DJ Taye “Anything to get more people footworking. Anything that keeps anybody footworking.”

Photo: Andy Scott

In late January, I stood among dozens of Denverites in awe of DJ Taye, among the most energetic performers I’ve ever seen. Earlier that evening, I’d talked with a very sleepy Taye over bowls of ramen just around the corner from the venue. Having spent the intervening two hours with Taye, who smoked three blunts at least and napped for 10 minutes at most, I wasn’t sure what to make of this new development.

Regardless of his wakefulness, DJ Taye is not a talkative guy. The pace of our interview ebbed and flowed, the latter triggered more often than not by one subject: footwork. One of the wonders of Teklife is the diversity of its members’ origins and personalities, and yet every member that I have interviewed has been nearly single-minded in their goal of spreading footwork’s gospel around the world. The movement’s magic is in its simplicity; footwork is nothing more than a dance, but what better vessel could there be for unity, selflessness, and, well, dancing? I won’t pretend that I’m above the doctrine.

Tell me a bit about how you got your start. What were you doing before the music started happening?

I was always doing talent shows; my mom would pitch me to be in commercials. I was always just doing random shit. Even when I was a kid, I was just doing stuff — performing songs, making beats. When I first started making music, it wasn’t footwork. I knew about footwork, but I wasn’t in it. I didn’t know about Ghetto Tekz and Rashad and Spinn and them for a few years, until I was like 16. I played the drums, I played trumpet and shit. I’d be making music no matter what, but if it hadn’t worked out I’d probably have stayed with school, studying electrical engineering or computer engineering or something like that.

Starting with “Pakk So Loud”, and in a couple of places on the new record, you’ve gone beyond vocal loops into full-on rapping. What brought that about?

I was doing it before that, I just never put it out. The only time I’d ever put out my rap stuff before was on Soundclick, way back in the day. I only had a few songs, five or 10 maybe, but I just really didn’t do nothing with it. Then I started making footwork, so I was still doing vocals and stuff, but I always thought there would be a way to put it together. I was just waiting for the perfect time to elevate the sound.

Has it changed your live show at all? Were you naturally comfortable doing from DJing to having a mic in hand?

It definitely has; actually, it helped me integrate… I was talking to Mikey Rocks about this a lot; he said “everybody wanna look like the rapper.” I don’t want to look like a rapper, to be very honest. I just want to push our music beyond what it is, to make it look different, and make people pay attention to it. It’s helped me get out from behind the decks like people said I should, not just DJing but integrating vocals and footworking into the whole experience at a live show.

That makes sense, as footwork’s always struck me as music in service of dancing. Do you see the expansion to full-on verses as re-situating the sound outside of clubs?

Yeah, exactly — it’s weird if you don’t see it. I mean, it’s moved out the club in the same way that it was moved into different atmospheres, like festivals and shit. Just kicking footwork into a festival vibe instead of keeping the same tracks and the same sounds, you know what I mean? Bringing a live-show aspect into it.

Did you have any particular inspirations or goals in integrating the two sounds?

I mean it’s not like it’s never been done, but it was maybe more of my own way to do it. Making a song into more of an experience than just a track, but keeping it a track at the same time. Not trying to change it; I said a couple bars, but I wasn’t going to change up the beat for it. I kept all the most energetic parts because that’s how I wanted it to be. I didn’t wanna make slowed-down footwork. Rashad pushed the grid to half-time or double-time, but always kept the solid ground in-between. I don’t necessarily want to do more than them, but I do wanna do it in my own way. Spinn said before that when they started they just wanted to take house music and Three Six Mafia and mix it up.

That sort of stylistic rigidity in terms of tempo is why the idea of a footwork album’s always been a bit odd to me. Is it weird at all to shift focus from the live atmosphere to a full album that people might be listening to online or on a bus or something?

It is, it kinda is. You know how I used to put out my albums on BandCamp, right? Not everybody knows about all those. It’s kinda… not weird, but it’s a lot sooner than I would’ve thought. I didn’t really expect the music thing to be good [laughs]. But it’ll definitely be weird when I get to hold it, see it in real life.

How did the collaboration with Chuck Inglish come about?

I was always listening to The Cool Kids, around the same time that I started listening to footwork, back when I was making rap music. Mikey Rocks is from Harvey too — me and Manny are from Harvey, Rashad and Spinn are from two other suburbs next to us. Mikey hit me up a couple years ago maybe, like, “Let’s work on some shit.” I just ended up hitting up Chuck and asking him to get on the beat. I think DJ Izzo, Freddie Gibbs’ old DJ, had the idea.

From the outside, it seems like everyone doing music in Chicago likes each other, or at least that people participating in the various scenes are all about putting on for the city and boosting its stature. Any idea why we don’t see people from different scenes mixing it up more?

I mean, I don’t know. You know Chance knows Rashad and Spinn — I can’t say if they know me personally, but they know Teklife.

Looking outwards, is it weird seeing a scene that you grew up in blow up?

It’s not weird, it makes sense to me. As soon as I heard footwork, I didn’t know why it wasn’t the biggest thing in the world. It’s long overdue at this point.

Has touring taken you anywhere that left a particularly strong impression?

I haven’t been there yet, but I been hearing the gqom stuff out in Africa. Really I haven’t went to no crazy places, but… Canada’s cool. I always wanted to go up there. I got to see, like, five of the biggest cities. I haven’t been to South America yet. Everybody pick up on it for the most part. Sometimes it’s the smaller cities; even though we’d just come from Atlanta, Asheville in North Carolina really showed out.

