DFW Music News

How John Stewart Became a Force in Dallas Hip-Hop and Caught Kanye's Attention Along the Way

It’s November 2012 and John Stewart has just uploaded a remastered version of Danger Mouse’s legendary The Grey Album to SoundCloud. In a matter of hours it’s gone viral; glowing receptions litter the internet, from blogs to top-shelf music publications and magazines.

Something about the original never sat quite right with Stewart, so the young producer/engineer decided to spend a day laboring over the music of one of his favorite releases, reworking its insides to masterful effect. The differences in The Grey Album Remastered are relatively subtle, but the result is significant: It’s grander, more muscular — simply better. Most listeners still consider Stewart’s remaster the definitive version of Danger Mouse’s instant classic. Not bad for a day’s work.

Little did Stewart know that this on-a-whim decision would start him on the path to launch one of the most successful hip-hop parties Dallas has ever seen — the straight fire ALL/ EVERYTHING series. In truth, The Grey Album Remastered was hardly Stewart’s first brush with fame, and while it’s easy to draw a line from that release to his future success in the Dallas hip-hop scene, in many ways his journey started earlier, back in 2009, when he began a working relationship with Kanye West’s first cousin and collaborator Tony Williams.

“I gotta say what’s up to Tony Williams,” Stewart says, repurposing the now memorable quote from Kanye West. Stewart first met Williams by chance in a recording studio in late 2009, and although Stewart already had a decent footing as an audio engineer by that point, he admits “that relationship opened a lot of doors.”

It was through his engineering work for Williams that Stewart collected many of the professional connections that have defined the arc of his still-burgeoning career, networks that would eventually lead Stewart to meet Kanye himself, for whom he both engineered and produced, and whose music indirectly helped kick-start Stewart’s eventual move into curation and event planning.

Born in Kansas and raised outside Nashville, Stewart graduated from high school in Colorado and attended college in Arkansas before finally moving to Dallas. It was in Arkansas, between 2005 and early 2009 — just before he met Williams — that Stewart’s love for music transitioned from passion to profession. Stewart’s been fascinated with hip-hop since the age of eight and began writing his own bars sometime in middle school, but it was during his early years in college that he began experimenting with hip-hop as a career path, initially as an MC.

“When I was in Arkansas, I pursued, maybe foolishly, rapping for a while,” Stewart says in a slow, carefully measured manner. As with everything he shares, Stewart speaks about his achievements with a refreshingly humble bent, but the press he garnered for his MC efforts — most notably from two of the most highly respected hip-hop blogs in 2dopeboyz and illroots — gives you a better sense of where his game was at the time.

It was during these forays into emceeing that a 20-year-old Stewart became enamored with Pro Tools, the industry standard digital audio workstation. “The first time I saw Pro Tools I knew I needed to learn it — Pro Tools is why I decided to drop out of college,” says Stewart. After deciding college couldn’t provide him with the future he now sought, Stewart’s roommate at the time, a transplant from Grand Prairie, suggested that the two uproot and move to Dallas. The next day they packed their things and headed for Texas.

On arrival, Stewart enrolled in MediaTech Institute to obtain a formal education in audio engineering. Upon graduating in 2011, he almost immediately headed back to Colorado to pursue work in the startup sector. It was also during this stint in Colorado that Stewart dropped his Grey Album remaster, the resulting press coverage of which gifted Stewart a year-long DJ residency at one of Colorado Springs’ largest clubs. However, Stewart soon tired of working for others instead of himself, and so he returned to Dallas in 2014 in hopes of pursuing audio engineering full-time.

Unfortunately, audio engineering is an industry that’s vulnerable to seasonal patterns, and regardless of the engineer’s pedigree, it’s all but impossible to fill one’s schedule on engineering alone. Fortunately, when it comes to creative matters, Stewart is restless to a fault. He simply could not sit idle, waiting for work to find him; so he made a decision: he wanted a club night of his own, and he went out in search of ways to make that happen.

