Chicago Spotlight: A Conversation with DJ Lil John

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DJ LIL' JOHN™ is without question one of Chicago's most well-known DJs. Millions of listeners have heard his "hands do the talking", as he has mixed a variety of music on-the-air for almost three decades!! From the college radio station WKKC 89.3fm (1980's), summer guest spots on the Top 40 powerhouse WBBM 96.3fm (1990's), to the Midwest's #1 urban station WGCI 107.5fm (2001-2009), and syndication on the infamous CORE DJs™ Radio Show on 30-40 radio stations nationwide. He even had a mix-show slot on a station in Bermuda (Hott 107.5fm) for a couple of years!!  Nationally (and internationally), DJ LIL' JOHN™ has been blazing the airwaves and rocking the crowds in San Francisco, Phoenix, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and more. From spinning onstage with R&B legend Charlie Wilson to political events for 1st Lady Michelle Obama, from local high schools to the concert halls & sports stadiums, you've heard the signature sound of DJ LIL' JOHN™

I had a chance to talk to DJ Lil John about his career and maintaining his longevity in this scene.

BW:  When did you start DJing and how did you get started?

DJ Lil John:   I was an aspiring DJ around the age of 9.   I started DJing after I went to a roller skating rink called the Loop. They had a small floor where you’d take off your skates and dance.  I saw the DJ had 2 turntables and a mixer and I didn’t have that. I just had one turntable so I got to know the DJ and learned what he was doing and how he did it.  I found my own equipment eventually and months later when I returned to the skating rink I told the DJ, “I know how to do that now”. I was only 13 at the time and he was impressed and let me spin.  That summer I got a job there.

BW: So in high school, you already had a professional DJing gig?

DJ Lil John:  Actually it was right before my freshman year of high school. I remember because they couldn’t pay me. I wasn’t old enough to be on the payroll.  I agreed to be the DJ for the Thursday Night dance party and got free admission to the skating rink. Once I was of age they put me on the payroll. I’ve never had a summer off since then.  I’ve been DJing ever since.

BW:  You said you wanted to be a DJ since the age of 9.  What made you want to do it? What was it about DJing that you were drawn to?

DJ Lil John:  Music has always been in my life. My mom always tells the joke that when I was a baby, my aunt would come over and babysit me and she’d be playing music loud and cleaning around the house and my mom would say you are gonna make my baby deaf and turn the music down.  When they turned the music down, I would wake up and start crying. My aunt would turn the radio back on and I’d go back to sleep. [LAUGHTER] I think music has been in my blood since I was in diapers! [LAUGHTER]

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I also remember listening to a radio show on 94.7.  You have to know by 12/13 years old, I had my own DJ setup in my room.  I would listen to the radio and try to imitate people like Herb Kent.  It's funny because I had no idea I wanted to be an on-air personality back then. I remember listening to his radio show and they would play these nonstop disco mixes.  I couldn't figure out how they were doing that. I was trying to imitate it at home.  That DJ was Kenny "Jammin" Jason. It wasn’t until I saw the DJ doing it on two turntables at the skating rink that I learned how they did it.

You know growing up in the late 60s/early 70s, the adults got together and would bring their records over to basement parties. My parents would play music and have basement parties and the kids would be upstairs. When I was 10, I’d ask my dad to come downstairs and he would say no but my mom and aunts would say let him come down he knows the music.  I would come down and play their 45s and they loved every song I dropped. That crowd of my aunts and uncles would tell me “You jammin J!” That went to my 10-year-old head and I never stopped after that.

BW:  What was your introduction to house music?

