FEATURE: Juke And Footwork - From Chicago To The WorldWednesday , 06 Oct 2010
Born in the disparate ghettos and back alley nightspots of Chicago and living hand in hand with juke music, footwork is one of the last untapped (and resultantly, unfiltered) hood dance music styles in the world. Formalised by RP Boo, a dancer turned DJ, turned beatmaker. On now regionally classic tracks such as 'Godzilla', 'Baby Come On' and 'Ice Cream' RP Boo futurecast a functional template for footwork, a template which some argue inspired the early architecture for aspects of Kanye West's initial sample based hip-hop productions. Existing within the same sonic tradition as Chicago house and ghetto house, footwork and juke place a premium on the juxtaposition of unintentionally avant-garde sound collage with uniquely screwed 150 to 160 BPM drum grooves and cavernous sub bass. All pitched-up (or down) vocal samples, stuttering snare rolls, glistening ambience and rhythmic repetition, once submerged in it, the music evokes similar feelings to hardcore and jungle in their early days.
While initially overly cyclical to the untrained listener's ear, a quick search of youtube, and the endless list of grainy handmade videos associated with juke and footwork (or footwerk or even footwurk), reveals a movement as much about intuitive dance routines as unacademic electronic production, and observing the music in relation to these dances fills in the missing details, placing elements of the sound which initially make no sense at all, perfectly within context. Essentially, it’s an atmosphere not dissimilar to that present at a crumping competition.
In light of this, driven by an interplay between local street dance troupes, DJs and beatmakers, juke and footwork subscribe to Chicago house’s variant of hip-hop's ‘four corners’ foundation, which as with that tradition, places equal importance on dancers, beatmakers and DJs. So, with Chicago being the hip-hop epicenter it is as well, as due to geography, breakdancing culture and house music dance culture, house and hip-hop intertwined - it was only natural that more ghettoized regional electronic dance genres and associated dance styles would be born.
Getting visceral with his descriptors, Ghettophiles record label owner Neema Nazem vividly depicts juke and footwork as "literally the gum underneath the shoes of house music," a movement which has been low profile for too long. "Most people don't even know of its presence. Those that do, don't know where the hell it came from. They don't know how the hell it got there and no matter what they try and do, it just won't go away. And the longer it stays on, the darker and dirtier everything gets. It's been around for more than twenty years and it's now getting full recognition. It's literally a beautiful thing."
In terms of juke and footwork's recent shift from community dance events to a sound now on the international radar though, aside from earlier efforts made by the likes of DJ Gant-Man and less directly, Flosstradamus, much of this present rise can be attributed to four individuals. Firstly, legendary British sound explorer Mike Paradinas (aka µ-Ziq) of Planet Mu records, who through meticulously trawling Chicago, painstakingly unearthed a trinity of key figures, DJ Nate, DJ Roc and DJ Rashad. Each possessed of a singular style which places an equal emphasis on authentic leftfield vibes and unaffected street musicality, Mike signed all three to Planet Mu for a series of albums and EPs. And through these releases, a breach in the metaphorical bulkhead which insulates their criminally undermined scene from the outside world has begun.
Raised in the Southside of Chicago, thanks to his parents musical tastes, Bosses of The Circle (B.O.T.C) affiliate DJ Roc (real name: Clarence Johnston), literally grew up with Chicago house and ghetto house. Speaking via a crackly cellphone line, he explains, "Coming up as a young boy I was mad for it you know! I've liked the beat since I was a baby, ever since then I was loving the groove." Getting his start as a dancer at age three, aside from house variants, Roc was raised on a steady diet of funk, soul, hip-hop and Michael Jackson, describing the king of pop as being responsible for the first songs that really moved him.
A humble dude, who before DJing and production caught him, came up, "gang banging and doing a lot of bad stuff," Roc started writing tracks in 2001 on a jacked copy of Fruity Loops 3. DJing every weekend at not just juke or footwork, but hip-hop, rnb and pop events, Roc has only performed outside of Chicago once. A self-described "night owl", he spends the dark hours glued to his computer. As diverse with his production as his DJing, he also crafts beats within his other genres of choice, literally restless with his creative impulses and output.
Regarding his hypnotic footwork production though, and a signature sound best heard on tunes such as 'One Blood' and 'I Don't Like The Look Of It', Roc draws his influence from movies, soundtracks, the radio, and by virtue of this, everyday life. "Once I hear a certain sound, it touches me," he says. "It's like, this would sound raw on a track, no one ever thought to do it like that, go ahead and do it. So then I gotta go download that song, chop it up, do what I gotta do, and make it happen." Viewing his background as a dancer as a real asset in his production ("when you're a dancer, you gotta keep up with the beat, so I know where to change it up"), Roc trials his beats out at his DJ gigs, where the crowd doesn't lie. "I get a lot of feedback off the crowd," he continues. "It keeps me motivated to do it."
