“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.”

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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.”

Deeon and Milton performed at that House-O-Matics party at a rented hall near 67th and Western in Marquette Park. It went so well that Sloan kept working with both DJs, and House-O-Matics quickly outgrew the space. They moved to a Boys & Girls Club in the Robert Taylor Homes near 51st and Federal, and when it wasn’t available, they’d use an Elks Lodge several blocks east, near 51st and Prairie. Before the year was out, Sloan made Deeon and Milton an offer.

“Instead of them just being our DJs, we brought them in as partners with us,” Sloan says. “So it was just as well their party as it was ours.”

Deeon and Milton took the work seriously. Deeon bought a van, and Sloan recalls the DJs using it to help promote House-O-Matics parties. “Every weekend that we had a party, they had a big ol’ poster board that they would post on their van and drive around the city—throughout the whole week, just advertising the event,” Sloan says. Deeon also created a giddy dance track in the crew’s honor: “House-O-Matic” later appeared on his 1994 record Funk City, and it became not only his most effective promotional strategy but also the most enduring.

UK label numbers reissued “House-O-Matic” on a four-song DJ Deeon compilaton in 2015.

Footwork pioneer RP Boo remembers hearing “House-O-Matic” when the crew played it during a dance down at Kennedy-King College in the early 1990s. “You know how girls be screaming at the concert? When I heard that track, it hit me just like that,” Boo says. “I was like, ‘What is this? Ahhh!’ I never thought I would ever scream that loud in a facility with all these people. I was like, ‘This track is so cold! Who made that?’”

Fortunately, Deeon was already making his music available on mixtapes. “These mixtapes started traveling outside of his area and started spreading around the city, in different hoods,” Gant-Man says. “Everybody was playing these tapes.” As Deeon told Fact magazine for a 2014 oral history of Dance Mania, his mixtapes sold so quickly he couldn’t keep up by simply dubbing them at home.

He wasn’t the only local DJ with this problem, and fortunately one of his peers had found a solution. DJ D-Man recorded a monologue on the B side of a cassette called School Dayz where he breaks down his part in the early history of Chicago ghetto-house cassettes. He says that in 1993 Ray Barney pitched him on the idea of mass-producing mixtapes—the demand at Barney’s Records alone was such that DJs couldn’t hand-dub copies fast enough. The first mixtape D-Man had mass-produced was HotMix 10: Bootycall, which came in a blue cassette shell. A wave of underground house mixtapes on eye-catching, brightly colored cassettes soon appeared in local stores.

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DJ Deeon’s 1990s mixtape Freak Mode II opens with Deeon warning bootleggers to back off.

“When we started doing the colored mixtapes and putting them out, they was selling like wildfire,” says Low End producer and DJ Terrence “DJ Stew” Stewart. “It was unbelievable how they was selling, and how people was just trying to get that music.” Deeon’s mixtape production expanded beyond house and ghetto house; in the mid-90s he launched additional mixtape series, including one dedicated to underground hip-hop (Sox Park Mob) and another devoted to R&B (Victoria’s Secret).

Sloan believes that DJing House-O-Matics parties practically every weekend helped drive Deeon’s prolific output. “That played a major part in him being motivated to put out a lot of the tracks that he was doing,” he says. “Because every night he wanted to come to these events with different music. And he did it.”

Deeon had another big motivation at home: a growing family. His first child, Tasia Carter, arrived in 1989. She describes her father as sometimes hilarious, sometimes stern, and always dependable. “He didn’t have a dad in his life, so he was the best dad,” Carter says. “He was involved in everything that we all had. Sports, every graduation, every prom.” This was no easy task, considering Deeon would eventually help raise nine children—and he did it all while maintaining a career as a DJ that was busy and profitable enough to support his family.

At home, Deeon encouraged the kids to engage with music on their own terms. “He had so many machines in that house,” Carter says. “It got to being like, ‘OK, well, let me show you this. . . . This machine, you can’t touch.’ Some stuff we could play around with, and some stuff it was totally off-limits because those were the moneymakers.”

Deeon’s children weren’t the only ones he helped learn their way around that gear. In 1995, RP Boo bought a Roland R-70 drum machine, but to make tracks with it, he needed to find a sampler too. He was referred to Deeon by the seller of the drum machine, and Deeon didn’t just sell Boo an Akai S01—he also gave him pointers on how to use it. “He broke it down: ‘Put your samples inside the S01, but to control it and pattern it, you’re gonna use the R-5 [drum machine],’” Boo says. “Once I got it, that was it.”

