Traditional Chicago juke music evolved out of the sped-up 4/4 template of ghetto house. While I’ve definitely spent my fair share of time obsessing over Power 92 (Chicago’s main urban-format radio station, which features weeknight mixes from DJ Nehpets) and Dance Mania 12”s, I can only take so much without wanting something a bit more rhythmically out there. So it was a serendipitous moment when, aimlessly searching for new tracks, I stumbled upon one of millions of imeem pages, where a teenage girl named La’Amber has a playlist of her favorite juke music. Sandwiched between luminaries like DJ PJ and DJ Deeon was a noticeably twisted variation on the genre, a track barely over a minute long (probably ripped from a mix), aptly titled Slow Motion, the artist mysteriously listed as ‘me of course’.
Atop lushly warped R&B synths, stuttering, mutated 2-step drum patterns and deep subbass that drops in and out without warning, a pitched-down vocal measuredly repeats “slowmotion…slowmotion”. The already disorienting formula becomes even wilder midway through when the vocal is suddenly pitched up and the initial woozy pattern is fed amphetamines: “slowmotionslowmotionslowmotionslowmotion”, repeated until it starts to sound like “slum ocean”. Which is not a bad metaphor for the footwork oeuvre (an offshoot of juke), music obsessed with changing dynamics and all the manic tendencies you would expect from the children of trap music and ghetto house.
Whether or not it’s La’Amber’s handiwork remains to be seen; as anyone who has searched for it on imeem or myspace will attest, footwork music is a labyrinthine phenomenon. In the last two years, many of the genre’s best young producers have frustratingly abandoned imeem for myspace, leaving behind a wealth of material on the former and advertisements for beguilingly difficult-to-obtain mixtapes (for those of us with little-to-no connection to Chicago’s public high schools) on the latter. Producers like Tha Pope and DJ Nate tend to promote slightly less leftfield projects on myspace, betting on rap and R&B as more viable cash cows than the insular, abstract footwork, which refreshingly remains by the dancers, for the dancers. The genre’s off-kilter, high/low BPM drum patterns are designed to syncopate with complex moves sprouting from near-motionless upper bodies, and some of the best tracks are peppered with stuttering battle cries. DJ Nate’s Ghost from Heat Squad Anthem loops a vocal taunting other dancers: “Get on my nigga Ghost level”. I have a hard time imagining it as a widespread success any place other than Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Gary.
Footwork is generally dark, moody music, much of it covered in a very rustbelt type of malaise, hyperaware of battles far beyond footworking. Aside from the rhythmic innovations, its producers seem occupied with sampling the most melancholic lyrics on commercial radio. On DJ Yung Tellem’s We Can, a famous pop diva, now anonymous – pitchbent, looped and totally warped – pleads with more than a hint of melodrama: “We can work this out…”. Footworking suddenly becomes more about shuffling through a thick crowd or sketchy nocturnal streets or any other unnerving urban situation you could imagine, simultaneous stimulation and suffocation, forever rewinding that one comforting line over chameleonic beats; mind focused, feet constantly moving. Abstraction with a purpose.
Watch a footwork battle on youtube.
Text: Stephen Kerr