It’s now two years since DJ Nate signed to Planet Mu and thrust footwork music from Chicago to the global dancefloor, and a whole year, even, since DJ Earl remixed the All Things Considered theme. Several months ago, DJ Diamond and DJ Rashad placed high on TMT’s 2011 year-end list, but footwork music remains resolutely difficult, its fierce resistance to depth and, at times, groove still incredibly challenging to the ears. In an effort to interpret this perplexing sound, almost every critic writing on the subject of footwork music has situated it within a dance culture native to Chicago. Even after two years on the world’s hard drives and dance floors, footwork is still presented in reviews as a primarily local phenomenon, or at least as an intertext between music, dance, and street. The labyrinthine drum patterns of footwork, we read, are at the service of dancers’ intricate foot movements, the bass stabbing as nimbly and unpredictably as the dancers’ feet. As a listener, in footwork I hear Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, and Gertrude Stein, but I read footwork as folk culture, born of the beat of teenage sneakers against Chicago streets. Quotes from scene forefathers and links to rec center dance competitions piously direct readers’ interpretation of footwork music, enjoining us to experience this fiercely futuristic music as an outsider modernism. But how to interpret footwork’s interpreters? Embarking on a review of the 2012 debut LP by Addison Groove, the great populist of the footwork boom of 2010, I ask myself, to what should I link? What context must readers hold in their minds in order to understand this music?
The answer goes: Footcrab, Footcrab, Footcrab, as in Addion Groove’s “Footcrab,” 2010’s defining track on Loefah’s Swamp81 label. In contrast to the heavily curated and anthologized footwork of Chicago producer/DJs, this exploitation track made no pleas for internet searches, assigned no homework before the brick-smashing could begin. Instead, Addison Groove, the footwork alter ego of Bristol’s Headhunter, made footwork big and bouncy, smoothing the clattering percussion and regularizing the bass, making it play nice when crossfaded into a dubstep track. (Dave Quam has suggested that footwork’s incomprehensible rhythms were developed by DJ/producers partly to discourage other DJs from attempting to mix with their tracks.) The pitch-black dancefloors of London dubstep clubs like Plastic People are decidedly thrifty with imagery; Addison Groove is a blank slate. This blankness and compatibility with a quantized, jetsetting global dance culture is what makes Addison Groove’s music more trivial than that of the footwork DJs it was inspired by, but it is also what gives it its dumbass power.
Footwork’s minimal composition of three or four sonic elements is intrinsically friendly to Britian’s drum-and-bass culture, and Addison Groove is also quite minimal, but brings a bigger, even more bassy feel. Transistor Rhythm is less frenetic and martial than footwork, more groovy and less competitive. There’s a big-beat dumbness to the album; rather than werking, it waggles, nose-honking, forehead-mopping big plastic animated sweat-drops. The programmed percussion doesn’t click and skitter in the midrange, the space between drum hits is not strewn with triplets, but instead there is ample space through which a booming, vaguely cartoonish synth tom goes galumphing back and forth. (Best heard on the insistent “Sooperlooper.”) On tracks such as “Energy Flash Back,” “Dance of the Women,” and “Ass Jazz,” Addison Groove partakes just as much from ghettotech and bootyhouse as from the roaming bass and frenetic drums of footwork.
I find myself least put off by the tracks in which the plastic gets a bit scraped up; in “Entropy,” the footcrab stumbles through one of Burial’s desolate rain-soaked nocturnes, and in “Skylight,” degraded samples are swallowed up by space, the bass a mouth, opening and closing around the track. But Transistor Rhythm is an album with a thin atmosphere. There is little reverberation, just repetition, vocal samples repeating without degrading. In the digital acoustics of the internet, footwork’s vocal samples are their own echoes; there is no limit to the number of copies we can make of, or the number of pieces into which we can slice, the human subject, whose voice more and more approaches the semantic status of percussion. Recall—
Footcrab, footcrab, footcrab…
—and you have a sense of this album’s advancement through lateral steps. Two years ago, “Footcrab” built its rhythms on the repetition of just two syllables; this time around, Transistor Rhythm’s“Beeps” folds its rolling toms around one-and-a-half: a sampled “fuck y-“. As I hear them, the rhythms of footwork are all about remainders, irrational numbers that don’t easily resolve into simple binary movements of left, right, left. “Beeps” is not so nimble — it plays well with others when dropped into Ableton — rather, it renders footwork’s repetitious mico-sampling of vocals into a canned laugh-track:
Fuck-y, fuck-y, fuck-y…