The juke and footwork scenes gestated in Chicago for over 15 years before the rest of the world caught on. We speak with one of its most well-known proponents about coming up Teklife.
Rashad Harden, aka DJ Rashad, first began DJing at the age of 12 in his native city of Chicago, also emerging as a footwork dancer in the early ’90s during the city’s ghetto house and juke era. While the terms ‘footwork’ and ‘juke’ are closely related and regularly confused, the former’s seemingly broken syncopation not only distinguishes it, but also makes for more rhythmic choices for the footworkers to dance to. Since then, Rashad and his regular partner-in-crime DJ Spinn—together the two are responsible for the Ghettoteknitianz and Teklife crews—have been leading producers and DJs of the footwork scene, especially since Mike Paradinas’ Planet Mu label exposed this highly localized music to the rest of the world in 2010. Rashad’s new I Don’t Give A Fuck EP, his second for Hyperdub Records, is released today.
Really I wanted to talk to you about Chicago. I remember you and Spinn told me that you both came up as dancers. I also remember that you had said that you started DJing when you were 12 or something.
Yes, correct. I was dancing—that was the thing, it was like basketball, football, skating or anything else. It was something everybody did, especially when you were younger. You might have grew out of it once you got to junior in high school, or you kept going. I just loved to dance, and that’s how I met Spinn and everybody else. Then I was like, “I want to DJ the music.” A lot of DJs back then didn’t take me seriously because of the dancing. DJing back then was really serious: if you didn’t DJ on Technics 1200s, if you didn’t have records, you weren’t considered a DJ. Versus now, you could just be on the internet, say you’re a DJ, and there you are. You really had to prove yourself back then, it was really competitive. So, I gave up the dancing and went straight for DJing, concentrated on that. Dancing was more an outlet for me just to have fun, get girls [laughs].
How old do you think you were when you started producing?
My first song I produced, I might have been 13 or 14. It wasn’t that great, of course. I saved up for a little drum machine and a little sampler, and from there we just kept going. Saving and saving, meeting other people that was on the same thing that me and Spinn was on. We just kept going with it.
We’ve talked about the vocal samples, how hypnotic they are, the way they’re chopped and looped. But you guys don’t just sample, I love that you guys actually record yourselves rapping the catchphrases.
That and try to play the instruments, too. But in ghetto house music, pretty much a lot of house music back in the day, it would be the DJ talking on the track. And that kind of made it unique to us. We were like, “Damn, you can make your own shit and say whatever you want?” Versus, buying records and playing what you get. That was part of the excitement for me and Spinn and everybody, just to make our own exclusive shit and put our name on it and say what we want, how we feel, or this is what we want to do. That was one of the perks about it. I think it’s kind of like a tradition—if you will—in Chicago.
When you say that, it makes me remember that those Phuture tracks, those were their own vocals.
Obviously, it comes from the house and techno tradition, but the other thing about footwork and juke both is it’s really hip-hop, too. There’s a lot of rap influence. Can you guys rap?
I can’t personally, but Spinn raps. Manny tries to rap.
Spinn I could get a sense that maybe he could actually do it. Are there any tracks where there’s actual verses?
Yeah, there is. Nothing that’s out, just some stuff we got. We tell him all the time, “You should rap over the track.” He used to rap—he would make both house and rap beats, and he had a couple guys in a group.
Let’s go back to talking about the early days, because dancing is competitive.
Yeah, it was. It didn’t have to be, but the groups that we were in, we were in competitive groups. That was our thing, we’d just go battle people all over Chicago-land or Indiana.
How’d you do?
I think we did alright! [laughs] I felt comfortable to where I could quit dancing; I felt like I accomplished everything in dancing, as far as battling-wise, and certain dancers from certain parts of the city. So I felt comfortable enough to say, “I think I did enough, I can move on.” But I’ve heard we were good.
What was the name of your dance crew?
The first one was House-O-Matics, and then after that Wolf Pack—we called ourselves Wolf Pack because we tried to eat everybody up.
But House-O-Matics were an established group, right?
Yeah! House-O-Matics were the best group in Chicago at the time; not only did they perform, but they battled as well. We just wanted to do the battling part. We liked the performing, but it requires routines, uniforms, shit like that. I think we thought we were too cool for that at the time.
How old were you when you joined House-o-Matics?
Probably like 16. That was like a goal for us, to become House-o-Matics. You had to be good to get in that group. Technically, you lose a lot when you first start battling. But that’s how you get better—by battling people that are good. and then you catch on, and when you catch on you come back. So after we got in House-o-Matics, I felt like we were accomplished. I’m in this group, I was trying to DJ as well. People were like, “Aw, y’all dancers,” and didn’t take us seriously because of that.
So there’s this hierarchy in the scene? And the producers and DJs are probably at the top of it?
Yeah, definitely. They were at the top of it. And then, since we were dancers, the promoters just thought we were trying to get in the party for free, until they heard us mix. Then it was like, “Oh, okay. You alright, kid.” Yeah, people didn’t take me seriously until I quit dancing, period, and was just DJing.
But the DJing wasn’t competitive like the dancing was?
Yeah, it’s just as competitive, there were DJ battles going on as well.
Like mixing battles? What would the competitions be?
It would be like whose selections were better, the style—whether it was sloppy or neat.
How long would they play for?
Maybe 30 minutes. Or at the parties, they had battles and they’d just go back to back.
Like how dancehall sound systems would do?
Yeah. Everything was competitive. I don’t know if that’s just Chicago or how it is, but how we grew up, everything was in the dancing and DJing game. I think music as well, some music, too. I knew people that was in bands, to win money or whatever.
