Revisiting the steps of footwork in memory of DJ Rashad
By Sandra S. Borch
In memory of DJ Rashad’s untimely death 6 years back on this day, we publish a feature that celebrates nasty snares and extralingual phonetics and also portrays some of the main artists of the footwork genre, including Teklife and DJ Rashad himself.
The feeling of being overwhelmed by music happens once in a while. In a vulnerable moment, the unconscious memory is sucked into the present, flooding the senses and adding weight and meaning to each nasty snare and rowdy loop. Old memories resonate with the music, and the circuits of consciousness flick into overdrive as you kick back and take it in.
On a personal level, this is what happens every time I run “Double Cup” and its 14 tracks of non-stop perfection. I am sent straight back to good times with the best people. Reminiscing and mesmerizing.
One can only wonder: why does music affect our feelings and moods, and sometimes even move us to tears? Lots of psychological research, philosophers, and cognitive scientists have considered the possibility of the musically extended mind – like memory, emotions and social cognition.
Frederich Nietzsche said it with his Tinder-bio famous words: “Life without music would be a mistake”. According to neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday, “music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t. It’s a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way that nothing else does”.
Whether you trust the research, the philosophy or none of them, it is clear that music can sweep you away in a way other art forms can not. Like DJ Rashad did it to me. And I am sure that it is not just me but also my dearest friends Mikkel, Anders, and Andreas who share the same feeling. I can hear the eagerness in their voices telling the same stories over and over again about a whole lot of kush and the fact that Rashad never had seen an actual potato before he and DJ Spinn visited PHONO Festival back in 2013 – and continuing talking about shoulda, coulda, woulda if only Rashad Harden hadn’t left this world.
I am equally moved to the core by the stories and the music. This is why I treasure this album so very much.
Break it down. Roll it up. Rest in peace.
The following article was originally published in Passive/Aggressive Zine #6 in 2016.
Sampling the soundscape of the hood : How footwork marks the avant-garde of dance music
In the beginning was the loop. The history of footwork and its relation to the avant-garde is one of direction, flow and repetition: shared use of techniques and methods. The parallels might be lost in rhythms but always gliding in time. Though the music of the past is echoed in footwork, it has a long feedback into the hoods of Chicago. The hyperkinetic sound of footwork marks itself as the future avant-garde both in vision and time.
Booty-popping and electric boogaloo aren’t exactly qualities typically ascribed to musique concrète, a genre renowned for its idiom that all sounds are music. But in the late 1940s the techniques and methods that turned out to be the core of the future sound of footwork was formed by the practices of musique concrète.
Concerning resurgence of the history in music and inspiration, aesthetic similarities between the bangers of footwork and the compositions of musique concrète can be illustrated by drawing in the aesthetic strategies of the two genres’ techniques and methods.
Sampling – and the possible link between Schaeffer and Spinn
Musique concrète is a term proposed by the French acoustician and musicologist Pierre Schaeffer, to stand in opposition to all music based on abstract notations. By exposing and amplifying the circuitry of electronics, musique concrète significantly figures sound as a subject of research as well as musical medium. In practice, a sound object can be studied, for example, by isolating its parts; by editing out other sounds, attacks and resonances; or by filtering it, speeding it up or slowing it down. The French object-oriented tradition took a more practical and not theoretical perspective upon how one could categorize new sounds, and it was these processes that got Schaeffer started on musique concrète. Schaefer worked at the Radiodiffusion Francaise in Paris – which was the first studio to be built with the primary purpose to produce electro-acoustic music in 1949. The work conducted at the studio changed gradually from consisting at first of simple experiments with record players and leading up to more systematic techniques and experiments with reel tape machines and sound diffusion in concert spaces in the 1950s.
