When was the last time you experienced Futureshock? I mean really experienced it — affectively, right down to your core. For my part, I got a small dose at the start of the year from James Blake’s self-titled debut. Sure, it had a history; Blake’s indebtedness to dubstep (even bordering on a kind of purism) has been well noted. But that doesn’t change the fact that his clever deployment of both bass and (particularly) space meant that pop sounded different now. This, suddenly, seemed to be the future. And sure enough, it was. So much so, in fact, that the future quickly began to sound dull again: present and, soon enough, altogether past.
Right now, just about everywhere on the planet other than in certain key enclaves in Chicago, footwork seems like the sound of the future. Strictly, it’s a kind of dance music. Or at least “that’s what it is in Chicago’s converted warehouses and rec centers,” as TMT’s Mr P recently put it, “where combatant footworkers form circles and take turns battling, dozens-style, with dazzlingly complex foot patterns.” Outside of such rarefied circles, however, nothing else sounds so Fresh, so New, so Vital, or so Different, even to the point of being Unpalatable — not Unintelligible necessarily, but literally Indecipherable at the level of the body.
In other words, if footwork induces a profound Futureshock, it’s because so many of its listeners simply don’t know what to do with it (yet). This is a sound, after all — a 21st-century audioscience, a mutant manifestation of what Kodwo Eshun calls the Futurhythmachine — that seems to have been spawned in a kind of splendid isolation: proof, finally (Reynolds be praised!), that yes they do still make scenes like they did in the good ol’ days.
By the time Planet Mu’s stellar Bangs & Works Vol. 1 burst onto the Hipster International’s collective radar late last year, the best and most confronting thing about footwork was that they (we?) weren’t immediately hip to it. How could we be? We’d been separated from the scene that birthed it by the tyranny of a cybergeography that seems to give us instant access to any music, any time, any where… but not quite, at least not in the way that a genre like footwork seems to demand. We can’t, after all, dance like this, can we? And when we listen on headphones, it can easily seem as if we’re somehow missing the point. This is Utilitarian music for which many of its listeners are yet to find a utility. Not that its makers give a shit, of course. And nor should they.
And so to Vol. 2, curated again by Brightonian Mike Paradinas, and this time showcasing a bunch of fresh new Chicago talent (Young Smoke, Jlin, DJ MC) as well as many of the stalwarts of the scene (DJ Spinn, DJ Rashad, DJ Clent). It’s good. Very good. Just as likely to be confronting to the uninitiated listener as the first volume and a genuinely exciting addition to the collection of those who have been already following. Like B McGhee, I’m loathe to either describe or theorize it, in a way. It feels like an act of appropriation. Except I’ve got Eshun ringing in my ears.
The following is from his extraordinary (and difficult) book on so-called “Black Atlantic Futurism,” More Brilliant Than The Sun, published back in 1998. “Allegedly at odds with the rock press, dance-press writing also turns its total inability to describe any kind of rhythm into a virtue,” Eshun writes. “You can see that the entire British dance press […] constitutes a colossal machine for maintaining rhythm as an unwritable, ineffable mystery. And this is why Trad dance-music journalism is nothing more than lists and menus, bits and bytes: meager, miserly, mediocre.” We’ve come a long way since 1998, it seems to me, and not just in Britain, but the rhetoric of ineffability — as a kind of magical music-crit get-out-of-jail-free card — remains strong. So here’s me having a go at theorizing footwork anyway. Or rather, here’s how footwork’s been theorizing me.
Divorced from the “streets,” the context, the “battles,” the people, and “scene” that produced it, I can’t shake the feeling that Bangs & Works Vol. 2 is all about time. Not time in the way that the hauntologists and hypnagogues are interested in it; not time as in history, or the lack of it (though, what with footwork’s considerable dependency on samples, there is certainly an element of that going on); but I’m talking about time as in duration: speed, velocity, meter.
Let me be clear. I’m not just saying that footwork is fast. That’s obvious and also not particularly interesting. What I’m saying is that footwork really fucks with your expectations in relation to the divisibility of musical time itself. The jettisoning of house’s reliable 4/4 kick — the one that juke remains wedded to — is key in this respect. With footwork, there’s pulse, yes, but it can be hard as hell to put your finger on. And invariably, the moment you feel like you’ve got it, it’s gone again: like a ghost in the wind. Footwork isn’t just syncopated (like jazz). It doesn’t just stutter (like wonky). And it’s not just that it’s regularly ‘de-quantised’ (also like wonky). Footwork is microscopic. It’s not interested in 4ths or 8ths or even 16ths at all. Footwork’s basic unit of rhythm is the nano.
That, it seems to me, is partly why footworkers dance the way they do. That’s why the somatechnics it draws upon are so fricking small and intricate. And it’s also why Bangs & Works Vol. 2 makes for such a confronting listen. It completely messes with our received notions of musical duration. The relevant markers here aren’t bars or beats; they’re each and every one of those frenetic midi snare hits.
On a track like Traxman’s “Brainwash,” the interruption of the listener’s expectations in relation to meter is so utterly complete that it feels almost as if pulse has been completely discarded. Except it hasn’t. It’s just been reduced. Same with a track like Tha Pope’s “When You” (in spite of the intro) and a whole bunch of others. In other words, despite what your body may be telling you, there’s definitely meaning to this ‘madness.’ It’s just that if you’re looking for a toe-tapping 4/4 or a coma-inducing skank in two, you’re not going to find it here.
There’s a sense in which James Blake and footwork are polar opposites of the same (dis)continuum then. Blake (and The xx and a few other UK post-dubsteppers) are interested in space, whereas Chicago’s footwork scene is interested in compression. And so perhaps it’s not surprising that Blake et al. are all about vinyl, whereas the majority of footwork artists are perfectly happy with a 192 kbps MP3. Where on a release like “Order/Pan,” Blake’s interested to see just how wide he can stretch musical space; Bangs & Works Vol. 2 is mostly an exercise in squeezing it.
It’s fitting in a way. Two Futuremusics, from opposite sides of the Atlantic, both interested in time. This is perhaps the axis on which the battle for our bodies will increasingly be fought. After all, as Eshun puts it, “The bedroom, the party, the dancefloor, the rave: these are the labs where the 21st C nervous systems assemble themselves, the matrices of the Futurhythmachinic Discontinuum.”