accessible. That’s how he discovered electronic music — while attending Lollapalooza — where names like Deadmau5 and Justice got him hyped. But weaseling his way into afters was how the rising star first became acquainted with Chicago’s classic genre.

“I used a fake ID to get into clubs like The Mid where the big EDM acts were playing, but it wasn’t until someone handed me one of these little slips of paper with an address that I figured out where the real party was.” He pauses to ask, “Do they even do that anymore?” before continuing on with his proverbial rave story. “So, I went to my first afters, and when I get there I’m like, ‘what is this music? It’s just beats. There are no big synths.’ And then I realize, ‘oh, okay, so this is house music.’” From that moment, Summit indulged in more underground flavours. He started listening to the local masters, among them Mike Dunn and Paul Johnson, two legends he eventually went on to play alongside at the aforementioned nightclub which officially closed in 2019.

During undergrad, Summit saw Lee Foss DJ in a Chicago park. “This was back when he was with Hot Natured and he played ‘Reverse Skydiving’, and I realised, I’m in love with this stuff”, Summit explains with nostalgia in his voice. “After that, I was just slamming his demo box for years and years. And then I go to Spybar, and he plays my track. Afterwards, I tell him, ‘Thank you so much, I’m from Chicago too.’” The connection the two made that night laid the foundation for a mentorship that Summit values deeply. “He told me, ‘I’m going to listen to every demo you have.’” 

Years later, in a full-circle moment, the two would craft a musical love letter to their hometown in the form of ‘Summertime Chi’, while other noteworthy tracks like Summit’s ‘Viva Voce’ and ‘Beauty Sleep’ also landed on Foss’ Repopulate Mars label. (More recently, the two taught online Ableton courses together for aspiring producers — because the student becomes the master, and the cycle goes on and on.)

“I’m a big believer that you can learn anything at your fingertips, whether it’s a language, an instrument, coding, you name it,” he shares. Summit is self-taught, and credits YouTube tutorials and online resources as his gateway to proficiency. “It’s strictly the 10,000-hour rule — I just did it all day, every day.”

In between those 10,000 hours, he heeded his parents’ advice and set his eyes on a practical career. He enrolled at University of Illinois to pursue a degree in accounting. Though he had a knack for numbers, course work took a clear backseat to beat-making.

Each study session at the library played out the same way. “I’d be on Ableton for eight hours a day, and then four hours before the test I’d realize I hadn’t even opened the book yet,” he shares of being pulled in two directions. “But somehow, I graduated.” He looked to another UofI alum, Curtis Jones aka Cajmere aka Green Velvet, as an example of what was possible if he simply put his mind to it. 

“He got his Masters in engineering there. I got my Masters in accounting there,” Summit expands on the commonalities he shares with his hometown hero. “He is still a huge inspiration for what I do. Knowing that he was still able to get his degree and make ‘Percolator’ while in school is just nuts.”

 

Summit worked at a nearby bar during that time, where he DJed at night for extra cash. He dished out mostly Top 40 and hip-hop for a college crowd that had yet to develop a palate beyond radio-ready hits. “And then for the very last 15 minutes of my set, when it was almost 2am, [my boss] would say, ‘John, you can play whatever you want.’ I’d play the house cuts, and then I’d see maybe three kids shuffling. Now, if I were to play those last 15 minutes, the whole bar would be going crazy,” he says.

Those lights up, end-of-the-night moments defined John Summit’s early days as he looked for a sound his peers weren’t seeking. He stumbled upon his stage name while opening for the EDM collective Cash Cash at a club in nearby Urbana. Minutes before showtime, the booker asked for his DJ name. “I knew I couldn’t just be ‘DJ John Schuster,’ so I’m like, ‘think quick, think quick –  well, I like skiing, I like mountains, do I call myself Johnny Mountains? No, that’s lame,’” he lets out a laugh at the memory. “So I just went with Summit. I was playing house then, and literally no one was dancing. I think they had me at 25 percent volume, too.” He later added John for a personal effect, and to differentiate himself in overcrowded Google queries. “Now I love it, because it sounds like a very real name, but no one actually has that name.”

The artist who formerly considered calling himself Johnny Mountains eventually went on to become a CPA. He juggled a well-paying job while accepting DJ gigs in the city, for a little while, anyway.  “I don’t think I’ve ever actually said this, but I got fired, because I spent too much time making music,” he offers up. “And then I thought, ‘why not try this full time?’” When he was let go in March of 2019, he already had a few solid releases under his belt, including ‘Touch Me,’  a punchy tech-house heater that Psycho Disco! put out the prior year. Chicago icon Gene Farris had championed the groove in his sets, and Summit saw it prudent to take hold of an opportunity that might not present itself again.

