Anyone who has spent any amount of time in and around the Chicago music scene has been on John Simmons’ dancefloor. A second generation student of the groove, John Simmons is frequently assigned the honorary title as one of the true underground heroes of Chicago house music. Anyone can do the math: performing a couple hundred sets every year, Simmons can count his gigs in the thousands, the number of people reached exponentially higher.
But Chicago’s hardest working DJ is not wholly of Chicago — or of DJing — anymore. It’s a trait and a matter of pride among Chicago DJs that they never want to reveal themselves before they’ve mastered their craft, and after honing his production chops with some fiery edits over the years, Simmons made his debut this Fall on the label of another Chicago underground spirit, Tevo Howard. All I Can Say features 5 tracks of electrified soul with a big bottom end bassline that will make them claw up the walls. Among the choice cuts that have gotten a lot of attention from DJs in Europe and across North America are remixes from Paul Johnson and Howard himself.
No one deserves the acclaim more, and trust that no one will wear it better than the Roland DJ Ambassador. 5 Mag has written about John and showcased his mixes from time to time over the years, but we’re proud to present this first 5 Mag interview with him.
Hi John, thanks for talking to us. You just released “All I Can Say” on Tevo Howard’s label. How have you been feeling about the reaction thus far?
Thanks for having me. The response has been positive, much more than expected. I don’t know how many units we’ve sold and streamed over the first several weeks, but the visibility has been good; it’s been featured on a number of lists on Traxsource, Beatport, Spotify and others.
I called you “Chicago’s Hardest Working DJ” and I think it’s true. When did you start DJing? Maybe you can tell us about your family background here.
I started DJing Fall 1993, my sophomore year of high school. My father had a DJ/sound company called Foxxplayer Sound that was pretty influential in Chicago from the ’60s through the ’70s disco era, and into the ’80s house music era, and even through the ’90s, until my father got older.
I always loved music and playing records, tapes & CDs, but I never had interest in any DJing or doing sound until my friend Norman came to our high school band camp in the summer of 1993 with a mixtape he had made [after] his parents bought him turntables that summer. That inspired me to want to do it myself, and I was fortunate to have some of my father’s rental turntables & a mixer around the house/garage. Before long I had the gear up in my bedroom, and got my start playing HS and daytime parties until the summer of 1996, when I started getting deeper into raves/underground parties.
How many gigs do you play in a month and would you dare to estimate how many that is in an average year? I mean it’s a lot, right?
Right now at this point in my career I’d say about 14-15 events per month, so that’s well over 200 per year. I’ve slowed down on gigs the past year or so. I do a lot of weddings and mobile events, so that keeps me from having to hustle at too many bars. I’ve also been teaching for the Style Matters DJ Apprenticeship for After School Matters, so that takes up some of my time, and I’ve been working on more music production as well. I just can’t be out there in Chicago as much as used to.
So I wrote a few years ago about some of the edits you were making. What was the motivation? Were you making these for your sets or to ramp up your production skills?
The first edit that I did with Jon Iler, the Dayton “Sound of Music” came about in the studio from just trying to do something that would meld two of my favorite styles, ’80s boogie-funk and house. That’s it. I went back to that formula with Richie Heller our Chicago Boogie Connection EP, which features housed-up remixes of The Whispers, Rick James, and Shalamar.
The rest are from the Fresh Roasted beat battle I competed in, and also from various projects in Ableton to ramp up the skills, yes.
There’s an easy way to drop a record these days, which is to just come up with something “okay” and release it yourself on Beatport. Why did you avoid doing that?
Thanks for saying that. I was in the studio with my buddy Andrew Pascale, and we just cooked up something we liked. Andrew is super talented and nice with production, and our ideas came together with the song “All I Can Say.” We just did it for enjoyment; we never really thought of releasing it until Tevo inquired about it.
Your story kind of parallels Tevo Howard’s in a way. People were like “Ah, Tevo! He’s a great dude, always comes to parties…” and then she shows up one day with these records that he’s hustling all over town and then he’s shipping them all over the world. How did you connect with him for this record?
Tevo had been asking me for music for a few months, maybe more than a year. Once I got Paul to remix the song, I figured with Tevo remixing it, I finally had something to package. He’s given me a ton of advice about record making and industry protocol. It’s great to have someone like him who wants to push me, someone from his hometown of Chicago.
Can you tell me about the technical aspects of making the tracks on “All I Can Say”? What gear did you use, what tools do you use to create, and how does that contrast with gear/tools did you using when you first got started?
We worked in Ableton using the Push controller, and Akai MPK 49 MIDI controller. This was before I most recently got into the Roland hardware gear. All the sounds on this one are from Ableton: a handful of classic Roland drum kits, and some bass/synth sounds. Andrew laid down that fat bass line from an Ableton stock bass kit on my Akai MPK 49 keyboard. Right now I’m working more with Roland hardware to jam and then using Ableton for recording and editing. The Roland hardware I’m currently using is the DJ-505 (DJ controller with drum machine,) TR-8S (hardware analog-modeled drum machine,) TB-03 (Roland boutique re-creation of the original TB-303 acid synth) & VT-4 (voice transformer.)
Did Paul do the remix on your suggestion or Tevo’s? I mean normally guys just hire remixers, but this is your first record, and it’s an important one.
I asked Paul myself to do the remix; I paid him out of pocket for it without having any idea of what I was going to do with it. I’ve been playing Paul’s music since ’93/’94, and have known Paul personally since ’96/’97, so he gave me a bit of a discount!
I just wanted to have Paul Johnson to remix our song. When Tevo followed up with me about wanting music, I figured he would be the perfect person to give the project.
All I Can Say is out now on Tevo Howard Recordings, with artwork by Chicago visual artist Christopher Tavares Silva.