Artist of the Month: John Summit
Artist of the Month: John SummitJuly 11, 2022
When tech-house hustler John Summit joins my Zoom, he could be anywhere on earth. It’s a Wednesday night midway through June and already the Chicago native has enjoyed a summer of bedroom DJ dreams, playing bucket-list festivals in far corners of the world.
Is he poolside in Ibiza or Croatia, hungover with a view of stunning blue ocean behind him? Or at a top-secret studio session somewhere in the Hollywood Hills? As the DJ’s 180,000 Instagram followers well know, anywhere’s an option.
As turns out, Summit is taking time to decompress between gigs at his new-ish apartment in Chicago. Despite the unglamorous setting, John is relaxed and smiling, wearing a grey t-shirt and a backwards baseball cap. “Getting back here is like a deep breath,” he says.
Summit just returned from Ireland and the UK. On Saturday, he played back-to-back with his friend and DJ partner Dom Dolla at an arena show in Dublin, headlined by house lifer MK. From there, it was Manchester for a prime slot on the Defected Presents stage on day two of Parklife festival.
Two major US festivals are just around the corner. First, at Bonnaroo in Tennessee before and Beyond Wonderland at The Gorge in Washington. From there, his maxed-out summer includes slots at Italy’s Kappa FuturFestival, Tomorrowland in Belgium, Hideout and Defected festivals in Croatia, and finally hometown festival Lollapalooza, which was the first festival he attended as a 16-year-old.
Photo by: Gilbert Sanchez
All this activity reflects Summit’s fast-tracked arrival as one of dance music’s most in-demand bookings, and Beatport’s top-selling artist of 2021. Remarkably, that rise to fame coincided with the world in lockdown. Summit’s true breakout moment came in 2020 with “Deep End” on Defected Records, a low-slung house groover with a grabby vocal that had been sitting idle in the producer’s sample folder. “Deep End” became Summit’s first Beatport number one, a fact he celebrated by popping a bottle of champagne with his mom.
His hot streak continued through 2021 with releases like “Beauty Sleep”, “Sun Came Up” with Sofi Tukker, “Human” featuring Echoes, and “Make Me Feel”. Gradually, the John Summit M.O. came into focus: punchy, melody-driven tech-house, with the drums and bassline as essential ingredients. In 2022, Summit went to number one on Beatport again with the Latin-tinged, bass-forward “La Danza” on Defected, followed by “In Chicago”, the first release on his new label, Off The Grid Records.
Throughout this flurry of new music, Summit has cultivated a work-hard, play-hard persona on social media. His Instagram feed is loose and gleeful, accurately reflecting the pinch-yourself giddiness of newfound success. In between videos of crowds igniting to his tracks, Summit scatters memes, in-jokes and videos playing up DJ life. Recent highlights include a studio tour featuring hand-claps and numerous cans of Modelo, and a DM from a fan noting Summit’s resemblance to Ike from South Park. (Ike is now John’s Twitter profile photo.) Several captions quote the “I’m drunk and I’m high” line from “In Chicago”, becoming a mantra that accompanies the DJ’s adventures around the world.
In contrast to the brash party guy image, Summit is polite and warm in a distinctly Midwestern way. He’s planning to visit his mom while he’s in Chicago, where he now keeps a low profile, and “be a good son” by celebrating Father’s Day with his dad between back-to-back sets at Bonnaroo and Beyond Wonderland. Life back home, however fleeting, is uncharacteristically chill. “My bed hits different here,” Summit says. “I can only sleep like two or three hours a night on the road. Then I get home and I can sleep 10, 12 hours.”
As Summit tells it, his parents are now “used to the ‘hi, bye’” treatment. Before turning to music full-time, John Summit worked a “soul-crushing” desk job as a certified public accountant. While his parents supported his dance music dreams, they were happy he had a back-up plan. “They always knew I had a Master’s degree to fall back on,” he says. “When I first quit my accounting job, I was not really a big DJ. I was making like, maybe $500 or $750 a gig, and those gigs were few and far between. Then the music blew up and now they’re my biggest fans.”
