Welcome to Chicago, where DJs dance
Many people outside of Chicago discover the footwork scene through videos of dance battles on YouTube, some of them posted by the infamous promoter Wala Cam. These videos, shot in yards, auditoriums, and clubs, can be breathtaking even when the handheld camera is unsteady and the sound is a little blown out. They showcase a style of urban dance that puts the focus on intricate dance steps, in contrast to the acrobatics of break dance or crumping.The best footworkers seem never to touch the ground once they go into a routine. Recognizing the patterns in the routines takes practice, but encountering footwork for the first time almost always leaves an impression.
The next thing people notice is the music, which is also called footwork. As the darkly simmering beats hit the ear, newcomers are likely to say, “what the heck is this?” Let us explain. Footwork is a derivative of ghetto house and juke. It developed in Chicago in the 2000s. Footwork tracks are often dark and muted in tone. The beats are minimal, dry, and raw, with tempos averaging around 160 beats per minute and sometimes going as high as 170.
DJ Rashad is recognized as one of the originators of footwork, along with DJ/producers like RP Boo, DJ Clent, and fellow members of the Ghettoteknitianz crew: Poncho, Traxman, DJ Gant-Man and his longtime collaborator DJ Spinn. Rashad and Spinn, with New York-based DJ J-Cush who form the triumvirate behind the newly minted Lit City Trax label, one of the first Chicago-based labels to represent the genre.
According to Rashad, you know a footwork track “when you hear the beat at 160, 808 bass clap, 808 snare. A lot of energy, crazy synths, crazy samples chopped up, or it could also be just the beat. Depending on the sample or the sounds you use, some could be more mellow, some could be more aggressive, some could be smooth. Some could be commercialized.”
Part of the scene’s uniqueness and attraction is that, in the age of the Internet and its homogenizing effects, an honest-to-goodness musical subculture is still flourishing in the heart of a major American city. The mutant form grew out of hip-hop influenced juke in the ’90s, which in turn grew out of ghetto house in the ’80s. The differences between juke and footwork are actually fairly subtle. The beats in footwork are just a bit sparser and weirder, the tense mood meant to inspire competition in battle.
Rashad parses things in terms of his experiences growing up with the music while shaping it himself. They’re different, but it’s the same. What is the same to me would have to be ghetto house and juke. We called it trax, ghetto house, juke. Gant-man came up with the term juke in a song. Juke was more like get in front of girls, dance. It was more sexual maybe, you know all that “girl shake your booty.” At the same time that was going on, footwork music was still going on as well. We never called it footwork though, we called it trax. And we played it together with the juke,” he recalls.
The relationship between the dancers and the DJ/producers is a close one with many producers starting out in dance crews. The producers respond to the dancers and the dancers respond to the producers, creating a unique environment for style to evolve. Young Lit City artist DJ Manny is one of those who does both.
As this is the age of blogs and message boards, the community around the footwork didn’t stay insular and localized for long. Its popularity is spreading rapidly in Europe and producers as far away as Japan are getting into it. Dubious sub genres like Afro footwork are emerging, and footwork is generally being touted as the next big thing in dance music.
The genre’s transnational career started in 2009 with UK producer Addison Groove’s “Footcrab.” The following year, UK label Planet Mu signed Chicago’s DJ Nate. Things kind of went from there. The UK is a notoriously beat hungry nation, but Planet Mu label head Mike Paradinas had some specific thoughts on why the footwork caught on there, and why it’s spreading.
“I think young kids mainly are getting off on the energy of the sound. The 160 bpm tempo is something that hasn’t been used for so long. Garage and then dubstep/grime have been 130-145 for over a decade now, and the remnants of jungle/drum n bass have been around 170-180bpm since 1997/8. The sound has an excitement that comes over well in a small club, and that particular feeling has been missing in UK clubs since jungle, in my opinion,” said Paradinas in an email.
The further footwork gets from its source the faster it mutates. Then again, the genre itself started with hybrid qualities, having assimilated elements of hip-hop throughout its development. “Maybe the 808 drum sound, the 909 bass, shit like that,” says Rashad of the current sonic connection between footwork and hip-hop.
“We sample a lot of hip-hop as well and make them into juke tracks. Or somebody raps over a juke track or a footwork track. Back in the day, there was hip-house. Hip-house was fast, heavy. Queen Latifah did “Come Into My House” in the late ’80s,” he continues. This fusion of hip-hop and electronic dance influences gives it a profile similar to South African kwaito or trap, which has roots deep in Houston, Texas. Both of those genres have also found an international community of appreciators.
Some might call footwork’s popularity a fad, just another home-grown style being raided by hipsters. But it’s been bubbling under for awhile now and there’s no reason not to imagine it’s simply on its way to being a worldwide sound, one of many. Rashad has done some of the dissemination himself, having toured Europe several times and he’s been incorporating non-Chicago juke and footwork tracks into his sets. “Maybe the sounds might be a little bit different, but the beat and bass will be the same. I play a lot of so-called footwork inspired music and it sounds like footwork to me,” he says.
Things always change when more people get involved and footwork is no different. Rashad is making music for a wider audience than just footworkers now. “The last two years, I have to say I’ve been making a lot of music just for people to dance to any kind of way, as long as they move. Because now it’s obviously bigger than just the footwork dancing,” he says. Footwork’s future is unwritten, but it looks bright for the genre’s architects. With Lit City Trax well under way, Rashad and Spinn have the means to keep a vibrant scene growing at home and quite possibly to direct the future of a global style from the city that created it.