BY David Morris in Profiles | 18 NOV 13
Featured in
Issue 159

Chicago footwork

The global spread of Chicago footwork

BY David Morris in Profiles | 18 NOV 13

A footwork battle, Will Country Boxing Gym, Joliet, Chicago, Illinois, 2010

Footwork is already old. Even a conservative estimate of the beginnings of this future-sound – in particular its singularly busy rhythmic sense – makes it nearly 15; geriatric for a fiercely regional club sub-genre. Still, its autumn years have seen a vigorous blossoming of the style, as well as the global spread of its rhythmic DNA. It’s a strange phenomenon to observe, for music so embedded within its own worlds, both socio-geographical (inner-city Chicago) and sonic (a music made for dancing that sounds so comprehensively undanceable).

Footwork is said to be the sped-up cousin of Chicago juke, which is the sped-up cousin of ghetto house, which itself emerged around 1992 as a rude corrective to the slicker aspirations of mainstream Chicago house. But although the family resemblance is there, this lineage can be a bit misleading. It’s true about the style’s accelerationism – most ghetto house clocks in at around 145bpm whereas footwork is more like 160bpm – but with this the rhythmic foundation was also realigned. Where ghetto house established motion via a relentless four-floor kick, footwork works via a series of impossibly syncopated drum patterns: flurries and clusters of kicks, toms and snares, falling all the way around a splatter of micro-chopped, sped-up or slowed-down samples.

This conservative estimate of footwork’s age locates it around the turn of the millennium, with DJ Slugo’s ‘Godzilla’. Here, the details get murkier – it turns out ‘Godzilla’ is actually ‘11–47–99’, a track tucked on a mixtape passed to Slugo by fellow Chicagoan RP Boo. Slugo, a long-established producer in Chicago, took credit for this seminal track in clubs across Detroit for years whilst Boo was busy working day jobs to support his weekend music habit. Only as a result of the recent phenomenal rise of footworking has Boo finally received some of his dues. In May this year, the UK label Planet Mu, who played a large part in the greater visibility of this highly insular scene, released a retrospective of Boo’s work, entitled Legacy – tying a neat ribbon around this first phase of the scene’s life.

Naturally, the reality is much messier. Some say Boo ‘invented’ footwork with a different track in 1997, inspired by the old hands-on way continuous rhythms were produced: getting two copies of the same record, finding the section you want to loop and spinning each record back to the start whilst the other plays that section – again and again, sometimes for hours. Boo (the RP stands for ‘Record Player’) produced ‘Baby Come On’, a haphazard loop of a snippet of Ol’ Dirty Bastard on Mariah Carey’s 1995 track ‘Fantasy’ (the one with the sample from Tom Tom Club) overlayed with frenetic hi-hats and sub-pulses. And still, these radical reassemblies of voice and sound had already taken shape through earlier Chicago innovations (see, for example, DJ Milton’s ‘Bang it Up’ from 1996); Traxman, whose records span both traditions, sees the style emerging as early as late-1980s house records.

The sampling is one of the 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; what Tony Herrington, writing in The Wire, acutely locates in the great tradition of black pop music, ‘the latest technologized iteration of a vernacular form of semiotics in which black music articulates then subverts the mendacity of Western language systems’. It’s a truism that writing is ill-equipped to deal with sound, and a whole subplot of this music is about that failure. For instance, DJ Elmoe’s searching ‘Whea Yo Ghost At, Whea Yo Dead Man’ – part of Planet Mu’s Bangs and Works collection (2010) that introduced so many to this scene – where even the title words blur into ambiguity, or some new kind of logic for such unanswerables; taking words way past breaking point to find new and danceable sense in the phonemes.

Elmoe isn’t one of the international reps of the scene, but he’s still making tracks, and good ones; I keep returning to his recent ‘Do it Again’, a sort-of repeat of ‘Whea Yo Ghost At …’, which mani­fests the same machine-wistfulness and magnificent clunkiness, yet different. When a highly repetitive and idiosyncratic culture gets well-known, people start to talk about ‘development’, which is usually a bad sign. The experience of something constantly reconfigured from within its own constraints is what makes such scenes so vital and exciting: in this way, they can be most radical when they stay small-c conservative – energetically guarding the old forms, steadily working them in new ways.

What happens to a regional scene when it spills out into all corners of the globe? Well, it continues. Internationally, footwork seems to be allowing other strains to enter and commingle whilst maintaining that fierce continuity – a bit of searching reveals a rabbit hole of Bandcamps and Soundclouds stretching from the uk to Russia to Japan and beyond. The recent crossover with uk bass traditions (see Spinn and Rashad’s work with the London-based Hyperdub label as well as countless UK-side Chicago interpreters) was surprising but makes perfect sonic sense; locating the same intensity and melancholy within very distant dance histories.

And as important – actually more important – is the dance that lends footwork its name. Unless you go to Chicago, it’s something you can only experience second-hand, in myriad camera-phone YouTube clips. The sound is led by the people on the floor, and the scene’s wild innovations are in direct service of their dance-battle utility. In this, too, the sense of footwork as a discrete scene with beginnings and endings starts to fall apart. Asked when footworking became a distinct dance in itself, Rashad explains: ‘Footwork was always footwork.’ To which Spinn adds: ‘Footwork is always the predominant thing. When people dance in Chicago.’ Spinn and Rashad both began as dancers, and Rashad was in legendary dance crew House-O-Matics, along with Boo and proto-footworker DJ Deeon.

Appropriately for a music that sounds impossible to dance to, footwork comes with its own set of impossible moves. The various styles – banging, dribbling, skating, working – are frantic, graceful and mostly in the feet, but they occasionally spill over into more old-school breaks, crumps and steps inherited from elsewhere. A lot of producers work with dancers in their studios, and dance-battle praxis is what gives the tracks their peculiar trajectory – ‘turning the footworker [...] into the music’ as Boo explains. More dynamically fluid than its house forebears, footwork uses half-time and double- time drops and all manner of rhythmic weirdness to keep the intensity up and give the battlers more space to invent.

And what next? Well, it goes on. While the dancers are still showing up to battle and new tracks are getting made, footwork is footwork. Word from Chicago suggests the dancers are not always feeling the wild innovations of Spinn, Rashad, Traxman et al. ‘It’s a town full of talent, but also a town full of haters,’ as dancer AG puts it and, as ever, the real sound of what’s going on with footwork remains within those city limits. The global attention seems to have invigorated its better- and lesser-known exponents, and although there are occasional hints towards ‘respectability’ for this old sound, the style remains too vigorous and strange to domesticate itself just yet. It’s already had a brush with the charts (a 2007 hit by Dude ’n Nem called ‘Watch My Feet’) and will probably have more, and at some stage the hype will burn out, and the scene will adapt. As Rashad reflected in 2011: ‘I can’t say it’s not small, and I can’t say it’s not big, it’s just footwork. People just know.’

David Morris is a writer based in London.