The hyper-local scene burst onto the world stage in the past few months, but it's been around for nearly a decade. Chicago's Dave Quam charts its beginnings as an outgrowth of ghetto house to its current form.
Over the past few months, much ink has been spilled about a genre known in Chicago as footwork. The music has been popping up in sets from many of the trailblazing crews in the US and the UK, making the Windy City once again a hot spot to electronic music fans worldwide. But lost amid the talk of this hyperkinetic music is just where it all came from. It's a story with plenty of twists and turns, a mutation with its roots planted in ghetto house and house dancing that got faster, uglier and even more hyper-localized.
It starts, predictably, with a mystery. We know that the word "juke" began to rear its head in the '90s underground. Who coined it, though, is an open question. As you'd expect, plenty want to claim credit, but no one has quite been able to figure it out, to be honest. We probably never will. The word stuck to the local sound like glue, though, describing the fast-paced booty house being made on the South and West Sides of the city.
As juke music received local radio play and took more of a commercial turn in the early '00s, it left dance crews in Chicago concentrating on their feet and turning to another type of track to move to. Most of the people making these tracks were former dancers themselves, so it only makes sense that their productions would follow the patterns. The steps, mapped out by claps and snares, and undergirded with rumbling bass and syncopated toms proved intoxicating: A source of adrenaline for the participants inside a circle of huddled spectators.
Much of the outside world was introduced to this culture via YouTube, a treasure trove of battle videos and homemade tracks uploaded by teenagers. Yet the internet hasn't provided much of a timeline of how things came to be. The following selection of tracks spotlight some of the pivotal moments in the evolution of footwork music. Limited to one track per artist, this is no means complete or a "best of." It's simply a guide of how footwork came to sound like it does now.
DJ Deeon - House-O-Matic [from Funk City 12-inch, Dance Mania, 1994]
You can't talk about Chicago dance culture without mentioning the legendary dance crew House-O-Matics. Started in 1985 by Ronnie Sloan, the troupe was home to many OG dancers and DJs, and was instrumental in kicking off the house dancing scene in the city—as well as derailing it. The music in the city was moving in so many directions at the time, and so were the steps involved, and House-O-Matics were among the early pioneers of the modern, chaotic battle.
There were (and still are) many tracks made specifically for certain crews and dancers, and more than a few have been dedicated to the House-O-Matics by affiliates such as DJ Milton, DJ PJ, RP Boo, and, in this case, DJ Deeon. He's a crucial person in the scene—someone who not only influenced many of his fellow producers sonically, but also, in some instances, taught them how to sample and use drum machines.
Known primarily for his brazenly obscene booty tracks, the faint of heart might overlook Deeon, but among the party starters and strip club anthems, his catalog is home to a plethora of sonic oddities. This one is a blueprint for modern footwork tracks, and one of Deeon's earliest releases on the legendary Dance Mania label, home to a host of seminal ghetto house records from Chicago.
See also: DJ Milton - "House-O-Matic," RP Boo - "House-O-Matic," DJ Deeon - "House-O Track."
There are a handful of pioneering producers from the area known as the Low End on the city's South Side—a long strip of housing projects on State Street, just a few miles down the road from the plush shopping centers and suited businessmen downtown. Along with DJ Deeon, DJ Slugo and DJ PJ, DJ Clent was one of the locals who expanded the palates of anyone making juke and footwork music in Chicago.
Just listen to the buoyant trumpets of "3rd Wurle." The feeling of floating that this track emits has made it a favorite of many producers and dancers past and present; nine of out of ten will namedrop it if there were ever a survey for such a thing. Clent released a handful of records on Dance Mania in 1998, including the hugely popular Back Up Off Me single, which shadowed "3rd Wurle" as far as radio play went, leaving it to become an underground classic in footwork circles. These days Clent DJs regularly on the South and West Sides of the city, as well as on Power 92, one of Chicago's most popular hip-hop stations.
See also: DJ Clent - "Bounce," DJ Clent - "Back Up Off Me," DJ Clent - "TS"
Also known as "the Godzilla track," "11 - 47 - 99" has shown up on mixtapes and YouTube under a slew of different titles, including "Another RP Track" and "Heavy Heat," but the real name is the three numbers above. 11, for the time it was created (11 PM), 47 for the location (47th street on the South Side of Chicago) and 99 for the year. While other RP joints such as "Baby Come On" and "Ice Cream" had been making rounds at parties and dance events since 1997, "Godzilla" was a monumental track for the evolution of sampling, and set off a trend of footwork versions of hip-hop tracks.