“I told my parents what happened, and they said, ‘You’ve got a degree, so when you run out of money you can always get another accounting job,’” he explains of a conversation that was difficult to have. “Well, now we’re looking for accountants for me!” It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

The pandemic came at a fortuitous time for the emerging producer. His unreserved tweets attracted a social media following, and he made another splash by inviting fellow DJs to shotgun daily White Claws on Instagram Live.

“It’s like sharing a drink with someone, but right away,” he gently mansplains of his fizzy online endeavour. “Artists like VNSSA would show up. We’d both shotgun one, and then talk about what we’d been up to.” The recurring meetings enabled him to casually connect with others in the industry during uncertain times. “The first two months were like a free for all — everyone was on Zoom sharing drinks,” he reminisces on a time of virtual happy hours that are hopefully gone for good. “But then I saw everyone really engage with it. Plus, it was a way to show off my personality — it let people get to know me better than they would have if I’d just posted a selfie.” Summit soon stood out as a blue checkmark-toting jokester, as well as tech-house’s newest MVP, racking up livestreams with Insomniac and reaching thousands of new ears along the way. 

 

When not slamming hard seltzers, Summit leaned into his “work hard” mentality. “So at the beginning of COVID, I finally got in contact with the head of A&R at Defected and decided, ‘I’m just gonna make a record every single day and send it,’” he shares of his output during those “unprecedented” months. “I’m talking literally every single day, I’m sending this guy stuff. And he’s actually responding, which is insane! Because normally you send an email, wait a month, and hear, ‘Yeah. Sorry. We passed.’”

He produced his breakout hit ‘Deep End’ during a single all-nighter in spring of 2020, popped the file over to his contact, and hit the sack in the twilight hours. “And then I woke up, and he’s like, ‘We’re absolutely in love with this. Can you get on a Zoom call right now?’” A sleepy-eyed Summit entered the meeting, to find nearly the entire team at Defected looking back at him from his computer screen. “He literally just starts off saying, ‘Okay, so the release is in three weeks. First, we’re gonna get the artwork done,’” he explains of that fateful exchange. “I’m like, ‘You signed it?!’ By the time I woke up, they’d already been up for eight hours. I think they already had the whole plan in motion. And that’s when I knew, ‘I’m gonna work with this label going forward.’”

Festival season was canceled, and when ‘Deep End’ officially entered the airwaves in June 2020, it became the anthem that burned out, pissed off, socially distant ravers craved.

“I’ve been trying not to go off the deep end, I don’t think you want to give me a reason. I’ve been trying not to, I’ve been trying, I’ve been trying not to…” The song’s repetitive lyrics offered up a warning signal that the top was about to blow the fuck off. Paired with a fierce, syncopated drum pattern, it delivered an auditory pandemic reprieve at its finest. This led it to become 2020’s top-selling record on Beatport and the longest running No.1 record on the site. To add to the accolades, it was also playlisted by BBC Radio 1, KISS FM, and Diplo’s Revolution (Sirius XM). 

Summit’s next dancefloor weapon out on Defected’s D4 D4NCE sister label was ‘Thin Line’, a groovy piano house melter with dazzling vocals, featuring Dutch producer, Guz.

“They crushed it with that record,” Summit shares of the label’s involvement. “That’s still one of my all-time favourites to play, and it was released during October when COVID was getting really bad. It was that feel-good track I think everyone needed.” 

The newfound partnership was a dream come true for Summit. “Simon Dunmore, the owner of the label, has more knowledge of house music than anyone I know,” he explains in admiration. “I think Defected is truly the home of house music, in that they still respect the old classic sound, without being purists. They aren’t afraid to put on new artists and push house music further.”

John Summit against a white wall in a blue shirt

“I plan to get super progressive at times. I plan to go techno. I can make tech-house bangers. As a DJ, there’s always the perfect track to play, and I hope to have a version of that for every moment.”

Their relationship recently expanded when Summit signed a three-year publishing deal that covers existing and forthcoming works, as well as his performer neighbouring rights. He referred to this recent move as a “no-brainer”, as the agreement will open up access to studios and resources as well as a suite of vocalists, instrumentalists, and potential collaborators. For example, A-list names like Purple Disco Machine and Honey Dijon are also in their ranks. 

Summit’s second original release with Defected Records, ‘La Danza’, came out on 11th March. It’s a sweltering tune with a distinct Latin flair. “It’s inspired by Club Space in Miami because that’s one of my favorite places to play,” Summit explains. He remembers a recent performance at the popular 24-hour club where he played from 2:30am until noon.

“I didn’t drink anything for the first four hours. I was treating it like a marathon runner — going slow, staying focused,” he says, waxing back to the days he spent training for races. “You don’t run a four-minute mile right away, you go at an eight-minute mile and take a little sip of Gatorade every 30 minutes.” In the early morning hours, ‘La Danza’ saw its club set debut. “It got a huge reaction,” he shares excitedly of his newest groove, which for some will conjure up recollections of wild nights on Ocean Drive. 

