I’m not going to waste any time here explaining to you what footwork music is. If it were 2011, maybe even last summer, I would probably use this piece to make a case for why you, the ever-adventurous Tiny Mix Tapes reader, seriously needs to check out the post-humanoid shit skittering out of the Chicago underground at 160 BPM. I would probably drop some technical terms like “polyrhythmic” and then a theory word like “pastiche,” and then I would make the assertion that footwork’s schizoid vocal manipulations are the logical next step for the human voice in a post-Burial dance music landscape. In brazen anecdotal fashion, I would build up the myth of how RP Boo first “invented” footwork music way back in 1998, to incubate the fetishistic appeal of the genre in a decade of you not knowing about it.
But it’s not 2011 anymore. It’s 2013, and footwork is whirling around the internet like a centrifuge on meth, swallowing up all the tidier bass subgenres in its gravity and daring them to just try and play by its warped rules. DJ Rashad, recent Hyperdub signee and de facto leader of the Chicago-spawned, worldwide-repped Teklife crew, is too busy murking overseas crowds to give a fuck about you; seems like everywhere dude goes, he leaves a trail of aspiring juke producers in his wake. Footwork doesn’t just rep the Chicago underground anymore; it comes from Russia, Japan, Mexico, the UK, and from the SoundCloud profiles of postmodern teenagers with cracked versions of Ableton.
The genre’s most characteristic rhythmic tic — snare and bass triplets dotting the empty spaces in a four-on-the-floor beat — is starting to creep into the sonic mainstream. Anyone else notice all those rappers spitting in triplets nowadays? Remember when you first heard the dubstep breakdown in that one Britney song and you thought it was hilarious because of how far removed it was from the “real” dubstep? Give this shit a few years.
Point being, footwork is no longer a cute li’l subgenre. It is the subgenre, as in, the shit that is coming through your subs right now. The culture has shifted into overdrive and bandwagoners are wrecking their transmissions just trying to pick up a few bangs and works.
Legacy, a career-spanning selection of tracks from footwork originator RP Boo (a.k.a. Record Player Boo a.k.a. Arpebu a.k.a. Kavain Wayne Space Sr.) is a pretty spectacular document to have come into existence — read the story of Boo’s three decade-long career as a dancer, DJ, and producer on Chicago’s South Side, where he pioneered the style presently known as “ghetto house” with now-legendary contemporaries DJ Deeon and DJ Slugo, and you’ll start to understand the generations of experience in underground dance music that Boo has soaked up without ever really getting his break — until now.
To fans of the genre, Boo’s name is spoken sanctimoniously, but his only widely distributed songs prior to this full-length were the few cuts of his featured on the Planet Mu Bangs & Works compilations. As it turns out, the raw, nihilistic power that made Boo’s tracks stand out on those records wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Footwork the way RP Boo does it on Legacy is not for the faint of heart. Snares crack like snapped power lines over a bedrock of sub-frequencies so primordially low and so stripped of that comfy “kick” sound you’re used to hearing in pop dance music that they seem to bubble up from somewhere deep in your own chest.
On first listen, you might be tempted to call Boo’s sampling tendencies “populist” — the vocal tics and pop earworms on Legacy are ripped straight out the hyperlinked and gardenpath-trod 21st-century consciousness. Legacy boasts a cartoon hydra-head of uncanny anthropomorphic voices: the specter of R&B’s lost goddess Aaliyah, Tarzan’s weird yodel-scream, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, that creepy little kid from that one Kung Fu movie that GZA sampled on Liquid Swords, Justin Timberlake, the “motivational speech” from Full Metal Jacket, and, of course, the chorus of zen-focused battletrack mantras and dancefloor declarations gracing nearly every track, courtesy of Mr. Boo himself.
In the hands of most
DJs producers musicians, an audio collage as eclectic as the one on Legacy would dissolve into an incomprehensible mess of pop culture regurgitation, a chain of empty signifiers cloying for the listener’s attention. But RP Boo’s tracks dance in the space between entropy and subtlety so gracefully that every sample in Boo’s repertoire shows up at the precise right moment, always in fierce lockstep with drums and totally crucial to maintaining the music’s careful balance between chaos and forward momentum.
Perhaps it’s partially due to the way the drums are mastered — 808 percussion has never sounded so elemental, so fleshy, almost like Boo cured his trusty Roland R70 drum machine in smoke for a few years — but there’s something truly organic about the way the tracks on Legacy unfurl patiently and gradually mutate into a tight-knit lattice of phonemic threads, with each new element trying in vain to fuck with the groove of the last. But ultimately, all the particles are held together by Boo’s strident ethos and an irrepressible sense of movement.
Legacy does boast a few tracks that you might call “fun” — the Eurodisco-on-meth “There U’Go Boi” and chirp-funk party starter “Red Hot” — but the strongest cuts are the ones that recall Boo’s most celebrated work, his looming, ice-sculpted, don’t fuck with my clique battle tracks. Album opener “Steamidity” is a classic example of this kind of thing: gothic strings underpin a deluge of toms spilling out like blood from a gash, a chorus of fallen soul angels cry out, “Well well well!” reminding you that once you step into the circle, you had better come hard, because judgement awaits.
All heavy-handed metaphysics aside, RP Boo proves on Legacy that he is truly a deft master of the drum machine, inspired by the potential in pure sound. This isn’t just another Da Trak Genious from a hungry, 20-year old DJ Nate; this is the work of someone who’s been refining his craft for 30-plus years, doing work in the Chi house underground since before a lot of footwork’s rising stars were even born.
In the interest of giving the final word here to someone much more qualified than I to speak on footwork and dance music in general, I’ll leave you with a few choice words from Mr. Boo himself that I think speak to the wonderfully open-minded philosophy that allowed Legacy to spring into existence (with some help, of course, from Planet Mu). The quote is from a striking moment in NPR’s 2011 mini-documentary about Chicago footwork, where Boo, presumably having been asked “What sounds inspire you?” shuffles giddily from side to side, makes eye contact with the guy behind the camera, and proudly declares, “You know what sounds inspire me? All sounds. It’s all sounds, because the ear is a part of who we are. A lot of people don’t understand — you need your ears. There’s no limitations to your ears.”