Despite the soul-crushing part, Summit is glad for his accounting experience. “You hear so many horror stories from the past of artists who’ve signed contracts and given away all their money, and they don’t even know where it’s gone,” he says. “People don’t realise how much business is involved in the music industry. Royalties, signing remixes, managers, agents; so much money moving around. It’s good to know basic accounting.”
Photo by: ADINAYEV
Summit, who turns 28 this month, was converted to dance music by Deadmau5 and Kaskade’s 2008 collaboration, “I Remember.” “It was literally the first electronic track I fell in love with,” he says. “Whenever I hear it, I have the craziest nostalgia and almost want to cry, in a good way.” The progressive house anthem coincided with the teenager’s first experiences of Lollapalooza and Deadmau5 in concert. “I graduated high school in 2012, so that was my formative era of electronic music,” he adds.
When Deadmau5 and Kaskade returned this year with “Escape” featuring vocalist Hayla under their new Kx5 alias, Summit was cautious. “I worried it was going to be lame, because you think it’s never going to hit the same,” he says. “But it actually did. I was like, ‘Holy shit!’” Immediately, he worked “Escape” into his sets. In a full-circle moment (documented on Summit’s Instagram), Kaskade responded to a video of Summit playing ‘Escape’ and asked if he’d like to remix it. The answer was simple: “Fuck yeah.” Adding some low-end thump to the original’s airy melody, the John Summit remix of “Escape’ dropped in June and quickly hit the Beatport Top 10.
After falling for “I Remember” as a teen, Summit gradually dug deeper. He recalls discovering Chicago’s house music history after swapping bottle service clubs for after-hours spots. “Someone gives you a slip with an address to an underground after party, and that’s when you discover underground house and techno,” he says. “You don’t enter ninth grade being an Amelie Lens fan.”
In this discovery phase, he hooked onto the Windy City’s Black trailblazers like Gene Farris, Green Velvet, Derrick Carter, Mike Dunn and the late, great Paul Johnson. Summit fondly recalls early gigs opening for Dunn, and for Farris and Johnson at a 4/20 party in 2019. He also marvels at Derrick Carter’s commitment to Sunday nights at Chicago’s house haven Smartbar: “He’s one of the best DJs of all time, and in other cities, when a DJ gets big, they’re out.”
John learned production by watching YouTube tutorials and Googling for pointers. The first track he made that “had any success” was “Touch Me”, released on the Psycho Disco label in 2018. “That was the one where I discovered my sound,” Summit says. “I remember Gene Farris was playing it here in Chicago. It was the first time I had a big reputable DJ playing one of my tracks.”
Over the next couple of years, he kept on his game, releasing on the likes of This Ain’t Bristol, Sinden’s Houseline imprint and Gene Farris’ Farris Wheel Recordings. In 2019, he sparked a creative partnership with Lee Foss, releasing the Stimulate EP on his fellow Chicagoan’s Repopulate Mars.
Then, with all cylinders firing, the pandemic hit pause. Instead of wallowing, Summit set his mind to staying prolific — and sending every completed track to the head of A&R at Defected Records, a label he’s long admired. The label picked up “Deep End”, which turbo-charged the John Summit brand at a time when live streams stood in for IRL crowds. His next run of releases played to different interests, including the progressive house-indebted “Human” on FFRR, the dreamier “Beauty Sleep” on Repopulate Mars and “La Danza” on Defected, a drum-led track made for the Space Miami terrace.
“House and techno are my shit, but I’m including a lot more melody and progression in my tracks nowadays,” he says. “You see it in the ‘Escape’ remix and really see it in ‘Human’. I love melodies that make you feel good, and love the drums in house, and the driving basslines in tech-house and techno, so I try to mesh all that together.”
Summit prefers several projects on the go — ideally a solo production, a collaboration (right now, it’s a forthcoming team-up with Green Velvet) and a remix, so he can bounce between them. In addition to “Escape”, so far this year he’s remixed Diplo and Miguel’s “Don’t Forget My Love” and The Weeknd’s “Sacrifice”, offering the latter as a free download to thank his fans for their support.
