Shytown on Chi-Town, Music and the Virus
Music SCENE Chicago With Daniel Jacobson
“We thought we had it so bad but had no idea how good it really was,” EJ proclaimed about the early days of his musical journey. “Sleeping on couches with no responsibilities was kinda fun.”
His pop/hip-hop duo “Shytown” is named after the city where he and his partner, Danny Jay, are from. The idea was to pay homage to Chicago once they arrived in California in 2008. The two were introduced by B96 FM’s music director, Erik Bradley. “When we met we both looked at each other all confused, expecting someone much older,” recounts EJ, (real name Eric Johnson). Once they listened to each other’s tunes, however, they saw the potential and never looked back. They quickly began making music together and in April 2008 moved to L.A. to pursue the dream. It was there they really found their sound, mixing Jay’s acoustic guitar and poppy melodies with EJ’s rapping and production.
They soon found a third singer to join them, Tarah New, who’s now signed to famous Hollywood actor Danny Trejo. “Tarah and I go way back to Oakwood’s [apartment complex], where we met at a local talent show. After listening to the duo, she agreed to join Shytown.” From there, the trio played local shows, recorded and even briefly signed with a manager. “One day our manager sent us out on an audition for a new, music-related show from Dick Clark Productions. It turned out to be a castle in the Hollywood Hills where we were introduced to Suge Knight.” Eric’s eyes widened while telling me this as if maybe he’d been dangled off a balcony like rapper Vanilla Ice.
Ultimately the show was canned because of Knight’s ongoing legal battles but the music didn’t stop. After the trio had performed in front of the judges on America’s Got Talent later in 2009, Tarah dropped out, leaving the original two to continue creating and gigging. One day while street-performing on the Santa Monica Promenade, they were approached by music manager and former Capitol Records A&R Dave Morris. Morris signed the pair and they went on to open for the late Cory Monteith’s band at several universities, signed wigth APA agency, worked with platinum-producers JR Rotem (Rihanna, Maroon 5, Ariana Grande) and David Kahne (Paul McCartney, Lana Del Rey), licensed a song on the Fox TV series “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,” and wrote the theme song for Lance Bass’s SiriusXM show and more.
However, months later, Johnson and Jay parted amicably with Morris. Their run was a good one but lacked a record deal, which was the goal from the outset. “Even after we stopped working together, Dave was a friend in the business. He brought us to different labels and we got close to signing a record deal with Warner [Brothers].” EJ went on to tell me the story of how Shytown nearly got signed. Morris had set up a showcase at the now defunct House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. Several label reps were present as the duo performed with a DJ. According to Eric, the performance went well and an A&R at Warner Brothers approached them afterward saying he’d loved their show and would see them Monday in his office. “It was seriously one of the best nights of our lives. We left with so much adrenaline and the feeling of accomplishment. We were certain come Monday we’d get a contract.”
Well, Monday came and went as did Tuesday and Wednesday. Morris called them in for a meeting Thursday and explained the A&R who was a day away from signing them had been fired. “It was the first of many disappointments in our long career, but that one stung.” Years later they were invited to the Beverly Hills office of Danny Wimmer, the longtime partner of Fred Durst and major rock promoter. Eric explained that story with a smile on his face. “We played for his whole office as he called more and more people into the room. Afterward, he stood outside with us in the doorway asking if we could go on tour with the Dirty Heads. The next day he called me claiming we had lied to him. I had no idea what he was talking about and was in utter shock.” Apparently Wimmer had asked the boys if they had been signed before. When they replied no, they were being earnest and didn’t consider the APA agency. Wimmer called off the deal.
Fast forward to 2016 and after taking a more behind-the-SCENEs approach working with other artists in their studio, they decided for a number of reasons—some personal, some professional—to move back to Chicago. I asked how the music industry had treated them since the move back. “It’s actually been sort of a blessing. We’ve kept everything going and even spent a year traveling to and from Nashville taking meetings and writing.” He’s referring to Keith Stegall, whom they contacted via Facebook. Stegall has produced many of country singer Alan Jackson’s songs, as well as the Zac Brown Band and more. Stegall assigned Eric and Danny to work with his “camp” of writers and ultimately offered them a publishing deal. This is when someone takes control of a writer’s songs and attempts to get them “cut” or recorded by a well-known singer to which the writer and administrators get paid. “The numbers didn’t get worked out appropriately and the deal kinda froze,” EJ said. “But we had the chance to work with a lot of great, accomplished writers down there and wrote some awesome songs.”
I was impressed by his resilience. It seems like there are a lot of ups and downs in the business where you feel like you can almost taste success just as it gets snatched from your lips. EJ and Danny are still working together, however, despite the proverbial roller coaster ride. They’ve kept Shytown going and are releasing new music. In addition, they’ve started an indie label and production team called Ni Music Group with a focus on young, up-and-coming artists. “It feels good to help those just starting and pass down the knowledge we’ve learned the hard way.”
The services aren’t purely out of the goodness of EJ’s heart—there is a fee. “You gotta make a living and feed the kids,” he laughs with a wink. Eric has been happily married since 2016 and now has four children. “The business is tough and most people I’ve met who are involved haven’t made a dime. We love the artist thing but we’ve been forced to be resourceful and find other paths when the music and shows didn’t pay all the bills. Somehow we’ve done better here back in the very place we left.”
Still, it’s a tough business. You give and give but can never take. And of course, just when you thought it couldn’t get any harder to be a musician, COVID-19 arrives and all live shows are shut down dealing the industry a crushing blow—maybe the hardest ever. With touring halted, much of the income flow for artists has been put on pause. “This obviously sucks for all of us [artists] and I badly miss being on stage. We’ve worked with a few new artists who’ve requested our services since March but that [producing work] has also been impacted. It’ll be tough to come back from this but we do everything we can to keep busy and productive.” EJ is referring to the live streaming Shytown has been doing. Every Monday and Friday night, the duo perform an acoustic jam live on Facebook for a couple hours. Their videos get hundreds of views, comments, shares and likes. “It’s definitely not as fun or rewarding as being on stage but it’s cool to see all our fans, friends and family interacting in one virtual room. That’s something that would not happen in real life!”
EJ adds that his partner Jay has written a lot more songs they need to record. The pair are releasing “50 songs in 50 weeks” on all digital platforms. Their song, “Lonely Night” garnered 21k streams without much promotion. Most recently, an artist they produced and wrote for landed a song on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” “It feels good when you find that stuff out. It doesn’t pay much but hey, it’s another feather in our caps.” EJ added they only learned about it from a YouTube comment posted on the artist’s video. Sounds shady to me but I was reassured that’s just the business.
I ask if he ever misses L.A. “Oh yeah, all the time, especially when the weather sucks here, which is more than half the year.” EJ and Danny travel back to LA frequently (pre-pandemic) working in studios and shooting videos. As I was about to hang up, he had just gotten a package he presumed was his brand-new microphone and mixer. “We ordered this for our new batch of Shytown songs,” he confessed excitedly.
Their new song “Turn the News Off” will be released this summer. Follow them @shytownmusic on all the socials.