“I just want to make all types of music. […] I just want people to keep an open ear to different kinds of rhythms, different ideas.”
– DJ Earl
Footwork finds itself in uncharted terrain in 2016. As it transitions beyond its first wave of integration into the dance music continuum, a movement that culminated in DJ Rashad’s widely acclaimed and scene-surveying, Double Cup, competing claims for its essence pull it in several directions. On the one hand, we have footwork’s innate virtuality, its voracious appetite for new sounds to chop, which Rashad played a significant role in fostering. On the other, we have the accumulation of recognizable sonic signifiers (sampled vocals, 160 BPM, hi-hats, and claps) that anchor this sound to a certain time, place, and embodied practice. Progression vs. heritage. Past vs. future.
There’s already strong evidence that footwork is well equipped to escape such constricting binaries, a case given further credence by DJ Earl’s new album, Open Your Eyes. Like Jlin, DJ Diamond, and DJ Paypal, DJ Earl collapses the superficial opposition between footwork’s past and future, preferring to dwell in the shifting and ecstatic now. By eschewing a primarily sample-based approach, he exposes the genre to new textures and moods, melding hardnosed footwork with synth experimentalism. In so doing, Earl reaffirms footwork’s sonic capaciousness, reminding us why it spins heads so easily: it doesn’t give a fuck. Let’s not forget, RP Boo’s proto-footwork jams sampled both Old Dirty Bastard and Godzilla.
The first thing that hits you about Open Your Eyes is its agility. These eight tracks cover a lot of ground, from ambient soundscapes to techno excursions. Much of this is down to the synths, provided by TMT’s favorite synth auteur, Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never. Earl and OPN worked together closely on this album, and it shows. Synth provides much of the melodic and textural heavy-lifting, running the sonic gamut from jazzy stabs to queasy squelches, often in the space of the same track. The variety of sounds generated by the pair unleash these tracks’ shackles, provoking kaleidoscopic interactions between rhythm, bass, and melody.
It’s an immaculate synthesis, balancing rhythmic propulsion and melodic experimentalism with aplomb. On “Ratchett,” Earl allies crisp snare and bass with pitch-perfect synths, which slide around the confines of the track like marbles on ice. As the song develops, these synths are carefully distended, as in the background, a slow-motion tone drawls, languid and ominous. When Earl declares, “you already know,” you’re like, damn straight. “Lotta Ass” is similarly successful, using a lolling, gambolling momentum to fire off a volley of textured synths, each with their own quasi-architectural sense of form and function.
Open Your Eyes also displays an impeccable feel for momentum, agglomerating and positioning sounds so as to provide the listener with an intuitive understanding of what might happen next. Earl plays with these expectations mercilessly, constantly throwing out new phrases, letting the tracks simmer, pivoting in every direction. “Drumatic” and “Let’s Work” have an almost giddy sense of futurity, repeatedly slipping through one’s fingers in search of something new. The former skips between beauty and paranoia almost every other measure, twisting furiously as synths melt into strings, horns, and hints of voice. “Let’s Work” is an exercise in microfunk, with a few grime square waves thrown in for good measure — Rick James’s Mescaline Dungeon Of Funk’s North American cousin. Not content to stop there, the track then transitions into a techno/footwork hybrid, adding hi-hats and a 4/4 to the mix. It’s ridiculous and brilliant, circling back to footwork’s ability to incorporate/mangle any sound, before redeploying it to riotous effect: a mouthful of broken teeth spat from a grinning face.
And that’s really this album in a nutshell. It’s constantly finding new paths to tread in order to get at that bouncing, percussive joy footwork is uniquely positioned to deliver. By bringing along collaborators like OPN, MoonDoctor, DJ Taye and DJ Manny (“Lotta Ass,” “Fukk it Up”), Taso (“Smoke Dat Green”), and Suzi Analogue (“ALL INN”), DJ Earl opens himself up to new approaches, creating a rich, galvanizing sound, full of rhythmic complexity, tonal variation, and melodic intrigue. It’s footwork, but not quite as you know it, a sure sign of the genre’s rude health as it moves into its next phase.