Footwork is, first and foremost, dance music. At least that’s what it is in Chicago’s converted warehouses and rec centers where combatant footworkers form circles and take turns battling, dozens-style, with dazzlingly complex foot patterns. But while this signifyin’ form of dance has yet to be shrinkwrapped and sold, the jagged shrapnel from the actual music has crossed geographical borders and social cliques so incisively that, from the perspective of everyone outside the circles, its origins are beside the point. If footwork’s original meaning was established in these underground dance circles in Chicago, then its currency to everyone else now rests somewhat heavily on those too busy rationalizing the noise/music cleavage or politely tracing dance music’s trajectory to actually do any footworking themselves. I know this because I’m one of them. I don’t live far away from Chicago, the city where 90s ghetto house transfigured into juke and (due largely to tracks like “11-47-99” and “Baby Come On” by RP Boo) subsequently birthed its disfigured mutant child, footwork. But as with non-Western musics — say, Shangaan music (new wave dance music from South Africa) — my relationship with footwork is conflicted: Any enjoyment I get out of listening to it hinges on attaching my own values to music that otherwise resists, detracts, or is simply indifferent to such readings.
But given the confrontational style of footwork dance, it seems like any conflict, physical or not, is welcome. After all, this music isn’t about fucking; this is battle music: violent, propulsive, and visceral, and it’s internalized brilliantly within “Ghost,” the intro track to DJ Rashad’s Just A Taste. Here, Rashad, a key member of the Ghettoteknitianz DJ crew and pioneer of juke/footwork, bursts out of the gates with stuttering sub bass, piercing hi-hat, stabbing snare hits, and X-Acto knife’d samples, all pitched to a frantic 160 BPM. When the beat kicks in, it’s over; no matter what your opinion of the song or footwork in general, this shit penetrates so deeply that your body has to react to it. By the time Rashad drops a sample of Nas’ “Still Dreaming,” which is at odds with the ice-cold beats he’s thus far commanded (it’s half the tempo, mind you), it’s clear that the sheer momentum of the rhythmic interplay and tonal disparities would destroy any critical commentary you could muster up. Any tension here exists to soundtrack dance circles, not intellectual tautologies.
Not that Just A Taste doesn’t inspire critical analysis. The album, quietly released earlier this year (with a stream appearing in December 2010), specifically emphasizes Rashad’s footwork music, similar to the latter half of its sister album Grace and selected tracks from Jukeworkz, among others. Consequently, there are less juke’d-out party-pleasing tracks here and more fidgety paranoia, which also means less accessibility and more abstraction — more nightmare. “[The] juke I make is more commercial,” said Rashad in an interview. “Footwork is more the raw. I express myself more in the footwork area and it more raw, there’s no law. Juke has to be DJ and radio friendly.” And indeed, there’s no law: “You Azz,” perhaps the most minimal track on here, unfolds slowly and hypnotically, sounding like Steve Reich opening the bruise up and letting some of the bruise blood come out. With help from King AG, “Make It Happen” takes dissonance to the circle, hand claps shooting daggers through the chest with deep bass growling like a wolf pac terra squad. “Love You,” a track made with DJ Lucky, is a clear standout, layering beats and samples with little care for aesthetic cohesion, much less beat alignment. The song later breaks into a breathtaking, chaotic sequence of layered samples, whiplashing me out of critical analysis before I can mutter “deconstruction.”
But Rashad’s abstractions don’t go quite as left of the dial as, say, DJ Roc’s deadly minimalism or Young Smoke’s spaced-out explorations. “Ghetto Tekz Runnin It,” the album’s most accessible track, even has a verse/chorus structure with Add-2 rapping on top. And rather than constructing the nervous twitch so common to footwork with expected mood-enhancing samples of Killer Instinct or Menace II Society, Rashad tempers much of the iciness with popular soul/R&B samples. You’ll hear Al Green (“IIIIIII HIIIIIIII”), Marvin Gaye (“Go Crazy”), Michael Jackson (“Love U Found”), and Gil Scott-Heron (“I’m Gone”), but Rashad is far from selling short the aesthetic of footwork. These samples are used to recruit, so to speak, to beckon more dancers to the circles, much in the way that juke producers appropriated mainstream hip-hop to acclimate listeners to the juke aesthetic (as Rashad himself has admitted). I’m guessing “We Run It” was created specifically with this in mind; starting off like some clarion call for a footwork death march, the track soon gets altered completely by a perfectly-timed, head-nodding sample of Roy Ayers’ “Still Searchin’,” causing the song to teeter on the extremes yet making no particular concessions to either.
The beauty of footwork is that it’s at once insular and social, artistic yet highly functional, gutted of meaning yet exploding with energy. Its experiments — if you can call them that — do not propel one through the cosmos on some transcendent mind trip; they uproot conventional notions of aesthetics simply through dance, a beautiful tradition that has long served modern music. The relative success of young artists like DJ Diamond, Young Smoke, and DJ Nate (many of whom are ancillary to the Chicago scene but have garnered international acclaim through outlets like YouTube) is a prime example of the possible ruptures that result from such an organic movement, while older producers like Traxman, DJ Clent, and DJ Spinn, who toughed it through ghetto house and juke, show just how much variety, richness, and craft is involved. (I haven’t even mentioned any dance crews, who have their own dense history.) Sure, Just A Taste is truly “just a taste” of the footwork experience, but there’s no emotional/ideological paradigm being established here, and you don’t have to ‘know’ anything about footwork’s formal elements, the artist’s intentions, or the context(s) through which socio-political readings are made possible. Whether you’re in a circle in Chicago or sitting at your desk, you can really only feel your way through this music.