Footwork is all grown up. It has an established genealogy, a set of recognizable traits, an international reputation, and even a segment on NPR. This development has no doubt been encouraged by footwork music itself, which given the releases of the past year — Traxman, DJ Rashad, DJ Diamond, etc. — appears less and less as the scrappy utilitarian sound of an underground dance scene and more as a serious sonic art. Distributors Planet Mu and Lit City Trax have been pushing the long player in a bid for both commercial and critical prestige, touting new work in terms of its artistic consistency and as the foundation of a growing canon of footwork masterpieces. Perhaps reviewers, too, can finally stop fretting about definitions and lineages and get started on the actual work of reviewing. (Perhaps…)
While I’d be suspicious of any efforts to preserve the movement’s underground “authenticity” or “rawness,” I’m not fully on board with the aesthetic direction it seems to be taking in its carefully curated rise to credibility. Footwork’s connection to the south side dance floor may not be essential for listening, but it was precisely this link to the hardscrabble ghetto scene that provided it with a new approach to sonic production. The menacing pulses, the scattered rhythms, the piercing claps and snares, the shredded soul vocals — footwork translated the heated dynamism of the dance battle into an electronic shitstorm that seemed genuinely new and creative. The highly ritualized violence of the dance battle gave way to an abstract sonic flow, one in which the very need to manage the competition — the tension between rival teams, the transition from one dancer to the next, the differences in skill, etc. — burst open the possibility of sonic form. As in the battle, so in its soundscape: lines are drawn, but only to be drawn and drawn again; the dancer’s body, like the music, becomes a series of shifting limits, lines of flight that dissolve even as they draw themselves together. Unsurprisingly, the best of the genre seems both aggressive and abstract, soulful and soulless; it balances the unbearable lightness of sound (so many airy soul samples and cascading synth lines) with its subhuman physicality (that jagged snare and pulsing bass). In fact, the genre takes all the traditional signs of physicality and presence (mined by soul, funk, and hip-hop), but only as sounds, as sonic material, ready to be chopped up, pitched up, stuttered, placed in a row, and then knocked down again. Gh-gh-gh-gh-gh-ghost — there’s nothing here but us ghosts, stoned out of our minds, and that means we can play it any way we want.
Does this movement really need a canon? Does every footwork album need a coherent style or “theme”?” “Itz Not Right,” goes the DJ Rashad track of the same name, and, yeah, let’s keep it that way. Rashad takes a snippet of 1970s female R&B and MPCs the shit out of it, stripping it of all human presence in order to reveal its manic dubstep core. “We Trippy Mane,” from Rashad’s TEKLIFE Vol. 1, opens with something like a tribalist flute sample backed by a manic pulse, then morphs, with an eerie flat flutter, into a stoned boast to urban trap life and then again, with a synthesized dog bark, bounces its way into a new lounge-y mode (in the last minute, the whole sick contraption reverses itself). Paradoxically, by serving the needs of one scene, twisting itself around its rules and protocols, footwork shook itself free from all other traditions and traditional forms (which is precisely why I prefer the first ugly, unsettled Bangs and Works comp to the second, as well as Rashad’s schizoid long-players to Traxman’s more balanced approach). Again, though, this has nothing to do with authenticity. Footwork is all about the fug that emerges on the other end of technology. It’s not about capturing the wildness of the street, but producing it. It has no gestalt, no organized expression, just its own giddy flight. “There’s something fascinating about music intended to be entirely utilitarian that ends up in the realms of avant-garde abstraction by default rather than by design,” writes Alexis Petridis. But if footwork’s avant-garde fascination exists by default, by its connection to a local scene, then what’s to be gained (except a wider audience) by applying more conventional standards of production and evaluation?
So I’m down with Young Smoke and Space Zone, his new album of “all original space house music.” This is footwork with a branded identity, presented to the scene as the product of a singular artist with a unique point of view — “an intentional conceptual angle,” according to Planet Mu. Smoke’s work repackages the messy aggression of the dance floor as a sonic space battle, aliens and robots duking it out for rhythmic supremacy in some kind of cosmic electric boogaloo. It’s a light conceit, but it works well: street violence is here given a bright comic book bounce, rendered clean and abstract, weightless and nearly inconsequential. In fact, Smoke’s main point of reference is the arcade or, rather, the home gaming console, as his music is riddled with the bleeps and bloops of first-generation 8-bit wonders like Defender, Frogger, Donkey Kong, etc. “Warning” leads with a whipsaw cyber-boogie and a single solemn declaration: “You are now entering the fight zone.” After a quick countdown, the sirens go off and the bass pulse kicks in, sending the listener into the rhythmic arena. Another track takes its cue from 1984’s Impossible Mission, a Commodore 64 platform fave that pitted a secret agent against an army of deadly robots. Here, Smoke leads with a set of ominous vocal samples from the game’s soundtrack — “Destroy him, my robots,” “Launching counter measures,” etc — and then layers on a manic scratch and blasts of electronic hiss, essentially recreating in rhythmic form the jarring jump-and-freeze motion of the original game. Then, just as you get the hang of this rhythm, he ups the ante, offering, on ”Korrupted Star,” a tripped-up bit of dubfunk that, with its snaky strings and pop bounce, offers proof enough that a funked-up army of dancing droids could in fact take over the universe.
