Teklife Forever: DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn Reflect on Footwork's Chicago Origins, Global Spread

A recent interview with the late footwork ambassador and his creative partner

DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, Teklife
DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn at SXSW, March 12, 2014 Photo by Krista Schlueter for SPIN
WRITTEN BY
Jessica Hopper

This wasn't supposed to be a eulogy. This was supposed to be the story where Rashad and Spinn were going to tell how they came up from roller-skating parties. I was going to explain how this was going to be their year and how, after 20 years, they were getting their due and getting over. How they were going to be more than Southside gods and big in Japan. This was supposed to be the story where I explained how they both choked up with emotion, when talking about Rashad surviving his car crash last year, a car crash that he says should have killed him.

I would have explained that Rashad had grace — and who has fucking grace anymore? His gratitude and earnestness were such that you'd never guess he'd been grinding away for two decades. His humility was striking.

Rashad, like Frankie and Curtis before him, made music that revivified the spirits of the people here in our perpetually broken city of Chicago. Like them, what he created became the sound of being young and alive in this city. His music had the power to salve, to unite, to take you out of your world and your problems and your heartbreak for a while. Like Frankie and Curtis, he had a gift. His music was the sound of Chicago summer, the sound of nighttime; synonymous with having a good time, it was the manic pulse of the City That Never Loves You Back.

After I spent an afternoon in mid-March talking to Rashad and Spinn in their wood-paneled Calumet City basement studio — surrounded by half-packed suitcases for their trip to SXSW, their earliest show fliers still taped up from a decade before — my heart swelled with hometown pride. I was giddy. I just felt fortunate to get to share the story — the story of their friendship and their music, but especially the story of their success.

But now Rashad is gone, and that's not the story anymore.

How many shows do you have at SXSW?
Rashad: Seven? We are there from Tuesday to Friday. It's a lot.

Spinn: [Counting] Eight.

You have had a busy couple of months. What does it feel like, all this stuff that's happening?
Rashad: It's just tremendous. I feel good. The feeling is good. The music is good. The people, the fans have been great. It's such a good feeling, man: Even though it's hard work, at the end you receive a great gift. To just meet people, I dunno — just a good feeling. Blessed is the word. I just came back from Tokyo for the first time and they have a big footwork scene and it was just amazing. Cool to see people do what we do and take it to the next level.

Tell me about that — did you know about that before you got there?
Rashad: We had been in touch with the main record label in Japan, Booty Tune. It's a footwork-based record label and they have a lot of Chicago artists on there, but they came out here a couple of times.

Spinn: The came out for Juke Fest.

Rashad: They can footwork!

How does that feel to see something you have worked on for so long be embraced? 
Rashad: It feels great! It feels great!

Spinn: We came from dancin', so to see other people even dance to the music? Hooo.

So you get to see people appreciate it.
Rashad: More than appreciate it. It's just an honor. I can show you clips of me dancin' with 'em. The party was supposed to end at 5:30, but people didn't want to leave and so they ended up getting me off the stage at 8:30 in the morning. They wouldn't leave; they were just showing me so much love and respect. It was just awesome.

It's a testament to the power of footwork. This sound that was yours, came through you and your peers, and here it is: translating to people who get it on every level, across the world.
Rashad: On every level. Every level. [laughs] They got a huge scene. They get it. As opposed to London, they don't know how the full culture goes with the dancers. You don't have to, but they get it, they got it, they got the moves. Don't get me wrong, but London loves us too, and we encourage people to do what they wanna do. You don't have to footwork, but [in Japan] they insist. They will footwork. Every Sunday, they have footwork competitions, just like in Chicago, and it is mad. It is just a good feeling just to see it, keep the tradition going and making it international. Who would have ever thought? It's just great.

Let's start there. What was the moment when this began for you guys? Can you pinpoint the instance in which you realized you were going to do this thing?
Rashad: [Laughs]

Spinn: It's always been there. [Laughs] That's how we met, basically.

Tell me about meeting. What did you think of each other?
Rashad: We'd known each other from across the street, basically. The rink. They had a disco. We couldn't get into clubs, so this is where all the kids were at, of course. We used to dance back then; we weren't in the same group but we knew each other since seventh, eighth grade. But finally we met in high school — we had homeroom together [laughs].

