DJ Deeon’s appearance at XOYO this week – along with his fellow Chicago veterans Parris Mitchell and DJ Funk – represents a vindication of one of the best-kept secrets in underground club music: ghetto house. Since the ’90s, the style’s high-velocity nagging riffs and downright filthy vocal refrains have consistently influenced the dance mainstream: Daft Punk namechecked Deeon in ‘Teachers’ back in 1997, while contemporary scene leaders like Nina Kraviz, Jackmaster and the Night Slugs crew are avid collectors of the key Dance Mania label. Meanwhile other Chicago house heroes, notably Green Velvet, Paul Johnson and DJ Sneak, have achieved success with a more refined version of the sound. But the most hardcore producers remain cult figures.
Speaking from his studio back in Chicago, the laconically polite Deeon gives some clues as to why this is. ‘I been doing this 30 years,’ he says, ‘almost since there was house music. But the style that we liked at the start was Ron Hardy’s music.’ Ron Hardy was the DJ at the Music Box, known for spinning a more narcotic, down-and-dirty strain of house than the more soulful and gospel-infused tracks that Frankie Knuckles would play at The Warehouse. ‘We didn’t really have a name for it,’ says Deeon, ‘except just “trax”, with an X. Then as time went on, and the beats got faster, some people started saying “ghetto house”. It was all-black crowds in Chicago, maybe a few Latino, but I didn’t give much thought to it, we was just doing our thing really.’
‘Finally I can tell them I’ll play’
Growing in isolation had its benefits. At a time when rap was creating moral panic, the fantastically profane lyrics of ghetto house slipped under the radar. ‘Weren’t nobody paying attention to us!’ laughs Deeon. And the sound was honed to brutally functional, brutally funky, essentials. ‘It was for dancers, dance crews, nobody else.’ But in the mid-Nineties the outside world did take notice – particularly the techno world. ‘I played Scotland, Germany, Holland, some of the Midwest raves too – and yeah, those crowds understood what we was doing, they was appreciative for real.’
In 1998, though, Deeon had ‘a little legal trouble’ and lost his passport, so for years he watched from afar as the international cult around his records grew. He saw the harder, faster footworking scene grow too: ‘Rashad [the late DJ, producer and scene leader] said I was his favourite artist, I made tracks for the dance group he was in as a kid, House-O-Matics. Then he started producing, they got more intricate on the drum machine, more styles, more change-up, faster tempo. But me, I just kept doing my thing, playing house!’ By the time he finally got his passport back last year, Deeon was a legend. ‘I been getting requests from France, Canada, everywhere man, and finally I can tell them I’ll play. Mind you, they’ll all probably be grandparents by now. Still, I’m ready. I can travel, and it’s open season!’
DJ Deeon plays XOYO on Friday March 11.