A collage of three photos of DJ Deeon: in one he's wearing headphones and working a DJ rig, in another he's standing in front of a wall of portraits that includes a picture of himself, and in the third he's posing with three other men
Even at the height of his international fame, DJ Deeon remained a generous collaborator who encouraged his peers as well as up-and-coming young artists. Credit: All photos courtesy of Tasia Carter

RP Boo, then performing as DJ Boo, sometimes opened for Deeon and Milton at House-O-Matics parties. Unfortunately, those gigs soon began to decline in frequency due to interference from city regulators and law enforcement. Though Sloan would continue to work with the DJs whenever he could, in 1997 the parties stopped.

According to Sloan, House-O-Matics events drew such large overflow crowds that a couple hundred people usually ended up hanging around outside the halls. “It was causing all kinds of chaos [with] people that couldn’t get in,” he says. “I think it was a license thing, that the city wanted us to have at these halls. A lot of the halls didn’t have the proper license in order to have those kinds of events, so we started getting shut down.”

Deeon turned his attention to selling tracks. He’d been releasing vinyl through Dance Mania for three years by that point, and he’d also put out several ghetto-house mixtapes under the auspices of Playground Productions, a south-side label and crew that also included DJ Milton and DJ Slugo.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Deeon started releasing music on Dance Mania sublabel Freak Mode (sometimes as Debo or Debo “G”), which also issued 12-inches from Milton, Slugo, DJ Flint, and DJ PJ. According to public records, FreakMode Records was also the name of a business that Deeon and Milton licensed at 102 E. 47th. That address corresponds roughly with the location where Sloan says the two DJs opened a record shop.

Deeon and Milton ran the shop from 1997 till ’99, with some help from DJ Slugo. RP Boo recalls that when he released his DanceMatazz mixtape, he brought it to FreakMode Records to sell on consignment. Deeon asked for 20 copies. “Gave him his 20 tapes, and I pulled out my receipt book for him to write for consignment,” Boo says. “He’s like, ‘No. You, I don’t do consignment. I give you your money right here.’”

Carter sometimes visited the store just to hang out with her dad. The record shop gave her the first inkling of his importance, because she could see who else came by. “I seen Crucial Conflict come in there,” Carter says. “It was, like, people that I’ve seen on TV, and I was like, ‘Wait, these people are just stopping by, and this is just a regular spot.’” The shop was the closest thing to an office job she ever knew Deeon to work. “Besides my dad doing parties and packing up equipment, that’s the only job I’ve seen him do,” she says. “I’ve never seen him punch a clock or anything like that. All I’ve ever known him to do is DJ.”

At some point before FreakMode Records closed, Deeon transitioned to releasing CDs instead of cassettes, and he’d recruit his children to help him manufacture CD mixes. “He had a CD burner, and we used to burn his mixtapes—Sox Park Mob, Victoria’s Secret, a lot of stuff he was putting out,” Carter says. “We knew how to put the little plastic on there and burn it. We were all on that.”

As much as Deeon encouraged his kids to help with his music, he didn’t involve Carter in his nightlife work. “As far as house parties and all that, oh no, he kept me away from that stuff,” she says. “The boys went. They had to carry equipment; they helped set up. He protected me to the fullest.”

All of Deeon’s children grew up to love music, and he inspired several of them to pursue their own careers. “A lot of my siblings are fully into music because of him,” Carter says. Stepbrother Demarius Johnson has had his own successes as a rapper under the name Spenzo; in 2013, he dropped his breakout song, “Wife Er,” which Drake performed at the United Center the following year.

DJ Deeon (second from right) with DJ Roc, DJ Jay-R, DJ Puncho, and DJ Clent at Clent’s BeatDown House Litnic in 2019 Credit: Melissa Blackmon for Chicago Reader

In July 2020, Deeon launched a Crowdfunder campaign to help shore up his finances. The pandemic had destroyed his ability to make money performing, and he’d also been managing severe health challenges for almost two decades. In 2018, he’d suffered the first of several mini strokes, which curtailed his touring even before COVID-19. “Years of ill education on health in my younger years led me to Quadruple Bypass Heart Surgery,” he wrote, “then suffering through Cancer and Chemotherapy, and then finally they took my leg.”

“Deeon was a strong fighter,” says Terrence “DJ Stew” Stewart. “He said whatever he felt—he didn’t care if somebody got offended, but he’s gonna tell you the truth, he’s not gonna coat it. He was a very, very strong brother.”

Stewart grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes. He met Deeon in the late 1980s, as they both began DJing. When they traveled to each other’s neighborhoods for parties, they’d vouch for each other. In the 2000s, Stewart received a cancer diagnosis of his own (sadly not his last), and because Deeon had already been through something similar, they commiserated. “Me and him would call each other, and we would uplift each other medically,” Stewart says. “Or if he had a question about something, we’d talk about it.”