It is tempting to directly connect footwork and musique concrète. Though, to link the two is a bit to land in an acrobatic split, because each of the two genres take on extreme positions in relation to questions of sonic representation, musical meaning and last but most definitely not least their social context. However, there are some fundamental parallels that can be drawn. This includes footwork and musique concrète both being tied up with the way that they reject the dominant aesthetics of rhythmicality, thus providing the listener with no easily accessible beat, and their massive use of samples.
The practice of sampling in music dates back to the early days of musique concrète by using what was the real experimental beast: the tape recorder. Schaeffer sliced’n’diced these recordings and experimented with sounds by splicing, speeding and reversing. One of these, the first of a family Schaeffer called ”Phonogenes”, had a traditional music keyboard to control the tape speed and is credited to be the first sampler. And ever since sampling was an option, it has been spinning off to a whole other orbit.
Sampling is one of footwork music’s most striking features. Unlike early rap, footwork has its own way of reconfiguring sounds. Where scratch DJs would cut and loop drum breaks to establish rhythm, footwork frequently ignores or transforms the original properties of the substances it uses, repeating sound in great chunks and bruising it into new forms or dicing it up into further percussion. In particular, the properties of voice are pulled apart in ever-more astounding ways.
“Symphonie pour un homme seul” is one of the early musique concrète pieces composed in 1949-1950 by Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Originally the symphony consisted of 22 movements of music produced using turntables and mixers – which was tough as fuck and caused a lot of technical difficulties back then. The movement ”Erotica” is founded on non-musical speech that is manipulated to sound material – an avant-garde idea which has later been used to produce winning bangers such as ”Ghost“ by DJ Rashad and “Brighter Dayz” by the producer duo DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn. At the same time “Erotica” is – as the title is suggesting – a bit of a sexual seduction. If Schaeffer is opening the door to R. Kelly’s bedroom, then Spinn is making a full blown breaking and entering. Footwork doesn’t flirt in slowmotion. It’s straight to business and filled to the brim with seductive promises and filthy lines such as “nothing but shaved pussy in my iPhone” – offensive, rude and cocky as these cats get.
Another epic Schaeffer composition is ”Apostrophe”. Here Schaeffer is again using sampled vocals throughout the entire track. The manipulated recording of a single spoken line transferring the words and groans to multiple tape loops and the tiny fragments of sounds create the composition of ”Apostrophe“.
Footwork has pushed to evolve from pre-existing musique concrète’s DNA, and sampling the vocal is what defines footwork just as much as the 160 bpm. It wouldn’t make much sense to give examples here, because all you have to do is play a random footwork tune and you hear vocal snippets all over the place. Footwork’s frenetic rhythms and sample chops reinvigorate the classic techniques from the avant-garde.
Somewhere between these points, there’s an oddly aligned vision of the future that steps through the pores of each cut – it is a vision of the future once imagined: extralingual phonetics, hyper-future and unlimited sources for sound material. They applied the same kind of practical intensity to the art of mixing and sampling.
Footwork can therefore be seen as a contemporaneous parallel to musique concrète.
Break it down
Beyond the similarities between Schaeffer and Spinn, the key difference between the two is their social context. In the case of footwork it cannot be understood as an isolated part and it is inseparably bound to the hood and the dance battles on the corners.
Punched under a plethora of aliases including jack, juke, booty and ghetto-house there are many ways to enter the land of footwork. However, you can’t talk footwork without the legendary dance crew House-O-Matics. Started already in 1985 by Ronnie Sloan, this squad counted many O.G. dancers, and many tracks are made specifically for House-O-Matics by affiliates such as DJ Milton, DJ PJ, RP Boo and DJ Deeon. All of whom expanded the palates of anyone making juke and footwork in Chicago.
During the early 2000s juke left the street corners and received local radio play which eventually would lead to a more commercial take and left the dance crews in Chicago in search of new tunes to accompany their feet-movements and needed some fresh tunes to kick to. Footwork uses half-time and double-time drops and all sorts of rhythmic weirdness to keep the intensity up and give the dancers more challenge and create a space to invent. Most people making the tracks were dancers themselves, therefore there is a strong connection between the producers and dancers. Spinn and Rashad both began as dancers, and Rashad was in House-O-Matics along with Boo and proto-footworker DJ Deeon. The steps composed the snares.
