Busting out of Basstown

Matt Johnson’s three-headed beast
By DAVID DAY  |  June 19, 2007

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Emjae

“I’m getting really tired of this food court here,” says Matt Johnson (a/k/a EMJAE) over the phone from the Cambridgeside Galleria. “It’s like, ‘What do I want to poison myself with today?’ ” Johnson might seem an unremarkable Apple-store employee — trained to be a “creative associate,” he teaches customers how to use their Macs. “I don’t have to sell computers,” he says, trying to find a quiet place in the mall to chat. “I just sit down and talk. It’s a plus working for that company, ’cause I’m learning new things every day about the computer and the software. And I get the discount — that definitely helps!”

It sure must: as Emjae, Johnson’s on pace to become Boston’s biggest name in dance music. Already cited by monster DJs Sasha and Digweed and Sander Kleinenberg, he pushes the three Macs he owns to the brink. Last year he released 28 tracks — enough to suit all of his alter egos. “The Emjae alias is my big-room name for clubby-sounding tunes. Something you could play to 10,000 people. But I go by a couple of different monikers. BON JOHNSON is a collaboration with me and DJ BONS, a staple here in Massachusetts. We do a lot of dirty kind of ghetto tech. We’ve found some success in that project. And then I go by NIGHTRIDERS, which is me and JOE FARIA, who records with Island 9.” Since moving to Basstown in 2003, Emjae has received massive local support. “I’ve been picking up tips and tricks from a lot of my friends. Steve Porter is a big influence. He would help me get the sound I was looking for. Steve and Eli Wilkie, two Boston natives, they made a lot of things that seemed unclear to me, you know, seem clear.”

This clarity began in Johnson’s home town of Atlanta, when he discovered his own golden rule for making a living in electronic dance music. “I started to realize the way to make it in this business is to become a producer and actually put your music out there as an artist, rather than as a DJ.” So he enrolled in the Berklee School of Music, where they kept trying to force a saxophone on him. “That just didn’t float: I’m godawful at the sax,” he says with a laugh. “All wanted to do was be nerdy and get into gear and machinery and learn how it works.” So he jumped to the New England Institute of Art and began producing, limiting his club appearances to the occasional DJ gig at Rise, Underbar, and Axis. “And my plan worked. I got a lot of high-profile DJ gigs because people were listening to my productions and were like, ‘You know what, let’s book him as a DJ.’ ”

Johnson has now played to Mexico City, Tijuana, Colombia, Ecuador, and beyond. “That’s like the rite of passage for the American DJ. You start in America, work your way down, cover that area; then you go across the pond.” His next Boston gig is July 15 at Rise. “Outside of Rise, there’s really not a place to go to listen to quality dance music that there used to be here. One night that’s doing really well is the Hearthrob night on Tuesdays. Red Foxx and those dudes. It’s one hell of a party.”

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