Chicago footwork producer Morris Harper, better known as DJ Spinn, had the best set at this summer's Pitchfork festival. His early-evening slot on the fest's last day overlapped with performances by reunited British shoegaze band Slowdive and electro-pop darling Grimes, but his turnout didn't seem to suffer for it. The tree-shaded Blue Stage felt like a family reunion; dozens of friends and collaborators joined in, including Mano's Treated Crew and hyperactive footwork dancers the Era. Cheered on by members of the Teklife collective, which he'd cofounded as GhettoTeknitianz in 2004, Spinn dove into a euphoric, high-energy mix—but hanging over the set was the melancholy awareness that DJ Rashad was supposed to be up there with him.
Spinn had been looking forward to the festival for months, but, as he says, "It was a bittersweet feelin'." His longtime collaborator and friend Rashad Harden, a footwork innovator who was considered the genre's best crossover hope (he released the breakout LP Double Cup last fall), had died in April at age 34 of an accidental drug overdose. Spinn's set was a life-affirming tribute to a departed talent and a high-energy celebration of the music he helped define—and the way everyone bounced around onstage, you could tell they meant for Rashad to feel their love all the way over in the afterlife.
The members of Teklife have continued to honor Rashad with every one of their performances since. And on November 11 the collective will offer its biggest tribute yet: Next Life, a 20-track compilation released on venerable UK electronic-music label Hyperdub. Label head Steve Goodman and the Teklife crew came up with the idea a month after Rashad's death, and they decided to donate all proceeds from Next Life to Rashad's young son, Chad. "Everybody wanted to do something to contribute and do something for his family," Spinn says. "That's the whole inspiration behind it right there."
Next Life is the sound of a vibrant underground community responding to a life-altering loss. One of the best tracks, the sinewy, angelic "He Watchin Us" by Chicago producer Boylan (aka Nate Boylan), refers to Rashad in its title and carries him in its DNA, right down to a sample of his vocals. And Rashad appears posthumously on the pulsing collaborative cut "OTS"—even in death, he's still very much part of Teklife. "Spiritually he never left," says Traxman, aka producer Cornelius Ferguson. "There's something about that damn music—I don't give a damn where you at. The music is just timeless."
Traxman, who started going to house shows in the late 80s, is one of Teklife's elders; his Next Life contribution, "Sit Ya Self Down," sounds like a footwork track floating in low earth orbit. The compilation not only demonstrates the breadth of Rashad's personal influence but also provides a historical snapshot of footwork. The producers on Next Life have helped shape this frenetic and uniquely Chicagoan form of electronic music since its beginnings in the early 90s.
Footwork grew out of Chicago house, which remains vibrant and hugely influential here and abroad—white-hot British production duo Disclosure and golden-voiced R&B singer Sam Smith (their collaborator on "Latch") wouldn't be where they are without it. Too many producers to list insist they had a part in kick-starting house, though few can make as solid a claim as Frankie Knuckles, aka the Godfather of House, who died about a month before Rashad. Jesse Saunders, another titan from the early days, is generally credited with releasing the first house record, the chilling 1984 single "On and On."
- Courtesy the artist
Gant-Man on his contribution to Next Life, "Jungle Juke":
I wanted to do something at 140 beats per minute that still had a footwork sound in it. There's this track, an old disco track from Europe, like with just weird synthesizers—it's called "Life Is a Jungle." I always loved that loop. It's a big song in the disco and Chicago house-music scene, but the older house generation.
I actually was going to put more into that track--this is the crazy part. This guy James [Imanian-Friedman], J-Cush, he was actually over at my house the time I made it, and we were going to meet up with Spinn and Rashad. They had a little outdoor event they were doing, and I was gonna get back to it.
Long story short, James wanted to start messing with the MPC, and he didn't know that I had the LED switch off. He ended up turning the power of the MPC off thinking he was turning it on.