DJ Rashad’s obviously a hard act to follow, but I imagine he’s still a huge entry point to the genre for a lot of people. Is it difficult to keep people’s interest or attention beyond his work?

I don’t know if it’s hard, but… it’s just one of those things you’ve got to face and do if you really want to do it. Hard work gets rewarded, and I don’t think you can get anywhere without it.

How would you have described your goals in music when you were starting out? Was this kind of success in the picture?

It honestly wasn’t. I always hoped, but I didn’t know. Now though, it’s always increasing, always a higher goal. Why would you give your goals a capacity? Even this album, I couldn’t have planned for it happening like this. I meditated on it for a couple years, then executed it. I was drafting some new shit, seeing what the response would be. I wanted to make something that everybody would like. All the OGs would like, people who were listening to something new for the first time.

I just want to keep it going, keep making songs. Something people can relate to. Something that relates to people’s real life and shit. Anything to get more people footworking. Anything that keeps anybody footworking. It’s a dance, but it’s more than just a dance. It’s not just moving around… Not really organized dance but it’s been going on since ghetto house and all that.

What would you say that you were trying to achieve with the album? You’re certainly prolific enough to be a bit picky or intentional about it.

I mean Kode9 asked me to do an album back in 2015, so that’s what made me step up initially. Come up with some more ideas to try and make a story or some shit. Some kind of story or concept, some kind of creative concept. A footwork project - how you gonna showcase this? I wanted to keep it real, but also make it new. Putting some more footwork in the music world, that’s what I wanted to do.

That’s why it’s called Still Trippin’ - it can work as a multiple entendre. You can say that people be still trippin’ on some older shit, it’s holding them back, or that you’re still trippin’ on something that awakens you. It could be about you, it could be about me, it could be about anything. That’s really what I want, to make footwork universal.

Is there a spiritual component to the music for you?

Definitely, there definitely is. It’s just one of those things that’s an energy. You can cultivate the sound, direct that energy anywhere. It can awaken a lot of people by acting as that common ground. All the footwork fanbase has that common ground, the shows bring everybody together. I don’t want to just keep the same sound, I want to bring new people in.

That goes back to expanding the sound and giving people new access points. When you’re looking to collaborate with someone or get a guest vocal, what sort of instruction do you give them? The Fabi Reyna feature on the new album’s closing track (“I Don’t Know”), for example.

We’d actually just met; she actually isn’t even a singer. We met at the Red Bull Bass Camp, and I asked her about doing a vocal. She said she didn’t know what to say, so I told her to just do, “I don’t know.” She just didn’t, it was nothing. Oh, you got a nice voice, you can sing on this. Bass Camp’s just this one week think, you dig, we didn’t have time for that much else.

Do you follow any particular routine or practice to keep developing artistically?

Every time I go home, I’m trying to be in my zone, working and making sure I have all of the equipment I need. I try to be always making new music. I need to, because I play basically all of it. Except stuff I don’t finish. There are only a couple tracks that I don’t play out. If I don’t like something pretty quick, I’m probably not going to save it.

How do you go about building a track? Are you usually working from a sample you’ve already found, or can you seek something out without knowing what you’re looking for?

You’ve just gotta know what you like, know what you want to make. I just look. When you found what you’re looking for, you know it. I take in all types of movies — funny movies, drama movies, action movies. I’m much more video game-influenced, the way I want to make my videos and the different aesthetics to it. Planning out a project for years. Trying something out, not being afraid to see what it is. Not any video games specifically, but maybe Sega-type sounds. There’s a lot of almost 1980s sounds on the album. It does have this one Nintendo sound, like an 8-bit synth, on “The Matrix” with Manny.

Burnin’ Ya Boa” and “Trippin’,” I had made both of those tracks on the computer that I had that was stolen when I was in Detroit in 2015. When I made Move Out, I made “Burnin’ Ya Boa” over, and when I made Still Trippin’ I had to make “Trippin’” over. It wasn’t in no van, it was some sketchy shit where I was sleeping in a house and somebody stole it. I know who did it, but I’m not about to say it.

How do some of the, like, four-way collaborations within Teklife come together? Are stems and stuff being emailed across the world?

Nah, it’s not like rappers and producers and shit. Everybody gotta be in the same room, everybody in there gets something on the track. Sometimes we all be touring in different places, but a lot of us come home to the same place. But we be chilling, seeing family and shit. Just trying to chill out for the most part — tour, work, music at the same time is hard as hell. I can make music on the road, in the car, it’s not that big a deal. It’s an experience, but I don’t want to do it constantly. I’m pretty sure I look tired, crazy right now [laughs]. I was falling asleep before you even walked in the room.

Not sleeping every day and then going home and making music. We regular people, we want a regular life and shit, too. That’s why the music take so long to come out — we ain’t robots that are just making music. Pump this shit out, pump this shit out. We gotta live life so that we can be re-inspired to make new music. Just like I meditated on that last release, you gotta sit back and meditate on life and what you wanna make. That’s why Kanye takes like five years between albums and shit! Or else I’m not even gonna know how to answer these questions, I gotta go live life and see. How are you gonna do what I do? I’ve gotta step outside myself and see. Every time I go home I’m trying to make some new music, not the same track I made yesterday.

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