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Deeon continued to travel to perform, his health problems notwithstanding. He gigged sporadically in the 2020s too, though the pandemic ended his overseas touring for good.

When Deeon was still playing abroad, he’d often bring Tranz with him. They’d been lifelong friends, with the kind of relationship they could pick up again wherever they’d left it off. “Me and him wasn’t speaking for, like, six months, but he called from France,” Tranz says. “He said, ‘Look, I need you to get your passport.’ Ain’t no ‘I’m glad to see you’ or nothing like that. ‘I need you to get your passport. Quick.’ I got my passport, and that’s when I went to Amsterdam. That’s my first time out of the country.”

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DJ Deeon spins a Boiler Room set in Paris in 2016.

Deeon would sometimes perform at parties outside the city with other Chicago house producers, including west-side veteran Cornelius “Traxman” Ferguson, who looked up to Deeon. “Me and Deeon became the real ‘big brother, little brother,’ because we started to travel together and do a lot of events—it just really became special,” Traxman says. “Every morning before the time of his demise, we would just talk. Talk early in the morning—and way beyond music.”

On one of Deeon’s trips to New York, he asked Tranz to spin for him during the sound check before the show. That lit a fire under Tranz. “I started getting my own equipment, started taking it serious and practicing,” he says. “I became a DJ.” Deeon began asking Tranz to DJ with him on the road. “I done DJed in Cancun, I done DJed in Brazil,” Tranz says. “I done DJed even if it was just so he could go to the bathroom. I did it.”

Tranz also spun for Blok Bizness Radio, a Web radio platform that Deeon, Stewart, and DJ Jay Jilla launched in October 2017.

“Deeon sent me over 150 mixes that play regularly on Blok Bizness Radio from 12 to 1 central standard time,” Stewart says. “Then he comes on again from 4 to 6 AM for his overseas people. Then on Saturday he comes on at seven o’clock with his Sox Park Mob [mixes], for the people that like old-school rap. Then on Sunday he comes on at seven o’clock with his Victoria’s Secrets, which is his R&B mix. So Deeon, he was not playing.”

Deeon kept making music for as long as he could, and more than one person who spoke for this story mentioned that he left behind a tall stack of unreleased tracks.

On July 13, Deeon posted an Instagram selfie from the hospital, asking for prayers from friends and fans. On July 17, RP Boo got a message from BeatDown House founder and producer DJ Clent telling him to visit Deeon in the hospital. Boo rode the elevator up with Gant-Man and producer Eric Martin.

In the hours left to Deeon before he passed, seemingly every important figure in ghetto-house history came to visit him. So did his family, of course—one of Deeon’s daughters had given birth to his second grandchild just a couple weeks before, and she brought the baby to his room.

“I was so thankful that he was able to see her,” Carter says. “He was able to hold her.”

When Ronnie Sloan went to say goodbye to Deeon, the hospital told him that too many people were upstairs visiting—he had to wait to see his friend. Even at the very end, Deeon Boyd could bring people together.

Mount Carmel Bible Church in Bronzeville hosted Deeon’s homegoing July 28. “Everyone got up and was speaking about how good he was to them and how he helped them out,” Carter says. “I didn’t know he helped people go to college.”

Carter remembers DJ Monty, who grew up in the Harold Ickes Homes, telling everyone how Deeon had helped quash conflicts between their neighborhood DJ crews. Deeon built a working relationship with Monty, rendering any imagined divisions moot.

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DJ Deeon’s 1995 shout-out track “South Side”

Deeon also helped unify underground house DJs from all sorts of crews with his track “South Side,” released under the name Debo on the 1995 Dance Mania 12-inch Split Personality. Like “Ghetto Shout Out!!,” it’s a forerunner to “Teachers” that gives props to other musicians—in this case, Deeon lists DJs from his end of town, one by one, alongside clipped chants of “south side,” sharp electronic handclaps, and a stern, looping synth melody.

As Stewart recalls, Deeon made “South Side” right after buying a new Akai sampler. “He was trying to figure it out, to get it working,” he says. “He had just got it working, and he sampled [himself saying] ‘It’s working!’ He put it in the track.”

Gant-Man was among the artists Deeon listed. “I didn’t get a chance to make my name on ‘Teachers,’ but I for sure got a chance to get on DJ Deeon’s ‘South Side,’” he says. “I had just made my first record and was just getting started. So for him to recognize me when the rest of the world hadn’t heard me—matter of fact, the south side was just beginning to hear me—he put my name on the map.”