There’s something oddly comforting about listening to the last recordings of one of your favorite musicians and finding them to be unexceptional. I’m not at all saying that the weakness of the tracks implies some ultimate decline in talent and thereby eases the burden of mourning. I’m generally suspicious of narratives of artistic rise and fall, and I try not to weigh the significance of creative output in relation to an artist’s life or death. Rather, when an artist’s last tracks seem slight, weak, or a little uneven, especially in comparison to prior work, the whole experience of death and grief and eulogizing is brought back down to earth — made human again. Moreover, a dead artist never seems more alive — never more available — than in his lesser work. As if for the first time, you can really hear his obsessions, his mistakes, his goofs, and most of all, his pleasures. Like some wry and bemused ghost (and footwork’s always been haunted by gh-gh-gh-gh-ghosts), the artist returns in minor work as his most usual self, doing all the same stupid stuff he did when he was alive, laughing away at all of those weighty abstractions raised by his demise.
So, thankfully, DJ Rashad’s We On 1, which appears just days after his death, has nothing to say about his death. There’s lots of lean and pussy, but nothing about death. In fact, there’s really nothing revealing here at all. All of the old techniques apply — impossible BPMs, robo-handclaps, needling hi-hats, pitch-fucked sampling. Sure, as the first release on Wheez-ie’s Southern Belle imprint, the untimely arrival of this EP suggests something ironic about beginnings and endings, but that’s about it. Rather, with its four short and unsurprising tracks, We On 1 seems to coast along on easy and familiar vibes. I mean this in the best possible way. Rashad was super-prolific, cranking out beats at a phenomenal pace. His sound, first crafted to meet the touch-and-go demands of the dance floor, maintained — even on recordings — an immediate, even tossed-off quality. At the same time, he was a bit of a cut-up (in both character and technique), and his footwork exhibited a remarkably loose and promiscuous relationship to other styles and genres. His best tracks, despite their stunningly precise production, were marked by a certain looseness that, when coupled with his own brand of trap life stoner humor, always proved thrilling.
Admittedly, I found Rashad’s last couple of EPs falling into formula, and I thought last year’s Double Cup relied too much on its R&B-heavy samples for its own good, so I’m happy to hear him returning here to the sounds and grooves of his earlier work. For better or worse, these four tracks immediately feel a bit looser, less serious or weighted by the demands of commercial success and footwork ambassadorship. In this, they restore some of the mockery and menace that I love most about Rashad’s work leading up to TEKLIFE Vol. 1: Welcome to the Chi. A certain jolly ferocity rises to the surface of each cut, not just in their wily handling of samples and vertiginous rhythmic shifts, but also in their relaxed attitude toward the whole footwork “project.”
But I don’t mean any of this as a theory of the EP. Really, in its smallness, the EP takes the wind out of any theorizing at all, its four tracks seeming like nothing more than a series of syrup-soaked toss-offs on the MPC between rounds on the Xbox — in other words, footwork at its finest. So, in honor of the EP’s exceptional unexceptionalism, I’ll lower the critical stakes right now. What follows is nothing more than a series of loose observations, half-baked ideas on a set of tasty half-baked tracks.
“We On 1”: A footwork pulse-pounder, totally old school in its minimalist menace. A pummeling drum kit gives way to throbbing bass and then a sluggish vocal rap about promethazine and double cups. When Rashad loops the phrase “Robitussin pink surrrup” into the mix, it sounds like a sonic exercise in Warholian pop art, but then the boys return with a lazy Chi-town shout “Pour it up, double cup!” (Given their drank of choice, I wonder, do footworkers ever suffer from nasal congestion?) The menace of the track, though, lies in its contrasting tempos. On the dance floor, this music literally splits the body in two: just as the airy samples linger above the racing BPMs, the dancer’s torso floats gracefully above the spaghetti-like shuffle of legs and feet.
The listener feels something of this same disassociation, but as a kind of affective terror or vertigo, an inability to reconcile not just the violently clashing timbres, but also the rapid shifts in rhythmic velocity. The panic slowly makes its way down from head to throat and then to chest. If it went any further, it would probably just find release in dancing, giving the lie to any mind-body split. I recall Dorian Gray’s fantasy of curing the senses by means of the soul and the soul by means of the senses. Would Dorian like promethazine as much as opium? But this idea is immediately dispelled by the implacable progress of the track, which is linear, a narrow sonic track leading over a void, slowly tilting into said void. Can footwork dancing cure this psychological terror? Footworkers are essentially always on the verge of falling, using the torqueing mass of their own bodies to stay upright in motion. I can’t keep up with this — mentally or physically. Panic. I suddenly understand the need for some lean. This song makes total sense.