The footwork anthem ”11 – 47 – 99“, also known as “the Godzilla track”, is directly named after the hood. The numbers are referring to when and where the track was made: 11, for the time it was created (11 PM), 47 for the location (47th street on the South Side of Chicago) and 99 for the year. Besides being a monumental track of sampling, the track and its name show the long feedback of the hood. The track is brimming with samples, rhythmic tropes and snare triplets. On another note this track is just like a hot iron foundry that sounds like Schaeffer’s ”Cinq études de bruits” and a megamix for a futurist discotheque.
New kid on the block
Across the different genres we’ve been pound-and-pumping to for the past decades in between fluid tempos, slip sliding beat patterns, sonic magnification, and enthralling derangements of the senses produced by data overload, footwork is the next generation of the avant-garde. Even though the genre hasn’t been freshly baked in a very long time, it wasn’t before 2013 it truly got played across the Atlantic.
When DJ Rashad’s ”Double Cup” was released in 2013, it was regarded as the strongest footwork-related LP since the birth of its genre and placed footwork on the music map. Sadly DJ Rashad died just a year after the release and as the torchbearer of footwork, people were seeking a new frontier to run over borders and blast the sound systems with hyper-kinetic dynamic.
This finally happened in 2015 with Planet Mu’s release of Jlin’s debut that hit the shelves and got a lot of ink spilt in different music journals. Its dominant mood of paranoia and desolation can be seen in tracks like ”Guantanamo” with a harrowing refrain of a child’s voice saying “leave me alone” – this is just one out of a handful of spoken word snippets sourced from movies. Jlin is taking a new perspective on the tech-noir and sounds like a dystopian soundtrack for sci-fi movie. Hence, the oddly indefinable emotions in tracks like ”Black Ballet” and ”Unknown Tounges” create a weird mix of euphoria and anxiety propelled by a bassline made out of what sounds like a sampled voodoo delirium.
Chal Ravens wrote in the Wire, April 2015: “The ambitious, intricate compositions could easily have come across as somewhat removed from the dance floor battles they were designed for. But, as a title like ”Black Ballet” makes clear, Jlin’s tracks are complex puzzles for nimble feet to crack, custom-built for dancing”.
She has brought the sophisticated look to footwork’s witty and gritty menagerie.
From Midwest to Far East Coast
What happens to a regional sound when it spills out into the corners of the globe? Well, it continues. The sound, which originated in the South and West Side of Chicago, has taken its beats Far East Coast and is now full blown in Japan. In the search of a new angle on the footwork sound, producers, dancers and DJs across different genres are creating original Japan jukeness.
One artist in particular is worth the Far East Coast hype. He goes by the name 食品まつり aka foodman and has pushed out records on japanese labels Бｈ○§† and Japanese Mutation Bootyism since 2011. His music is hard to catch as it is all over the place and full of energy. His diverse spectrum of inspiration comes from Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra and proton-fueled bass, and he packs the slick, powerful arrangements to the brim with juicy synths and racing drums. The track “Body” is a spot on example of how he works with samples and a mixture of sounds and carries on the tradition both in technics and in terms of a continuous search for new sound objects.
Looping toward the future
Footwork has been greeted with fanfares that accompany the arrival of an avant-garde dance music. And it is by all means exactly what it is. The story of footwork and what it really means is not yet to be told because it’s still breathing. But what it has shown us for the past two decades is that footwork is experimental to the bone, gritty at its core, and the impact of footwork on the ever-changing face of electronic music is happening right now.
Whether these experiments will go further or remain just pockets of resistance remains to be seen. However, footwork is no awkward opposition to the past but a loop-oriented step towards the future – a true avant-garde dance floor fighter.