It's hard to know where to begin with Johnny Igaz. Do I open by mentioning his lifeblood -- his music -- and his outsized talent that the world was only just beginning to recognize? Or his deep, abiding sense of humor, which never left him without a smile on his face and left him cracking jokes about his own struggles?
Do I start with his passion for others, which saw him supporting his friends, even new friends he barely knew, in their artistic and creative endeavors, without fail? Or his commitment to causes he believed in -- veganism, feminism, racial justice, non-violence, fair pay for artists, musicians, and creators, to list but a few? Or, more simply, his philosophy of kindness and positivity, which saw him continually pushing himself on an elemental level to do the hard work necessary to be thankful for all the gifts life gave him, to pay no heed to the hardships he could not control, and to take nothing for granted?
In truth, none of the above does Johnny justice. Perhaps more than any other person I've known in life, Johnny was a man of infinite multitudes. From the very first time I met him, he greeted me with a warm hug and engaged in genuine conversation with me, paying me rapt attention and listening earnestly to what I had to say. Then and there, I was smitten. He was one of a kind.
Music was the foundation of my relationship with Johnny. Music seemed to be the foundation of Johnny's life, as a matter of fact. We bonded early over artists like U.K. techno producer Boddika, whose squirrelly, stripped-down hardware jams, like "Acid Battery," proved hugely influential on Johnny's own work as Nackt. We quickly moved beyond electronic music and realized we shared a love of much other outsider music: the sludgy stoner metal of Electric Wizard; the undulating psychedelia of Earthless; the jazzy, dusty downtempo grooves of Amon Tobin; and so much more. Johnny turned me onto so many good tunes: Electronic System's far-out library music, or Ebenezer Obey's long-form Nigerian Afrobeat, to pick just two.
But music isn't the reason I'll remember Johnny forever.
Johnny was one of the few people I've encountered in life who taught me how to be a better person. We debated often: issues, causes, problems, seeking possible solutions or best practices. Time after time, Johnny helped me do the right thing. Johnny was always re-evaluating his own positions, stances, and actions, asking himself (and me in turn) how he could do better, be more just, and do less harm. He stumbled often -- he was human, after all. But it was the asking that counted.
More than that, Johnny showed me how to be a man. I'm a music geek who writes for a living who loves clothes and video games; I'm not exactly a "man's man," and I've long struggled with traditional notions of masculinity and what kind of man, exactly, I am supposed to be. Johnny is perhaps the first close male friend I've had who was unabashed about his sensitivity; who told his friends he loved them repeatedly; who not only didn't disregard touch and physical contact, but actively sought it out. Johnny helped me feel safe in my own skin, cementing within me that who I am is the person I ought to be.
For years, Johnny and I had the same conversation, time and time again: "Is it time to leave?" The Bay Area is home for both of us, and both of us love it with every fiber of our beings. But remaining here is a struggle, especially once we both decided to commit full-time to our creative passions: music his, writing mine.
Time and time again, one of us would feel low, ready to throw in the towel: That's it -- I'm just gonna move to L.A., Seattle, Toronto, New York, anywhere. Time and time again, one of us would counsel the other: "Hang in there; it's hard right now, I know; so many friends have (moved, been evicted, given up hope); give it a few weeks -- the tide will turn." Invariably, we'd convince the other to stick around, and both our moods would lift.
Just weeks ago, we had this conversation again -- except this time, we both agreed that something had changed. Both San Francisco and Oakland felt more vibrant than ever; mood on the street felt positive; people were coming together, beginning new projects, and creativity seemed on the upswing, despite the dark storm clouding our nation. We agreed to work on new projects together, excited by the prospects that lay ahead.
After last weekend, my resolve is stronger than ever -- I'm not giving up. For Johnny.
None of these sentiments are mine alone. The outpouring of love, fondness, and support from Johnny's family and friends -- and perhaps most remarkably, from those who barely knew him at all -- has been nothing short of an avalanche. Dear readers, forgive me: what anecdotes I share here cannot possibly stand in for the innumerable tributes from those he touched, but I will try, anyway.
Brother Paul Igaz states with certainty that no single person affected or influenced his life as much as Johnny did. Paul recounts how, steadily and gradually, Johnny instilled in him a love of music; that over time, Paul followed Johnny's "growth as a person and as a lover of music, which were in many ways the same thing." Paul recounts that he, Johnny, and sister Teresa (who died in 2015) all had different but firmly held concepts of what is "right and just," and that this led each in different directions. For Teresa, this meant a career in public health, specifically mental health for youth; for Paul, a career in teaching and education. Johnny infused this spirit into his career as a musician and artist. What stands out about Johnny's beliefs and ethics, Paul says, is "how public he's always been about [them,]" in contrast to the reservedness of himself and Teresa, and how inspiring that is to him as a person.
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For long-time friend and event-hosting partner Jeremy Bispo, it is "hard to disconnect [Johnny's] love for music with his love for people and community." Johnny worked tirelessly to improve his craft, Bispo says, "but would still prefer to give others a chance to shine over himself." Bispo remembers fondly how seriously Johnny took the task of curating lineups for their parties and events: "He brought a broader perspective on diversity, and elevated the importance of representing community without sacrificing quality to the utmost."
Former partner, forever family Hunter Leight says the most important thing he taught her was "to build up community, to support and nurture our chosen families, and to remember that we're all in this together." For fellow DJ and music lover Sam Bloom, Johnny "really set the standard for what it meant to be someone's friend," he says. He recounts the last time they really spent time together, in October, soon after Johnny had been hired as the music buyer for San Francisco's Green Apple Books. Bloom says Johnny spoke about how "music scenes need all types of people and spaces … it takes an entire community to make a scene, and everyone's role is key." In Johnny's mind, Bloom recounts, "he was just doing his part, and he made me feel empowered to do mine."
Friend and musical collaborator Cassidy Martin says Johnny was his "primary music mentor," and his lessons of "detail, restraint, and discipline" left Martin a much improved artist. He remembers that Johnny would describe the music community writ large as a "Venn diagram," and made the effort to "shade in those areas, connect the dots between people." That's why parties were so important to him: "He wanted different parts of the community to meet, connect, and strengthen -- organically," he says.
Renee Nichols, Johnny's first love (who knew him simply as John), says that "Ironically, one of the people who's helping me through this loss the most is him [Johnny]." "Whenever I have a despairing thought," she says, "I see him smile and shake his head good-naturedly at me, like, 'Come on.'" Nichols remembers speaking of death and dying with Johnny; his philosophy was that since we could go at any minute, we had best live like we had no regrets -- or at least, try to leave all our relationships on a positive note.
Friend Alida Brandenburg remembers how consistently Johnny would "check in on [her,]" and not in a patronizing or protective way -- "just in an 'I'm human and I care about you' kind of way," she says. Johnny's openness and warmth so moved her that she decided to make a change in her life: instead of making small talk with friends at parties, she resolved to ask them, "What are you excited about?"
"It's a small tribute to Johnny," she says, "and the inspired life he led, and modeled so generously for others."
Hear Johnny Igaz's DJ sets, mixes, edits and original music as Nackt at his Soundcloud page.
Read a wide-spanning interview with Johnny Igaz about growing up, his influences, philosophy and technique here.
Read a remembrance of Johnny Igaz from Hunter Leight here.
For more of our tributes to the victims of the Oakland warehouse fire, please visit our remembrances page here.
For a printable poster of the illustration above, see here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED