It seemed an ordinary day — Chicago’s rap trio Do or Die returned to Creators Way studio on the city’s Southside to lay down their verses for a new joint, “Po Pimp.”
It was their third time working with producer The Legendary Traxster, who was coming off Twista’s 1994 project, The Resurrection, under his initial moniker Tung Twista. Already looking to add Twista to “Po Pimp,” Do or Die called in a local guy named Johnny P, with whom they shared manager Leroy “Lucky” Burton, to sing on the hook.
What the rappers and Traxster didn’t understand at the time, however, was how to make a hit record. Johnny P would soon change that.
“I had people sing on records, but I hadn’t had a voice before,” says Traxster, 43, remembering the 1996 “Po Pimp” studio session with Johnny P. The singer died November 27 after weeks in a coma. He was 44.
The legendary producer is referring to the soul that oozed from Johnny P’s vocal chords, reminiscent of old-school greats like Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway. Johnny P, born Johnny Pigram, came from a different world altogether. Prior to the “Po Pimp” session, Johnny P had a major record deal with Columbia Records, where he released his teen R&B debut Connect the Dots in 1989. Unbeknownst to many, Johnny P then landed in an R&B group developed by crooner Luther Vandross. The group never put out a record, according to Traxster.
“He used to tell me that you can tell a good singer by their ability to stay on one note and hold it because people who can’t hold notes will just keep shifting note to note,” Traxster recalls.
Bringing all of that experience into the booth, Johnny P belted out the chorus that cemented Chicago’s footing in hip-hop: “Do you wanna riiide, in the backseat of a Caddy, chop it up with Do Or Die?” It became one of the best-selling singles of 1996.
“[Johnny P] had an R&B sensitivity that was the opposite of hip-hop sensitivity, and that’s why I say the success of that record hinged on him because it’s that sensitivity that reached females and children,” Traxster says. “His sensitivities are what transcended beyond rap. I think that’s the quintessential moment in Chicago hip-hop where we gained our own identity.”
Johnny P’s voice was magic, the secret sauce everyone had been searching for in the hit-making recipe. Signed to Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records, the success of “Po Pimp” led to Johnny P’s sultry hook on the 1996 Scarface and 2Pac collab, “Smile.” The track made a lot of noise that year, too, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 1998, Johnny P put out his second album, The Next, and created another classic jam on Do or Die’s Heads or Tailz album, titled “Nobody’s Home,” also featuring Danny Boy.
“I remember them competing in the studio. Danny Boy would do a run. Johnny P would do a run. I was sitting at the board blown away, like, y’all really doing this?” Traxsters says, laughing. “He wanted people to know that when it came to singing, there were very few people that were on his level.”
But life eventually took a dark turn for Johnny P. During the 2000s, according to Traxster, Johnny grew disappointed that his career hadn’t taken off at the level he felt appropriate following his '90s hits. Soon, the people around him — friends, family and industry heads — gave up on him.
Johnny P, who didn’t drink, eventually turned to alcohol for comfort.
“There are people who benefit when you’re great, when you’re talented. It might be the family members who you loan $1,000 to. It might be the record company. It might be the producer. It might be the artists that you work with,” Traxster explains. “And then, when they’re not benefitting anymore, and they’re not praising you no more, they get to go on to the next thing that they’re going to benefit from and you’re left seeking approval again.”
When Johnny P needed to be whole again, Traxster continues, he couldn’t find himself. The industry left him empty inside. Johnny P landed in the hospital in 2015 because of complications with his liver, Traxster says. The producer wouldn’t go into details about what brought Johnny P back to the hospital weeks before his November death.
“When we talk about what had him in the hospital, I don’t even see the alcoholism,” Traxster says. “I know that it was deeper than all that. It didn’t start with his body. It didn’t start with what he did to himself. It started with the emptiness that he was left with.”
One of Traxster’s last memories of his 20-year-friend is from a Do Or Die studio session at his home nearly two years ago. Johnny P hopped in the booth, but seemed to struggle — though, not with his voice. It was difficult for Johnny P to memorize the lyrics. The singer’s battle with alcoholism couldn’t dim his gift, Traxster says.
“For me, his legacy is in his music,” Traxster adds. “I don’t think he cares about his influence on hip-hop or his influence on R&B. It’s about people acknowledging his work.”
On Saturday, December 10, family and friends celebrated the life of Johnny P at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Chicago.