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Juke Your Body

‘Juke Your Body’ is a genre thinkpiece written by Threads co-founder Lee Kirk Fagan, originally appearing in issue 4 of Ribbed Magazine back in 2011. The article explores the rise in international popularity of Chicago’s Juke and Footwork scenes in the early 2010s.

It features interviews with Dave Quam from the ‘IT’S AFTER THE END OF THE WORLD’ blog, Aziza Man from Lit City Trax, and of course, DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad. Reposting this article felt like an opportune way to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Rashad Harden’s passing – Rest In Peace x

Lee Kirk Fagan:

(Text by Lee Kirk Fagan, photo courtesy of Luke Hartley)

Chicago. The birthplace of House music, the city that fostered the beat of the four-to-the-floor kick drum, electrified it, and encouraged it to flourish into the internationally pervasive music form that exists today. For the last twenty-five years producers all over the world have been adapting the mould created by the Chicago pioneers, but its evolution has continued in its home city the whole time. Footwork, a misanthropic strain of Chicago Ghetto House, could be considered as the latest indigenous iteration.

This is music for guys in the South and West sides of Chicago to battle dance to. Set at 160 bpm, it’s full of powerful 808 bass, skittish hi-hats, disorientating vocal edits and a hugely eclectic choice of samples. The first time I heard it back in 2008 I was blown away by how it was both expertly intricate and wholly visceral at the same time. The key to me seemed that it was functionally complex but designed to inspire an overtly physical reaction from the dancers: ever more impossibly acrobatic foot – work.

What’s important to make explicit is that the sound didn’t appear out of nowhere, but has a lineage that can be very directly traced to 80s Chicago House. More specifically the label Dance Mania Records, whose late ‘80s/early ‘90s releases include Chicago pioneers such as DJ Pierre, Lil Louis, Glenn Underground, Robert Armani, Paul Johnson etc. Dance Mania is not only geographically and somewhat sonically comparable to labels such as Relief and Cajual, it was also responsible for the first Ghetto House tracks – the direct precursor to Juke and therefore the current Footwork sound.

Ghetto House can be differentiated from general House music through its jacking feel, hard gritty bass, and a reliance on repetitive, spoken vocal hooks with an overtly salacious content. It may not be a sound generally recognised this side of the Atlantic but Ghetto House tracks have been a feature in headline DJ sets for years. Dance music superstars Daft Punk recorded a BBC Essential Mix in 1997 which features five Ghetto House releases, four of which are from Dance Mania.

Steve Poindexter’s ‘Work That Mutha Fucker’ is generally regarded as the first Ghetto House track, created in 1987 but released two years later on the Muzique record label. It’s simply a pounding beat and the slogan of the title repeated throughout; a sparse but hugely infectious House stomper. After this, one of the most famous tracks would be Cajmere’s ‘Percolator’ (1992), a track that still gets played at Juke events to this day.

Dave Quam has written a huge amount about the intricate history of the Juke/Footwork scene on his blog ‘It’s After The End of the World’ and for a variety of print and online publications. Regarding the journey from Ghetto House to Footwork, Quam states that “Ghetto house is early Dance Mania up until about 1996-97, which is when the word Juke came into the world. Juke was just Ghetto House but a little faster, going from around 135 bpm to around 150 bpm. At the same time the straight up Footwork tracks were starting to be made as well, and while there were plenty of Footwork tracks made during the earlier Dance Mania era, or rather tracks made strictly for Footwotking (which in a less formalised sense has been around since the 80s as an extension of house dancing) the tracks like they are today started around 1997”.

The exact time when the term Juke started to be used as a common term for the changing music was around 2000, “when Dance Mania ended”, confirms Footwork pioneer DJ Spinn, who with DJ Rashad as Ghetto Teknitianz, are two of the most internationally recognised Footwork DJ/producers. “Cos I was with the record label Clown House Records, this dude named DJ Thadz ran it and he was like just posting ‘Juke’ on everything – every CD, every website, ‘get ready to get your juke on’, juke-this juke-that, and that’s what really branded the name Juke”. One of the first tracks to use ‘Juke’ in its title is DJ Puncho’s ‘Let Me See You Juke’.

The actual aural changes that signify the Juke sound in opposition to Ghetto House can be exemplified by DJ Clent’s ‘Back Up Off Me’. There’s less reliance on a 4/4 kick, more Miami-bass style drum programming but with somewhat more abstract kit sounds. It’s structure is a simple 8-bar switch arrangement, and the second half of track, with its insistent, repeated 808-snare hits, is a definite precursor to the current Footwork sound.