That’s true, there’s always battle of the bands. But when you talk about battling, the first thing that comes up is rap, because MC battles are famous. Those are the ones that are the most famous to anyone outside of these scenes. For house music, I’ve never heard of there being DJ battles. There’s definitely back to back, but it’s less of a competition.
I can’t say it was an every week thing, but it came up a lot. Especially where we were coming from, definitely. You had to prove that you were the shit, or could be the shit, or were attempting to try to be shit. [laughs] Back then it was harder for us. You had to carry eight crates of records; now we got Serato. If you wasn’t a DJ back then and you are now, I don’t think you understand the struggle and the dedication you had to have to become a DJ and be a DJ.
And I’ve seen you multiple times, and you can actually cut. It’s rough, because it’s such a fast tempo, but no one does that in house music. That’s a rap thing.
Yeah, but there’s people that do it in ghetto tech. A lot of Detroit people, I remember the first time I went to Detroit, I heard the radio station, and I was like, “What the fuck?” They were scratching their ass off to 170 shit, like jungle style. I was probably around 21 at the time.
DJ Craze used to do that.
Godfather has always been like that. Actually, I know that you’re tight with Godfather, so I guess quite a lot of your sound is really informed by Detroit.
Yeah, maybe I got the scratching from them as well. Chicago did it, but not like how I heard them in Detroit doing it. Every DJ was doing it, it was like DJ shit, official. That shit was serious, and back then, if you weren’t doing it you weren’t really a DJ. I guess we got a little bit of this and that from everywhere we’ve been, so we took it and rolled with it.
[Footwork] used to be a local concern for the most part—regional maybe, but local. And now it’s kind of worldwide.
Yeah, there’s a huge scene in Japan right now. Traxman and AG went out there not too long ago and there’s people footworking.
How does that kind of success change the local scene in Chicago?
Chicago right now is really fucked up. No jobs, a lot of shit’s going on, people are getting killed. The police have been shutting down everything. There’s parties, but not how it used to be say five, ten, 15 years ago. Due to the violence, a lot of shit gets closed and shut, so there’s really not shit to do because of that. But the shit that is going on, is going on but it could be better. But the bullshit, the police not wanting people to get together and have shit because they’re afraid something’s going to happen… Which could happen, but not in every case, they look at it like that for everything.
Are there young footwork producers out there who are trying to come up?
Yeah, there definitely is. And I think they will come up as well. I don’t think the what’s going on in Chicago will stop them; I think that motivates them even more to push to do something with themselves.
And the dancers?
Yeah, the dancers as well. I’ve even seen old dancers coming back.
Is it still the same people doing it, or is it starting to open up to white kids from the other side of town?
White kids already knew about it. Some white kids was already footworking as well. As far as Chicago, footworking is not new, so everybody knows about it. Even the white kids.
If they’re hip?
I don’t know if you gotta be hip. But all my friends that weren’t black knew what footworking was. Before we were even in high school, footworking wasn’t footwork, but everybody knew how to dance. [laughs].
I’m trying to see exactly how big footwork is in Chicago. Is it just normal, is it practically mainstream or is it still some sort of subculture?
It’s a subculture, I think.
But house is big.
Yeah, I’m thinking about the radio stations. If you hear house at certain times on a radio station, and you might hear footwork for only an hour or 30 or 15 minutes. But they don’t really showcase house or footwork because it’s about Top 40 shit. When I go to every state, I listen to the radio to see what they play, for the most part they’re rotating the same shit everywhere.
That’s because one company owns most of the radio stations in America right now.
A couple of years ago, I’d go to Detroit or Indiana or wherever and the radio stations would be just like Chicago. There’d be some kind of techno or house on Friday night all the way to Sunday. Juke and footwork never got to be mainstream, it hit the radio for a minute, but everybody knows what it is. If you go to the club, you’re going to hear it in the club, you’re going to hear it on the street. But the radio never supported that shit. But back in the day, especially house, they had WBMX, where they played house damn near all night, all day.
The rap today, for me, is different too. I like a lot of rappers who come out, but I just feel like some rappers or some songs don’t mean shit versus hip-hop we used to listen to that had a meaning. Or even the shit from the West Coast at the time, the gangsta rap shit, there was still a meaning. Today, they’re just [imitates syncopated wordless sounds], but the beat be good, so you just roll with it. [laughs] I’m glad I came up in the ’80s, ’90s because today, shit is different. I feel like I’m blessed to be coming from other times besides now, today, I feel like I learned a lot; it affects me, my life, and my music that I make today. I don’t know if I would’ve come up in this generation. You never know.
Are you saying is it’s down to the hard work aspect of it?
Not even that. I’m just saying that music was a big inspiration to me, period. And maybe if I’m coming up today, some of the music that I’m hearing probably wouldn’t have motivated me to do the same shit that I’ve done. I might not have been a dancer because none of that shit was on the radio like it used to be. But work, too, dedication. But I’m not saying that the guys today aren’t working just as hard, it’s just different.
That’s a good way to look at, because I think a lot people think that DJs today have it a lot easier.
They do. That’s why I know, because I came from the competitive, and I had to learn on my own. Versus Serato, today, it shows you the waves, you can just match the waves. It’s better, you can take advantage of the situation, but it also can affect your DJ skills. Or today, some people don’t even DJ, but they play pre-recorded mixes. And people are fine with that, and I’m fine with it, but you couldn’t do that when you were a DJ coming up in my time. You’d just get dissed from every DJ. You wouldn’t be respected, but today the DJ scene is a little different. To each his own—if it works for you, it works for me.~
Published July 21, 2013. Words by Lisa Blanning.