RP Boo was part of a record pool at the time when Pharoahe Monch's "Simon Says" dropped, and received a copy of the 12-inch. "I was like 'Oh wow! That's Godzilla!' Because I like sounds, and I always was a Godzilla fan," Boo told me earlier this year. "And I prayed and hoped that there was an instrumental. There was, and the rest was history." Also known as DJ Boo, Record Player Boo and Arpebu, many cite Boo as the originator of footwork music, and it's hard to argue. A mad scientist with his primitive, display model RX-70 drum machine, the scrambled drum patterns so common to footwork tracks can largely be traced back to this man.
See also: RP Boo - "Baby Come On," RP Boo - "Ice Cream," RP Boo - "Get Em."
From sneaking past the bouncers at age 16 to witness the glory of Ron Hardy spinning, to being one of the most important influences on current footwork producers, Traxman is one of the key figures from Chicago's West Side along with colleagues such as DJ Funk, Jammin' Gerald and Houz Mon.
The West Side and the South Side of Chicago are the areas of the city that birthed house music and, predictably, they've been feuding ever since. From the differences in styles of music and dance (each side had its own variation of "The Perculator"), to who has the better fried chicken chain (Harold's vs. Uncle Remus), there are always arguments. The impact of "Pacman Juke" was indisputable, though, with a plethora of 8-bit compositions coming from both sides of the city after its release.
It makes a lot of sense: These guys love video games—PlayStations are an essential part of any home studio. It's all about working with materials you have at hand, whether it's hip-hop on the radio, ice cream truck sirens or Mario sounds. A word of warning: While the title suggests this is a juke track, it's more fit for spasms than grinding on the nearest patron on the dance floor.
See also: Traxman - "Gambino," Traxman - "Get Down Lil Mama," DJ T Rell - "Super Mario."
DJ Spinn - Bounce and Break Your Back [from Juke City, Vol. 1, Bang Tha Box, 2007]
DJ Spinn has been one of the most powerful forces in both footwork circles and the house party scene for the last ten years, known for his extensive knowledge of jazz and his ability to turn records by the likes of Roy Ayers into 160 BPM compositions.
The classifications that attach themselves to juke and footwork are generally based on what kind of party you're going to hear the track at, and while both are forms of dance music—one for the ass, the other for the feet—there has always been a gray area between the two. "Bounce and Break Your Back" is a perfect example. Receiving radio play on both Chicago and Detroit airwaves, it's a definite party starter familiar to those that want to bob, and those that want to bang. Along with his collaboration with partner-in-crime DJ Rashad, "Girl Bust Down," this is juke, but with a bass pattern alien to house music. Make note, hip-rolling contests between female spectators are frequent at footwork battles too. This is one of its best soundtracks.
See also: DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad - "Girl Bust Down," DJ Rashad - "U See Them Hoes."
DJ Rashad - Ghost [from Overkill, Ghettophiles, 2010]
"Ghost" is an important footwork step that's been around for years, and this is its dedication. The names AG, Poo, Lite Bulb and Que mentioned in the track are shout outs to members of the Legends Clique, a dream team of dancers who are some mighty fine ghosters. "It's an honor to be in that track. To even have my name in there, that's an honor," claims the aforementioned Lite Bulb, a 20-year-old Marquette Park resident. "I consider that to be one of the coldest tracks of today."
The relationship between the people on the floor and the DJ behind the decks is an inextricable bond. And, more often than not, at least one footworker will be in the room when a track is made by a producer. It only makes sense, as most DJs start off as dancers anyway. Out of context, the gh-gh-gh-gh-gh-gh's might seem a bit too out there, but when you witness the aforementioned individuals going off to this track, you'll understand how it's done. As cocky as these cats get, it's well earned.
See also: DJ Rashad - "Animation," DJ Spinn - "Kush Pak Loud," DJ Earl - "Traffic Stop."
For more on footwork and juke, check out RA's Exchange with DJ Spinn and Chrissy Murderbot, a 90-minute discussion about the scene that birthed the genre.