By the time the astonishingly heavy bassline of DJ Rashad & DJ Manny’s “R House” drops on this extraordinary EP, there’s no more doubt that footwork is the most fascinating thing to emerge from the US underground since Chicago’s club scene gave us house — and it’s not just in the house influence that the tracks collected here proudly display. UK label Planet Mu has been championing the Chicago-centric bass sound of juke and footwork for some time now, releasing the essential Bangs & Works Volume 1 compilation (with a second volume forthcoming), as well as EPs and albums by critical producers — DJ Rashad, DJ Diamond, DJ Nate, DJ Roc — in this frenetic scene.
Mike Paradinas (μ-Ziq) and his Planet Mu label have already introduced us to the work of some of the producers that make up the DJ collective Ghettoteknitianz (a.k.a. Ghetto Teknitionz), with DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, and Traxman all having been showcased on the Bangs & Works compilation. But Ghettoteknitianz is the first collection that shows the clique at work together, with collaborations or solo efforts from Gant-Man, DJ Earl, and DJ Manny. The EP is filled with glorious old-school strings and hands-in-the-air vocal lines that channel the high-flying vibe of original Chicago house, producing a lighter, more expansive sound, in particular contrast to the claustrophobic vibe that permeates other Planet Mu footwork releases.
William Gibson’s prescient words, “The street finds its own uses for things” (from the 1982 short story Burning Chrome), seem eerily appropriate in assessing footwork as a style of music. Radically deconstructing the tropes of dancefloor music, recontextualizing half-remembered classics, smothering soaring vocals under pulsing basslines, the Ghetto Teknitionz clique deliver six tracks of genuinely futuristic dance music here. In the crazed acid squiggle of DJ Spinn’s “Don’t Shoot” or DJ Manny’s epileptic weed anthem “All I Do Is (Smoke Trees),” there’s no concession to pop sensibilities: vocal samples spiral out of time, out of control; the characteristically frenetic boom of the beat acts less as a rhythmic anchor than as a mechanism of alienation. Even the tremendous, ecstatic references to classic Chicago tunes of the 1980s, in both DJ Rashad & Gant-Man’s “Heaven Sent” and the previously mentioned “R House,” seem to project the past forward into a concrete-and-steel future of footwork battles and DJ wars.
It’s true that this particular strain of Chicago sound has been bubbling up in some form or another since the late 90s, as Chicago house, ghetto house, juke house, juke, and now footwork. However, there’s something truly raw about the footwork sound, in the lo-fi production and swampy mastering, in the total resistance to compromise. I sincerely doubt anyone but the most adventurous pop diva will be lining up for their ‘footwork remix’ once they’re done and dusted with a midrange-melting, Diplo-helmed dubstepping.
As the footwork sound permeates further into global music cultures and criticism (a wonderful thing, I should add), it’s reasonable to expect that it will receive the same kind of crate-digging analysis that dubstep has seen, dwelling on roots and antecedents. Unlike dubstep, however, footwork seems unlikely to break and mutate under that pressure; its composition is too sparse, its source material already warped beyond casual recognition. Particularly in the form captured on Ghettoteknitianz, footwork is completely uncompromising, folding its own genealogy so deeply into itself that the casual listener — divorced from the sound’s urban Chicago heart — is entangled in it, too. The question for footwork is: where the hell does it go from here?