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Paul Johnson, DJ and house producer, dies at 50 of covid-19 complications

DJ Paul Johnson performs during the 2014 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco.
DJ Paul Johnson performs during the 2014 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco. (FilmMagic/Getty Images)
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Paul Johnson, a DJ, producer and house music alchemist who mixed pounding bass beats, hypnotic rhythms and looping melodies to create intoxicating dance music, recording international hits like the 1999 song “Get Get Down,” died Aug. 4 at a hospital in Evergreen Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb. He was 50.

The cause was complications of covid-19, said his agent Camille Harry. Mr. Johnson had been hospitalized with the coronavirus on July 17 and posted occasional video updates on Instagram, laboring to breathe as he declared his love for his fans.

Raised in Chicago, where house music grew out of disco in the early 1980s, Mr. Johnson was a leader of the genre’s second wave in the ’90s, using a turntable, mixing console and Roland beat machine to craft propulsive dance songs that caught on at clubs across the United States and Europe. “Paul Johnson was Chicago house,” the local music publication 5 Magazine wrote in a tribute, “and Chicago house is a lot less bright today.”

Mr. Johnson started DJing when he was still a boy, throwing his first party for his eighth-grade graduation, and regularly inviting friends to dance in his basement after school. At age 16, he spotted a neighbor dancing with a handgun in his waistband. “If that goes off, my mother will kill me,” he later recalled thinking. At Mr. Johnson’s request, his friend began to take out the bullets, only to accidentally fire and hit Mr. Johnson in the shoulder.

“It felt like a car was on top of me,” he said in a video interview released by S&S Records in 2014. The bullet clipped his spine, leaving him partially paralyzed. He used a wheelchair and later had both legs amputated — he lost his right after a car accident in 2010 — while continuing to make music. Were it not for the shooting, he recalled, he would have followed his father and uncles into the Army after graduating from high school.

“This part of my life takes over 80 percent of anything,” he said in the video interview, referring to his health. He added, “I’m always smiling when I’m out on the street, I’m always doing everything everybody wants. But when I go home, I’m hurting.”

Signs of that pain were scarcely visible in Mr. Johnson’s joyous music. His best-known song, “Get Get Down,” layered electronic high-hats, keyboard and hand claps atop the syncopated bass line from disco king Hamilton Bohannon’s 1978 song “Me and the Gang.” The single topped Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart and sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide, although Mr. Johnson said he had written it merely as filler for his album “The Groove I Have.”

“When the album came out, ‘Get Get Down’ overshadowed every other track on the album,” he told 5 Magazine in a 2006 interview. “I had no idea it would be that hot. I was actually kinda upset when that became big, because I worked hard on all the other tracks and that was what blew up.”

Mr. Johnson added saxophones to the mix in songs like “A Little Suntin Suntin” and revealed a playful side in tracks such as “Let Me See You Butterfly,” which called on listeners to pump and shake on the dance floor. In 2004, he cracked the Billboard dance chart’s Top 10 a second time with “Follow This Beat,” which sampled Melba Moore’s soul cover of “You Stepped Into My Life.”

While he never had a mainstream hit in the United States, Mr. Johnson influenced acts including the French electronic duo Daft Punk, who name-checked Mr. Johnson in their 1997 song “Teachers,” a roll call of influential musicians that also included Brian Wilson, George Clinton and Dr. Dre.

Mr. Johnson’s name was first on the list.

Paul Leighton Johnson was born in Chicago on Jan. 11, 1971. By age 10 or 11, he was listening to house music pioneers such as Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and Hot Mix 5 on the radio. “It just grabbed me. Instantly,” he recalled.

Beginning in the 1990s, he worked as a producer for Chicago labels including Dance Mania, Relief, Cajual, Moody and Dust Traxx, which he co-founded. He continued performing at clubs in recent years, although his health sometimes kept him from the stage. Survivors include a brother and a sister.

“Ever since I was young, I always had this inside me, to just go — go, go, get out, get out, faster,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page, accompanying an announcement of his death.

“I’ve never let any type of experiences let me down or put me down,” he added. “I’ve always had my own mind and thought like that. . . . Nobody else was in my brain, so I knew it couldn’t stop me. Even this disability couldn’t stop me. Nothing could. I just had that in me. I still have that drive in me right now.”