DJ Rashad: Interview
“[Footwork]’s still growing, but it still hasn’t grown outside the same box that it’s been in for the last five years, as far as a Chicago underground culture.”
Rashad Harden, a.k.a. footwork godhead DJ Rashad, is a man of surprisingly few words for a mind so fraught with sonic irregularity. He might not be the most veteran footwork DJ (that would have to be RP Boo) or the most batshit (there are lots of people in the running for that title), but it’s become increasingly clear since TEKLIFE Vol. 1: Welcome To The Chi changed the game that, flanked by his longtime partner-in-crime DJ Spinn, Rashad is among the kings of footwork and juke — as both hometown bastion and ambassador abroad. Welcome To The Chi was a huge landmark for what was until then a more or less underground scene, in one bold stroke defining footwork for a new international audience and pushing it to its breaking point.
One year later, footwork has broken. Its influence is worldwide, its imitators many, and its Chitown originators hustling to keep up with the change. But as Rashad preps for the release of his second proper full-length, Double Cup, due October 22 on UK tastemaker Hyperdub, his demeanor is nothing if not calm and collected. When I recently caught up with Rashad and Spinn over Skype, they were holed up in a London studio with enough kush and radiant positivity to endure a long day of interviews.
So, you guys are London right now. I know you have a lot of connections there with Hyperdub being headquartered in London, plus you shot the music video for “I Don’t Give A Fuck” there. What draws you to London, musically and otherwise?
DJ Rashad: London? Man… well, for one, it’s multicultural. Everyone is here.
DJ Spinn: Man, it’s a big music scene out here basically, and it’s a small area. There’s lots of different shit happening in one place.
R: Plus, this is where we’re headquartered when we’re on tour in Europe. When we’re off, we’re here — that’s how it’s been since we started touring.
Speaking of the UK, there’s been some talk in the music press lately about this affinity that seems to be emerging between the Chicago juke style and the UK jungle sound. What’s your take on this idea? What do you see as similar about the styles and what’s different?
R: Well, definitely, of course, the beats per minutes is pretty much completely the same. Maybe some jungle is a little bit faster, like 170, 180 bpm, but it’s a similar tempo. Coming up, we were never really fully educated on drum ‘n’ bass or jungle, but back in the 90s, they were definitely sampling some of the same shit we’re sampling [when when we make juke and footwork]. We’d never even heard most of this stuff until recently — maybe a couple years ago — and we were like, “Wow, they’re sampling the same shit we are.” It’s cool, man.
S: It made us understand why the jungle kids like our vibe, man.
Sometimes all niggas are talking about is killing people, fucking, smoking weed, and doing drugs, so that’s what the music is gonna talk about. They’ve just got their own perspective to it, you know?
It’s like two different groups of people in different places at different times having similar ideas.
R: Definitely, man, shit is awesome. And to top it off, a lot of people out here [in Europe] have been doing footwork-style tracks, so we’ve been showing love back and mixing in jungle shit, breakbeats and whatnot. Just switching it up, you know?
I wanted to ask you about what it was like growing up in a city like Chicago, where even prior to the house music scene there’s such a rich musical history. What kind of stuff did you hear growing up that inspired you?
R: Oh, man. It would have to be… shit. [Laughs] It was just, like, everything in Chicago.
S: When we were coming up, it was the end of the MTV generation, so we used to see all kinds of music videos when we were kids. Real talk, we must’ve been like four years old when Run DMC came on.
R: Fuck yeah.
S: All that shit, man. Then from listening to that style of music, going into more pop music in the 90s and then house music, it gave us a whole lot of different influences.
R: A lot of jazz, and fucking R&B shit, too. And really house, man. That was all that was on the radio back in the day.
Do you remember a specific moment — hearing a particular song or an artist maybe — when you knew you wanted to be a DJ? Or was it more of a gradual thing?
R: Yeah, a couple songs, actually. A lot of the songs we didn’t know the name of at the time, but there was “Magic Feet” by Mike Dunn — that was like an anthem in the house scene. Then there was the “Percolator,” of course.
S: Just tracks, man.
R: Yeah, just tracks. We didn’t know the name of ‘em until we went to the record stores and found out. Shit, who else? DJ Deeon, he had so many songs. Paul Johnson, Lil Louis’s “French Kiss.” That was the kind of shit that inspired me — like, “Damn, I want to make this shit.”
When you first started out, do you think you were more trying to imitate the style or did you always have an idea to do something different with it?
