• Steven Mainzer

Walt Believed in Me When I Didn't: My Tribute to John Walt

Updated: Dec 22, 2018

Credits: Jude Appleby (Courtesy of Nachelle Pugh)

Since I couldn’t make the second annual John Walt Day I wanted to write a tribute to my late amazing friend Walt. This tribute is meant to capture how Walt believed in me, fiercely pursued his passion and made a great friend.

For anyone who knew Walter Long Jr. aka John Walt aka DinnerwithJohn, he was a compassionate friend and an unbelievable musician.  For those who didn’t know Walt, he was a part of the Westside-Chicago rap collective, Pivot Gang hailing out of the Austin neighborhood. Walt made his mark early on the group with a relentless work ethic and churning out hits pretty much on demand. At the first annual John Walt Day, Saba (cousin of Walt and leader of Pivot) mentioned in the tribute video that preluded the concert, “Walt was a workhorse. Walt had more songs than any of us.”

(Video Credits: Marcus Mixon)

My first experience meeting Walt was one I will never forget. I had befriended SqueakPIVOT (Walt’s right-hand-man and frequent collaborator) through a mutual friend at Saba’s Lollapalooza show in 2016.  I gave Squeak my elevator pitch about myself and sure enough, Squeak texted me later that night saying “Call me when you're free to talk business.” I called him the next day and he invited me over to Saba’s Grandma’s house that week. Needless to say I was ecstatic. However, I had no clue that I would be meeting an artist that I was a huge fan of in John Walt aka DinnerwithJohn.

(Video Credits: Marcus Mixon)

I remember vividly pulling up to Saba’s Grandma’s house and waiting for Squeak to come greet me outside, I texted him anxiously “Where you guys at? I’m parked outside.” Squeak insisted I wait a few minutes as they were just returning from the corner store. I was a bit anxious but I waited patiently outside. Eventually Squeak pulled up, sure enough with John Walt by his side on the sidewalk. In a rare instance of me being a bit star-struck, I got out of the car ran up to Walt and exclaimed, “John Walt! Bro, my name is Steve. I am a huge fan, “Kemo Walk” is one of my favorites!” Walt just smiled and said, “For sure let’s go inside bro” as if he was expecting me to badger him for 20 minutes on the sidewalk.  We went down in the basement and sure enough Saba’s brother Joseph Chilliams was playing NBA 2K. Shortly after I arrived as I was showing them my music content, Saba showed up and was pretty much silent the entire time I was there, trying to teach himself the guitar.

What I remember most from that first encounter is how they reminded me of my friends back home and how Walt seemed to be on the same page with everything we talked about, but he was so cool, calm and collected. I remember after they played 2K, it was just Squeak, Walt and I. I was trying to prove my knowledge of the game to them and was explaining how I believed that the state of hip-hop in Atlanta was a step ahead of Chicago because of the collaborative nature of the ATL scene. Walt seemed to know exactly what I was talking about and agreed that they do work together to cross promote and share their music a bit more than the Chicago scene. Then we went outside, messed around with the basketball and talked about our favorite rappers. If I remember correctly, Walt might have said one of his old favorites was Jay-Z, and I vehemently agreed as I told Walt the first album I ever bought was Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. From that moment I felt a connection with Squeak and Walt.

The stars seemed to align next, and I met my current partner/ known concert promoter (fellow co-founder of NMV, Peter Jaysin). I pitched myself to him and he gave me a night at The Refuge in the West Loop. I called Squeak and told him I wanted Pivot to headline, sure enough Walt and Joseph were the duo to do so. I was ecstatic and we filled the rest of the bill, got the flyer made and started promoting. The best part of working with Walt was he was very diligent and professional with everything he did. Whether it was promotion or making sure the lineup was right, Walt was on top of everything. He would post on Facebook and Twitter about the show constantly, and asked me for personalized fliers and insisted that the show bill stay small to ensure that it was a prestigious night of artists. I remember one day I was hanging out with him and he wanted to know show details. For a promoter, it’s hard to share those details because so many aspects of the show are subject to change before the actual event. However, for some reason with Walt I felt no hesitance to share the details and told him how long his set was, when he would probably perform, and my expectations for the night. It felt like he was on my team, and we were in the starting lineup together, getting ready for the big game.

