25 years after the birth of house music, Chicago is starting musical fires again. Paul Sullivan learns the difference between Juke and Footwork.
Once upon a time in the Chicago projects there lived a music style called ghetto house. A twisted splinter drawn from the classic house hoof, ghetto house stripped the sound down to a quivering skeleton and pumped it full of filthy words and party lyrics to create something more sonically akin to life in the ’hood. Pioneered by labels like Dance Mania and DJs like Jammi Gerald, Houz’Mon, DJ Deeon and DJ Funk, ghetto house originally main- tained (more or less) house music’s steady 130bpm. But by the mid-late nineties, tracks were starting to hit 150-160bpm. The rhythms were growing more intricate and the music began to explore some altogether darker and weirder places.
One of the key catalysts was a 1997 tune ‘Baby Come On’ by DJ/ Producer RP Boo, which wrapped a simple vocal loop from Old Dirty Bastard’s hip hop anthem over some seriously off-kilter beats, letting it spiral into a claustrophobic and infectious anti-anthem. “‘Baby Come On’ came just by hearing a DJ mixing on the radio, just playing the ODB record from one turntable to another so that it sounded like a loop,” remembers RP Boo. “He was doing it live and I was like ‘that’s hot’. Years later I got my hands on some equipment and I had the record and gave it a try.The track was a hit at the parties I did and I was like ‘what did I just do?’ I had no idea that it would change anything, I just wanted people to hear my thoughts.”
Other producers like PJ, Clent, Spinn, Roc, Rashad and Nate began throwing down their own leftfield experiments and the scene – now known as juke, after a slang term for a bangin’ party – bifurcated into four-to-the-floor party bangers and more sonically adventurous fare.
Then came footwork, the associated dance form that has developed alongside the music, expressed as a hyperactive series of steps, hops and jumps that manage to keep time with the frantic rhythms while simultaneously inspiring producers to produce specific dancing tracks. Like the music, footwork dancing has its roots in classic Chicago house. Back in 1985, dance troupes like House-O-Matics were battling other crews at the Factory, Warehouse and other legendary clubs, and nowadays the city allegedly has around forty different established crews and associated DJs and producers.
In contrast to breakdancing, footworking is less about full body acrobatics and more about fluidity. There are no windmills or head- stands – just a machine-gun blast of motion, specifically via the legs / lower half of the body, to the point where the upper half sometimes seems surreally still while the legs whirl away beneath. But footwork is similar to breakdancing in that it thrives on one-upsmanship. Battles take place wherever crews can find space, everywhere from empty warehouses to basketball courts and usually begin with a dancer stepping out into the middle of a circle and letting loose a flurry of movements, now and again deliberately provoking an opponent. The speedy BPM of the music demands and inspires movements that the best dancers manage to incorporate the music’s nuances and rhythmic changes.
“Footwork tracks have been made since the Dance Mania era, but they became more distinguished in the late nineties,” says Dave Quam, a local writer and photographer who’s been documenting the scene. “There were different patterns to follow due to innovations being made at that time, and the word juke popped up, which sort of updated ghetto house. There is a lot of gray era between the spectrum – at one end you have feet, and one end you have ass. The thing is, it’s hard to move your ass without moving your feet and vice versa. Footwork tracks are made for footwork battles, juke tracks are made for the club. They are the same BPM though, so they are obviously interchangeable.”
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects to the juke/footworking scene is how, in a digital era that supposedly gives us access to every musical nook and cranny in the world, the scene has stayed resolutely hyperlocal for the last decade or more. It has received very little airplay on local radio and has virtually no presence to speak of in the city’s mainstream clubs.
The closest it came to national recognition was in 2007, when Dude ’N Nem’s 2007 “Watch My Feet” got a blip on MTV. That was over in a flash, but curiously the music is now finding a global audience. As far as Europe – or at least the UK – is concerned, a major catalyst has been British label Planet Mu, run by Mike Paradinas (?-Ziq), which has signed up albums from Rashad, Nate and DJ Roc and recently released Bangs & Works Volume 1, a profile of the scene includ- ing pioneers like Traxman and RP Boo and newcomers alike. It’s an eerily engrossing document, showcasing an immense range of styles and sounds from the nightmarish feel of tracks like RP Boo’s ‘Eraser’ (made to reflect the ‘meanness’ inherent in some of the dance battles) and DJ Yung Tellem’s ‘Freddy vs Jason’ (which make ‘Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare’ sound like Gareth Gates) to the raw electro of Traxman and the almost avant-garde ‘collage’ feel of tracks by Roc and Rashad.
“Over the last few years, the attention from outside of Chicago that the music has been getting is definitely helping DJs get gigs outside of their hometown, which is great,” says Quam, who wrote the sleeve notes and provided the photos for Bangs & Works Vol 1. “I think it’s definitely giving everyone more motivation to pursue their craft now that other people are watching and listening. A lot of familiar motifs are still very apparent in the music, but sonically producers will continue to keep switching things up. Just putting syncopated toms and claps over a looped vocal sample doesn’t cut it anymore. Stronger synth-work and brand new structures are what’s brewing in 2010.”
Aside from the sonic breadth apparent on the compilation, one of the striking things about the music is how many potential musical connections there are to UK styles like nascent jungle, funky and dubstep, a fact underlined by Addison Groove’s (aka DJ Headhunt- er’s) dubstep-style footwork track ‘Footcrab’ and DJ Roc’s startling Planet Mu debut, The Crack Capone, which bristles with ragga samples, hyperactive shuffling riddims and oodles of hip-hop swagger.
“I love dubstep,” he enthuses over the phone from Chicago. “It feels comfortable to me. Our style isn’t too far from dubstep, it’s more gutter style and has that creative cold shit. I’m already planning on doing some collaborations, maybe trading styles with someone from the UK doing Juke and me doing dubstep…”
Roc, whose reputation was solidified via his Juke City mixes, is also the founder of the now 17-producer strong Bosses of The Circle collective, who he says are all making albums and have big plans for world domination. “You got to go out and get your own reputation,” he says, “it ain’t gonna come to you. I’m not taking any bullshit with the music either, these guys all know it’s go hard or go home. We’re recruiting kids, like 12 and up ’cause we want this shit to be about in the future too.”
Another crew on fire at the moment are Ghettophiles, a-record-label-cum-artist- collective, whose biography claims that “some of us don’t know how to produce tracks, some of us don’t know how to DJ, some of us don’t know how to type, and some of us don’t know how to do anything besides blog. We’re all about local scenes and making sure that whether or not they get international attention, the leaders, innovators, creators, and legends of each community are able to have sustained love and support from their own community.”
Ghettophiles have just released their own footwork compilation. Called Overkill, it features a slew of classics from Arpebu, DJ Manny, Traxman and Spinn – and what Quam reckons to be the best footwork track of 2010, DJ Rashad’s “Ghost”. With more albums from Rashad and Nate anticipated via Planet Mu, even RP Boo is coming out of his prolonged hiatus to start making music again. “I love that it is getting around the globe. It’s all about the body and how it moves and the key is the music. It becomes music when the producer has soul. I would love to travel the globe to put on a show for the fans at least one time before I decide to just produce music only. It’s only dangerous to an individual with a closed mind, and at this point in time it is due. This style of music has yet to see its goal.”