Popular campus DJ made his mark by learning to express himself

Popular campus DJ made his mark by learning to express himself

By PHIL JOHNSON/For The News-Gazette

It's 11:50 p.m., and the bass just dropped. Patrons of Red Lion levitate — transported into a world of wobble and rhyme. Strobe lights flash in sync with schizoid sounds. Inhibitions are foreign; the music keeps pourin'.

The wizard behind the wonder goes by DJ John Han. Somewhere in his Pioneer deck, he found a mix of Quad City DJ's "Space Jam" and paired it with an aggressive, Lil' Jon-style hip-hop track. The resulting synergy sends girls to the dance floor in hordes; the male gaze transforms as eyes bulge and pairs of Sperry loafers scurry in pursuit.

An hour and a half into his set, Han controls the crowd for the first time. Then again, he knew what he was doing all along. The 90 minutes of electric dance music was a vibe-setter. Let the people settle, talk, have a few drinks and begin to get bored. The bubbling desire for something different is intentional. Han knows the crowd won't leave; it is early still, there are more friends coming and more cheap drinks to down.

The crowd is a speeding roller coaster with Han laying tracks just before the cart arrives, but the destination is predetermined. Only the route is in question.

Spins, loops and curves only satiate for so long; with the crowd at a proper size and the demand for change at a peak, Han drops the transition. Hands fly upward as the crowd gets down.

"Music is," Han says before pausing. A whole entire 10 seconds pass. "Life. It's a perfect form of emotional expression — an artistic outlet heavily imbued with emotion."

Han's language rises to magniloquence when talking music, which is funny considering his struggles with communication. As a 10-year-old, Han's family moved from the Chicago suburbs to South Korea.

While his parents had always spoken Korean in the house, his grasp on the language was minimal. Three months of muted angst passed before Han got a grip on his new language. While Han looked like his classmates, he lacked the acculturation.

"I looked like everyone else," Han says. "But I didn't have the language. I basically had to try to prove to my classmates that I was one of them."

Desperate to express himself, Han took to the arts. He wrote poetry — and found a universal language in music. He began playing piano at age 6 and showed a knack for picking up new songs. Violin entered the picture for a while, but it passed as nothing more than a childhood dabbling.

Han's family returned to the suburbs in time for sixth grade. Yet again, he had to adjust. Yet again, language got in the way.

Han remembers attempting to discuss his musical interest with a classmate one day. Searching for the right words, Han said "I like the team Backstreet Boys."

His classmate looked at him confused. "Team? You mean, band?"

Embarrassed, Han nodded his head in agreement. It would have been easier if the music had done the talking.

Back in Red Lion, Han tests a new song, "Hungry Hearts" by Nause, a Swedish house act. This is his second time playing the song, and he wants to see if the crowd likes the song as much as he does.

He sees this, the introduction of new music, as part of his job. His crowd has never heard most of the songs he plays and prefers it that way.

"A new song is like a new word," Han says. "It needs real world utilization to have any value."

As the song drops, Han plays hype man. He changes the lights and exaggerates his metronomic swaying more than usual. Scanning the audience's eyes, Han searches for reactions. Fists begin to pump, heads bob and the twenty-something ocean ebbs in unison.

Even when watching reactions, Han's mind never rests on the song at hand. Like a skilled cat burglar, the DJ constantly contemplates the undetectable entrance and exit. This time, Han loops the old track and slowly elevates the volume of the new song. Near the end of the transition, in what is essentially a DJ pointer stance, Han swiftly slides the volume bar up and down. His hand slips. He hastily pushes the bar back up, and not a single patron notices. The error is minor — and a product of Han's belief in practicing live.

The biggest name in campus DJs studied his craft for six years before buying a single piece of equipment. Starting in middle school, Han began researching the history of DJs. The combination of lights, audio and atmosphere creates what Han call "a beautiful army," and he wanted to become an expert in every regard.

"If it has to do with my art, I should know it," Han says.

Loaded with theoretical knowledge, Han played his first gig early in his junior year at the University of Illinois.

"I walked into (The Clybourne) and asked the general manager if he had any DJ openings," Han says. "That was on a Wednesday, and he said I could play Friday. I agreed but knew I needed to get equipment. So Thursday, I borrowed a car and paid some suburban high school kid $250 for his stuff. I came back down and played the set Friday night. I was more nervous than ever."

Three years later, Han runs a weekly cycle of Thursdays at Clybourne, Fridays at Firehaus and Saturdays at Red Lion.

He also serves as a booking agent for his DJ collective, 3 AM Nation. Part of that job involves mentoring new DJs, almost all of whom are current UI students. The economics graduate encourages his protgs to take smart market gambles.

"I tell all my DJs to practice live," Han says. "It is way better to make mistakes now, when you are working to make a name for yourself."

Julian Summer is one of Han's proteges.

"John makes things look easy, but it's not," Summer said. "From him I've learned that you are always thinking multiple songs ahead. You have to create a structure for how the night is going to go."

Han starts every set like a chess player testing an unknown opponent, probing the crowd's reactions to a variety of music genres. Once he finds a groove, the musical blueprint manifests and he becomes a grandmaster: 10 to 20 songs ahead of the crowd.

Tonight, his language has young men swinging from support beams and young ladies giggling as they jump in unison with the beat. As the night reaches its climax, Han plays "Levels" by Avicii, a euphorically upbeat electric dance song. He incessantly adjusts the 70 or so gray and black buttons in the center of his deck — subtle adjustments that make every song original.

This is the story he wants to tell. Rather than words, he speaks through the subliminal messages of music that bring him harmony.

"I am constantly appreciative of music and its connective power."