DJ Deeon brought the Low End to the world

“I come from the projects and that’s considered the ghetto, the bottom of the pile,” DJ Deeon told Vice in 2016, “but we saw nothing wrong with that.” Credit: Courtesy of Tasia Carter

In the mid- and late 1980s, Deeon Boyd built a reputation as one of the best DJs in Chicago’s Low End. He lived in Stateway Gardens in Bronzeville, and he’d spin records in the projects. “He liked playing music for people,” says Tranz, a hip-hop producer from the Low End. “He would set up outside in Stateway, up under the basketball court, and throw a free party every weekend when it was warm.”

Deeon and Tranz met in the mid-70s, when they were eight or nine years old and lived in the Wentworth Gardens projects, between 37th and Pershing just west of the Dan Ryan. Their friendship remained strong when Deeon moved across the expressway to Stateway Gardens in the mid-80s, and Tranz was among the throngs of young house heads from south-side projects—including the Robert Taylor Homes and the Harold Ickes Homes—who trekked to Stateway to see DJ Deeon.

Tranz remembers a party Deeon DJed on the second floor of a Stateway Gardens tower that got so packed it spilled down a stairwell toward the first floor. At one point, Tranz was hanging out near the ground-level elevator when he saw security personnel enter the building and head upstairs. “We turned around, [and] the guy from my neighborhood that just went up the stairs, he walkin’ back,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Didn’t you just go upstairs?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I had to jump out the window. I thought that was the police.’”

In the 1990s, Deeon would release more than two dozen 12-inches through Dance Mania Records, a local house label run by Ray Barney, who also owned a west-side shop called Barney’s Records. The shop had a distribution operation (also called Barney’s) that helped Dance Mania music spread far beyond Chicago. Daft Punk’s 1997 debut album, Homework, features a song called “Teachers” that famously mimics a Dance Mania recording (Parris Mitchell and Wax Master’s “Ghetto Shout Out!!”) as it praises the French dance duo’s musical heroes—including George Clinton, Dr. Dre, and DJ Deeon. In the ensuing decades, Deeon was able to travel abroad thanks to his music, though perhaps not quite as widely as his records: between 2018 and 2020, he performed in São Paulo, Moscow, Ibiza, Toronto, and Tokyo, among other far-flung locales. When Deeon died at age 55, just before midnight on July 17, the news quickly went international. The Guardian ran an obituary the next morning.

Within the first decade of his career, Deeon pioneered a stripped-down, rapid-fire style of house music characterized by overdriven drum-machine beats, throbbing bass lines, and raunchy chants that might sound like rapping if they were more than a few words long. This style became known as ghetto house. “It wasn’t actually a term that we used or came up with,” Deeon told Vice in 2016. “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.”

DJ Deeon made “Da Bomb” in part to dispel rumors that his friend and collaborator DJ Milton had died. It appears on the 1994 release Funk City as well as the 2014 Dance Mania compilation Hardcore Traxx.

Deeon’s style quickly spurred further innovation among Chicago house fanatics. Gant Garrard, aka Gant-Man, became a key innovator of juke, a faster offshoot of ghetto house. RP Boo, aka Kavain Space, helped develop an even faster style called footwork, whose off-kilter rhythms, rapid-fire vocal samples, and minimalist repetition had evolved to accompany the intricate, strenuous steps of footwork dancing. Both these styles grew into distinct subgenres by the end of the 1990s, and they caught fire in Chicago. Footwork later grew into an international phenomenon, though its breakout moment—the Planet Mu compilation Bangs & Works—wouldn’t arrive till 2010.

In the mid-90s, Dance Mania was synonymous with ghetto house, but even before Deeon released his first record on the label, the 1994 12-inch Funk City, he’d had a profound influence on Chicago music. Gant-Man first heard Deeon on mixtapes he’d dubbed at home in the early 1990s.

“What made these tapes special is not only was Deeon playing house music that we liked, that was popular at the time, he was playing his own, unreleased tracks that none of us ever heard,” Gant-Man says. “We were always like, ‘What are these tracks? How do we get them?’ That sealed the deal for me—that I really, really had to make tracks, because that was the only way to have your own identity and to make a name for yourself.”The Reader shot this video in 2013, when Ray Barney and Victor Parris Mitchell relaunched Dance Mania Records.

In 1995, when Gant-Man was still in his mid-teens, he put out a Dance Mania 12-inch called The Youngest Professional D.J. Deeon inspired many artists in the label’s catalog, but he also made a mark that’s much bigger than Dance Mania. (Barney shuttered the label in 2001, then relaunched it with Parris Mitchell, aka Victor Paris Mitchell, in 2013.) Music took Deeon around the world, but he remained connected to Chicago’s proliferating music communities, a generous collaborator who encouraged his peers and up-and-coming artists alike.

