(Original Photo By: Lawrence Lau)
One can have a grand vision and the will to execute it, however, you need to have some breaks go your way to accomplish your ultimate goal. As cheesy as it may sound, optimism, persistence, and a belief in oneself can go quite a long ways. Such is the story of Chicago-based producers Colin Rebey and Johnathon Gust, better known by their DJ name, Light Em Up. Readers in the Windy City have probably caught their individual sets as PHNM and Zebo, as well as their joint project Light Em Up at some of the city’s premiere nightclubs like The MID and Sound-Bar.
Both Colin and Johnathon knew from a very early age that they had a passion for music and their families have always been supportive. They also each knew early on that they wanted to be DJs, and this was in an era before superstar DJ/producers and the term EDM.
Johnathon: “I wanted to be a radio DJ when I was young. I was really into music and sharing it with people. My mom had a friend who worked for 102.3 in Waukegan, IL and I got to “guest DJ” one night during her show and was hooked. When I was 16 I went to my first underground party and then realized I wanted to be a different type of DJ.”
Colin: “When I was really young I wanted to play in a band and make music and perform it for people. My family has always been quick to tell everyone that the main way I communicate with people is through music. I would sit down first and ask them what they listen to and what they like and try to find a common ground with them. I think this helped me to expand my taste in music and bring to the table so many different genres.”
However, success did not come easily or readily to either Colin or Johnathon. They both struggled at first, and each had obstacles to overcome. For Johnathon, he had to overcome the death of his father at only eight years old. He also cites that back in the late 90’s when he first set out to become a DJ, it was a much harder skill to learn.
J: “Just learning how to DJ was a significant struggle. I started in 1998…back then DJing was not as accessible as it is today and a lot of DJs held their secrets of the trade really close. You had to learn by trial and error and by watching other DJs. There weren’t DJ schools like there are today. There weren’t online tutorials showing you how to do things. You had to learn by practice.”
For Colin he was completely broke when he first moved to Chicago, just making ends meet. However, he never stopped being persistent, networking wherever he could and doing something as simple as writing his info on a napkin to put his name out there. He also made the rookie mistake of leaving his turntables in his car, only to get them stolen. That didn’t stop him, though.
C: “When I moved to Chicago out of college I was flat broke with just enough money for a deposit and first month’s rent for my apartment…I didn’t have enough money for business cards so I would write my info on napkins in the club and hand them to promoters and GMs to try to get booked anywhere. I was living paycheck-to- paycheck before my electricity was eventually turned off and I was struggling to even afford to have a cell phone. A major break came when a couple of well-known Chicago DJ/producers saw me playing at Lincoln Hall and plugged me with someone that could offer me a residency downtown at Hub51. From there everything started to catch fire and the ball started rolling.”
There you have it, for both Colin and Johnathon the struggle was very real, but they never lost sight of their vision. They remained persistent and now they’re making a name for themselves. One of the most famous adages in history is “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Johnathon strongly encourages everyone to exercise that in his or her daily lives. Fear will only hold you back, and a lot of times you find out you never had anything to be fearful of in the first place.
J: “I’ve gotten to the point in life where I’ve learned it is an absolute waste of time to be afraid of anything. No matter what, things always work out. I’m here right now and everything is good. Sometimes these things that people fear come to fruition and they get past it and realize it was pointless to be afraid as that negativity holds no weight.”
The journey, as well as the struggles, is far from over for Johnathon and Colin. While they’ve made a name for themselves in their hometown of Chicago, it’s admittedly been difficult to get exposure on a national level, especially because Light Em Up is a DJ-based project and not producer-based unlike many of today’s biggest names. They are also experimenting with a new app that allows fans to interact with the guys while they’re behind the decks to help dictate the direction of their sets. However, at the end of the day, they’re both very satisfied with where their journey has taken them and where they still have to go. Through adversity they’ve grown into stronger individuals with music as the uniting factor.
J: “…It is moving. Knowing that we are able to share the gift of music and inspire someone to get in a position where they share music is a great feeling. Music is one of the biggest things that brings people together. We need more of that this day and age, as there are so many things trying to keep people separate.”
C: “When it’s all said and done I want us to impact people in the fact that we did it our way from the beginning until the end. We kept it real to ourselves and ate, slept, and breathed the grind and the journey. We’ve seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and that’s what I’ll take from all of this.”