He was upset—he said, "Please don't be mad." Anytime somebody cuts a machine off when you're recording or have recorded, it's like you go through the roof. So what you hear of that track is pretty much just what it is--that's from the machine being cut off. That was basically the conclusion; it started off from a disco loop and it ended with Jamie cutting my MPC off. Blessings that I recorded it--it was meant for me to make that track.
The following year Englewood resident Ronnie Sloan launched a dance group called House-O-Matics, which Spinn and Rashad would join a decade later. "We saw the need to do something within the community that would help the kids that were getting involved with gangs and different organizations," Sloan says. "There was a big house craze at the time, and we started making up routines." House-O-Matics attracted a neighborhood following and began playing community events—four per weekend by 1987, according to Sloan. "Our first routine was done off 'When Doves Cry' by Prince," he says. "We were actually just incorporating all different types of music and dance."
Those other styles of dance included hip-hop and later footwork. Sloan says he began noticing what would become footwork in 1990 or 1991, in dances called the Holy Ghost and the Tom & Jerry. "That was a little form of dance that was something silly, like Tom used to do," he says. "We incorporated that into our own style of footworking, and it just took on a life of its own." Around the same time, ghetto house—a leaner, raunchier offshoot of house—was making waves thanks to Chicago label Dance Mania. Footwork and juke both grew out of ghetto house; two of Dance Mania's most iconic producers, DJ Deeon and DJ Milton, were spinning for House-O-Matics by the time footwork originator RP Boo, aka producer Kavain Space, joined in 1993.
RP Boo started with House-O-Matics as a dancer, but within weeks he was DJing too, having caught Sloan's ear with a mixtape he'd made. He was a resident House-O-Matics DJ for a few years, and recalls an incident at one of the group's parties. "It was a big commotion," he says. "Ronnie was saying, 'Stop playing the music till we get order—that's when I give you the cue to turn the music back up.' This one kid just comes out of nowhere, but he's standing over the top of my head—and I just seen a crowd of people—and he said, 'Hey, can I get on?' I was like, 'Nah, who's you? Who is you to just come ask me and I never seen you?' Come to find out that was Rashad."
Rashad, then in his early teens, had cut his teeth spinning for WKKC, the radio station at Kennedy-King College. Gant-Man, aka Gant Garrard, had been at the station for a few years when Rashad came in to audition in 1992—Gant-Man had started DJing there at age ten. "He heard about me being on the radio," he says. "His mother said that he wanted to come and show me and everybody else he had skills—and that if I was young and could DJ on the radio, he could DJ on the radio."
- Ryan Lowry
Boylan on his Next Life track, "He Watchin Us," which uses samples of Rashad's voice:
That was the last vocals [Rashad] ever did in my house. I got about a 15-minute spread of those, so I got mad vocals I can still use.
He's watching down on us, so that's why I named it that. It's kind of gentle, but it's got a hard edge to it. The way the pads are it's very gentle, but the way the synths are it's really hard, and that's the way Rashad was to me. He was real street smart, but he had a heart of gold. I wanted him to know, wherever he is right now, that we're still thinking about him every day.
Spinn heard Rashad on WKKC and DJing at the Markham Roller Rink. "They had the disco that went on every Saturday, and that's what we did when we was kids—we'd hear house music and go in there and learn how to footwork," Spinn says. He and Rashad eventually met face-to-face in homeroom at Thornwood High School in South Holland.
"Out of all the homerooms in school, we had a homeroom with a boom box, and I played him a mix I made," Spinn says. "I used to mix off a tape recorder. It was, like, really janky, but it was cool. He listened to it, like, 'How you doin' that? What records you got?' I just start namin' mixtapes—he couldn't figure it out yet, but I had no record." One day after school, Rashad invited Spinn to his house in Calumet City and showed him all his gear. "After that, it was like, 'Man, we gotta do this every day.'"
Spinn joined House-O-Matics sometime in '96 or '97, at which point Rashad had been a member for about a year. (Because Rashad had to drive an hour north to the troupe's practice space on 63rd and Stony Island, Sloan says, he never got all that involved.) "That was just the group to be in back in the 90s, hands down," Spinn says. "They was tourin', goin' to different places around the States, really puttin' on performances. That's what really made us want to do it, and we was young—we wanted the girls and they had all the girls."
