Johnny Love introduces impressionable youths and stodgy hipsters to the charms of Italo-disco

By John Dugan

LOVE TO LOVE YOU Loft party personality Johnny Love launches electro monthly Dirty Talk at Lava.

Johnny Love, who on Friday 22 launches the electro monthly Dirty Talk at Lava, has a reputation for promoting debauchery among the barely legal. Contrary to popular belief, the Chicago DJ is disturbingly respectable. The evidence: his day job. Love (22-year-old John Dal Santo) works as a cartographer for the Department of Planning and Development, and if his party-throwing career wasn't taking off, he'd be in school for urban planning. Love's life is hardly 24/7 illicit activity.

Love's strobe light has brightened over Chicago in recent years via some slamming loft parties. Last May, he moved into a two-level Bucktown storefront where he hosted and deejayed parties on the last Saturday of every month, often with members of the Opaque Project (Love calls it the "Ivy League of Chicago electronic music," which counts Atomly, Jeffrey Sfire and Eliot Lipp in its ranks) controlling the sounds.

Considering that he specializes in Italo-disco, Europe's spacey early '80s electronic disco offshoot, Love's popularity is surprising, but appropriate for Chicago. He grew up on Chicago's South Side at 115th and Cottage Grove, where Italo was widely played by his cousins. On the phone from his loft at Damen and North Avenues, he remembers, "Everyone was a gangbanger and what gangbangers listened to before the rise of hip-hop in Chicago was Italo-disco."

Love never intended to be a DJ. He was throwing raves in Harvey just before the scene sputtered out in 2000. He and a friend tried a new highbrow techno event ("the Institute") at the U. of C. "It wasn't successful," he says. "We'd be dancing and everyone else would be scratching their chins—and of course there were no girls involved because girls don't wanna hear that stuff." Love started playing more electro, but took exception to electroclash. "I always had this thing: I'm from Chicago, the South Side, and if you are going to represent the whole '80s revival, you need to do it in the Chicago fashion." Love wanted to represent the '80s of Gabriel's Fire, a memoir depicting Chicago's "party crews"—pseudogangs doing graffiti and listening to Italo, early house and new wave.

Since then, Love's parties have been almost too successful. In February 2003, 900 kids showed up for his 20th birthday bash and Love and others were arrested for not having public place of amusement or liquor licenses. His Jerkstore space still hosts a blowout almost every other month, a notable benefit to an under-21 crowd that's seen its nightlife options whittled away. Love's private parties are invite-only: There are no flyers, no promotion—and they're packed.

But Love is also interested in wooing the adult electronic-music fan who he believes is stuck in "static" genres like jungle and deep house. Lava's Dirty Talk, which features Love's mentor Biobooster, is billed as "an electro, techno, industrial, darkwave sleazefest" heavy on synths. Uptown, his Scared to Dance monthly at Liar's Club focuses on "booty house," Miami bass, ghetto tech and grime—all of which "dirty punk kids" find as irresistible as cheap six-packs.

A little more than two years ago, Love's parties promised free bottles of champagne, hot girls and lots of making out. "We were all totally into partying like crazy and people kind of wanted to be part of it," he says. These days, he still plays the Dionysian revelry card, but for nobler purposes, he claims.

"They call it 'edutainment,'" he says of his philosophy. "It's like Sesame Street: Kids enjoy watching it but they're actually learning at the same time. So all these kids are dancing to records they wouldn't think they'd be interested in."

Dirty Talk begins Friday 22 at Lava. Scared to Dance takes place every second Thursday of the month at Liar's Club.