“He was our hero,” says House-O-Matics founder Ronnie Sloan. In the early 1990s, Sloan’s dance crew began a mutually beneficial partnership with Deeon and his frequent collaborator, Milton Jones, better known as DJ Milton. “He was somebody that we respected, from a DJ standpoint,” Sloan says. “I could have got a million other DJs. There’ll never be another DJ Deeon.”

Sloan first saw Deeon spin at a party at 58th and State in 1991. By then House-O-Matics had been active for six years. He’d started the crew to give kids in Englewood something to do in their spare time, and he liked creating dance routines to house music as much as they did. What Sloan heard at that party—fast underground house tracks too risqué for radio—blew him away. “Deeon was the first DJ that I’d known to play that kind of music or even do the things that he was doing musically,” he says. “I asked him to come out and DJ at our first party.”

All the Best Musical Moments at the 2023 Music at the Intersection

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St. Louis music lovers acquitted themselves well at the 2023 Music at the Intersection. - Sarah Lovett

St. Louis music lovers acquitted themselves well at the 2023 Music at the Intersection.

The 2023 Music at the Intersection is a wrap, and the festival was by all measurements a triumph in its third year. A head-spinningly incredible lineup, perfect weather, a wonderful audience of 12,000, and a terrific arrangement and assortment of food, beverage and vendors. I saw all 35 acts on the three main stages, plus six acts on the DJ stage, making for over 40 different performances. 

Now that I have caught my breath, here are my awards for the best of Music at the Intersection in 2023. 

Best Old-School Beats: DJ Mahf. After a 10-year hiatus, St. Louis hip-hop group Earthworms are back, down now to skilled verbalists Mathias and Black Patrick. The group knocked the dust off some vintage tracks on the Field Stage like they’d never left, with Mahf scratching and cutting on jams old (“Medicine Man”) and new (“Dancehall Crasher”). 

Best Jazz Tribute: Willie Akins Celebration. Nobody covers more double-bass fret ground than local hero Bob DeBoo, and the bassist had a blast leading a tribute to Willie Akins, the St. Louis sax legend who died in 2015. It was a set that should have St. Louisans bursting with pride at the soaring talent of local soloists, including saxophonists Kendrick Smith, Scooter Brown and Jeff Anderson; trumpeters Anthony Wiggins and Danny Campbell; pianist Matt Villinger; and guitarist Eric Slaughter.

Best Varsity Jacket: Sir Eddie C. The weather was gorgeous all weekend, a sign that St. Festivaria loves us. Blazing sunshine, however, did not stop Belleville native Sir Eddie C from rocking a red-and-white letter jacket on stage and in the crowd. His set on Saturday kicked off the whole festival with an enthusiastic journey through his musical history (shout out to Black Space) with a DJ and live band on what he called “that new St. Louis.” 

Best Backup Dancers: Mai Lee. Tough call here, since Angela Winbush, Smino and Paige Alyssa brought strong contenders, but the sports-bra-and-biker-shorts-wearing foursome behind St. Louis-born R&B singer Mai Lee brought dizzying imagery and delirious choreography to Lee’s set of tunes from last year’s Friendz.

Best Return From the Islands: Big Mike Aguirre. It was a Blu City All-Stars reunion as singer-guitarist Aguirre returned to town from the Virgin Islands for the first time in over three years to play with his old pals, including the colossal rhythm section of drummer Kevin Bowers and bassist Andy Coco. The Lou crew opened, appropriately, with local folklore (“Stagger Lee”) before bringing on Miz Renee Smith, who really cleaned up in the Big Top, proving why she’s the Queen of St. Louis Soul. Bonus: Smith’s 93-year-old mother, in an outfit matching her daughter’s all-white ensemble, danced along from her wheelchair in the front row.

Best Fan Art: Phony Ppl. During Phony Ppl’s main stage set, lanky, dreadlocked, bespectacled frontman Elbee Thrie pulled up a painting of the Brooklyn quintet from the crowd that a fan had prepared for the occasion. It was part of an amiable set of sunny lovers’ grooves undergirded by funk-flexing bassist Bari Bass. Nothing phony about that, ppl.click to enlarge

Kam Franklin. - STEVE LEFTRIDGE

STEVE LEFTRIDGE

Kam Franklin.

Best-Dressed Life Coach: The Suffers’ Kam Franklin. You could see Franklin a mile away during the Suffers’ excellent set on the Field Stage, decked out as she was in motley — multicolor tights and cape, animal print bra and gloves and a giant bright-purple Afro. Horn-drenched and percussion drunk, the band was on fire, as Franklin held forth in story and song, offering bits of wisdom on matters of life and love, all set to sparkling musical arrangements. 

Best Nina Simone Cover: Denise Thimes. Thimes is a poised, nuanced jazz singer who exudes star power, and she closed her set with a ravishing rendition of Simone’s “Four Women” featuring a beautiful arrangement played by pianist Pops Jackson. Second-best cover: Thimes’ gorgeous reworking of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.”

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