Ever since Planet Mu introduced Chicago footwork to the world with its Bangs & Works compilations, DJ Rashad has expressed an enthusiasm for redefining the margins and bringing his music to a larger audience. Although he stayed loyal to the practices and aesthetics instigated alongside DJ Spinn in the 90s, it’s possible to map an alteration in the way outside influences gained prominence in his material, while the frantic clatter of the dance battlefield played a lesser role. Last year’s Welcome to the Chi was steeped in footwork tropes (160bpm, skew-whiff vocal samples, spasmodic hi-hats), but it also pilfered from jungle, house, and dnb, which are part of the lineage but are not always so demanding in their impact. On this year’s follow-up Rollin’ EP, Rashad solidified that trajectory as a collection of dancefloor jams birthed in the footwork tradition but with a focus skewed toward external styles. Double Cup continues along that path without apology, and it sounds terrific as a consequence.
In the critical response it’s gained so far, the album underlines a superficial schism that needs to be addressed, where footwork is split between the tracks intended for footworking and the songs intended for “outside” enjoyment while riding on subgenre signifiers. As Rashad’s angle becomes more infused by what’s happening just across from his primary platform, the question remains how the listener negotiates that distinction on playback. It’s only fair at this stage that I state where I’m coming from: I don’t footwork, I’m not from Chicago, and I’ve never taken part in one of these — I’m a shameless repercussion of what happened when the floodgates opened.
On street level, the footwork subculture is prominent and distinct. The dancing has an incredibly rich, intricate history of its own — people live for these battles, and that primes the competitiveness and aggression within the sound of almost every track. When Spinn and Rashad set up, they were looking for a means to get folks involved in a socially engaged environment instead of “just banging on the streets, selling drugs [and] smoking,” and that’s how the effectiveness of their tunes were tested before they were played in battles or later released on disc. It’s intriguing how listeners, who were primarily subjected to the latter medium, connect to footwork — not only as people who are physically gripped by these tunes, but also by appreciating their textures. Of course, the music is essential to those who practice footwork, but I also love the way this stuff is based — the mania, the technique, the juxtapositions that pull on a fuck-ton of different styles. Footwork is crazy to listen to as a non-footworker, and that’s why I like it; that’s what drew me to DJ Rashad.
As a listener first and foremost, then, Double Cup appears to be an international progression of footwork more than a fundamental depiction of it — but that’s already been discussed elsewhere (the album earned a Best New Music tag by Pitchfork and a write-up in Rolling Stone, which is surely a testament to its newfound reach). As a cohesive body of material, it represents an example of what happens when you take a grassroots aesthetic that’s built around social premises (dance battles that appear so intense it encompasses ritual frenzy) and punch it into a wider space. In his review of Just A Taste in 2011, Mr P talked about how listening experiences alter from the battleground to the casual listener. On Double Cup, that distance is magnified, not only in samples — 2Pac and Rick Ross replace Michael Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron — but also in approach: “We can touch on any aspect of music, from jazz to soul, rock to classical, and just throw some bass behind that shit, for real.” That stylistic curiosity has always been there, while the sampling in itself is a fascinating indication that Rashad doesn’t really care where his source material is excavated from; he’s more concerned about how he can make it sound in a new setting, and Double Cup epitomizes his ambition.
I consequently have no idea how these tunes might translate in the context of a footwork event — my guess is that they wouldn’t do as well as “Ghost” or “Go Crazy,” not because these tracks aren’t as abrasive, but because the tempo has been slowed, the cuts are much smoother, and it doesn’t feel like that relationship with the dancers — “so they can slow down to catch their breath” — is present here. Although the album still pulls on early release designs, it’s about presenting them to a new subset of listeners. Rashad is looking to bend the ear of an audience recently exposed rather than fill a parking lot, and he’s doing it for the purposes of “having fun,” if nothing else.
That often involves teaming up with some interesting beat makers, and a great deal of that fresh angle comes from working collaboratively — DJ Spinn features on eight of these tracks — but there is also an inclusion from Addison Grove, who transforms the aptly titled “Acid Bit” into a rabid house fever that’s unlike anything Rashad has dropped in the past. While it sticks out on here like a sore thumb, it ultimately makes for an inventive and well-cut detour that signifies how much the producer is willing to experiment with his technique. These divergences break thick and fast: from the trap-slanted throttle of “Reggie” to the slow-flowing jazzist tint of “She A Go,” Rashad takes what he has learned from the global exposure of the sound and delivers it in a way that explores the possibilities in alternate circles.
The resulting set of tracks sound highly accomplished, a consequence of Rashad’s ability to mutate aesthetic forms from a niche, localized area of electronic music and play them out across styles of the past. Take the density of “Pass that Shit;” with its heavy drum section, it still has the manic hi-hats and fusion of pitch-fucked vocal loops that are copy-pasted into oblivion (light-that-shit-light-that-shit-light-that-shit), but it’s grounded in some funk-induced R&B. Double Cup sounds like an album Rashad has been gearing up to make, but instead of abandoning the footwork style he has championed throughout his career, he’s scoping its potential on nonconformist terms. And from the perspective of the listener, it’s an absolute treat.