Smoke’s turn to gaming is an interesting one. The rhythmic skill required by the dance battle resembles, if not the fancy footwork of Mario himself, then at least the manual dexterity needed to make him leap between crates, slide across ice, or flip for coins. In fact, the equipment used for sampling and mixing footwork tracks resembles nothing so much as the buttons and levers of the average game controller (a recent video for “We Trippy Mane” shows Rashad and Spinn hitting on an MPC like it was a puffed-up PlayStation console). There’s a rhythm to games like Impossible Mission, a linked set of repetitive sounds and maneuvers that, beyond the game’s explicit soundtrack, becomes a unique sensual pleasure in itself.
Smoke taps this mode on his title track, a vocodor-driven ode to arcade life laced with all the scratches and squonks that make up the rhythmic unconscious of the platform player. Here, the space zone seems both a stoned state of mind and a gamer’s paradise, but it’s also simply the incredibly plastic space of sound. More than anything else, though, the track, with its complex patterns, abrupt shifts in tempo, and skillful lightness, embodies the concept of “flow” — flow as the euphoric state brought about by absorption in a challenging, but ultimately manageable task. In the field of positive psychology, dance and sport and even gaming are linked via the “flow states” they generate as trained participants level up through a series of physical, mental, and rhythmic challenges. Smoke’s track (especially on its epic 12-minute mix version) throws down a set of increasingly difficult sonic worlds to battle, but pays dividends in pleasure; here, apart from the dancefloor, each new section represents a challenge to the listener’s rhythmic capacity, to hold the song together even as it continually threatens to burst apart.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, footwork recalls not gaming, but “gamification,” which Tom Bissell defines negatively as “the constant, subtle incentivizing of everyday life, often in a digital or technological manner.” Think damage levels, health levels, ammunition levels, armor levels, boss levels — all the empty numbers and status icons that float over the heads of everything you encounter in shitty, cluttered videogames. Two minutes into “Space Zone,” Smoke hits repeat on a digital bounce 68 times in a row (it sounds like a pitched-up super jump from the original Super Mario) and then racks up twice as many coins in just half the time. Here, though, in its quirky minimalism and sheer repetition, the effect is sonically sublime. Despite Bissell’s frustration with gamification in gaming, the quantification of sound is a vital element of the footwork style, another way of abstracting the body from its human bearer and forcing it to attain new speeds and capacities otherwise impossible outside the world of dance. Here, the gamer’s clatter of Smoke’s album proves not so much a dumbing down of the footwork vibe, let alone a postmodern appropriation or an ironic taste-making gesture, but a genuine part of his art, infusing the latter with real energy and emotion.
But that’s the showier side of Space Zone. Beyond the sleek consoles and day-glo nebulae lies the vast emptiness of the cosmos, a much darker, more existential approach to outer space as ghetto trap space. “Futuristic Musick” begins with some classic footwork scrabble and a few echoey space signals, but then the bottom drops out, leaving behind nothing but the broken beat of a lonely tom and the sudden sound of gunfire. The next track, “Let Go,” takes a techno approach, lurching back and forth between a single snare hit and huge blasts of synthesized voice; someone then whispers something deathly and the rhythm kicks in like a doom. To complete this dark trilogy, “Traps In Space” borders on straight-up minimalist horrorcore, all screechy glissandi and minor-key synth riffs; it’s as eerie as hell, especially when the video game creatures bounce back in, suggesting anything but gaming. While these tracks signal the depressive flipside of the south side juke scene, they seem to hold more promise for the movement’s future, especially as it distances itself from the dancefloor. Here, as on “Alien Pad,” Smoke uses the basic tools of footwork production to capture the more complex psychological states of its milieu. The spaciousness of these tracks allows for a subtler play of tone, as if by slowing things down and emptying out the track, the producer leaves greater room for affective listening. In fact, these tracks convey a much more dynamic approach to emotion than the heavily sampled tunes that mark the album’s second half, such as “Believe in Me” and “High Den a Mother Fucka.” The feelings and experiences of footwork arise out of the architecture and technology of its urban milieu; these tools, rather than the spliced-up vocals of soul and hip-hop, can best express and manage its darker moods and states.
So I’m down with Young Smoke’s work. It’s a stand-up, spaced-out entry in the already formidable footwork scene. But, after several listens, I started to think that maybe this album’s heavy conceptualization had dampened what I love most about the style. I’ve grown addicted to the manic rush and freaky shifts of some of the earlier, pre-establishment footwork material, and so Smoke’s tracks, in their sheer number and, honestly, in their coherence, left me feeling something like withdrawal symptoms. Sure, his beat is wicked fast and super tricky in parts, but he sticks to traditional signatures most of the time, and his layering rarely reaches the fucked-up bliss that marks even the most rudimentary tracks on the Planet Mu comps. More to the point, the best of footwork stands at the jagged edge of physicality and abstraction, and I found this effort tilting too much towards the latter, especially in the second half, losing something of its dirty touch. There’s a late-game entry here with “High Den A Mother Fucker” that works all the moves of classic footwork — the bass, the snares, the raunchy chopped-up sample, the floating soul voice — but it has none of the subversive menace or even the goofball shittiness that we’ve come to expect from the great producers. It’s followed by what’s supposed to be a triumphant final lap, “Heat Impact,” but Young Smoke’s album closer only left me wondering about the difference between genuine footwork production and simply good or proficient production — what’s in the space zone and what merely refers to it. All that said, Space Zone marks an exciting moment in the history of the genre. There’s a lot of space to explore out there, but there are a lot of traps too.