Spinn: I knew him from DJ'in'. DJ'in' and dancin' — at the same time [laughs]. He'd be on the tables and he would get down while he was mixin' and dance, and then go back.

Which were you better at?
Rashad: Back then? Probably DJ'in'. [laughs]

Spinn: I couldn't even say he was bad or nothin' — because I was just like, "Damn..." [laughs]

Rashad: The funny thing was, when we finally linked up, he was like, "Yeah, I'm a DJ," and I was like, "Cool, show me what you got." [laughs] What tape was it?

Spinn: I just put together tapes, mixin' from actual tapes [laughs]. Blend another track from another tape. I had one with a track they'd brought out a week before at the rink. "How you get them other tracks?" "From the tape." "You ain't got no records?" "Naaaah" [laughs] I had a deck. I knew about records, but I didn't know where to get 'em, none of that. He was like, "I got all of that at my crib." I was like, "What?"

Rashad: I brought him over and we took it from there.

Was he a quick learner?
Rashad: Yeah. But we weren't even makin' beats; we were just DJ'ing at that time. He was a natural, he had it.

When you brought him over and started DJ'ing, how did it evolve out of that? What you are doing is a long way from two kids getting down on turntables.
Rashad: That's the thing. I had a job workin' there as a kid, DJ'in' at the rink. [Spinn] worked there too. They gave us Saturdays, Tuesday, and Friday nights.

Did that make you guys real popular?
Rashad: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Our age group — we were the guys. From that skatin' rink, we started going to all the skatin' rinks. We ended up going to the other rinks, meeting other DJs. And back then, Chicago, with us being young, I started really DJ'ing when I was in sixth grade. I auditioned for KKC, the college radio station; they had a Friday and Saturday night program for kids to play, so I auditioned for Sound Waves and Friday Night Audio and DJ Gant-Man was there, DJ Nehpets, Janet Rush, LaTelle, couple other guys. We were all maybe 11 or 12 at this time; I met Gant from there. I got introduced to Paul Johnson and all these other people that I didn't know they made records, but I knew their records. I got hip to who was who, like DJ Deeon, Milton — my idols. And it took off from there, networking with everyone at KKC.

Spinn: I was listening to them guys DJ'ing and I didn't know it was actually them, and then I was like, "They my age! DJ'ing on KKC!" Y'all the dudes I was listening to.

Rashad: We couldn't do too many parties because we was so young. [Laughs]

How late could you even stay out?

Rashad: Midnight or 2 if I was DJ'in'. If I had a reason. Back then, to be a DJ you had to have records, you had to have turntables. If you couldn't, you didn't get any respect from the DJs out there, like, "Let me see what you got." Shit's changed, it was hard. That's why I stopped dancin'. They didn't take us seriously.

DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn / Photo by Rebecca Smeyne

How did you show them you were serious?
Spinn: We all had guys that had studios — they was all older cats, a couple guys but from there they were going on in their careers. We was young, we didn't know people got shit to do, we wasn't thinkin' — so we end up having to get our own stuff.

Rashad: We get our own stuff, we were still DJing, but that's when we started producing to take it to the next level. We were playin' the music, but I wanted to make the music. And still play it and dance to it.

Spinn: That happened in like two years, from '96-'97. That first party I did, in Robbins, in beginning of '96. That what was the first one.

How did that transition go? Was it natural?
Spinn: We had to do it because everyone was making tracks back then.

Rashad: Something we had to do. I come from playing the drums, I used to be in jazz band. Music was always a part of my life, anyway. As far as makin' beats, it was like, Shit, we can buy a drum machine and a sampler and try it. Why not? We were influenced by listening to other people; of course you take ideas at first, in part, to try and sound like a person, because you admire their style or you wanna be them. I used to listen to Deeon a lot and try to sound like them.

Spinn: It took a while to even figure out what machines cats were using because there weren't magazines out there promoting MPCs or any type of equipment, unless you got a catalog. One of my uncles or someone had a catalog with this pro equipment, and you just had to guess — "Is that the vocal changer?" We would just try stuff out.