“I talked to talent buyers and owners all around Deep Ellum, Lower Greenville and Uptown — I was ready for my own night,” Stewart remembers. And it wasn’t long before he got his shot; in the fall of 2015 Stewart launched The Sunday Night Dance Party at Crown and Harp. Stewart’s DJ night had a few name changes in short order, with the content changing accordingly, but Stewart’s indefatigable ambition and willingness to evolve were soon rewarded, and on the eve of the release of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Stewart’s night hit a tipping point.

“I decided to brand the night as a The Life of Pablo listening party, but I had to find a way to fill out the set; the album’s only like 60 minutes long,” Stewart recalls. The idea was to flesh out the remaining time with Kanye West deep cuts, older joints, features. The formula was an instant success. Stewart had discovered a niche, one he describes as a “party built as a fan night, a DJ event for people who buy concert tickets.”

The concept was straightforward but brilliant, an entire party centered on the music of a single artist; it was easily repeatable and endlessly marketable, too. “It wasn’t yet called ALL/ EVERYTHING,” Stewart reiterates, but in essence, this was the first installment in Stewart’s wildly popular party series.

Fast forward to December 2016, and Stewart has positioned himself as a statesman in the Dallas hip-hop scene, by turns a producer, engineer, curator, event-planner, promoter, music video director and concert photographer (he covered and toured with West’s Yeezus tour for part of 2014); his A/E parties are nothing short of a local phenomenon (shoulder-to-shoulder sold-out shows and lines sprawling down the block forced a venue change to RBC some months back) and his resume now reads like the career highlights of a seasoned professional twice his age.

Apart from working in some capacity alongside nearly every relevant Dallas hip-hop act, Stewart’s production and engineering credits now include a laundry list of giants: Freddie Gibbs, Kid Cudi, Talib Kweli, Macklemore, John Legend, Yelawolf, Big Boi, Big K.R.I.T., The Roots’ Black Thought, and more have all profited from Stewart’s talents.

Despite his superstar associations and ever-increasing tally of accomplishments, Stewart’s most significant contribution might be the role he plays in the local hip-hop community. “John is a guy that just wants cool shit to happen in this city,” rapper and A/E co-host Brandon Blue (aka Blue, The Misfit) says. “He’s a tastemaker that has a nonstop motor when it comes to ideas, concepts and branding. He has his hands on the pulse of what the Dallas nightlife needs.”

“It’s all about community, pooling resources, and coming together to make each other better,” Stewart says, betraying all the reasons he’s become such an integral local figurehead. “You can’t be selfish — a win for Dallas is a win for everybody that’s active in Dallas; it’s necessary to be inclusive because that’s the only way we’re going to continue to grow," he adds.

Stewart’s largely put production work and engineering on the back-burner for the time being in order to focus on ALL/ EVERYTHING’s future. “I wanted to create something that had very long legs — the goal was always to eventually take A/E on the road,” he says. Having already covered artists like Beyoncé, Drake, Jay Z, Outkast and Frank Ocean in Dallas, there are ongoing plans to expand A/E to Chicago, Miami, L.A., San Francisco, Atlanta, Austin and more.

As the Observer wrote last week, Stewart and Blue recently booked their first out-of-state date, an evening at New York’s storied venue SOB’s, to be hosted on Dec. 23 by Lowkey (Of Beats 1 Radio fame). “My goal with all projects is to do things that bring about more opportunities, for myself and for others,” says Stewart.

Whether through his feverishly attended A/E parties, his behind-the-scenes technical work or his propensity for enriching the careers of those around him, Stewart’s influence over the local scene is incalculable. “We have to keep championing the awesome things that happen here, because it’s going to shine a light on potential routes that other local artists can take inspiration from,” he says. “Growth requires a lot of conversation.”

Thanks to Stewart and other like-minded influencers, our city’s hip-hop scene is rallying, thriving — and we’re finally beginning to have those conversations.
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Jonathan Patrick