Born in Olympia, Calvin Johnson's first true relationship with music started in 1977. After returning from a trip with his parents to England, he returned and enrolled in a summer course called Radio for Everyone. The 15 year old would do his own radio show, playing the latest records by the Jam and Sex Pistols. Two of the program directors at KAOS, a radio station at nearby Evergreen State College, were interested in having Johnson join the station.
In 1982, while living at the Capitol Theatre Building in Olympia, Johnson was working on a music fanzine called Sub Pop that would later become an influential label. During this time he also performed in bands such as Stella Mae, the Cool Rays, and 003 Legion.
In 1983, he became a member of Beat Happening, an underground rock band that became an integral part of the Washington music scene. The band released a series of albums and toured for a number of years. At the same time, he was playing a large role behind the scenes, creating his own record label, K Records, as a way to dissuade young bands from pandering to larger corporate record labels. Johnson also established the International Pop Overthrow, a collection of 7" releases from indie acts that received critical acclaim in the U.S. and Europe.
In the early '90s, he started a new group called Dub Narcotic Sound System and also performed as a member of the Halo Benders.
In 1991, Johnson created the International Pop Underground Festival, a music festival featuring Bikini Kill, Fugazi, and Fastbacks. He has worked with Beck, Built to Spill, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion among countless others as a producer and engineer. In 2002, Johnson released his first solo album, What Was Me, a collection of archive tapes from his days in Dub Narcotic Sound System.