A chat with house legend, Johnny Dangerous...

Johnny Dangerous burst onto the house music scene at a time when the music was at its best, its freshest and – if we’re being honest – probably its most innovative. 

Born John Holiday in Newark, New Jersey, Johnny developed a name that signified his creative intellect rather than aggression. He started his musical journey as a trumpeter, trombonist, and a turntable maestro. His lyrical skills set him apart as a street poet in the making. Indeed, it was the combination of these talents that propelled his career. By his late teens, Johnny was spinning records at legendary Newark venues like Club America and Zanzibar.

One of his most iconic tracks, "Problem 13 – Beat That Bitch with A Bat," carried a title that concealed a deeper message. Far from being a crass lyricist, Johnny Dangerous brought a unique blend of fat beats, exceptional production, and a distinctive spoken-word style, establishing himself as a premier voice in the House music genre. Tracks like "Moonraker," "Reasons to Be Dismal," and his collaboration with Louie Vega on "New York City" solidified his reputation as a spoken-word maestro.

One of dance music's key innovators and possibly the maker of the most used acapellas by DJs worldwide, continues to add to his legacy of monumental leftfield heaters - like Problems 13 and Moonraker - with his new EP up on Ross Allen’s Foundation Music. On the week of the release of the ‘Flowers EP,’ we get the chance to talk to this multi-dimensional pioneer of sound.

What are you up to today?

I’m currently at my desk talking about a new EP on the way in the past, present, future perfect tense.

You were born in Philly and raised in Newark, New Jersey. Where do you call home?

I am in the United States for now in Newark, New Jersey.

You started your illustrious career back at the Carlton Hotel’s “Club America.” Tell us about that beginning.

I don’t exactly remember how that came about, but I found a way to start working at Club America. Hafiz Farid, Naeem Johnson, Durrell Smiley, and a few others were there to watch me audition to play. I was an excellent trick DJ and a good programmer, but had low experience with what to program. That takes years and years of roadwork, and that’s just for finding out what’s best to play in tight situations.

Having a club residency was absolutely necessary when creating tracks of your own. It’s the only way to know for certain if your style of production fits the marketplace with or against the current music out there. Berger Hotels owned the Carlton Hotel connecting to Club America, and the Lincoln Motel connected to Club Zanzibar. Because we had the same employer, this is how I was able to meet Tony Humphries. Miles Berger was the one both facilities answered to.

You were dabbling in rap and the poetry of the streets in your early days. Who were your idols?

Schoolly D, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Cool Moe D, Africa Bambatta, John Rocca (Producer), Man Parrish (Producer), Just Ice, Mantronik (Producer), I heard both styles of music combined. Eventually, those styles would no longer be associated. But from the very outset, “KRAFTWERK” was their own genre; I was totally inspired by them.

All of your early musical experiences – trumpet, drums - paved the way for your multi-faceted career that was to follow. What was your first release as Johnny Dangerous?

My first release as Johnny Dangerous was Problem #13 in 1992. It was a one-sided white label 12” vinyl. I didn’t care if it was hip-hop or not.

Do you recall facing any challenges in putting out your early releases?

As a 20-year-old, I had no idea what I was doing. It was a giant experiment. I knew that hard choices had to be made. It won’t make me rich, but the process had to contain a winning formula. I had demos that kept being rejected. But I didn’t care; to me, it was the nature of the business. I just kept going no matter what.

‘Reasons To Be Dismal’ came out initially in 1989 under Foremost Poets. Tell us the history of this stone-cold classic.

YES. This is my first release. I was a depressed kid coming out of high school trying to make sense of things. I was a mess. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. But music was a help in learning how to express myself.

This song was my first attempt to express or affirm a reason to be here. Keeping messages alive in me and sharing those messages to enliven others if possible. I showed it to Tony Humphries, then showed it to Craig Kallman at Big Beat Records, now Atlantic, Abigail Adams at Movin Records, then finally Judy Russell at Nu Groove; Guy Moot at SBK London, and the rest is history.

How did the Foremost Poets moniker come about?

Hafiz Farid was my manager right out of High School in 1989. He introduced me to the Last Poets and met other artists through him. He also had a company called “Foremost Productions.” I was a hip-hop DJ at the time, but my calling was to House Music & Disco Breaks.

When I started doing tracks in the studio, I came up with the name “Foremost Poets” out of loyalty for the management team. I was known as jOHNNYDANGEROUs doing hip-hop, but Foremost Poets was my House Music name. Eventually, I would be known for House Music with both names, releasing singles on one label as Foremost Poets & releasing singles as Johnny Dangerous on others.

Aside from the poetry and flow of rap, have there ever been any classic poets that you’ve been into?

The best poetry to me is the “DIALOG” you don’t know is coming. Some of the best poets in the universe are children. You have no idea what they’re gonna say next; or a homeless man who has decoded & matched Quantum Theory with musical chords. Robin Williams onstage with no script. Whoopi Goldberg onstage inside a fictitious character. Minister Farrakhan in a Catholic Church getting a standing ovation. A movie script in the hands of an actor who turns a small line into a popular quote. There are so many great poets, yet the moments in time I’m describing are the most popular in the eyes of the public.

When your spoken words first emerged, the words were loaded with political statements and sometimes religious innuendo. I guess you had some strong views at that time.

Nobody knows what they’re doing the first time they do it. An artist just tries what feels natural to them. I was too young & too naive to comprehend the industry standards of the business, much less the musical or literal context of what I should be making. And I was too immature to talk about love. But survival? What an interesting subject to write about. I could do that for a long time.

You describe "Problem 13 (I Beat That Bitch With A Bat)" as a political atom bomb. Were you just trying to be a shock jock at that time?

Well, In the late 80s, I was a big Last Poets fan & a massive Public Enemy fan. I could not and did not have the machine to keep up with a campaign like theirs. I didn’t have Lyor Cohen or Russell Simmons as a navigator. Problem #13 was supposed to be an entire album. But the time, nor the public, nor I was mature enough to handle that kind of poetry. It stayed one single and didn’t get released again for another 8 or 9 years.

This is what I call “The Lauryn Hill Factor.” It’s when you write twenty songs in one. When Lauryn writes a song, it equals = 20 songs. Because there’s so much going on in the song, that song has to be truncated into nineteen other songs. Her Unplugged Album is = 22 songs. 22 X 20 = 440 songs. Yes, the interludes also count as songs (no melody, no foundation).

Problem #13 (I Beat That Bitch With A Bat) is a concentrated twenty songs in one. It is not one song! 

Buy/listen to Foremost Poets’ Flowers EP on Foundation Music here