“What’s nice about remixes is you have the fully mastered vocal and know what key you’re in,” he says. While he sprinkles these official remixes through his sets, Summit also makes a host of DJ edits “that I would never release.”
Summit is currently in festival mode, and taking longer breaks between releases. “I’m going to try to not release as much music now, as I went rapid-fire for three years straight,” he explains. “if you look at my summer schedule, it’s way too insane, and I already have such a big discography.”
That “insane” summer schedule is no exaggeration. Before turning his attention to Europe, Summit kicked off festival season at three-storied US festivals: Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and Movement in Detroit. Before DJ fame, Summit was a dedicated festivalgoer on the Midwest circuit, attending Movement and Electric Forest in Michigan seven years in a row. “I never flew to anything in my life, besides a random vacation with my family to Florida,” he says.
First up was Summit’s Coachella debut in April. Ahead of his set at the Sahara stage on weekend one, the DJ was a bundle of nerves. Opening with “Human”, the set went by without a hitch in a happy blur. (Later, Summit and Dom Dolla popped up for a back-to-back at the Do LaB stage, and kept partying all week.) Electric Daisy Carnival came next in May, where Summit drew his “biggest crowd to date” at the circuitGROUNDS stage. With a tight hour to hold a sprawling crowd in the tens of thousands, the DJ worked in LFO’s classic “Freak” and Will Clarke’s remix of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” alongside his Beatport number ones and unreleased IDs.
“You can’t see anyone past the 5000-person mark,” he recalls. “That whole front section was all John Summit fans who’d pushed their way to the front with the totems and everything.”
After ticking off two huge east coast festivals, Movement was a homecoming. “I was really nervous again,” Summit laughs, recalling his set on the Stargate Stage. “I played at 4pm and didn’t think it’d be full at all, but the crowd was absolutely stacked. It was a blast, because that’s the coolest festival in the Midwest.”
While the festival format clearly suits his high-impact tech-house, Summit enjoys an opportunity to stretch. His favourite spot to play longer sets is Space Miami, where he’ll happily go eight hours. “It’s the fuckin’ best,” he says, grinning widely. “In an eight-hour set, every two hours is like its own movie, and every movie has its peaks and valleys.”
Summit gets even more animated as he describes his process. “It takes 60-plus hours to prepare for one of those sets,” he says. “I make about eight playlists at least — bangers, minimal, stripped-back, melodic — so I’m not just scrolling without a game-plan. After four hours, the sun comes up, so if I’m playing techno, I can go to a classic record like “Lovelee Dae”, then vibier music, then into a Lee Burridge sound, then the classic 2015 and 2016 tech-house I love. It does feel like four different sets in one.”
This summer is mostly about festivals, but Summit is eager to explore one-off events as part of his new label brand, Off The Grid Records. “I want to do something in every environment — the mountains, the desert, the Tulum jungle,” he says. Musically, he envisages the label representing “all types of house music,” from dark and driving to upbeat and summery.
As we wind up our Zoom call, I ask Summit if he feels hemmed in by the ‘party guy’ image. “I definitely lean pretty heavily into it,” he laughs. “There’s a couple of reasons why I don’t care. First of all, I use social media for fun and it’s legit, which I think is why it does well, because people can see I’m genuinely having a good time. For some artists, it looks like their manager posted everything for them. Second, I think my work ethic backs me up if anyone thinks I party too hard.”
For now, you can still find John Summit on the dancefloor after his set, drink in hand. “I had a tweet a couple of days ago that stirred up the pot a little bit, saying, ‘never trust a DJ who doesn’t rave’,” Summit says. “For so many DJs, your schedule gets busy, you show up, play your gig, then leave for the airport again. How can you know what the crowd wants if you’re not part of it too?” Words to live by.
Jack Tregoning is an editor and journalist from Sydney, Australia, who has worked for over a decade in music media, while also writing about movies, TV, and culture. Find him on Twitter.