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Paul Johnson (1971-2021): One of the most essential house musicians of all time

Chicago house legend Paul Johnson has died, aged 50

Paul Leighton Johnson was one of a kind. Even in the face of enormous adversity, the Chicago icon lived life with the same irrepressible spirit you can hear all over his classics. After a publicised struggle with Covid-19 in recent weeks, he passed away on the morning of August 4th 2021, leaving behind a chasm in house music.

Johnson was one of the most visible disabled DJs on the world stage, a wheelchair user from the age of 16 after a stray bullet left him paralysed from the waist down. What’s less well-known is that he suffered years of noise-triggered PTSD as a result of the accident, which frames his career in music through the lens of resilience, commitment and love for craft.

By 2010 he was a double-amputee: ongoing pains claimed his left leg in 2003, and a severe accident required the removal of his right leg seven years later, as well as crushing his hip and damaging his spine. Yet Johnson remained undeterred in his mission to bring authentic, heartfelt house music to anyone willing to accept it. As it transpired, there were millions of eager listeners in all four corners of the globe.

Paul Johnson is best known for 1999’s ‘Get Get Down’, an inescapable anthem which landed in the top 5 of the UK Singles Chart, and was the penultimate Billboard Dance Club #1 of the 20th century.

The song is built on a mix of infectious piano stabs, sunkissed atmosphere and a sense of plunging downward momentum that would put any rollercoaster to shame — but it’s the nagging hook which propels it to ubiquity. By our count, there are 270 downs on ‘Get Get Down’, punctured only by the occasional “woo!” as the key piano riff crashes back in. If Johnson hadn’t ad-libbed it, we would surely be yelling it anyway.

‘Get Get Down’ ignited dancefloors in the same way that songs like Basement Jaxx’s ‘Rendez-Vu’, Junior Sanchez & Dajae’s ‘Be With U’ or Pépé Bradock’s ‘Deep Burnt’ did that same year. Yet Johnson’s biggest hit captivated the mainstream in a manner that was rare for such a no-frills banger. In late ’99, all across the world, you could have crossed the street and heard ‘Get Get Down’ pumping out of an underground joint on one side of the road, a commercial superclub on the other and from the radio of a passing car. Such was the extent of how Johnson’s music travelled then, filling communal airspace with joy.

Paul Johnson’s signature meld of disco loops, overdriven kicks and unfiltered sleaze was nothing short of alchemy. Even when chopping up the vocals of Leroy Burgess or Roy Ayers, Johnson’s records simmered with raucous charisma, a gift that made him stand out amongst greats of the ’90s house scene. He banged the box with the best of them.

This mischievousness was in full effect from teen years. According to Johnson, in the mid-’80s he and fellow house pioneer Armando used to loiter around the back of where Trax Records pressed their records, waiting to grab copies of Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body’ that were discarded for minor defects, before haring away to show off their pilfered goods.

As much as having a hand in the direction house music travelled, Paul Johnson should be remembered for his ribald sense of humour and tenacious spirit. That’s who he was, at the core: a man with stories for days and an undimmed sense of adventure

In 1994, Johnson released ‘Welcome To The Warehouse’ on Armando’s Warehouse Records, a homage to the Chicago crucible from which house emerged. Although, as Johnson admitted, he took cues more explicitly from Ron Hardy’s marathon sessions at the Muzic Box in the mid-’80s than from Frankie Knuckles, who had moved onto the Power Plant by the time the young house acolytes could convincingly sneak past doormen.

That Hardy-derived wild streak informed Paul Johnson’s incandescent run of releases in the ’90s. He cropped up on pretty much every key label of house music’s second wave, including Cajual, Djax-Up-Beats and Relief, showing off his dexterity as he went. Johnson’s long-players on Peacefrog are deep, soulful and romantic — although, with tracks titled ‘Bouncing Bed Springs’ and ‘Hour Glass Figure’, it was romance done Paul-style. By contrast, ‘Feel My M.F. Bass’, released on Dance Mania, was unapologetically raw and raunchy.

Johnson continued playing shows as often as possible, holding down residencies on home turf in Chicago throughout international attention that ebbed and flowed with each re-evaluation of the American Midwest’s musical history. The most consequential co-sign from abroad came in 1997, when Daft Punk named the producer on ‘Teachers’, an album cut on their debut LP ‘Homework’. By listing Johnson first on a roll-call of their predominantly Black American inspirations, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Man de Homem-Christo enshrined his legacy for future generations.

This transatlantic relationship bore fruit time and again. Johnson was the second artist released on Homem-Christo’s label Crydamoure, and then lit up the classic Crydamoure mix compilation ‘Waves I’. As Johnson relayed in what looks to have been his last-ever interview earlier this year, he was even flown to Paris in 1997 and found himself “in the living room of [Bangalter]’s father’s house, being told I was one of the reasons they started to make house. Shit was pretty damn touching.”

As much as having a hand in the direction house music travelled, Paul Johnson should be remembered for his ribald sense of humour and tenacious spirit. That’s who he was, at the core: a man with stories for days and an undimmed sense of adventure; someone who could beckon for the mic at shows and cuss out President Trump with absolute authority; a force of nature in the booth, and a sweet soul in person.

Paul Johnson’s final service to the world came in July 2021. Over a series of harrowing Instagram posts spanning just three days, he told us he had been hospitalised with Covid-19, began to say his goodbyes, and then, finally, admitted that he would be moved to the ICU for intubation. There were no more posts after that.

Contradictory information swirled: first, on July 20th, a premature announcement that he had died. Then, more encouraging signs emerged from sources close to Johnson, which sadly did not result in the outcome we all were holding on for. One can only hope that Paul got to read, or be read, the messages of support that poured out from across the electronic community, willing the stricken producer to overcome a situation in which the odds were stacked heavily against him. The brutal clarity of Johnson’s declining health should act as a sharp rejoinder to anyone still, somehow, downplaying the severity of Covid-19. 

A representative confirmed that Johnson passed around 9am CDT at Little Company of Saint Mary in Evergreen Park, Illinois. Age just 50, one of Chicago’s most indefatigable sons, and one of the most essential and distinctive house musicians of all time, departs far too soon. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.

RIP Paul Leighton Johnson.