Rashad: As we progressed, we met a lot of people and they would say, "You should get this." But the dancers helped, too.

Were you immediately encouraged by the people around you?
Rashad: Our friends would support, some people said it was cool. But we didn't care what they thought —

Spinn: — we just wanted to play music.

Rashad: Of course our friends liked it, and that was all we cared about. They liked it because they were dancers as well. But that played a big part in us meetin' all the legends like DJ Deeon, Milton, R.P. Boo, by dancin' in our first main group, all in the same dance group.

What was that group called?
Rashad: Our first main group was House-O-Matics. If you were in House-O-Matics, you was the man, you know what I mean?

Spinn: They was performing on TV, touring.

Rashad: Every Bud Billiken Parade, they would win it as far as dancin' goes. It was the shit.

Spinn: That was the show when it came to performances.

Rashad: They would throw parties at like 51st, the Elks, the projects. Us, we would go to those parties to dance and DJ. And Ronnie Sloan, he was president of the group, he used to book Deeon, Slugo — all these famous DJs for the parties — and he gave me, Spinn, and R.P. Boo a shot on the tables.

How old were you by then?
Rashad: Maybe 15, 16.

Were you freaking out?
Rashad: Nah, we were ready. This is what we were waiting for. From there he started throwin' parties out here in the suburbs. Yeah, that poster right there [points to the wall], from '97. I wasn't there for that one, I was at Lincoln Challenge Boot Camp, because I was at school, at Thornwood [High School]. Whatever [laughs]. We used to have parties out here and everybody was there. It was huge.

Spinn: They used to bus people from the city to the suburbs; it was unheard of. It was cool because we were part of it, with the people that was throwin' it. And they threw us a little money. We weren't even expecting it.

Rashad: If we woulda known what was really takin' place, we didn't care; we was just happy to be part of it with DJ's we admire and look up to. And then they ended up giving the main slots to me, R.P. Boo, and him, instead of the big DJ's like Deeon. It was even better for us. So it was just like, yeah — it was great.

Spinn: Parties went from like, 300 to 4000 at the Dolton Expo; it was like concerts. The music was just... house music. I can't even say juke music was even invented then, it was just ghetto house. And that was just — everyone — time to party.

Rashad: And footworkin'. It was more groups back then.

In terms of sound, what were you going for — or was it just, "I want to make these people dance"?
Rashad: Well, as dancers, we knew what we wanted to hear. As long as it had a lot of bass, a lot of claps —

Spinn: Was fast —

Rashad: — and you could do moves to it. Samples of some kinda something that give us that energy, that inspiration to do some shit we never did before.

Spinn: It went from a lot of party music tracks — people was footworkin' to all kinds of house music back then — to a certain style of music that was real grimy, ghetto style, like PJ, the low-end style —

Rashad: "Chase Me," that's the name of the song —

Spinn: Oh my god. "Chase Me" changed —

Rashad: It changed everything. That bass was a distorted bass — and look it up —

Spinn: It was the simplest track ever.

Rashad: The simplest track ever. It just went — [both singing] "Bum bum bum bum. Doot doot doo." [laughs] And every dance you would do would go right to it. It was just the anthem. It changed it.

As producers, how did you respond to that? Did you say, "We gotta do this"?
Spinn: It was kind of a cross between that style, and then R.P. Boo came with a type of style with the off-claps.

Rashad: And we had the half-time. We were doin' half-times in ours, and he did the off-claps. Between that, that and PJ, it was all the styles mixed together, and that's what we came up with.

What was it that you saw people really responding to in terms of your style of music?
Spinn: We kept it traditional until the point where we changed the style of everything, because of technology. The Bud Billiken Parade was the showcase for house music, every year. You're hearin' it from every block. All up and down.

Rashad: But the parties back then, the police was shuttin' shit down. It was crazy, like now, with shootings, '95 to '99. It was even worse, I think. Shit was starting to get bad, gang shit. Back then shit was organized. It was crazy, but it didn't affect us — but it did. We just went in to these places because we loved the shit so much — it just didn't stop us. But I don't know. I just feel like people always fucked with the music and loved the music — especially the whole Midwest, for sure. But once it got international, people maybe heard it from the Internet — people we couldn't reach to. But I think it has something to do with the releases overseas, as far as us getting attention all over the world, not just Chicago.

