Teklife or No Life, Where Do the Footwork Pioneers Go From Here
The legendary crew's biggest names give us the inside story on their past, present, and future.
There's a stark moment on the late DJ Rashad's debut LP, Double Cup, which encapsulates footwork's contrary nature. With its whirring, pulsating rhythm and confrontational lyrics lifted from a Tupac movie, "I Don't Give A Fuck" appears to be as much a tribute to Hollywood as it does a bold statement of purpose from a musician defiantly making music on his own terms. It's a track that demands to be taken seriously and one that few would identify as an in-joke.
"Me and Rashad," DJ Spinn laughs. "That's basically one of our favourite movies—Juice. And that's one of those things that we'd just laugh about, because we're just silly. We'd sit around and quote it. I'd finish a line, he'd finished a line and we'd be like, 'Man let's make a track out of it!' And that's how that track came to be."
It's hardly the first example of footwork's indulgent self-referential nods to pop culture, but I Don't Give A Fuck remains indicative of the creative, impulsive sparks that serve as the lifeblood for a genre rooted in experimentation. Drawing on all manner of influences, with a frenetic combination of 160BPM snares and claps and downright bizarre samples, the Footwork scene effortlessly straddles multiple genres, whilst paying homage to its house roots.
An early pioneer of the genre, Traxman began his career in 1981, having grown up on the West Side of Chicago. Introduced to music at a young age, he's gone on to attain Godfather status among his peers, sourcing countless samples for fellow DJs and producers.
"I'm glad to have a great period point of being a DJ in my career, from being in an era when it was not called house music—it was funk and dance. We grew up in the Italo disco import era. We were the only black kids in the hood on the West Side of Chicago playing all this Italo disco. The house heads knew about it, but they weren't playing it."
Though heavily rooted in house culture, the footwork sound itself isn't one that can be easily attributed to one person, nor is it easily defined. Traxman cites the likes of fellow DJs, RP Boo, DJ Clent and DJ Rashad as pioneers of the genre's first steps on the South Side of Chicago.
"With the South Side, we can't really say who started it," he muses. "But those guys always had a difference in their style. And me and Slick Rick Da' Master, on the West Side of Chicago—we were doing a style called 'grimy ghetto tracks'. It was footwork our way and there was the footwork that South Side way. There was no style better than the next. They both made sense—West Side style and South Side style, which converts in to Chicago style."
Though the music remained unnamed, by the mid-90s the footwork dance movement was already in full swing. Characterised by fast, kinetic foot movement combined with twists and turns in a battle context, many Chicago dance crews utilised it as a "secret weapon" of sorts.
"People would come out and footwork at the end of a show," Spinn explains. "They'd be doing hip-hop dancing and stuff like that and at the end of a performance the footwork guys would come out with routines and solo. That was actually the thing that made me really want to be down with it, because I could dance, but those dudes at the end of the show went crazy."
While various dance crews had helped popularise the scene, few people would go on to have as great an impact on the music movement as two young DJs who grew up on the city's South Side.
By the mid-90s, Morris Harper and Rashad Harden, better known as DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad respectively, were carving a name for themselves, spurred on by the city's already buoyant dance culture.
"When I met Rashad, he was already DJing," Spinn recalls. "We were at high school. I was already at home mixing tapes with the pitch decks on it. I mixed tapes with records, and stuff like that. So Rashad took note of it—and he was like, "Man, I'll show you how to really do it." He had the turntables, the mixers and everything, and he put me in tune with the mixing aspect of it."
Turbulent times in Chicago regularly saw parties shut down by police in light of increasing gang violence within the city, but frequent gigs provided a platform for the duo to showcase their skills. Accompanied by a collective of fellow DJs and producers known as Ghettoteknitians, Spinn and Rashad rapidly earned a reputation for their high-energy sets.
"Before us doing it, it was just us dancing to tracks that made us footwork," Spinn explains. "But the genre didn't come about until we started making more and more tracks that people were footworking to instead of just party music, so it was more like we birthed the footwork ideal and then we brought the music to life."
By the late 2000s, the internet was boosting the group's visibility. Worldwide attention followed, bolstered by the release of the Bangs & Works Vol. 1 compilation on Planet Mu in 2010. Traxman cites this as the beginning of the 'footwork' term as a means of categorising their sound.
"Everybody in Europe coined that name, because we didn't have a name for it," he recalls. "We really weren't aware of where it was gonna go. We just knew there was something there. I guess they coined it that name and we were like, 'Okay, cool. Well, this is what we do. This is the type of of music it is.'"
Before long, Ghettoteknitians had expanded in to a global operation, with the group assuming the Teklife moniker in 2010, which has since become synonymous with Footwork.
"This music was basically our life," explains Earl Smith, better known as DJ Earl. "We did literally nothing else but dance and make music, so we just thought about it like, man, we about that life. It's just little things we used to say, 'It's about that Teklife'. It just turned into a thing."
A relative newcomer to the fold, Earl cut his teeth showcasing his skills at Battle Groundz, where DJs would regularly compete with fast paced mixes. In 2008, he caught the attention of Rashad, whose support led to Earl joining the crew. The release of his debut LP, Open Your Eyes, marked the Teklife label's sophomore effort, following the tribute album Afterlife, compiled posthumously from unreleased Rashad collaborations after his passing in 2014.