DJ Lil John:   My first introduction to house music was the Original Warehouse on Jefferson.  Back in high school, I was one of the regular DJs for the Mendel Parties. We had a group of DJs and we would break down the HS parties around 11pm.  I remember one of my older “play sisters” said, come on let’s go to the Warehouse.  I didn’t even know what the Warehouse was. I got permission from my parents and she got us in. Thankfully, I also knew Kevin and Craig Abdulla who were the Doormen for Frankie’s parties.  When I heard the music I was amazed. Frankie played music I had never heard before.  I couldn't buy it and I didn't hear it on the radio.  It was all new.  I got hooked on it. I couldn’t go every week because I was still in high school but I got to go enough times tho. By the time Frankie set up The Powerplant I was of age.  What set Frankie apart from any DJ I’ve ever seen was the fact that he was so in tune with his crowd. He would play songs and the crowd would sing the songs right back to him like he was a choir director. I had never seen anything like that in my life. I didn’t realize until years later what an impression that made on me as a DJ.  

BW:  Would you consider Frankie one of your earlier influences?

DJ Lil John:  I would consider Kenny "Jammin" Jason and Louie Vega influences but Frankie influenced me as well.  It was how he connected with his crowd that influenced me the most.  He made me conscious of my audience. It’s funny, I have my naysayers now who think don’t play this way or I don’t play this style, especially because I'm on the radio, but I know my audience.  That’s what I took from Frankie. No matter where I go, I’m gonna read my audience.

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BW:  I have to be honest, that’s a common theme in my interviews. The idea of “knowing your audience or reading a room” is always mentioned when I talk about maintaining longevity in this scene.  It’s great to have talent and skills but to have longevity you have to be versatile.

DJ Lil John:  Exactly and there are so many aspiring DJs that are bitter because they feel they haven’t gotten their shot, or don’t do this or don’t play that...you know I get it. Unfortunately, when they get their shot, they are so busy trying to impress the world that they are disconnected from the audience and the only one dancing is the person in the booth. Then when they aren’t hired again, they go back to being bitter.    I would love to sit down with any of them and let them know. [laughter] You have to know that It’s ok to read the crowd and give them what they want. You aren’t DJing for you, you are playing for an audience. Unfortunately, a lot of them do DJ for themselves and that’s why they are at home and bitter.

BW: So when did radio come in to play?

DJ Lil John:  After high school, I was introduced to WKKC.  They had a mix show called Friday Night Audio.  I joined them in 1983 and was part of the mix show squad. Some of the early members were Hugo H, Greg Winfield, Brian Fraizer, and more. Bobby Q Bobby had a show on Sunday where he would play house music for 4 hours.  Armando, Paul Johnson, and others would send Bobby their tracks on cassette. It was a chance for up and coming house music artists to have their music played. I was only with WKKC for a stretch and made a name for myself and had regular DJ gigs.  I was one of the main DJs at the Mendel Parties and I was a resident DJ at The Rink Zone.   Things were cool but someone at WKKC  felt a certain kind of way because they weren't getting parties and spinning regularly so they led the charge to get me out at WKKC. I ain’t sayin no names but…

Bw: Dang! Haters back then too huh? 

DJ Lil John: Oh yeah. [laughter]  You know I get it.  As a DJ you will get mad if you spend thousands of dollars on equipment but it doesn’t leave the bedroom.  So it’s a valid point of anger but you can’t be mad at the next guy. Anyway, he led the charge to get me out of there but it actually just freed me up to do more.  I’ve done guest radio stints on WNUR, WHPK, WCRX and then I started doing major radio. I did a guest spot on WGCI in the 90s and I did an entire summer at B96. I was turning in mixes every week.  That’s when I learned I could get paid for this! [LAUGHTER] B96 cut a check!!

So fast forward to around 2001, that’s where WGCI came in to play. Steve Maestro was already there.  That was my first main commercial gig. Mike Dunn was there too. I had a heads up about people leaving to start Power 92 and was told to have my demo ready. That weekend my phone was blowing up and they needed mixes. Steve said he needed me on the team but I knew they didn’t play house music so I didn’t want to do it. I wound up reconsidering that, however.

BW:  Really? Why did you reconsider?