Especially the last eight or 10 years, it's hard to get out of Chicago. There was no way up, unless the hand of Kanye would reach down and scoop up the chosen people. There wasn't a ladder for you guys.
Rashad: Uh-huh. It's kind of crazy. We got known internationally — 2007, 2008, MySpace. Everything was vinyl at one point. But once 9/11 hit, it kind of fucked things up. People stopped buyin' vinyl. Clubs closed. New technology came out and there were CDJs and downloads. But there was a feud about stickin' to turntables. But it made more sense, because we were makin' our own music. There was no outlet comin' from Dance Mania; that got shut down in '99. Everything was digital, and that took over around 2003. Godfather, from Detroit, we signed with him — he was doing vinyl and digital download both. And that's how it happened, so by 2007, 2008, people were catching on. Headhunter in the U.K. was one of the first to hit us up and tell us, "I love your shit." He was playing it out, some dubstep stuff. Then "Footcrab" came out in 2009. Then Mike Paradinas signed all of us for Bangs & Works 1; Ghettoteknitianz, that was us. Your album, my album, Traxman's album I think, the attention from that.

Spinn: A lot of people respected Mike Paradinas, so they opened their ears to it.

DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn / Photo by Jake Giles Netter

There was now evidence of a scene. You didn't have to work too hard to find other stuff if you were into one thing.
Rashad: It was mixed throughout, though — some people liked it, some people hated it.

Spinn: Hated it.

Why?
Rashad: You wanna say it? [laughs] Everybody got they own opinion. I can say this much. A lot of people listen for sound as well; a lot of the footwork shit was not recorded or leveled right and so some of that shit was distorted. Don't sound good on sound systems. So the production sucked, in some people's eyes. Or it's repetitive.

Spinn: It was the quality. People didn't understand the quality: It was different productions and styles. It's Chicago music, and it was brought to people as Chicago music in its raw form, and that's what's most respected. But a lot of it wasn't mastered or refined.

Is there is something insofar as quality that makes what you do distinct?
Spinn: We take pride in our quality, for sure. It's crispy with as much bass as possible, without [being] too much.

Rashad: Like he said, equipment and technology made it possible. We couldn't do this stuff in the '90s.

Spinn: You couldn't speed someone up and make 'em sound like a chipmunk, or slow 'em down. [laughs] We didn't know about studio monitors. We were just using computer speakers with a subwoofer.

Rashad: Nobody told us anything — we had to learn on our own.

Spinn: We got lucky, because we could have been those guys that spend 10,000 dollars on a Pro-Tools board, cause that was one of those things where people were sayin', "You gotta have this if you making studio-quality music." But I was like, "Naah, Imma stick with Cakewalk. We got a mixer, that sound pretty good to me." [laughs]

How do you think that isolation — spending years making something in a tight-knit group, but what was essentially a Southside sound — affected what you did?
Spinn: When we got grown, when we got out of high school, we still had jobs.

What kind of jobs?
Rashad: I was workin' as a car porter at Ford. And I got him hired. Office Max. I did the shipping. Then for a while I stopped workin', couldn't get a job, so we was just doing music.

Spinn: And then these footworkin' crews were coming to us being like, "We need y'all to make music. We need y'all to be around. This is cool, but we need y'all," so we checked it out.

Rashad: At the time, I was doing more Detroit shit. I was trying to get booked out of Chicago, I was trying to make it happen that way, but I always had this footwork shit. I wanted new challenges, so I started doing ghetto-tech and more commercial juke shit, did DEMF four years in a row, so that was big for me at the time. They were all coming to me like, "Y'all gotta come back. Shit ain't right." I was like, "Whattya mean, 'Come back?'"

Spinn: I got the [sound] system, so I said, "Fuck it," set it up with the guys, got the building. We come with the music and that just set the stage for us to come every weekend, have an outlet and let loose and make new music and inspire new dance moves. It was fun as hell.