Rashad and Spinn's single-minded interest in footworking made it hard for them to advance in House-O-Matics, whose other members valued expertise in all styles of dance. "DJ Boo, Spinn, Rashad, and a couple of others, they did real dancing just at our parties, because it was everyone in a circle, battlin' each other, showin' off—they did great with that," Sloan says. "But when it came down to our shows, it was like, 'OK, well, we're takin' you, you, you, and you,' and they just wasn't the chosen few."
Spinn had already joined Rashad DJing at Markham Roller Rink. "It was just a natural progression to get a job up there, get a little money," he says. "They give you quarter rolls back in the day. No debit, all cash." In 1997 Spinn played a Bud Billiken Parade afterparty at Cavallini's with RP Boo—he's still got a poster for it (with his name spelled "DJ Spin") in his basement studio. "That's from when I was 16," he says. "That's a big deal."
"Up until very recently, if you were a white Chicagoan, footwork music or dance wasn't something you did or even knew about."—Filmmaker and footwork documentarian Wills Glasspiegel
The late 90s were pivotal to the development of juke and footwork. "One thing I learned about that era then—in '98, things was changing," Traxman says. "Even the music on Dance Mania was at its height." Ghetto house was changing too, says Gant-Man. "The majority of the ghetto house was 140 to 145 beats per minute—I'd say 135 beats per minute to 145 beats per minute—then when the juke style came about, it started going to 145 on up," he says.
Gant-Man and DJ Puncho are usually credited with codifying juke into a sound. "Puncho was just making ghetto-house tracks, and he came up with the idea to say the word 'juke' on a ghetto-house track," Gant-Man says. "A lot of people were saying the word 'juke,' meaning it's crackin', it's happenin', it's goin' down, it's loud." The word also made its way into the titles of Puncho and Gant-Man's mixtapes, and within a few years this sped-up version of ghetto house became known as juke.
Footwork music started emerging in the late 90s too. "Boo took what he was doing as a dancer and tried to make a form of music to match that dance," says filmmaker and scene documentarian Wills Glasspiegel. "The music had gotten so fast that DJs needed to open it up, and one of the ways to open it up is to accentuate half-times. A lot of tracks don't have claps in them, so there's more space in the music than earlier varieties of ghetto house. That space became a place, a musical space, where the dancers can improvise and move more freely between pulses."
Boo's track on Next Life, "That's It 4 Lil Ma," gives dancers a six-lane highway of pulsing rhythms to vibe with, and its stuttering vocal samples and syncopated drum patterns remain distinct even as they push forward as a mind-boggling whole.
"I think footwork, part of the reason that it's so amazing is that represents the interplay of virtuosic dancing and avant-garde black electronic music," Glasspiegel says. "Even in the title 'footwork' you hear the ambiguity, because 'footwork' is the name of both the music and the dance—it's not one or the other, it's always both in Chicago."
- Wills Glasspiegel
- Members of Teklife, Treated Crew, and the Era gathered for DJ Spinn's Sunday-evening Pitchfork set.
Since footwork began spreading beyond the city in the mid-2000s, the outside world has mostly gotten glimpses of it, not a total picture. The style has crossed over a few times—as Miles Raymer wrote in the Reader in 2010, local footwork group Full Effect appeared in the 2005 video for Missy Elliott's "Lose Control," MTV featured the dance in a 2006 episode of My Block, and hip-hop duo Dude 'N Nem showcased the style in their 2007 single "Watch My Feet." The Dude 'N Nem song isn't exactly footwork music, but its stuttering vocal sample hints at the more complex sound that RP Boo, Rashad, Spinn, and Traxman had been working on under the radar. "Footwork history in Chicago is largely black history," Glasspiegel says. "Up until very recently, if you were a white Chicagoan, footwork music or dance wasn't something you did or even knew about."