‘La Danza’ has twinkling toplines, steady builds, and a playful low-end. It’s a testament to Summit’s seemingly innate ability to generate body-moving, tech-house tunes — the very stuff that gets him booked at premier events like Ultra Music Festival Miami, Coachella, Tomorrowland, Bonnaroo, and Electric Forest, all of which he’ll appear at for the first time this year. But those fast-moving, percussive jams are far from his solitary speciality.

“I think I’m getting to the point where no specific sound defines me, besides good drums and a good bassline, because if there’s no bassline, you can’t dance,” he shares of this artistic realization. “I plan to get super progressive at times. I plan to go techno. I can make tech-house bangers. As a DJ, there’s always the perfect track to play, and I hope to have a version of that for every moment.”

Summit plans to demonstrate that range with Off The Grid, his self-launched label which he announced this month. The name is a clever homage to his go hard or go home lifestyle.

“Everyone knows if they text me on the weekends, they’re not getting a response until at least Tuesday,” he explains chuckling. The label is a celebration of exploration, escapism, and what it means to have a great time — all wrapped up with a colourful, retro ski-inspired aesthetic that’s primed to resonate with adventurous fans.

“Awesome people send me music all the time, and I play them out. And then [the artists] ask me, ‘Where do I sign this?’ or ‘Who do I send this to?’ and I find myself recommending them to others when I could just be doing this myself,” Summit explains of his fledgling imprint, for which he’ll be running all of the A&R. “It also gives me all the freedom in the world, because if I love a record I produce, I can just put it out instead of going through a whole six-month label process.” 

While Off The Grid is sure to add bulk to an already chock-full plate, Summit embraces the opportunity, and expects his discography to evolve as a result. “My life is very, very busy. But honestly, I’d get so bored otherwise,” he chimes in. His mile-wide grins have been replaced with a new emotion — determination.   

“I want to be taken seriously,” he goes on in earnest. “People do really like my music, thank God, but I feel like I have to try harder to be seen as more than just a party boy.” His entrepreneurial aspirations should help flip the script. (But we have reason to believe he’ll still play the part when it matters most.

John Summit outside a hotel with a neon sign

In correspondence with the label, Summit will also unveil his own Off The Grid branded events, with the first edition taking place during Miami Music Week at Floyd Miami, a luxe speakeasy with bespoke cocktails and an intimate listening room (we’ll be toasting to his new venture at DJ Mag’s annual Miami Music Week Pool Party at The Sagamore Hotel, too.) From there, he hopes to take his line-ups to music festivals, large-scale venues, and eventually, unique, remote locations. 

“Everyone’s done the desert thing already. If I could produce an event out in the middle of Colorado or throw something really big in the Alps, that’d be so fucking cool,” he says passionately. “Those are just goals, straight up.” He already has other dates set for Off The Grid parties starting in May, and plans to throw subsequent gatherings on a monthly basis later this year.

“These are not about making money,” he explains of his intention behind the projects. “They’re about throwing the best event possible.” That means he’ll be showcasing the emerging artists he believes in, the stalwarts he admires, and other signature acts that elevate the house music game. Those late spring shows will set the groundwork for his concept before he heads overseas for the summer months — an excursion that he has mixed feelings about. 

“I’m going to be in Ibiza for basically the entire summer, which is by far the longest I’ve been gone,” he explains with a tentative tone. “But the good thing is I’ll have so many friends out there, and they’re all hard workers.” He takes a second to regroup. “It sounds like I’m complaining about living out in paradise in Ibiza — I’m not. But, I mean, it’s gonna be a lot.” He’s not wrong — he’ll take the stage at spots like Eden, Amnesia, Pasha and Ushuaïa, and appear at Defected’s massive event there (as well as in Croatia). That’s on top of flying back and forth for stateside engagements and other European dates. It’s a packed season that might intimidate a DJ with even decades more experience.

Summit knows what he needs to do. That’s why he’s already taking necessary steps to create a little slice of home away from home. “I might have to get an extra room in my villa that no one knows about,” he thinks out loud. “But then again, there are people who go to Ibiza completely sober, they meditate, do yoga. Hey, maybe that will be me! It will be like, ‘John Summit found himself'. And then we’ll have to do an entire rebrand.”

Something tells us if that were the case, he’d manage to build a devout following under that guise, too, because when John Summit commits to something, he goes all in. And when he bends the rules, the rest of us can’t resist but follow.

Photo Credit: Alberto Gonzales // ag0nzphoto
Styling: Ana Carolina Gonzales // @dmodacreative
Live Shots: Tyler Rittenhouse // @tritt_visuals - Paul Oshiro // @poshyboyy - Adi Adinayev // @adiadinaye

Read more about the DJ Mag Miami Pool Party here

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America's Contributing Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @Meggerzv