The first time I heard DJ Diamond’s 2011 track “Torture Rack” was the first time I stumbled upon the intersection, in the Venn diagram of Chicago’s non-mainstream, of its footworking circles and its dungeons. The track’s title and high-end whip-cracks evoked metonymically what the last few years’ most compelling footwork albums have musically: our bodies’ powerlessness in the face of physical stimuli. Not the obviously-pleasurable sex pantomime we normally associate with dance music’s bodily stimulation — unlike most dance music, it’s about violence, not sex. But if you follow the critical breadcrumbs, it seems as if we enjoy this violence — even when we don’t. 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. In other words: at its best, footwork has been the non-consensual consent kink to most dance music’s bubble bath literary erotica.
Dance music from trance to salsa is usually thought of as a genre for the body, but its success usually hinges on the mental and emotional game that is seduction: an intermingling of the reassuringly familiar with the mouth-wateringly new, a preoccupation with warming listeners up and never being weird or dangerous enough to turn them off. It uses familiar, coded language to soothe our psyche’s hangups in order to loosen up our bodies. But at least for those outside of Chicago’s dance-battle circles, footwork offered few safe gestures of mental and emotional foreplay in its raw, aggressive, and complexly single-minded music. Maybe that’s why one of the common threads in our reviews of DJ Rashad’s Just a Taste Vol. 1, DJ Roc’s The Crack Capone, and, to a lesser extent, DJ Diamond’s Flight Muzik was that these albums make criticism difficult, if not pointless. Erotica creates an entire, immersive world in order to accomplish just one thing; a fetish is a single detail that becomes the entire world. They can both be hot, but one makes a pretty weird subject for cultural criticism.
Longtime Chicago producer Cornelius Ferguson, or Traxman, changes all that on his LP Da Mind of Traxman, which by footwork’s standards is downright seductive. Traxman starts out slowly and lures us in with the genre’s best pickup line, “Footworkin on Air,” which glides in buoyantly on multiple thumb-pianos and 303 lines. When the obligatory half-time kick drum and snare beat enter in, it’s with a kind of well-lubed synergy that seems almost antithetical to footwork’s usual friction between beat and sample. According to Ferguson, “Footworkin on Air” was in his head for three years before he laid the track down; the years no doubt helped it gel, but most of what comes after feels nearly just as smooth. By the time a more dissonant, sadistically repetitive track like “Setback” or “Conq Dat Bitch” comes up, the album won’t just have your explicit consent: it will have made you an enthusiastic participant in your own conqing.
Ferguson has been producing music for decades. He released ghetto house tracks back in the 1990s and was around to cut footwork’s umbilical cord. That personal history is deeply embedded in Da Mind of Traxman, most explicitly in the acid synths of the more-house-than-footwork “1988.” But Da Mind of Traxman’s samples trace footwork’s connections more widely and even farther back, to soul, funk, and disco. In deep-crate-digging footwork, it’s not surprising to hear samples from any era or genre. But unlike of his peers, Traxman leaves much of what he takes intact — at least enough to suggest a mood, a group of instruments, some signs of age. It’s a minute distinction, but an important one: instead of eliminating signifiers or slashing them from their signified like most footwork, Ferguson piles them on and stitches them together. Sure, the vocals in tracks like “Callin All Freaks” are cut and repeated until words become pure sound, but throughout the album, there are vibrant microcosms — textures, musical phrases — that maintain just enough context to be laden with cultural reference points.
Which is all to say, this album’s richly-detailed world might be the erotic lit of footwork — or at least will have appeal outside literal dance circles and metaphorical kinks. But Da Mind of Traxman is definitely not rose petals, scented candles, and warm massage oil: in the absence of footwork’s usual aggression (I mean, there’s a song named “Chilllll”), the album’s rhythmic explosions just seem all the more impressive for how nonchalant they are about their own insane complexity. And for footwork fans used to something more rough? Just think of this as really great aftercare.