R: No… [Laughs] Probably imitate the style [Laughs]. That’s how you start out, though. At first you want to sound just like [your influences] — but there’s more to it than just that. You kind of pick up what you need and put your own shit into it. That’s what’s fun about it, because you get to do it your own way.
When you guys were involved in the Chicago house music scene, there was hip-hop going on in Chicago too, right?
R: Oh, hell yeah.
What’s some of the Chicago hip-hop shit you were feeling back then?
R: Oh, man. Psychodrama…
R: There was a lot of cats back then, man. Snypaz, we were definitely about that shit [Laughs].
You can definitely hear the hip-hop influence in footwork, in the rhythms and the samples, plus the whole attitude.
R: Yeah, I mean, back in 97, 98, that [hip-hop] shit was huge. Hip-hop was good.
S: And we were always listening to the hometown cats.
Do you think the rap scene has changed a lot since then?
R: Hell yeah. [Laughs] In Chicago, or elsewhere?
In Chicago specifically, what do you think about the rap scene currently?
R: Well, I fuck with it. You know I’m from Chicago, man. I like it. Some people might find it offensive, but it’s fucking rap music, you know what I mean? [Laughs] We support it, it’s good music.
I follow a lot of people involved with Chicago footwork on various social media, and sometimes I see them saying negative stuff about the Chicago rap scene, saying that it’s ignorant or stupid.
R: Like I said, man, it’s rap music. That’s what rap music is about. Sometimes all niggas are talking about is killing people, fucking, smoking weed, and doing drugs, so that’s what the music is gonna talk about. They’ve just got their own perspective to it, you know?
S: Can’t knock ‘em for that, man.
R: It’s real music. At the end of the day, they’re talking about some real shit.
Do you two personally feel that you still have a close connection to the violence in Chicago that’s been so prominent lately, or do you feel more removed from it now?
R: Well, I can be honest with you. Due to us, like, moving around a lot and being on tour — nah. But if I was in Chicago — yes. But there’s ways around that shit.
S: Yeah, you gotta know how to move around.
R: Depends if you wanna be around it or not, know what I mean? [Laughs] But I can relate to it, too. Definitely.
Would you guys ever think about doing a footwork-style edit of a drill track? Maybe a King Louie track or something like that?
Spinn, I remember a comment you made off the cuff in one of the Just Jam footwork videos that really stuck out to me. I think it went something like, “Chicago is a town with a lot of talent, but it’s also a town with a lot of haters.”
S: [Laughs] It’s true!
What do you guys think about the state of the Chicago footwork scene right now? I know you’re moving around a lot, but what’s your impression when you get a chance to go back?
S: Well, since we’re moving around so much, on tour and other things, we haven’t been around a lot. But we do get to come back and check out the footwork nights, and it’s a little different from when we were around. It’s still growing, but it still hasn’t grown outside the same box that it’s been in for the last five years, as far as a Chicago underground culture.
R: I think it’s still on the rise. It should have gotten even bigger than it is by now, man, but there’s a lot of shit going on in Chicago. You can’t throw these parties anymore because of the police, man.
S: They’re scared of it.
R: Yeah, it’s like they think somebody’s gonna get shot or something. So if you can’t throw the parties, it’s hard to make the shit grow.
That seems ironic, because at least in my eyes, footwork seems like more of an outlet.
R: Exactly! It’s an outlet, man, that’s the whole thing. But the police don’t give a fuck. [Laughs]
S: Yeah, they don’t care, man. They just think we’re out here getting money and shit. [Laughs] But we were just trying to make a little money to keep it going, so that we can have an outlet to perform in Chicago for the people that mess with our music.
I wanted to talk about the new record, Double Cup. This is your first LP for Hyperdub, and the main thing I’ve noticed listening to it so far is how soulful and smooth it is compared to some of the really gritty, in-your-face tracks you’ve made in the past. Is that part of a deliberate style choice?
R: Yeah, man. With Double Cup I wanted to get into the other side of my music. Not just typical Rashad, but a new twist. I also wanted to collab with the rest of Teklife — instead of just me, Manny and Spinn, we tried to get everyone on the album. Also, we just wanted to show people that we don’t just do footwork; we can do drum ‘n’ bass and trap, too. Spinn’s album, the next one coming up, will probably be back to the harder footwork shit. But for this one, we just wanted to have fun with it.
You still have an interest in making hard battle tracks, though?