“Come On Girl”: Less dread than assault. The phrase “Come On Girl” repeated 32 times over a two-beat kick and then 32 times more over a two-note bass pump. Sheer repetition, nearly contentless, beat after beat blendering time and the brain itself as one iteration blurs into the next. But then, as other samples begin to fill out the mix, the song’s sonic assault reveals itself as sexual assault, or maybe vice versa. “Let me see you do that pussy.” “Rub that pussy.” “Pop that pussy.” The last sample comes from Luke’s “I Wanna Rock (Doo Doo Brown)” with its phat old-school Run DMC vibe, but by way of French Montana’s “Pop That,” a go-for-broke epic pool party megamix. In this, Rashad’s song and its in-your-face pornography come with a strong pedigree, but I like those older tracks a lot better. The sample here is stripped raw, with little performative distance or celebratory support from the surrounding mix. It doesn’t appear as a come-on or even as sex talk, or any kind of talk. It’s a command, backed by menacing handclaps, terrifying in their implications.
I begin to wonder about the relationship between DJs and dancers. The shaky codependency, the underlying resentment. DJs are essentially manipulators, highly capable of masking their manipulation as service, as pleasure. In turn, listeners make “requests,” which are really always demands. They can easily revolt by shouting down the booth or walking off the floor. But maybe you only recognize all this when you’re not dancing — i.e., when footwork is a mostly sonic experience for you. The thought is too weird to follow, yet unavoidable. It’s not the sex that jars me here (see below), but its production. The iron fist in a ghettotech glove. Technologically manipulated, the commands on this track are slightly clipped at their ends. With their repetition, they seem increasingly mechanical, inhuman, moving parts in some sonic torture device, demanding self-pleasure as a form of sadism. I hate this, no matter how smart it is, and I want to get out of it. John Lee Hooker worked the same amplified assault — “Boom boom boom boom/ I’m gonna shoot you right down.” Rashad gets it all down pat, even the sadistic wink and chuckle. It’s an entertainment trap, a cage — enforced pleasure. Thoughts of Alex’s forced viewership in Clockwork Orange or Wallace’s treatment of the same at the end of Infinite Jest — these help me get some distance from this track.
“Do It Again”: Sonically, this one hits all the right spots — my favorite of the four. Rashad’s increasing emphasis on voice finds it apotheosis here — a near-perfect balance of tek life and human life. The fluttery female moan, the boasting spit rap, a bland “fuck me,” the authoritative male command — the samples come together here like pieces of some kinky footwork closet drama. More Brecht than Shaw, though. Perspective is totally shattered. Emotions are abstracted, frozen in their sampling. If anything, the song’s held together by its quick-witted shifts in rhythm, which stand in as objective correlatives for character and feeling. Too literary? Most of the time, Rashad’s approach to voice can be appreciated as essentially formal, with vocal samples serving as just one affective element in a surreal mix cut loose from the hierarchy of human and machine. The implied violence of his technique — the way it stutters or splices up or speeds-up or pitches-up or simply cuts off the soulful unity of some other singer’s line — allows the listener (perhaps forces the listener) to seek unity on some other, more abstract level. Other times, though, he seems to cut this cold formalism with a certain nostalgia and some greater respect for musical tradition. Double Cup allows its voices to unfurl over much longer, lusher stretches, so they take on an increasingly expressive role, one that (for me at least) distracts from what is truly interesting about his mixes.
“Do it again” — hmmmm? Perhaps the title refers to this very process of sampling and repeating the past? “Puffing on this sour/ Been fucking her for hours” — in music as in sex, repetition can quickly become tedious and boring. I’m laughing now at the puns, but footwork’s relation to history remains serious business, as interesting as its relation to beat and rhythm. Without creative vigilance, its techniques can merely repeat the desires and ideologies of its source materials or, perhaps worse, show that its seemingly novel techniques were anticipated long ago in the vocal strategies and rhythmic experimentation of other performers (James Brown’s shouting or Whitney Houston’s melisma, for example). “Do It Again,” though, moves the project forward, using its mix to say something new about technology, desire, and a whole lot more. Here, the listener is not allowed to translate the music and its drama into some more familiar idiom or pace, but forced to work through the technique in the ear and come to terms with its ideas.
“Something ‘Bout The Things You Do”: Completely on the other end of the taste spectrum for me. Perhaps one of the worst Rashad songs I’ve ever heard. Sped-up, sliced-up chipmunk version of Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You.” Sounds like a late-hour wedding reception cut from a high school DJ trying to stir things with an old classic after most of the grandparents have left. I know I’m in the minority on this one, as every single other review published to date touts this track as the highlight of the EP. Sure, it’s fast. Rhythm-wise, it’s completely off-the-hook. But there’s simply too much of the original song sampled in the mix, and what seems like novelty in form turns out to be nothing more than exaggerated versions of the transitions and tensions already established in the earlier version. Melle Mel’s rapping on the original is a better example of footwork than the actual footwork’d version of his rap on Rashad’s track. It has to be a joke — a footwork hoax. I can see Rashad and Gant-Man laughing their asses off in the studio, especially when they added quick bursts of crowd noise to pump up the second half of the mix.
But this is the brilliant other side of footwork menace: a mocking disregard for its material and even its listeners. When Rashad isn’t ripping his archive to sonic shreds, he’s deflating it from the inside out. This strikes me as an incredibly vital way of relating to the past and its ghosts, making this an excellent last laugh, one that — in its goofiness — gives the lie to all last laughs. I’ll probably never listen to it again, but I’ll have Rashad in rotation for a long time.