"Rashad was a really positive spirit," Earl recalls. "He just wanted you to be the best version of you—not just in music, just in life. He pushed you to go for whatever you wanted or needed to go for. It felt like a blessing to me, because we got to put out music with people like Hyperdub and Planet —these really established labels that have this iconic sound. The fact that we got to create our own label and publish what we feel is some of the most cutting edge music is just dope. I think it's what was meant to happen."
The release of Traxman's debut LP, Da Mind of Traxman, on Planet Mu showcased many of the traits that have since become genre staples, with its schizophrenic blend of brash lyrical loops and shameless samples from the likes of AC/DC and Prince. These tracks make regular appearances in Teklife sets and even gained the surprise approval of Prince himself when the crew dropped the closing track, "Lifeeeee Is For Ever" (built around a dizzying sample of "Let's Go Crazy"), at Low End Theory in Los Angeles in 2015.
"Prince was there, man." Traxman recalls with excitement. "I was kind of scared, cos you know how Prince is about this stuff. But he was looking at them footworkers and it was dope to know that the bro popped in and he was looking at it and he was just smiling."
While more prolific producers have fallen foul of the industry for sampling, footwork's relative low profile has often enabled the Teklife crew to tiptoe around the issue, although Spinn admits that this has become harder as the scene has grown.
"As long as we're not selling things, we don't get in trouble for it," he states. "I could just make a remix and never put it out and sell it. At the same time a lot of tracks that have been released, they're not going platinum, so they're kind of under the radar of the majors."
As the Teklife label expands, self-releasing albums from key players, the task falls to Spinn and label co-founder Ashes57, to help curate hours of material in to a concise format fit for commercial release, including compilations and solo albums.
"We let people do what they do for the most part," Spinn states. "Guys never turn in garbage. It just may be something that won't fit with the ebb and flow of the sequence of the album. If it's one of those things where it's just not flowing, they usually understand. And everybody's just got so much work, it shouldn't be a problem for them to switch some tracks around."
"He's always pushing to put out the most cutting edge footwork," Earl adds. "Sometimes the tracks are just straight up simple and sometimes we'll all agree that we could save something for something else. [They] just want us to put out the best tracks."
For a label that emphasises the importance of collaboration in everything it does, solo albums are often chock-full of appearances from label cohorts, which Traxman likens to Tupac's approach to production.
"Pac would be like, 'You got your verse? You ain't got your verse, you ain't getting on this record.' So Spinn's there and Rashad's there and TMO's there like, 'Yo, I think this little vocal part could be cool, I'mma add this part.' And the cool things about those sets is you'll never imagine who will be on this track or who will be there."
This close-knit sense of family permeates all of the crew's back-to-back live sets, employing in-jokes that cultivate a healthy sense of one-upmanship, with gags that few from outside the fold could easily decipher.
"It's funny to us that people still dance and listen to the music that says this stuff," Earl adds. "But they don't really know the inside jokes."
Earl's own collaborations with the likes of Rashad and labelmates DJ Manny and DJ Taye provide an opportunity for each contributor to bring their own unique touch to the material, resulting in tunes that frequently go against type. For Earl, whose live sets ere on the darker side of the genre, tracks like "Wear Her Pussy Out", his inscrutable contribution to Rashad's posthumous Afterlife, offer moments of levity.
"That's for laughs," Earl states. "People have been using those vocals for years and most of the music we make is just coming from a funny place. It's just stuff for people to vibe to. We kind of experiment and just make all types of music and get influences from all these places and sometimes tracks like "Wear Her Pussy Out" come out of it.'"
For an Internet-savvy generation of DJs raised on a diet of familiar samples and pop culture in-jokes, YouTube increasingly became a source for samples during live sets, which are often used to throw each other off-guard. Case in point: "Everybody," Rashad's collaboration with Freshmoon, which saw him chopping up the famous Best Cry Ever video in to an inexplicably danceable showstopper.
"When they first dropped that track, I was like, 'Oh, okay? You're sampling internet jokes now?'" Spinn recalls with a smile. "So I'd go back and sample other crazy stuff off the Internet. The library is so crazy. It's like a secret library of music that you go to that nobody has. And you've got the commercial stuff that, okay, people might know these tunes, but you've always gotta have that secret stash."
The crew continues to tour extensively around the world, with recent sets including a barnstorming six-hour set from Spinn and Traxman at Bristol's Simple Things festival.
"That's the funnest shit ever," Traxman beams. "We're all just hyping each other up and it's the best feeling in the world, especially in a foreign land."
Meanwhile, Teklife continues to prepare its future slate of releases, including Taso's debut LP and a free compilation of sample-based tracks, both of which are due before the end of 2016.
"We just got everybody working," Spinn declares enthusiastically. "That's why we started the label – so we could have the opportunity to get everybody out there that's not necessarily signed to a label and give them the opportunity to get their music out and have a chance to tour it."
As for the future of the Footwork movement itself, Spinn feels it's time for the scene to edge its way in to the spotlight.
"We're more than ready for everybody to get their fair share of some remixes – some footwork remixes and some juke remixes, and stuff like that. I don't see that as a problem at all. As long as we get to do what we gotta do and people know who we are and the history of it all... Damn, it's on the up from here."
DJ Earl plays at Loop in Berlin this weekend.