R: Oh, definitely. That shit’s never gonna stop. [Laughs] But yeah, with Double Cup, I wanted it to be more like, say, a downer version of my shit rather than hyper battle tracks.
S: It’s like you off the double cup listening to it. [Laughs]
I wanted to ask you about the cover art for the album — it’s a really striking image. That’s the Chicago skyline, correct?
R: Shit… we actually got the artist right here; let’s just ask her. [Calls offscreen] Yeah, this is Ashes57.
Ashes57: It’s actually an image from a satellite. I wanted to represent a little bit of the feel of Chicago with the image, and a satellite image seemed like the best way, since I couldn’t actually go there.
As long as you’re here, I wanted to ask about some of your work. It seems to me from that videos you’ve done that you’re really in tune with the spirit and the gestures of the music — how did that relationship come about?
A: I’ve been touring with Spinn and Rashad [throughout the several European tours they’ve done], and a lot of times they’ll be producing tunes while sitting right next to me, so I got to know the music really well. We bounce a lot of ideas off one another, and I guess it just happened naturally. It’s been really awesome working with them.
Cool. I wanted to ask you guys about your process when you’re making tracks. I’ve heard that it’s something you’re constantly doing — what’s the mental process like? Do you get ideas and then try to translate them into songs, or is it more just messing with stuff until something sounds right?
R: Both. Definitely both. Sometimes, like you said, I might get an idea in the head and come back to it, or it could be, just like you said, fucking around in the studio and you catch an idea from that and just run with it, put some other shit with it.
“Everybody” off the I Don’t Give A Fuck EP, where you sample the “Best Cry Ever” YouTube video, is really striking to me because the source material is so absurd and sad, but in the context of the track, it’s actually kind of touching.
R: [Laughs] Thanks, man. That video is sad, but the cry is so fucking funny.
S: It’s the fakest cry ever. [imitates cry]
R: We were just all high, in the studio watching the video and we were like, “Shit, let’s just fuck with this.” [Laughs] But yeah, that was just following an idea, fucking around, and it did turn out nice. It wasn’t planned.
So y’all are in Europe right now. How many times have you toured there?
S: Yeah man, I think it’s our third year here — I don’t even know how many times. [Laughs] Every spring and every fall we come over here.
R: [Laughs] No, we definitely haven’t been to Stonehenge as much. But no, when we’re here, we might be at the studio [in London] or out playing shows; to be honest we don’t really get to chill much. When we’re out touring, we’re really working. But when we come back, we do like to smoke a lot of weed and kick it, for sure.
S: The worst part of everything is probably airports.
Real talk, we must’ve been like four years old when Run DMC came on.
R: At the end of the day, it’s a job, but it’s something that we love to do, you know?
At this point, you guys have sort of acted like ambassadors to the whole Chicago juke sound, bringing the idea to a lot of different places and different minds around the world. Who are some of the people whose takes on the juke sound have impressed or inspired you?
Have you heard any of the juke stuff coming out of Russia?
R: You know, I’ve heard it, and we met two of the guys, but they didn’t give us none of it! [Laughs] We didn’t get none of it, and I guess we might get an email from them. They played some of it briefly, but we wish we could’ve got some.
How about Japan?
R: I’ve gotta give it to them, man, I’ve seen videos of the parties and that shit’s crazy. They’re dancing too, and they’ve got that shit down to a science.
S: They’re having, like, circle parties, man.
R: Traxman and AG have both told us about when they’ve been over there, I haven’t been yet, but I think we’re about to go real soon. It’s fucking amazing, though, man, people like BootyTune; they’re just taking the culture and embracing it. It’s cool.
I just have one last question for you, Rashad — in a lot of Teklife shit, but specifically in your work, I notice a lot of extremes. Some tracks start out hard and brittle and then by the end they’re breezy and sublime, but it all feels like part of the same organism. Why do you think you are drawn to such sonic extremes?
R: I don’t know, man. I think it’s just a vibe thing. When I go in the studio, I don’t plan anything. Shit just happens. The best tracks just be happening, you know?
Word. So what’s next for you guys after this record? Any immediate plans?
R: Yeah, yeah, actually we do got some plans. We planning on putting out some unreleased shit towards the end of the year. Spinn’s working on his album — so a new DJ Spinn album. DJ Earl’s got a record coming out. The whole Teklife camp has a lot of shit coming out; we’re just getting it prepped and ready, you know? 2014, man.