Music

Deeon Does Deeon

Talking mixtapes, Daft Punk, and Dance Mania with a ghetto house don

Christopher Good

There’s something unusual about DJ Deeon’s Friday night set at Pilsen’s Fiesta del Sol: it’s clean. Tonight, his stage is within earshot of neon-lit carnival rides and family friendly attractions, so the raunchiest matter has been scrubbed out, presumably for the children’s sake. But as the bobbing and juking of the crowd suggests, even some conveniently placed backspins can’t dampen a cut like “Let me Bang.”

In the eighties, DJ Deeon started channeling his acid house and Italo house inspirations into something a little less predictable and a lot less polite. Today, he’s widely regarded as a trailblazer in what came to be known as “ghetto house”: a style defined by crisp drums, sticky melodies, and lustful vocal hooks (“Shake dat Butt,” “Bounce Shawty,” “Put it in yo Mouth,” etc.). As a half-dozen articles (and Deeon’s own Facebook) reiterate: it’s music “for the strippers, for the street.”

When the legendary label Dance Mania collapsed and the city’s house scene began to dissipate in the late nineties, DJ Deeon kept afloat. But in 2002, the Chicago-born and Bronzeville-based producer was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The fight changed his life. Despite chemotherapy and a decade-long period of remission, the cancer recurred in his heart in 2012. It took quadruple bypass surgery, the amputation of his lower left leg, and a struggle with depression before Deeon could recover.

But in recent years, he’s been back on the scene––and winning considerable clout, from Boiler Room sets and Katy B production credits to a reissue on trendy Glasgow label Numbers. (Deeon and label head Jackmaster have been tight “since 2000,” he says). Producers like Bok Bok, Nina Kraviz, and Jimmy Edgar continue to play his tracks and name him as an influence. 

Over coffee, Deeon and I talk about ghetto house, Berghain, and one of his favorite DJ selections: someone’s mix of Eurhythmics (“Sweet Dreams”) over Cajmere (“Percolator”). This speaks to the way he puts creativity ahead of house purism––“I got a little flak about that, but I was like: ‘I don’t care, it works!’ It works every time.” 

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How did you first get into music?

When I was little, my mom would have parties in the front yard. I would just pick records and play them, the records that I had heard on the radio. It started from there, just one old turntable with the little arm that picks up.

I was raised in the seventies through all the soul––then, hip-hop came in around ’79, I was going through that, and house music was born in the eighties. And then the nineties, and that’s the best: the eighties and nineties were the best! I liked the way everything was mashed up, like how people mashed up hip-hop with house with the hip-house thing. I was really happy that it [all came] from Chicago.

When did you start producing?

I started in ’81. One of my friends bought a set of turntables––well, his mom bought it for him for Christmas––and we started going to his house and DJing a little bit. Later on that spring, I got a job working in a gas station, and I purchased my own stuff, my own little Mattel Synsonics drum. That got me into doing a little production here and there, making beat tracks and blending a cappellas over them. That’s how it all really started. As time went on, as I started doing parties in the other housing projects––I would think of all the concepts, and produce things more personal to the area.

I was DJing in the neighborhoods and in the projects––the one I grew up in was called Wentworth Gardens; the one that I moved to when I was like sixteen was called Stateway Gardens. I lived on the seventeenth floor, and you know, I was doing the parties over there, so I was cool. I would make mixtapes and sell them, and it got to a point where they were popular. I would get cassettes and dub them, and then I would be downstairs selling mixtapes to the guys that were selling their drugs. The people that would come in would come in to buy weed from the West Side, everywhere––they would come because the people [living in the projects] had the best weed––everybody would come from everywhere, and I’d be right there, selling my cassettes.

Who was on those mixtapes?

Steve Poindexter, Mike Dunn, Steve Hurley, Chippy, you know. And then, Cajmere––“The Percolator,” when it first came out––the nineties were the best, man, it all coincided. And my own stuff.

How did you end up on Dance Mania?

In like, ’91, ’92, I had heard that Armando [Gallop] had heard one of my tracks and had a record that sampled it. When I bought the record I figured he had sampled it, so I immediately  called Ray Barney at Dance Mania and told him he sampled my stuff off [one of my] cassettes. I was like, “I want to know what y’all are gonna do about it, because he doesn’t have the rights. [Barney] was like, “Cool, come and talk to me.”

Before I talked to Ray, I talked to Armando. Armando was like, “I knew it was yours, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with you. So it’s cool, maybe I can get you all on a record.” And he told me that he’d make it up to me, [that] he’d put my stuff out. That’s all I wanted to hear. Everything kind of fell into place.

I didn’t really think about being a professional DJ until, like, the early nineties. It was mostly just a hobby––[but after a while, it was also] income, you know what I’m saying?  I was selling cassettes and making, like, five hundred dollars a week. The cassettes led me to produce more so I could make more cassettes, and after meeting Ray, I started doing records. Shortly after that, I started doing bookings, getting bookings in London––this is back in the nineties; ’93, ’92. After that, that’s what I wanted to do, period.

How did it feel to get that kind of attention?

It feels pretty good, man. You know Chicago, you don’t really get the recognition, you don’t really get the attention in Chicago that you get in Europe, it’s the best thing. See, you interviewed [RP] Boo––you know, Boo, he kept his day job forever. It’s a dream [when] you’ve been working all your life, and then you take off doing what you love. That’s crazy, that’s awesome.

Do you like touring?

I like it because it’s not just Chicago––the Chicago hypocrites and Chicago politics. It’s worldwide, you know––there’s a lot of music out here for everyone. You get to hear different styles and different cultures, and you know, you get to see the crazy Irish boys that go crazy––I love those guys.

You played at Berghain a few months back, right?

It was magical, man. Mostly a techno crowd, you know, real receptive. They were waiting on me, actually! Usually I do my time and I be ready to go, but I wanted to hang around a little bit because this place is famous. When I left it was 8 o’clock in the morning––and the line was still outside when we left. It was an experience, man.

You get a shout-out on “Teachers,” a song from Daft Punk’s Homework. What’s the story there? 

I met Thomas [Bangalter] at Gramophone Records because I had made a cassette [with] one of his tracks. When he came over from Paris and saw my cassette with his record on the playlist, he told me that he wanted to meet. So me, him and [DJ] Milton hung out, had a little coffee, hung out and talked. Next thing I know, it was Daft Punk. I was like, wow.

Is that you singing on your tracks?

Yeah, most of them are just me. Maybe I get one of my nieces, wife, girlfriend at the time––but mostly, it’s just me.

How do you feel about the term “ghetto house”?

Well, that’s what they call it now, so that’s what it is. And I kinda adopted that. Some people call it ratchet house, booty house, stuff like that…but I think it’s just street house music. That’s all it is.

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