Spinn says he got ridiculed in school for dancing, but a couple years after he graduated footwork became a local sensation. "We'd been making tracks almost the same way since the late 90s," he says. "Only thing changed is technology and the quality, and we was making pretty good quality in '99, 2000, on tapes and DATs. It was serious."
Footwork lost an important outlet when Dance Mania folded in 2001, but Spinn and Rashad soldiered on, releasing music on Detroit label Juke Trax. In 2004 they founded GhettoTeknitianz (the future Teklife), meeting recruits online and at shows—they got to know DJ Earl (aka Earl Smith) when he came to see them play at the Battlegrounds in Chatham, and Rashad heard from Boylan, who teaches science at Thornwood, via MySpace.
The Web also connected footwork to producers abroad, whose fascination with the sound helped shine a light on it; in late 2010, London label Planet Mu released the watershed compilation Bangs & Works Vol. 1. It was a big year for Rashad and Spinn, who began touring Europe for months at a time, leaving that many more opportunities for the next generation of producers to gig in Chicago. "They just in the house making tracks, and then give it to us to play at the parties and stuff," says DJ Earl.
- Wills Glasspiegel
Spinn on working with fellow Teklife producer Taso on "Burn That Kush," one of his two Next Life tracks:
When I made "Burn that Kush" I was out in LA. The sample that's in "Burn That Kush," that's a track that Rashad made some years ago, '07 or something. I'm in CVS and I'm goin' crazy, cats not knowing why I'm goin' crazy. I'm Shazam-ing it, I got my phone up, I'm like, "Man, that's that track, that's that track." And they're like, "What's goin' on?" Soon as I got back to the studio over at Taso's crib, he's like, "What's goin' on?" I'm like, "Man, listen to this track." And I put on the original--it was called "Burn That Bitch." He's like, "Ooh." I'm like, "Yeah, bro, I had to do this one right here. This is the one for the comp, right here."
That was also the year GhettoTeknitianz became Teklife: "I think it was a better look, marketing wise," says DJ Earl. "And it was something that everybody could easily say." In 2011 the crew began collaborating with overseas producers such as Addison Groove, a UK booster who appears on Rashad's 2013 album Double Cup, a beautiful crossover record that smooths out the more alien and disorienting rhythmic elements of footwork, showing how far Teklife had come. All but two of the tracks are collaborations, most with Spinn but a few with other longtime local partners or out-of-state Teklife members such as California beat maker Taso.
"When it comes to the business, Rashad was putting people on," Glasspiegel says. "Rashad wanted Spinn's record to be better than his own last record. He wanted DJ Manny to be the best producer Chicago has ever known. Rashad had that humbleness to him, and he had that kind of love to him—anyone who was around him is going to tell you the same thing. He'd split show fees with younger DJs; he'd play for free."
Rashad performed at Pitchfork in 2013 (his set this summer would've been his second in a row), and he and Spinn spent part of that fall touring with fast-rising Chicago MC Chance the Rapper. But even though he was fast becoming a star in his own right, he remained just as invested in his musical community. The aftereffects of his generosity are audible all over Next Life. "Listen to the tracks on the new Hyperdub record, and you hear Rashad so often," Glasspiegel says. "Yes, he has a cut or two on there, but you hear him in other peoples' music—you can hear his enthusiasm and the love he shared with his friends, his collaborators."
That love went both ways, and Rashad's friends and comrades keep sending it his way. "Pitchfork was just that release for a whole year," Spinn says. "Then, for what happened to happen—we really needed to spread that energy."
Next to the staircase leading down to Spinn's basement studio is a poster Rashad's mother made him—a handmade collage of enthusiastic reviews of his Pitchfork performance from the Chicago Tribune, NewCity, and Entertainment Weekly, among other outlets. At the top it reads, "Lead Story Headlines," and just below that, "DJ Spinn Rocks PitchFest." At the bottom is a photo of Spinn's baby boy wrapped in a white blanket; his blue word bubble says, "Congrats Daddy!" Spinn's son was born July 14, just days before that Pitchfork set. He named him Rashad.