Having over the course of his career already released three volumes of his excellent Juke City mix CD series via boutique mix-shops in the malls of Chicago, while he hasn't really played outside of his city, within Chicago, Roc has definitely gone all-city as a DJ. "North, out West, East, South Westside, South; it’s all love," he says. "It's love wherever I go." Regularly spinning to crowds of between two to eight-hundred, he prides himself on the vibe at his shows. "I don't have a record of having violence at my parties, none of that," he enthuses. "Everyone comes to my parties and has a good time, and there are more females then males."
With his productions well and truly entrenched in the local scene as standards and an increasing degree of international correspondence arriving in his email account, Roc's situation looks set to change very soon. Something he is pretty happy about. "I never thought I'd be able to go overseas," he admits. "I've just always wanted to get out of Chicago and do things. So to be able to get out and do something I love doing like DJing and make people move and feel happy, wow."
Ghetto Technitianz member DJ Rashad on the other hand, also repping the Southside ("I'm from the wild hundreds") and a seventeen year veteran of the Chicago DJ scene, has played all over the United States and even as far a field as Belgium and Paris in France, a city which he loved. Having released over nine hundred songs, Rashad has been writing music for ten years, first ghetto house, followed by juke and footwork. Starting out on hardware, he now works on software and has a stronger overseas profile than most in the juke and footwork scenes through releases via record labels Juke Tracks, Databass and Ghettophiles (who also manage him). Still, this doesn't stop him from accidentally losing his cellphone down the toilet, delaying our conversation by several days. Thankfully, when we finally speak, it's all laughter as Rashad relates his back-story.
Raised by a drummer father who was into rock, reggae, heavy metal and beyond, Rashad, much like Roc, made his initial fledging entry into DJing and than beatmaking after serving time in a dance group (it’s a local rite of passage). "I was in seventh grade and I had always loved the music," he explains. "I was like, man, I can do this DJ stuff. I hustled up some money and bought some turntables and a mixer. I started from there, kept dancing and DJing and eventually people took me seriously. Eventually I was like, man, I think I can make this kind of music. I started doing it, got a sampler and got the ball rolling and upgraded from there as the years went on."
A contemporary of Paul Johnson, DJ Gant-Man, DJ Spinn, DJ Godfather, and Jammin Gerald, Rashad DJs every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. A cross-genre DJ like Roc, Rashad describes the juke and footwork scene in Chicago as huge, with over forty different established dance troops and associated DJs and producers active in the city. "It's been huge for the last seven years," he says. "It's getting bigger and bigger. It's a safe spot in the hood, grown people come, whoever, they come along and release stress and enjoy good music. I love it." While the majority of it occurs at specialist events ("those clips you see on youtube are from footwork dance events"), the music and culture permeates the general Chicago nightclub scene. "They play it in the other clubs too," he says happily. "Not as much, but at every club, you'll get forty five minutes or an hour of juke or footwork. Some people might not footwork to it though, they might just grind. It's part of the culture now."
Having recently started playing dubstep after a trip to play at a rave in Seattle, where in his words, "they were playing it and I loved it," Rashad has unwittingly become part of new phase in an ongoing transatlantic electronic dance music conversation. With the sound of dubstep inspiring him, across the ditch in the UK, english dubstep beatmakers and DJs such as Headhunter (aka Addison Groove) and Ramadanman have been experimenting with the drum patterns, sampling ideas and bass hits of juke and footwork, ushering in a new variant on the modern dubstep template, which suggests a raft of new possibilities for contemporary bass music. Rashad though, at the time of our conversation was unaware of this. "I'm glad you told me this man, because I had no idea," he states, before heading off to ponder how to best take advantage of his newfound knowledge.
DJ Nate however, perhaps the most initially sonically invigorating of the three, and a genuine footwork icon-cum-innovator, is unfortunately the most street of the trio. As a result, he was serving a short stint in jail while I was constructing this feature, precluding him from speaking with me. Having delivered an EP and an album (Da Trak Genious) that have collectively seen him profiled in internationally respected publications such as The Guardian and The Wire, Nate's incarceration is a frustrating situation for all and a telling reminder of the daily realities of life in the hoods of Chicago.
Still, even though Nate couldn't verbally speak with me, the dark strings, looped repeating verbal threats, harsh claps and high-hat rolls of tunes of his like 'Footwurk Homicide' speak volumes about juke and footwork's unique musical dialogue between urban breakdance/hip-hop culture, the spaced out club experimentalism of Chicago house and it's increasingly more ghettoized younger relations.
Low-fi, bass heavy and elaborately simple, juke and footwork are musical forms made for dance, in a city of severe extremes. If Planet Mu, Roc, Rashad, Nate and their peers have their way, this dancer to dancer dialogue is going to spread. As Rashad concludes, "In Minnesota they got a foowork group, Indiana got a footwork group, Wisconsin got a footwork group and I'm also hearing that Detroit, instead of jerking, they're footworking. It's getting huge and I heard that overseas they got some people trying to footwork too now." I ask Rashad if he feels like they are on the verge of going global. His reply, "That's what I'm hearing man, and I really hope so!"
DJ Roc - Crack Capone is out 20th of October.
DJ Rashad - Itz Not Right is out 4th of October
DJ Nate - Da Trak Genious is out now
Feature by Martyn Pepperell.
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