The change from the sound of late-period Dance Mania tracks, often functional records for the party scene, to the later tracks that people like DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad started producing is expanded upon by Spinn: “So, what happened in between really, you know we never really wanted to call it Juke; like Jukin was like party stuff, we still called it Ghetto House regardless. It’s really the same thing but it evolved into two different things because of the way the dance scene is in Chicago; but by around 2002/2003 it was all done. We used to sample the tracks that we used to like from the guys before us and take it like we were stealing their track, and it’s like nah – once we got with Godfather and Databass records / Juke Trax, we were putting out records then, and that’s when guys were getting mad like ‘you’re sampling our stuff’ and I’m like ‘we’re keeping it alive!’, really there wasn’t any disrespect to it. That’s when we had to change it, to change the whole style – we’re gonna change everything! “.

Alongside Spinn and Rashad, RP Boo seems to be one of the main progenitors responsible for pushing the sound further away from the house template and forming Footwork’s mutated structure. His track ‘Steam Midity’ (under the alias Arpebu) showcases fast triplet Roland 808 clav and hi-hat percussion, set over an undulating sub-bass pulse. A repetitive minor key violin refrain enhances the mood further, with cut-up samples of an MC uttering moody invocations: “Keeping it Real / I see the Smoke Coming”.

It sounds overwhelmingly menacing, which is a characteristic present in a good proportion of Footwork tracks. Partly responsible are two things inherent in the structure of the sound as a whole: 1.The speed. Our heart rate can reach 160bpm as a result of paroxysmal attack induced by extreme stress, anxiety or fear; 2. Sub-Bass. It’s the sound of impending disaster – earthquakes, tsunami, the oncoming stampede of megafauna. Our innate fear responses are coded deep within our ancient DNA. Both conspicuous speed and layers of bass are ever-present in Footwork tracks.

The tracks are often left intentionally dry, lacking excessive reverb (except for that inherent in the sample sources), which may be somewhat of a barrier for the uninitiated. The sound gains a powerful aura when played in the context for which it’s designed – vacant warehouses in Chicago showcasing the Footwork crew dance battles. The constant bass pulses morph into a baleful low-end drone, vocal glyphs flying across the space.

It feels as if there has been an ongoing process of honing, in the same way the dancers compete for ever more impressive and acrobatic moves, so the programming in subsequent tracks becomes more intricate and complex. What’s striking is how genuinely new Foowork sounds. The syncopated beat patterns have a complexity that draws strongest comparison with experimental electronica; it would be presumptuous to say that it is not a specific influence, but I’d wager the influence is from the prevalence of abstraction in earlier Chicago house styles. 

Footwork draws from a wide variety of sample sources, using jazz and rare groove samples, the recreation of old Chicago house tracks, Miami Bass and much more. In fact it’s playful and irreverent use of sampling is most similar to another 160ish bpm music form, early 90s ‘ardkore / Darkside Jungle. The same buoyant energy exists in Footwork. Spinn states that hip hop is also hugely important, “…because it uses a lot of samples that we dig, and then we get those samples from the stuff we used to listen to when we were younger from the late 80s and early 90s. The list goes on, we go back to the 70s. The way you can get music now, you just type in an artist’s name and you can get every album they came out with, and then venture off from there”.

Because of this ability to raid the archives, many tracks are artfully sampling beautiful portions of 70s and  80s soul tracks (such as the Roy Ayers produced track by Ethel Beaty  ‘It’s Your Love’, which is sampled in ‘DJ Rashad & DJ Lucky’s ‘Love You (Yes I Do)’. Spinn states that “it ain’t really 80 bpm, or 160 bpm, it’s really both, at the same time, so however you wanna listen to it, or however you wanna make it, you know? But at the same time, the fact that we have the technology – that’s so great now. We couldn’t do that back in the day, something had to be real fast like a chipmunk, or real slow – chopped’n’screwed. So now we can manipulate all the sounds, you can make a track out of almost anything”.

There a number of tracks that use portions of hip hop lyrics which Rashad believes has “…helped to promote the sound, to get people who don’t normally listen to Juke hearing something familiar on top of the beat helps spread the sound”.

It’s feasible that producers in the hip hop scene are interested in juke from a sonics/production perspective, but it’s likely that dancers in the Footwork scene don’t want to hear a rap when they’re trying to battle; there’s a functional importance in the music remaining largely instrumental. Spinn states, “If anything Footwork is hip hop based, to the extent that we HAD to make it hip hop based because the radio wouldn’t play the music unless it was a Juke remix of a hip hop track”.

The culture in Chicago of dancing to House music as performance aside from communal hedonistic abandon goes back to the dance groups of the late 80s. House-O-Matics initiated by Ant Brown and Ronny Sloan, were the group that spearheaded the house dancing scene back in 1985. Considering the centrality of Chicago to House music, it seems that the existence of this part of the culture has been somewhat lost in translation in the rest of the world. Nevertheless it has been an important facet in Chicago, and its continuance over time is responsible for spawning the Footwork scene today.

The very first footage of Footwork I saw on YouTube was a bunch of teenagers outside a petrol station dancing enthusiastically to music from a ghettoblaster. Practicing dance moves seems to be universally popular with young people in the South and West sides of Chicago. Spinn ”You can run down to any neighbourhood and see a group of kids just footworking, it amazes me! I don’t know if they know who I am and they look and they see me and start dancing, or if they’re doing it just to do it.”

