"Erotic Heat," one of Dark Energy's strongest tracks, was a creative game-changer for Jlin. Around 2010, a couple of years after she began swapping tracks online with DJ Avery76, she'd mastered the foundational principles of making footwork. "I was sampling heavily and I sounded a lot like DJ Roc at the time," she says. She played an early track that sampled Teena Marie's "Portuguese Love" to her mother—"the first person I play anything I make," she says. "We live in the same house, and I trust her instincts with so many things." The advice she received changed everything. "It's good," her mother told her, "but what do you sound like?"
"'Erotic Heat' was the next track I made," Jlin recalls, "and everything changed after that. I stopped sampling, and if I did sample something it was always vocals, never a song." She was still developing as a producer, and recalls that time as "a struggle" as she tried to progress technically and find a sound of her own, all while holding down her job driving equipment at a steel plant in her home town of Gary, Indiana. As of December 2015, she was still working at the plant. When we catch up again in the New Year, Jlin has quit her job to focus on producing and performing music full-time.
Mike Paradinas included "Erotic Heat" and another track, "Asylum," on Bangs & Works Vol. 2, one of the pivotal Planet Mu compilations that brought footwork to an international audience. Although she was the one who suggested the title "Bangs & Works" to Paradinas, Jlin says that when the first compilation came out, she wasn't ready to be included. "The experience wasn't there and I didn't have any work that should be on it. When Vol. 2 came out, I had a sound that was different. I went from making literal footwork tracks to tracks that had footwork in there, but that stood out. It wasn't wholeheartedly footwork." By 2011, Paradinas had "pretty much finalised" the tracklist for Bangs & Works Vol. 2, but when he heard "Erotic Heat," "he was like, 'I have to get this on there.'"
A few years later, the track resurfaced in an unexpected way. Jlin was working night shifts, finishing at midnight. One night, Mike Paradinas rang to say that Rick Owens, the famed American fashion designer, wanted her to create an extended mix of "Erotic Heat" for his Paris show. The interest in her work from a respected figure working outside her field gave Jlin the confidence to create more. "When that email went, I was in business mode. I was in producer mode, creating mode."
Jlin's music can only loosely be described as footwork, and as such she has mixed feelings about the term "footwork producer," preferring the broader term "experimental." Her approach to building tracks, she says, is a little different from that of her peers in Chicago. "It's easy for me to say, 'I'm going to make a track,' and start with a sample, then start putting drum sounds behind it." Instead, her creativity is born, as she puts it, "from the belly of the beast," which is to say, from her innermost emotional core rather than from tangible referents. "When I create something, I don't have a plan," she says. "I go in with a blank sheet of paper, in the dark, every time."
The emotional and evocative sound of Dark Energy and its follow up, the Free Fall EP, was the outcome of a deeply cathartic creative process that involved much soul-searching. "When you need to create from a place where you don't even want to go sometimes because it's so intense, that pushes you out of your comfort zone," Jlin says. "If you're creating in your comfort zone, it's not real, not transparent. I call it 'the belly of the beast' and people take it as a negative thing. Actually, that's the beauty of it: you cannot be complacent, you have to face yourself. That's what makes it so intense for people, because most people don't like transparency."
"Abnormal Restriction" is a case in point. It opens with a screeching vocal sample taken from the film Mommie Dearest—"I am not one of your fans! Who do you think you're talking to?" "I was afraid of that movie for years," Jlin says. "I wanted to put my creativity and my fear together and see what happened. So I watched the movie, and said, 'OK, now I'm ready.' I chose that track name [because] I have a tendency to work on a song and get afraid of my own sound. That is an abnormal restriction."
Jlin is all too aware of the emotional exchange involved in releasing such personal work. "It's very freeing. I'm very vulnerable, and you have to be that vulnerable for it to be real. People can like something because it sounds good, but it has to be more than that; there has to be meaning behind what I do." While Jlin prefers to keep some of these meanings ambiguous, they've been heavily misconstrued since Dark Energy's release. "A lot of people think 'Erotic Heat' is a very sexual track; actually, quite the contrary. It was sensual only in the sense that I was lusting and making the worst decisions ever. I was flirting with making very bad decisions on a constant basis, to the point where it almost cost me my life, several times. That's what 'Erotic Heat' is, and that's why it says, 'Sweet seduction is haunting my dreams, erotic heat consumes me.'"
