I saw an anomaly at a Phoenix hip-hop show recently — a 58-year-old guy onstage playing classic funk 45s — no scratching, no mixing, just one song after another. Two twenty-something DJs, ChaseOne and Smite, stood by John Dixon, better known as Johnny D, nodding to the beat and looking enviously through Dixon’s box of vinyl seven-inches before playing their own sets, opening for Z-Man at the Brickhouse on a Saturday night in late March. Johnny D is renowned locally as Arizona’s unofficial music historian. But lately, the guy who until recently hadn’t spun records since his days at Tempe High and lives at home with his mom has become a phenomenon in local hip-hop circles.
For the last 35 years, Johnny D’s been collecting and cataloguing records, and working to make sure that the classic sounds of Phoenix aren’t forgotten — the garage rock, doo-wop, twang and soul that local studios churned out in the 1950s and ’60s. He makes his living buying and selling records, and licensing the music of Phoenix artists long past.
But recently, Johnny D’s been adopted by a new breed of collector — DJs who weren’t even alive in the 1960s. These guys dig through funk and soul wax, looking for a break or drumbeat or rhythm that’ll make their jaws drop. As a result, several tracks from Phoenix’s mostly unknown musical past are being reissued and put back in circulation — before a crowd John Dixon couldn’t have hoped to reach, before he hooked up with the young crate-digger crowd.
Johnny D’s association with the local hip-hop scene began a few years ago when he met DJ Z-Trip, the founding father of Arizona turntablism. Dixon had scoped out Z-Trip’s weekly Bombshelter appearances at Nita’s Hideaway and the Green Room, and Z-Trip had heard of Johnny D’s storied record collection. Three years ago, Z-Trip moved to L.A. For his farewell party at Nita’s, Z-Trip asked Dixon, a veteran of radio shows past, to come down and spin a set of classics.
“Well, you know I don’t scratch,” Dixon says he told him, but Z-Trip was undeterred.
“I was so wigged, man, my hands were shakin’ like I had done a ton of meth or something,” Dixon recalls. “It’s different when you’re sitting in a dark studio late at night all by yourself doing radio.” He found an appreciative audience at Nita’s, though, and was surprised to have a cluster of young DJs flipping through his box of vinyl in awe.
It was through Z-Trip that Dixon met L.A. DJ Egon, who runs Now-Again, a subsidiary of Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stones Throw label (home to the just-released and much-lauded Madvillainy LP by MF Doom and Madlib). Egon is, along with DJ Shadow and Dante Carfagna, one of the premier collectors of obscure funk records, and Now-Again is his outlet for reissuing the best of what he finds, as heard on the instant classic The Funky 14 Corners compilation.
On a trip to the Valley to play a set at a D-Styles show, Egon spent hours with Dixon digging through his extensive collection. As a result, Now-Again is soon releasing a 12-inch by Phoenix funksters Michael Liggins and the Super Souls. The source material is two 45s, circa 1969, in Dixon’s collection by Liggins, Loaded to the Gills and Loaded Back, each worth around $400 according to Dixon.
Not long ago, Dixon was contacted by another young impresario, Justin Torres, who licensed a Chuck Womack seven-inch, Ham Hocks and Beans, originally released on Phoenix’s Ramco Records and also recorded at Eastwind studios, for rerelease on his All Bay/Re-Joint Records label.
For Dixon, working with the new generation of record crate diggers is a learning experience. “They start pointing out stuff to me — that’s a great break, that’s a good sound — so I’m learning a lot of what to listen for, what makes these things work — the drummer, for the most part,” he says.
“I had that [Chuck Womack] record for 25 years. It’s so cool now people are wiggin’ out on the quality and the soul. The thing we’ve got going, it’s not like Philly or Memphis or Detroit, not too many people have paid attention to Phoenix, so that’s what we’ve got going for us.”
Besides seeing some of his vinyl babies resurrected, Dixon’s association with the hip-hop set has brought him back behind the turntables to charm audiences, something he started doing more than 40 years ago when he attended Tempe High School. He even copped a gig opening for Portland indie-rock duo Quasi at its Modified show last year.
“It’s a learning thing for me. I just dig the music,” he says. “That’s why being able to play this stuff and see how people respond is really cool for me. You learn, maybe that’s gonna be the next sound, and be ahead of the game.”