Rashad: 2009 is when I came back to footwork. I came to him December of 2008 and said, "What do I gotta do? What am I missing out on?" [laughs]

Did you come back because you felt inspired or because you felt competitive with the new DJs?
Both: [Laughing]

Why are you laughing?
Rashad: I came back because they asked me to come back.

Spinn: No disrespect to anyone else, but the dancers really wanted it.

Rashad: From a dancer's point of view, some of it, they couldn't dance to it.

Musically, how did you respond?
Rashad: [laughing] My return was "I'm Blowing Like the Wind," and I haven't really stopped since then. Premiered it at one of these parties, put it up on MySpace. I was still DJing juke shit, but I came back to the footwork scene right after that. It was me, him, DJ Chi-Boogie, Traxman, and a couple little guys.

Were you thinking that this was exportable, or was it really just something you were doing for Chicago?
Rashad: Not yet. We had an idea, because Paris was another place that was up on ghetto-tech and booking folks like DJ Funk, Gant, Paul Johnson. I don't think they were not ready for the raw, uncut footwork shit. More like the friendly, party-bass, booty-music type of shit. When I came back to footwork, it was just a Chicago thing. I didn't think nothin' about no other city. I just came back to rep for my guys that I used to get out and dance with.

What do see as the thing that tipped it beyond that point?
Rashad: Outside of Chicago, I have to say, it goes back to the U.K. Once I signed with Planet Mu, I got a booking agent — which is my guy Marcus — and I did my first tour in 2010 in London and Europe by myself. And for me and Spinn to do that, out of all the other DJs that could have had that chance — I didn't know what to expect.

You were the first ambassadors for footwork. You had to break people in.
Rashad: Yeah, yeah. We had to break the ice everywhere.

How did that feel?
Rashad: It was cool. It was well-received! We expected them to want the more commercial shit, but they wanted the raw shit, so we kinda felt like, "Yes, we can do what we want! OK, cool." It was like being back here at the parties. They knew what was up.

Spinn: They just groove, and partying too. Couple people trying to footwork, but they just listening to the music.

Rashad: And jungle, they could relate. That tempo, but it's a little different: 170, 160 bpm, so it's close. Everywhere we went we just had to break the ice.

Did you have to keep going back there?
Rashad: Since 2010, we haven't stopped. It gets better and better every time. It was hard, it was a test for us: How bad did we want to represent our city and represent what we do? And prove and show, "You should check this out." Our whole goal was to make the party rock. As a DJ, that's your job: Make the crowd move, regardless of what it is.

Spinn: Every show, we learned. We see other DJs play they style, and we switched it up. Ok, jungle, that's what they do, so we gotta make our set extra spiced up. We noticed not a lot people get on the mic, and if they do it, it was more broadcast-type things, with jungle and dubstep —

When you got on the mic, what would you say?
Spinn: Anything. Everything. Where we at. Gotta let people know that we a little seasoned at it now. We know they slang.

Rashad: It just helps, the crowd likes to be involved. We tried to keep people entertained and satisfied instead of being another boring DJ.

Spinn: They used to just stare at us, that was the beginning. People just staring. Which is cool, 'cause they ain't leaving, but not cool, 'cause they are just starin' and you are DJ'in'. You know? So you get on the mic like, "Get on up!" and they are like, "OK." [laughs]

Rashad: Sometimes you gotta control the crowd and get 'em ready. At least get their attention.

DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn / Photo by Rebecca Smeyne

What has changed for you now that things are happening outside here? One thing I hear a lot from Chicago artists is that it doesn't necessarily change anything back home.
Rashad: [laughs hard] Oh, definitely.

Spinn: One thing that's changed is we playing places we never played before, we get around the world. We got this spot, Adriana's, up the street there, but I will never DJ there, nothing against the establishment, because it's not appreciated. If we played a set of what we play, it could go well, but our music starts fights in that urban scenery. Goes back to when we were DJ'ing these parties — you can play it, but it gotta be a selective bit of music, or it's gonna throw everybody off. Younger kids, they 21, they grew up on our music; they know, but —

Fights, really?
Rashad: Yeah, I seen it. People get too amped up.

