It's not often in life that you find yourself sharing a glass of tap water with a musical pioneer, but there I was in a not-quite-open-yet BBQ restaurant in Brixton enjoying a beaker of the Thames' finest with Chicago legend DJ Deeon. Sadly the kitchen wasn't serving up the usual steaming plates of sticky ribs and nuclear-orange buffalo wings. It was a disappointment because A) I was really hungry and B) I was going to call this piece Here's What Happened When I Had a Delicious Dinner with Dance Mania's DJ Deeon.
Anyway, enough of me and my appetite. I'd been summoned to South London on an overcast Friday afternoon to meet a man who many claim invented the rough-hewn form of 4/4 Chicago dance music known as "ghetto house." Deeon was in town to play only his third gig in London ever. That night he tore Phonox apart and we forgave him for his absence. Before the show he'd told me that, "the UK crowds always seem appreciative of me and my music. I like it here. There's a better atmosphere here than there is in Chicago," which made me feel pretty smug. London 1, Chicago 0.
Deeon, as you'll hopefully know, is a pivotal part of the Dance Mania story. For those of you who've been living inside a Wifi-less cave for the last thirty years, Dance Mania is the last word in stripped back, raw, and (usually) incredibly rude minimal house music. It's music that Deeon himself describes as being "for the strippers, for the street". Alongside other Windy City luminaries like DJ Funk, DJ Milton and Paul Johnson, Deeon and the Dance Mania crew created the blueprint for a new kind of house music. It was profane, powerful, and profoundly danceable.
His influence has gone far beyond the confines of Chicago—he's huge in Scotland, for example, and last year saw him release an EP on Jackmaster's Numbers imprint—and just last month Katy B hopped on his seminal "Freak Like Me" for one of the hottest records of the summer. We met up with the ghetto house legend for a candid chat on the kind of drizzly afternoon that Deeon claims to love. "I love the clouds. The grey. The rain."
THUMP: How do you feel about the term "ghetto house" then?
DJ Deeon: It wasn't actually a term that we used or came up with. We didn't pick it. It was what we were given. I come from the projects and that's considered the ghetto, the bottom of the pile, but we saw nothing wrong with that. A magazine article called what we did ghetto house. Some people accepted it, and since then that's what it's been called. It took a little of the shine off what we were doing, because back then in the 90s, a lot of Chicago artists weren't really doing anything and here we were doing what we liked to do, playing stuff we made, DJing in clubs where the crowds had grown to want what we were doing.
Was what you were doing—that raw, stripped back, super minimal stuff—in fitting with the rest of the city's house scene at the time?
It was what it was. The thing is, the guys who came before us weren't doing anything. Maybe they were like I am now: I'm in Europe so I'm not focusing on Chicago. I tell all the juke and footwork guys that you could be in Chicago arguing over a $200 gig or be in Europe making thousands. You've got your own genre of music that you created, so focus on that. Back in the 90s that was how it was—we were the only people from the city doing stuff outside of Chicago. Then there were labels like Underground Construction who caught onto what we were doing at Dance Mania, and they tried to do a more fleshed out version of what we were doing, but it was still built from ghetto house. Then ghetto house became juke, and juke became footwork. We saved house in Chicago. I was buying my records from New York and playing it with the stuff I was making. There weren't any Chicago artists doing anything in the 90s.
Did you and the rest of the Dance Mania guys think locally or were you expecting the label to be as huge as it was, and still is?
Never. We just kept it amongst ourselves. Me and my crew had more than one hustle. We started off DJing in the playgrounds, then went onto rent out halls, and clubs that'd have us. We also sold mixtapes—which helped the genre a lot. My best selling mixtape was a gangster rap mixtape, actually. I consider myself the first person in Chicago to have a successful rap mixtape career. I used to distribute them via Ray Barney, and he'd sell them all over. I had a good following down south. Then we got passports and got to tour. Another hustle. With us Dance Mania guys it was a local thing that caught the wave. In the first few years, DJ Rush and myself would hang out, and he got his deal with Dance Mania and he blew up. Playing in Germany and stuff. I wanted to do that. He didn't have kids but I did, so life slowed me down. My first international booking was here in London! A guy called Steve Bicknell and his girlfriend Sheree Rashit ran a label called Cosmic Records. I'd done some tracks for them and they booked me and DJ Milton to come over here.
When you wake up in the morning do you feel like an integral part of the history of house music?
Not when I wake up, no! I have to be reminded. In the past 10, 15 years, pop radio in Chicago has come back to dance stuff. I hear elements of what I did in them. Weirdly it reminds me of when I first met Thomas from Daft Punk. He'd come over to Chicago and he bought a cassette of mine, and I'd played a track of his—"Trax on Da Rocks"—on it so he wanted to meet us. He had lunch with Milton and I and next thing you know, Daft Punk are there, and he's mentioning us on "Teachers"! I've not heard from him since then.
I was chatting to Teki Latex about you coming to Paris for his Boiler Room the other week, and he was telling me how incredibly excited he was to have you play, how you're an inspiration to him...
Oh, that's great. Tell my wife that. She's got no respect for my music...I'll let her know that I'm the man somewhere. I love London, and London people, but Parisians are cool as hell too. They're as good as UK crowds.
How come you're HUGE in Scotland?
Jackmaster! The last place I played in the 90s was Glasgow, with Frankie Vega. There was so much love and support. I remember sitting in my room watching people on the streets and it reminded me of Chicago. A few years later Jack emailed me and at the time I was pretty down: I had Hodgkin lymphoma and was going into remission. Jack told me that he liked my stuff and he wanted to work together. He's always been supportive. Glasgow's like a second home. You don't get that kind of support or love in Chicago. No one over here cares that you're black or old or overweight. They just care about the music.
Is it exciting to be picking up new fans two decades into a career?
It's a blessing. My friends say that I'm a throwback. You still hear my songs on Chicago radio on Friday and Saturday nights even though house is kind of barred. I still get played in my city. Most of the guys playing house are older guys and don't support the ghetto, so they won't play Dance Mania stuff even though Dance Mania was essentially just a major label for house.
How did the Katy B collaboration come about?
It came up through Defected. I was thinking about how if I or someone else came up with an idea to turn it into a "real" song with verses that it'd do well on radio. They were on top of it! They sent it over and I was like, "Hell yeah!" They've done a hell of a job.
Can you tell me a little more about this thing you've mentioned about house being banned on the radio?
Well, on Clear Channel stations, yeah. The demand is coming back, though. It prohibits house music's growth, and you'll only hear what they want you to hear. My kids don't even listen to the radio. They listen to everything on YouTube—they put things in playlists.
I think that what's funny about Chicago house is that a lot of old stuff is being sped up to 120, 125BPM. There's no more original house. Some people have a good grip on it, a good interpretation of it, but a lot of people are just re-editing old records. African house, so-called "soulful house" is big in Chicago. I don't think they've got the soulful part down yet. There's no soul to it. How many times can you play the same disco records? But the foundation is so strong that house'll still be there. Always.
DJ Deeon plays Berghain on July 8th.