DJ Lil John: Back then I also had a business. I had an operation where I distributed music to DJs.  Back then hip-hop was really poppin and the radio was playing it all day long. If you remember 106.3 used to be 106Jamz.  Hip-hop was making a surge in Chicago and I started a distribution specializing in hip-hop but it was hard trying to get music from those key hip-hop labels, like Def Jam.  I thought, if I was on a station playing hip-hop then these labels would start sending me music. It was a power move and it worked. It helped my business and it made me more versatile and well known as a DJ. 

BW:  You mentioned how people underestimate you because you are on the radio. What is the difference between playing house music on the radio vs playing at the club?

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DJ Lil John:  I'm so glad you asked me that!  There is competition in this industry. The program department wants people to stay tuned in.  You can't win if you play songs people aren’t familiar with. No matter what song you drop, it has to keep your audience’s attention.  When I got to WGCI in 2001, my DJ slot was Saturday night at 1 am. I remember thinking, my friends are either in the club or in the bed!!  I had to do what I had to do. I remember Elroy Smith was going to stop playing house music at one point.  Around that time I started to get house remixes of urban stuff.  R&B Artists had house mixes so I started putting them together and Elroy liked that. 2 years later I had the 5 pm slot and was competing with Boolu on Power 92. When I started playing those kinds of tracks, Elroy was sold. That’s how I was able to do house on the radio but even after that, it changed.  According to programming, there were fewer househeads and more steppers who were listening to the radio. So they were trying to move away from house music and it was tough. Househeads weren’t listening to the radio like that and if they were they didn’t want to hear these R&B versions, they wanted to hear Osunlade and stuff like that. It’s been a constant fight to keep house music on the radio.

BW:  It goes back to knowing your audience including the programmers?

DJ Lil John:  Exactly! You know in essence, I have to provide the content to keep listeners tuned it and the programmers happy or we don’t have a show.

BW:  So the show you have now on 106.3, how is it different to what you’ve done on radio previously?

DJ Lil John:  What Mike (Dunn) and I are doing now allows us freedom but we are older and have knowledge. We understand how radio works because we’ve both been doing it for so long.  You can play whatever you want in the club, you can’t do that in radio. What Mike and I do with Club 106.3, we split it up. We each do 2 hours. So I do R&B remixes or classics for the first hour and with my second hour, I can play my Josh Milan’s, Osunlade's, or Black Widow!

BW: Alright now! [laughter]

DJ Lil John:   Mike comes behind and does the same thing. This way the show content has balance. It’s the old and the new.  That works for us and our audience. When we first started doing this 6 years ago, it was Sundance on the first hour, me on the 2nd hour, Mike on the third and we would have guest DJs for the 4th hour.   I was the mix show coordinator for the show at the time and would review mixes to use for the 4th hour. The funny thing is that we put out the call for guest DJs and mixes and we weren’t getting them.

BW:  Seriously? As much as people talk about getting put on?

DJ Lil John:  Yup! It boggles my mind to this day.  I had cats coming up to me saying, I need to get paid!  I”m like well you can DJ in your bedroom for free, or you can use this radio as a billboard and use that to eventually get paid. I swear I need to teach a class!

BW:  Everyone wants to fast track their success.

DJ Lil John:  This is why you have so many bitter DJs.  If you bought your equipment at 19 and you are now 29 and still playing at home, you are going to be mad!  I hate to say it but it’s true. You get mad at a Mike Dunn, Terry Hunter, Steve Maestro, DJ Lil John, etc for getting consistent parties and work but…

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BW:  ...they don’t understand the dues that you guys paid.  I’m pretty sure you guys took free gigs back in the day! I’ve interviewed Mike Dunn, Steve Maestro, Terry Hunter and everyone started from very humble beginnings.  