Spinn: I seen it. I went out to someone's birthday party and they be like, "DJ Spinn in the house," so they be like, an extended juke set. That's cool 'n' all, but you gotta change it before two things happen — everybody clear the floor, or people gonna fight. And nine times outta ten, people might fight first.

The hard lessons of being a Chicago DJ.
Rashad: You bump somebody —

Spinn: People grab somebody else's girl — and pump.

Rashad: Or somebody else's guy.

Spinn: Whatever way you go! Everybody on the dance floor, you should be dancin'. But I seen it happen right and wrong, you put on that right mix and then you cool everybody out. They banned juke music downtown for a while.

What is the greatest misunderstanding of Chicago music outside of Chicago?
Rashad: What people fail to realize outside of Chicago is that this shit is real, too. People don't know what they claimin', sing this shit in other states, being like "300," thinkin' it's a joke. People need to know this drill shit is real. You can't come to Chicago and say that — you'll get shot.

Spinn: Cats ain't takin' that stuff lightly. And we got bop music at the other end of the spectrum. They talkin' bout dancin'. I'm with it.

Rashad: Outside of Chicago, they only pump the shit that's negative about Chicago. There is a lot more to Chicago than that. Don't get me wrong, there is positive shit going on.

Do you think people want or expect something specific from you?
Rashad: They know who you are and what we do, checkin' us out, but they do think that because we DJs they try to take advantage of us. But, uh, we from Chicago as well. [laughs] Not to sound ignorant or nothin'. We from the same city where this goes down. They know us from the footwork side, we represent the things we do on the footwork side. And go from here.

So this can be the last thing we talk about. The last time I interviewed you, we talked about your accident. You said it gave you perspective and made you appreciate what was happening. But how did it feel for you?
Spinn: Oh, man. He was on his way to my house, 'cause I was gonna drop him off at the airport. And then I didn't hear nothing from him for an hour. And then I think your pop got a hold of me and told me you got in an accident, and I thought, "Oh my God." So, straight to the hospital [laughs] and get in there and he's getting pampered up by the nurses and all that, and the first thing he said was, [whispering] "Sup, bro, you finish them tracks?" [laughs] I said "Bro, I ain't been thinkin' 'bout that shit!" [laughs] I had to know you was all right!

Rashad: They had me on all kinds of shit. It was 'cause of the drugs — I was feeling fabulous. I came to, and people were like, "You don't even know, I seen pictures of the car. You fucked up." And I was like, "I feel good, I feel all right! I can probably get back on tour real soon." And that did not work out. [laughs]

Were you driving? Can you tell me about the accident?
Rashad: I was driving to his house and I got smacked from the rear end, and the impact from that pushed me into the oncoming traffic. So I got hit both ways, yeah.

How did you feel when you saw the pictures of it?
Rashad: Shit. I can't believe I'm still alive. Like I said, I'm blessed to be here. I wasn't supposed to make it out of that one. To be honest — Um. It was a wake-up call as well. You never know when shit can happen. Nobody was expecting that. It was 8 in the morning. I was on my way to the airport to start a tour. Shit can just happen [snaps], maybe. I dunno. I am just happy to be here, that's all I can say. But it fucked me up. Wow. Maybe I got a second chance.

Was he like that before? This grateful? Has he changed?
Rashad: [To Spinn] Have I changed? [laughs]

Spinn: Yeah. For the better. For sure. [laughs] But I can't really say it's from the accident. There is a lot of stuff that's makin' all of us have to step up and mature and change our ways from what we used to do. We too old for this. We got responsibilities.

Do you have families?
Rashad: I got a son.

Spinn: I got one on the way.

Rashad: But like, yeah, we got bills to pay as well. People think we out here livin' the life and shit. But it did change it, and it made me want to get more serious, because you never know when something like that could ever happen. To anybody. It was a wake-up call for me, like, "Man, stay focused and keep doing what we doing and ride it 'til we can ride it no more." And have fun and live life.

It's funny thinking about riding it as long as you can ride it, because though it's been a long time, it still feel like it's just beginning for you guys.
Rashad: I feel the same way, too. I definitely see the beginning of bigger things happening.

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