The music is designed to soundtrack dance battles between rival crews of Footworkers, and the battle scene has been wholly important with regards to the sonic development of the genre. In the simplest sense just from a tempo perspective, dancers literally demanding that the DJs speed the tracks up so that they could showcase more convoluted moves. It has also no doubt weakened the constraints of having to stick to more simple ‘danceable’ structures because of the dextrous abilities of its focus audience, positively encouraging dissonance and experimentation. There are heaps of battles posted on the WALACAM YouTube channel, with crews such as Leaders of the New School, Taliban, FootworKingz, Burn Unit, Take Over Gang, Creation and many more.  

DJ Spinn’s ‘2020’ often functions as the Ghetto Teknitians’ intro track to Footwork battles. It’s atmospheric and creepy, consisting of a simple falling four-note synth refrain; blasting out of big speakers in a Chicago warehouse it begins to embody an almost ghostly presence. This video on the Ghetto Teks’ YouTube site is of a Battle Groundz event in 2010. Starting off with Spinn’s ‘2020’, the star of the show is the guy in a brown T-shirt called AG, a veteran dancer from the crew Leaders of the New School. At about two minutes thirty he comes out to DJ Earl’s amazing ‘Baby’ (which samples Johnny Hammond’s beautiful soul track ‘Can’t We Smile). He completely tears it up. A flurry of symmetrical foot and arms moves, sometimes moments reminiscent of ballet, and at one point he seems to be effectively floating across the dancefloor. Even the experienced crowd looked shocked at the accomplishment of his performance. This video has been around for a while now, but it still gives me a rush every time. Even watching on video the energy and velocity of the performance and of the music is overwhelming. You can very easily understand why so many young people in the South and West sides of Chicago become obsessed with it.

One of the most emotive tracks I’ve heard is DJ Rashad’s ‘Love You Found’, a Michael Jackson sampling epic. The first half of the track bubbles away with almost Todd Edwards style micro-vocal edits married to fast paced bass hits. But it’s at the halfway mark that the track kicks off; the beats drop out to leave a timestretched Jackson pining “You’ll remember me somehow”, then the track kicks back in, tension rising with insistent chords, spastic synth rushes , and the ubiquitous double time hats . The vibe is immense, hugely propulsive, not insisting but demanding a physical response from the listener.

As opposed to borrowing heavily from previously cemented music styles, Footwork seems to have a clearer evolutionary path; its mutation is partially a result of the demands of its core audience: the battling Footworkers. Although there are numerous clear influences, its component structure and form seems inherently more original than many ‘new’ forms of dance music that have arrived in the last few years. An overwhelming retro-spective influence seems often to be more central to other music, maybe not always reverential but often hugely referential to older forms. The people in this scene have been doing their own thing for years, and arguably this purity has enabled its originality.

Although there are certainly successful dancers in the scene (for example the crew Footworkingz performing with Madonna, and appearing on ‘America’s Got Talent’), inevitably the larger majority of kids dedicating their time and skills to perfecting these incredible Footwork moves will not be able to make a career out of it. It’s their passion, their obsession. Musically Rashad feels the same: “It’s something I’ve gotta do; like basketball to someone who plays basketball, like baseball to someone who plays baseball. It’s something I love to do, something I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s something I’m gonna do, regardless of whether I’m being booked or not – just gotta be making beats”.

Arguably the best music is created not out of a desire to be part of a scene, or to garner fame and adulation, but from the pure pursuit of creation. For almost thirty years producers in Chicago have had an overt compulsion to make people dance. “It’s different from everything else, but at the same time it’s dance music, it’s our Chicago style of doing music”, declares DJ Spinn.  “They don’t really dance to Hip hop and stuff back at home – I mean people do, have a little dance when they’re out to some Down South stuff or something like that, but in Chicago this is our sound, so we gotta keep it going for Chicago”.

Many thanks to Aziza, Dave Quam, and of course to DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad.

Fifteen Footwork Favourites (links provided where available)

RP Boo – Eraser [Planet Mu]

DJ Diamond – Rep Yo Clique (Remix) [Planet Mu]

DJ Spinn – 2020 [Planet Mu]

DJ Earl – Baby

Jody Breeze – The Way I Move [Ghettophiles]

DJ Rashad – Love You Found [Planet Mu]

DJ Spinn – Kush Pak Loud [Ghettophiles]

DJ Heavy D – Data Interruption 2010 [Ghettophiles]

DJ Spinn – I Really Feel [Planet Mu]

DJ Clent – Drop Low

DJ Nate – Footwurk Homicide [Planet Mu]

DJ Trouble – Bangs & Works [Planet Mu]

DJ Rashad – Ghost [Ghettophiles]

DJ Rashad & King AG – Make It Happen [Ghettophiles]

Arpebu – Steamidity

by Lee Kirk Fagan

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