DJ Lil John:  Absolutely. We also followed our passion, not the paycheck.  We didn’t get into it because of the money. We got into it because the love we had for the music. I had a handful of guys who would send me mixes consistently but from the outside looking in it looked like favoritism but the truth was I wasn’t getting mixes like that.  The programming director started to realize we were using some of the same DJs for the guest DJ slots and questioned it.   I had to tell him we weren’t getting mixes like that. It was then that they decided to cancel the guest DJ slot. Around the same time, Sundance quit. That freed up the first and last hour and the program director said we can do two hours a piece instead of one. So that’s how our new format came to be. The ratings were crazy and that made the program director happy and since Sundance was gone, I became the host! It was the beginning of a new era for me! Whew...talking about it makes me realize how long I've really been doing this! [LAUGHTER]

BW:  Literally since you were a kid.  You’ve been doing this for so long, what are the keys to longevity in this scene?

DJ Lil John:  Follow your passion...not the paycheck.  I’ve made a noise for myself and made a name for myself.  I was passionate about music. I was DJing just so people could hear me and put me on. I wasn’t thinking about getting paid for it. I just loved it. When you have that much love for your craft you can’t lose.  Like I said earlier, I didn’t realize I could get paid for it until I did that guest spot on WB96. As long as you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase!

BW: All the time.

DJ Lil John:   Unfortunately it’s not for everyone. Some are following trends, not passion. The passion has to come from within.

BW:  It’s not just passion either I think, it’s really a gift.

DJ Lil John:  That’s it! I realize what I do is a gift and that’s why I’ve had longevity.

BW:  So what does the future hold for DJ Lil John?

DJ Lil John:  The future is to get on the plane with Mike Dunn! [LAUGHTER]

BW:  I know that’s right!  Me Too!!! [LAUGHTER]

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DJ Lil John:  Honestly, that’s my next goal.  It’s time. All of the things are now in place for me to make that move.  My time is freed up to create and produce. I’m celebrating the 25th anniversary of Large records and the song I did for the label turns 25 years old. We are going to re-release that song. It's cool because I remember Louie Vega broke the song.

BW:  Oh wow...that’s dope!

DJ Lil John:  Yeah that song is coming back and I’m back to producing again and making songs. My goal is to go to Europe with a name on my chest, and new releases.  I’m also doing remixes again. The time is now! I'm ready!

BW:  I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you so much for speaking with me today!

DJ Lil John:  It was my pleasure!!

 

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You can catch DJ Lil John on 106.3 every Friday Night with Mike Dunn and live every Monday night at the Family Den.

You can also check him out at Room 43, every 1st Saturday of the month for Diversity along with fellow resident, DJ Mickey Calvin.

As always, till next time!

See you on a dance floor!

Black Widow!

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Black Widow

D.Sanders, a Chicago native, is a devoted mother, blogger and writer who is passionate about her family, friends, women's rights, living authentically and telling her story.   She is also a spoken word recording artist under the name, Black Widow. She has been writing and blogging for over 15 years providing commentary and expressing thought on life, love and relationships. Her artistry can be heard on two house music singles, “Rough”, and “Gruv Me” released by Grammy Nominated Producer and CEO of T’s Box Records & T’s Crates, Terry Hunter under the production of Mike Dunn and Dee Jay Alicia. . Both singles reached #1 on Traxsource’s Afrohouse and charted top ten overall as well reaching the top ten in their year of release.  She splits her time blogging about the Chicago Dance Music Scene on www.blkwidowmusic.com and on her book’s website, www.thesumofmanythings.com.  She is excited about her debut book, The Sum of Many Things, scheduled for release in June 2017.   She wears many hats but refuses to be placed in a box.  She believes that women are "The Sum of Many Things".  Embracing all of her roles as a woman, she firmly believes in breaking free of preconceived notions of womanhood.   She believes it is her mission to define her own life experience, femininity and sexuality and not have it defined by society.  She openly shares her story with hopes that women understand their worth, power and place in this world.