The concept of being a DJ’s DJ is about as tired a cliché as someone pantomiming record scratching when referencing the art form. Yet, the turn of phrase is apt for Zebo, a ubiquitous Chicago DJ whose kaleidoscopic selecting and impeccable blends mean he’s equally comfortable opening up for indie-disco duo Holy Ghost or dubstep pioneers Skream & Benga. What DJ can’t admire that level of versatility?
Voted best local DJ by the Chicago Reader the past two years—and hoping for a hat trick in 2012—Johnathon “Zebo” Gust’s skill and music expertise have scored him a position at Columbia College, where he teaches Club DJ classes to a new generation of dance-music lovers. They’ve also landed him at Wicker Park late-night mecca Evil Olive, where his Friday-night residency the Booty Up marks five years of steamy dance mayhem on Friday 9.
Debuting in 2007 with then partner Travas Machel, a.k.a. Pr3-Frosh, the Booty Up has been Gust’s main party outlet in the city. “People just started to notice that we’re doing something different,” the 31-year-old says over lunch at Small Bar in Wicker Park. “Being that it’s a four o’clock spot, the only options were Nick’s, where you could hang out with the jukebox, or go to Ohm and pay a ridiculous cover and maybe not get in.” Gust’s night offered a more eclectic late-night party. That reputation remains.
Looking like the new millennium twist on a ’50s greaser with a dirty-blond pompadour, handlebar mustache and a jigsaw puzzle of tattoos—including “true love” inked across his fingers—a humble Gust points to the Booty Up as the origin of Evil Olive’s hold on Wicker Park nightlife. “We really don’t cater to a Top 40 vibe. It would range from classic hip-hop to new dance, electro and banger house. That was really what got Evil Olive going as a whole,” he says.
Traversing multiple managerial and lineup changes that until recently included Marco Morales, a partner in Zebo’s Hot Dog Records, Gust has proven an invaluable musical ally for the club. “After running Evil Olive and hosting every style of party you can imagine, there was always one person that fit the bill without the possibility of disappointment,” says former manager Eric Bollard. “He’s a hometown hero with a great head of hair.”
It’s a difficult thing for a DJ to have his fingers in that many pies without confusing club owners and promoters, but Zebo’s rise has been a steady one. Since migrating from underground loft parties in ’04, where he focused on the rave side of drum ’n’ bass and house, Zebo’s taken part in reggae nights, fashion-forward disco revues and opening sets for marquee names in hip-hop, dubstep and house.
It’s this broad outlook that makes Gust an ideal fit for Columbia’s DJ courses, a curriculum that he experienced as a student there in ’99. “My teacher got me into thinking outside of the box,” he says. “I was noticing, all these jungle tracks with these reggae samples that I love, those came from somewhere; these house tracks with these loops, those were disco samples that came from somewhere.”
Now he works to instill this same drive and thirst for new sounds into his students. A hands-on teacher, he outlines the technical and political side of the trade as well as the passion. “I love pushing quality music in Chicago and I feel that it’s important that we have DJs of substance in our city,” he says. “I want to see Chicago have a good reputation. It’s important that we reach out to this younger scene and really try to educate them and maintain the city’s musical integrity.”
Zebo rings in five years of the Booty Up at Evil Olive on Friday 9.