Gary's separation from Chicago may also have had a bearing on the experimental quality of Jlin's sound. "I think if I lived in Chicago, the influence would be too overpowering," she says. "There's no way I could produce this in the heart of Chicago. The culture there is so heavy, and so beautiful, but I couldn't bust through that shell. I have to be on the outside." As an outlier, Jlin feels that her music "isn't stuck in Chicago, or stuck in a specific location. Those rhythms that you hear in the music are African rhythms with a Chicago style." As such, perhaps Jlin's strongest affinities lie not necessarily with other footwork artists such as her mentor RP Boo, but with someone like Shackleton or her collaborator Holly Herndon, artists who are loosely affiliated with genres or scenes but who carve their own niche, creating singular music that's difficult to place. It comes as little surprise that Jlin's favourite artist is Sade, "another person who's very in tune with who she is, very experimental and very vulnerable."
Even if their sounds are far apart, RP Boo's input has been invaluable to Jlin's artistic development. She describes their relationship as one of mentorship rather than tutelage, keen to highlight that she is not—as she has seen some say—the elder musician's protégé. That would imply that she draws everything she knows from his experience and expertise, whereas in fact, she says, the opposite is true: "When someone mentors you, they see that you're already on a set path but because they've been where you've been, they can guide you to where you're trying to go. That's me and Boo. We've always been that way."
The importance of that mentorship was evident long before "Erotic Heat." "Boo gave me an assignment one time," Jlin remembers. "He wanted me to make a track sampling Mary Jane Girls' 'All Night Long.' Even then, I already had my own sound. I was speaking to him recently, and he said, 'I heard that sound, and I heard that you wanted to burst out, but I had to let you come into that yourself. I couldn't just snatch it from you.' So even back then, he knew it was there." RP Boo taught Jlin how to mix, and even then, she says, "We did it one time, and he said 'You've already got it.' He helps me catch up with myself, helps the physical and mental get into sync."
The fiercely individual nature of Jlin's music was thrown into sharp relief during her debut live show at Unsound Festival in Kraków, Poland, this past October. Working in collaboration with visual artist Florence To and experimental dancer Avril Stormy Unger, Jlin's performance stood in stark contrast to RP Boo's ecstatic DJ set from the previous night. "Everybody said, 'Why didn't you have a footwork dancer?'" But it's easy to see how Unger's choreography, with its jagged, exaggerated gestures, suits her—as Jlin puts it, "she projects in her dance what I do musically." As for To's abstract, snaking visuals, they beautifully complemented Jlin's graceful wavering between time signatures and her nimble yet weighty drums.
In the aftermath of Dark Energy's release and its wide acclaim, Jlin says that her biggest fear is resting on her laurels. "I'm nowhere near my peak. Sometimes you don't know if people are really critiquing your work, or do they just like you as an artist, and anything you put out is OK. I think sometimes that'll make an artist complacent. I don't care how many people like something I do, I never want to be complacent."
Her latest release, the Free Fall EP, is named for her daring approach. "I'm jumping off cliffs, and hoping that I land," she says. "There are no connections, no bungees, and I'm just hoping I make the landing. Sometimes I don't; sometimes I die. But that death is also important, because that death process in creating is the birth." Three tracks from the EP are in a similar vein to Dark Energy, but "Nandi" is totally new. It feels like a progression from "Expand," Jlin's collaboration with Holly Herndon, and one of Dark Energy's densest, most unpredictable tracks.
Dedicated to Queen Nandi, mother of Shaka Zulu, the Zulu monarch, the track "wasn't thought out at all. When I was doing interviews, I was talking about Dark Energy so much—it comes with the territory. I was so Dark Energy'd out, I was like, 'I'm sick of this damn album!'" she laughs. "I was reading about Shaka Zulu's mother one morning; next thing I knew, I had done 'Nandi' in two days." Its staccato vocal chirps, heavy reverb and rolls of percussion build until the tension is almost too much to bear, but there's little resolution. "I love that song," says Jlin. "I love 'Nandi' and the last track I made, 'Hatshepsut.' I'm fascinated by these very powerful women. Hatshepsut went to war with nations, despite the fact that she was petrified to do it. I always wanted to dedicate a track to her, something feminine and bold."
The abrasive "Hatshepsut," which as of yet has no release date, lacks vocal samples entirely; instead, its intricate, brittle drums are almost the sole element at work. (Jlin says that she meant for those drums to sound like drummers in standoff at a battle of the bands.) In both "Hatshepsut" and "Nandi," subtle shifts in pressure give rise to an impression of urgency and tension pushed to breaking point. It all comes from within: "I'm still mastering the channelling of stress in myself, and that's hard," Jlin says. "You're getting the essence of me. I'm not hiding anything from you or from my audience; I'm just releasing what's on the inside."