Walt killed his performance and he was the consensus performer of the night, however we came up short of my expectations and pretty much broke even on the night (in addition to an artist stealing a bit of the money that was not his). Walt and Joseph were awarded a percentage of the show profit’s and I was saddened to only give them a measly amount of around $100 each. I went up to Walt and I told him, “Walt I’m sorry bro we came up a little shorter than I expected," and I gave him the money. He turned to me “All good bro, don’t sweat it we’ll get the next one.” That’s when I knew how truly genuine he was. In a world with egotistical, impatient artists, Walt knew that this took time and that we were building something and he was happy with the turn out.

(Video Credits: Marcus Mixon)

Shortly after the show I took a crappy job in Dallas, TX for a month working at a miserable UPS facility. I remember scrolling Instagram and saw that Saba and Pivot Gang had a show at Lincoln Hall January 6th but tickets were going fast. I saw Walt then post the next day it was sold out before I had time to get a ticket. I texted Walt and asked if he had an spare tickets and he didn’t. Turns out that my same mutual friend (Pivot Guitarist Jameson Brenner) had a spare ticket! That night I got to see Walt perform T-Pain’s “Buy You a Drank” and laughed hysterically, thinking only Walt could pull this off. After his performance he said what up to me and I congratulated him. Tragically, that would be the last night I would see him.

Walt performing at Lincoln Hall in early 2017 (Courtesy of Nachelle Pugh)

Not only was Walt was full of humor and quick witted but he was extremely observant. When I went to hang out with Walt and Squeak one random summer day, I picked up Walt and was driving through Austin with him to go to Squeak's. I always like to show people new music I'm into and I showed Walt the new Travis Scott that just came out in "through the late night" featuring Kid Cudi off his newest album at the time. Walt caught that Travis was taking Kid Cudi's verse from "Day N' Night" off the first verse right away, and he asked "Is he just going take Cudi's whole verse?" He was so observant and paid such close attention to details. Later in the car ride, I turned to him and said, "For being an artist you are very cool, calm and collected." He then turned to me and explained "I observe everything around me. I notice all the little details," as he pointed to the trees and the outline of the neighborhood we were driving through.

Credits: TLNTD -- Courtesy of Nachelle Pugh (click the photo to hear an unreleased song with Walt and TLNTD titled "Squad Wit Me"

What made Walt so special was his belief in others and his ferocious tenacity in helping those people he supported pursue similar passions. I was in Dallas, far removed from the music scene and really didn’t plan on continuing to throw shows or do much of anything as corporate America was sucking me dry. I’ll never forget when Walt texted me while I was in Dallas after I asked about tickets to the Lincoln Hall show. Walt said, “Hey bro we got to do another show together. I think we can do some big things. I want you to plan my album release show.” I was shocked and astonished. I thought to myself… “Walt wants me to put together another show with him after we had under 100 people come out to the first one?” I was excited and thrilled for the second chance. He saw that I was serious and my work ethic matched his. When I returned to Chicago he wanted me to call him and talk details. I called him and we spoke about our visions for the show and they were both exactly identical – mid-size venue, him as the headliner, couple supporting acts and of course a crazy dope flyer! We emailed back and forth artist names and venue ideas but a lot of the venues we wanted were out of our budget. Just about a week before he passed we had a long conversation on the phone about the show and we were both ready to execute. To this day it pains me that we never got to fulfill his album release show. 

Walt had a knack for connecting with others and had a sense of humor and charisma that is not found in all people. I only knew Walt for just under a calendar year but his friendship and impact on me will last a lifetime and I think that alone summarizes his legacy.

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