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RIP DJ Deeon: a force of nature who rocked speakers around the globe

DJ Deeon's legacy has impacted every strain of modern dance music. Joe Muggs and peers of the Chicago ghetto house pioneer pay tribute

  • 20 July 2023

Deeon Boyd aka DJ Deeon, who died this week after battling increasingly complex health problems, was a force of nature in dance music. He was the definition of someone who finds their groove and sticks with it, regardless of fashion or fad, always 100% focused on the dancefloor – and in so doing he stayed creatively vital his whole life long – inspiring others across sounds from purist techno to post-dubstep to the fearsome complexity and hardcore dancing of Chicago’s footworking crews. Or, as The Blessed Madonna puts it: “he is truly a progenitor of a sound, and a language and a genre, the roots of which have wound around every element of modern dance music.”

Deeon was a teenager when house music swept over his hometown in the mid '80s, and instantly he leaned to its rawer manifestations. “The style that we liked at the start,” he told me in 2016, “was Ron Hardy's music.” Ron Hardy was the DJ at the Music Box, known for spinning a more down-and-dirty, narcotic 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' – spelled 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. Weren’t nobody paying much attention to us back then.”

That ghetto house sound was simple and brutally effective, but unspeakably funky too. Labels like Dance Mania had the roughest mixdowns and pressings, and the tracks were built around hammering percussive patterns, nagging one- or two-note riffs and usually looped X-rated vocal refrains inspired by Miami bass and other down and dirty regional club styles. “It was for dancers, dance crews, nobody else,” Deeon said. But it was absolutely integral to Chicago’s scene as it moved on from the first wave of house. Footworking genius Jana Rush, who herself was deep in the scene from childhood, describes how his mixtapes “permeated every high school hallway from Dunbar, Hyde Park, Simeon, South Shore, CVS, to Farragut, and Marshall. He was different because people on all sides of Chicago maybe didn’t know his face but was spitting his music like gospel.”

Eventually more open-minded DJs elsewhere in the world gradually caught on too, and the raw Chicago sound, and especially Deeon’s tunes, started to spice up the techno scene. Dave Clarke, for example, says “I’ve played so many tracks of Deeon’s while travelling around the world: they’re always funky and with a groove and swing that would grab a difficult crowd in a really positive way, or if a crowd was already positively inclined, push them to fever pitch.” Certain pockets caught on more than others – notably places that really knew how to party, and most notably of all, Glasgow. “As far as techno and house is concerned,” says Kenny Grieve of Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, “Deeon is the constant that's spanned every generation of promoters and DJs in Glasgow, through to now. I mean, who doesn’t have a Deeon track in their crate that they know is going to demolish a dancefloor? The Deeon sound on Dance Mania and Pro-Jex massively inspired what we wanted to do with DABJ. He just made true party records for the dancefloor.”

Just as he was building connections with that international audience, though, Deeon stumbled. In 1998, as he puts it, he “ran into some legal trouble” and lost his passport so he couldn’t tour any more. It was a sign of his strength of character that he didn’t let this get him down – just as he didn’t with his multiple health issues over subsequent years – but kept on keeping on rolling out the bangers. He also, along with the late and sorely missed Paul Johnson, served as a friend and mentor to a younger generation still who were mutating ghetto house into something more complex – which became juke, and then footwork. “As one of my early mentors,” says Jana Rush, “not only was he focused on the music but he also would let me know when I was getting out of line in his presence. He had a way of making me stop and think without him being too preachy or mean.”

For all his influence on diverse sounds, though – and you can hear this in everything from the electro house of Boys Noize to the pinging 808s of Hessle Audio and Night Slugs and all that came from them – Deeon was happy in his lane. “Rashad said I was his favourite artist,” he told me, referring to the scene leader of footworking. “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!” And he kept on keeping on with that raw, rugged house with those irresistible basslines – something The Blessed Madonna refers to as “his knack for creating deceptively simple, yet impossible to copy, powerhouses in record form” – continually prolific, right through getting back on the international circuit in 2016 and up to his last days.

That work ethic and natural groove has made him endlessly beloved across many scenes, and partly explains some of the outpourings of appreciation upon his passing. But that is also down to the fact that he was well known as being kind, laconically funny and loyal, something which kept him connected within the sometimes fractious but still resilient Chicago scene for decades. As ghetto house and footworking star RP Boo, who was with Deeon in the hospital on his final day, puts it: “It was such a great human being that God allowed me to cross paths with while he was on his life journey... He was a beautiful spirit, very helpful always. His outstanding creation and creativity in his music productions that became known as ghetto house still rock out speakers around the globe – and also provided inspiration to upcoming DJs and producers of Chicago that has grown into now what the world is moving to as footwork. Thankyou for being a great inspiration to me, Mr. Deeon Boyd.”

Joe Muggs is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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