Once a hyper-local blend of music and dance native to the South and West sides of Chicago, footwork is gaining traction in the world of electronic music with the help of artists who are bringing it into the mainstream.
Footwork artists, like DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, are characterized by their rhythmic dexterity and sample-based mayhem that usually hums along at 160 beats per minute.
Although this hyper-local scene has been active since the mid-90’s, the past few years have witnessed a heightened global interest in footwork’s unique, otherworldly aesthetic. UK label Planet Mu has released two survey compilations under the name Bangs & Works that have been well-received by the dance music cognoscenti, and these days Rashad and Spinn (real names Rashad Harden and Morris Harper) are international footwork ambassadors, playing to enthusiastic crowds in Moscow, Switzerland, and Romania.
First-time footwork listeners might be bewildered by the unapologetic strangeness and menace that characterizes the sound. Although this is technically electronic dance music, most footwork tracks are diametrically opposed to the fist-pumping euphoria you’d find on the main stage at HARD or Ultra. R.P. Boo’s (Kavain Space) career-spanning album Legacy, a 57-minute long masterclass from one of the genre’s principal pioneers, offers a comprehensive look at just what footwork has to offer. One notable song, “187 Homicide,” samples Justin Timberlake’s classic “Cry Me a River” to a nauseating effect.
Taking its name from the section of California’s penal code that defines the crime of murder, “187 Homicide” works as an aural strangulation, offering a warning to any aspiring producers who might challenge Boo’s claim to supremacy.
Countless footwork tracks thrive on this cutthroat arrogance, but the myriad of references to murder and bloodletting aren’t intended to fuel the notorious gang violence that still plagues Chicago. Instead, footwork’s savage sentiment inspires a healthy competitive spirit between rival dance crews, who battle for dominance in rec centers and warehouses around the city.
“This is how we dealt with our struggle…it’s what kept us out of trouble,” said crew leader Lite Bulb, who often joins Rashad and Spinn on stage, in an interview with Thump. “We’re all friends at the end of the day. But in battle, I’m fitting to win. There’s no possible way you can even think that you’re gonna win.”
But Rashad and Spinn have differentiated themselves from peers by branching out from established footwork templates. Their most recent material draws heavily from other genres to create tracks with accessible hooks and unprecedented emotional depth.
“We all take elements from other music,” Spinn said in a 2011 Red Bull Music Academy lecture. “With juke and footwork I feel there’s no boundaries. We can touch on any aspect of music, from jazz to soul, rock to classical, and just throw some bass behind that sh-t, for real.”
Rashad’s Double Cup LP, released last, is the latest proof of this concept, fusing footwork’s restless energy to elements of soul, acid house, and G-funk. The hazy West Coast vibes are immediate on opener “Feelin,” a breathtaking rework of Roy Ayers’ “Brand New Feeling.”
Although Rashad & Spinn’s current output may not be well-suited for battle circles, the more accessible fare has been highly successful in club environments around the world. While opening for Chance the Rapper on his recent Social Experiment Tour, the duo dropped a number of contemporary hip-hop favorites in addition to their own material. One of their best tricks involves throwing a juke beat behind a top 40 favorite, as they did with “Mercy.”
“Good music is good music,” Rashad said in an interview with Dubspot. “You gotta play whatever makes the crowd happy. That’s how I was taught to be a DJ.”
DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn will headline the sixth annual KXSC Fest on Sat., March 29, in E.F. Hutton Park.
Zach Nivens is a senior majoring in business administration (cinematic arts). He is also the DJ of Negative Fun on KXSC.