- SPIN Rating:9 of 10
Label: Lit City Trax
Stream the entire album here!
Chicago footwork, the regional dance-music style now celebrating its 15th birthday, is not about instant gratification. It likely has no real pop translation — its jerk-and-slam rhythm won't sneak onto the back end of a Britney Spears track any time soon, as with dubstep or French house. (Though, I dunno, the first 12 seconds of Drake's "Crew Love" come close.) This is because footwork's joy lies in its tension: a manic rat-a-tat like Stewart Copeland's jittery hi-hat gone rogue, pitched tom-toms popping like a pachinko machine, and a funky-as-hell, slow-flow groove evocative of loping Southern hip-hop, all approximating the martial chug of Chicago house sans the helpful four-on-the-floor beat to ground it.
These rhythms sometimes interlock into sparkling club music, but most of the time they like to run against each others' grains, creating misaligned, off-center, impossible, seemingly undanceable grooves. Writers compare it to drum 'n' bass or ghettotech, but it's mostly like when such old-school hip-hop artists like Mantronix or Schoolly D were traffic-jamming samples and playing their beats by hand. The best footwork tracks are at once body-moving and helplessly broken. Which makes Chicago rhythmalist DJ Rashad the king of excavating logic from such fragmented chaos — he's footwork's own Bomb Squad, its Meshuggah, its Billy Higgins, its Black Dice, its Timbaland.
And even more so than any of his peers, he seems restless when it comes to figuring out exactly how he wants beats to bend from one year to the next. Rashad's 2009 effort, Jukeworkz, had its veins pumping with industrial-strength Chicago house and Red Bull; his 2011 digital album Just a Taste took that military pulse and erased it entirely, a "weightless" feel wherein tap-tapping beats and st-st-st-stuttering samples collided in space. Taste’s watershed "Ghost" was like a three-way battle for the groove: a rumbling "L" train no-wub rumble vs. the voices of Kanye West and Chrisette Michele melting off a radio in the other room vs. the apoplectic tantrums of a skipping sampler ("ghost ghostghost ghost ghostghost, gh-gh-gh gh-gh-gh-gh-gh…"). One's for your neck, one's for your ass, and one's for the hyperkinetic feet of Chicago's hardest-working dancers, soldiers on the local scene that produced Rashad himself.
Now, on TEKLIFE Vol. 1: Welcome to the Chi, he wants to make all three of those rhythms bolder and brighter, turning that tangle of beats into something that anyone can dance to. One need not look further than album highlight "Don't Drop It," which knocks so heavily and brashly and crotch-grabbingly that it deserves to be footwork's "Rockefeller Skank": huge bass murmurs; a tippy-tappy Morse code rhythm; an infectious sample of childish, blowjob-obsessed 2004 Kanye; and, about halfway through, a robotic countermelody that lifts the whole thing skyward and transforms the track into a Bambaataa-style spaceship banger.
Yeah, beyond having the best beats, Rashad is entering new frontiers of melody to boot. While all great footwork producers turn borrowed melodies into sped-up chipmunk soul and screwed-up slow drives, Rashad is increasingly creating his own lane with future-shocked, Future-centric AutoTune warble. He's not making songs, like footwork's most dedicated tunesmith DJ Nate; instead, as with recent, plush Kanye tracks from "Mercy" to "Niggas in Paris" (the latter sampled herein), these tracks undergo total reconfigurations at the halfway point, turning spastic ankle-breakers into euphoric pop. A woozy cello breaks up "iPod"; some all-purple-everything piano clouds instantly turn "We Trippy Mane" from cocaine convulsion to Codeine comedown. But the most miraculous moment comes when the retro ghettotech of "Twitter" ("She's on my Twitter / I'm gonna hit her") gets downright churchlike: After countless come-ons, our host dips the bridge in cotton-candy Rhodes, space noise, and heart-stopping synths right off George Michael's Faith.
More than any other footwork DJ, Rashad hits the overseas circuit hard, and is bringing back slices of the music he finds there. His highest-profile contemporary, Traxman, is actually better at absorbing these influences — his recent masterstroke Da Mind of Traxman finds the producer embracing Shabazz Palaces-style kalimba work, Rubin-ready rap-rock, lounge-y downtempo, squelchy acid house, Ofra Haza, and even a little chillwave (on the decidedly unchill "Conq Dat Bitch"). Which actually makes Traxman a closer ally to the current crop of mutants mixing footwork with U.K. bass (Addison Groove) or classic jungle (Machinedrum). Because when Rashad borrows, he leaves samples naked and flailing on the surface, gasping for air, reminding the listener that these other elements are a guest in his house. When he gets in the mood to toy with something, it really sounds like he's simply slapping on a record, then slapping it around.
Take "Bakk Off," which features exactly 12 seconds of the "Amen" break, a neck-snapping hat-tip to footwork's connection to jungle techno that stops short of fully diving in. He grabs samples from only the lushest, smeary, silkiest soul ballads, only to liberate them from their original identity and purpose in a blitz of frenetic beatwork. He's especially big on groovemaster Roy Ayers, whose mellow, sunshine-y vibes have traditionally been best reworked into electric relaxations for Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest. But here, Ayers' "Brand New Feeling" is a rattling jalopy traversing a cobblestone path to hell, while his "Chicago" is the Soul Train lost in an infinite wormhole, spinning in tiny, maddening circles. Rashad's requisite "Niggas in Paris" rework leans into dubstep-lite for, again, only 12 seconds, before a hailstorm of percussion turns its iconic drop into chilly droplets, splintering the throne. Such a slapdash approach to other genres keeps his footwork sounding perfectly busted; unlike, say, Addison Groove's stuff, this could never fade into the background of a cosmopolitan hotel party.
British label Planet Mu has done an admirable job of canonizing the last three years of footwork (and juke's own 20-year movement) with six excellent albums (efforts from DJ Roc, DJ Nate, Traxman, and DJ Diamond, alongside two volumes of the Bangs & Works anthology). But it stands to reason that footwork's truest masterpiece would be home-brewed and self-released in the city that launched it, emblematic of a sound that's clearly thinking two furious steps faster than anything you can find on a blog, a release schedule, or another inferior DJ's playlist.