Over the last decade, the popularity of the footwork music that soundtracks dance contests across the West and South sides of Chicago exploded across the UK, Europe, and Asia, captivating a global audience with its irrepressible, unpredictable energy.
Also known as juke, it’s music typically made on an MPC and recognisable by its roughly chopped vocal samples, repetitive bass, and fast-paced tempo of 160 beats per minute. By the time this sound reached the ears of dance music fans abroad, the scene had already been bubbling away successfully for more than 10 years, nurturing some of the American Midwest’s most exciting musicians.
Learn about the genre's beginnings, growth and evolution through Red Bull's vast archive of lectures and conversations, and use the hyperlinks within to jump right to the moment of the quote.
Warping house music by design
Footwork music, and the dance moves that it’s made for, emerged out of Chicago at the turn of the century as a strand of the lo-fi ghetto house genre that was popular there during the mid-90s – with a sprinkling of influences blowing up to the Windy City from the Detroit records often played on local radio.
In his lecture from 2016, one of the style’s earliest innovators, RP Boo, tells of his upbringing on Chicago’s West Side. He recalls walking into a big house rave for the first time in the early 90s and noticing how hard the subs were hitting.
Then he saw the dancing. “When the kids walked past me, they just go find this circle and they just started dancing and I was hooked right then and there. I was like, “What is this I just walked into?” It was just something I never seen before and I never heard anybody talk about it, but I saw it first hand and I just fell in love.” [Listen to RP Boo at 00:04:56]
Growing up in a deeply musical household, with a mother who sang gospel at church and a bass guitarist father, RP was raised in the rich tradition of African American music from a young age -- but it was listening to Farley Jackmaster Funk on Chicago radio station WBMX that introduced him to the new electronic music being made by black musicians in Chicago and Detroit. After attending some parties, he was keen to dance himself and during the mid-90s became involved with one of Chicago’s most famous crews, House-O-Matics, dancing to ghetto house classics by the likes of DJ Deeon. [Listen to RP Boo at 00:13:03]
I saw it first hand and I just fell in love
It was in that scene that he would eventually meet a young DJ Rashad. Forming a new crew, called Gutter Thugs, they became renowned for their extravagant footwork moves. As RP explains, crews would try and make tracks (usually spelled as trax in footwork parlance) to throw off rival dancers, with the result being that the ghetto house music they were making became increasingly sonically odd. Replacing claps with snares and hi hats, and taking out the bass drop were all techniques to confuse dancers from other crews, and in doing so the footwork sound was born – along with iconic moves such as the ghost, dribble, erk and skate. [Listen to RP Boo at 00:42:51]
Footwork establishes itself
The first decade of the new millennium saw producers like DJ Spinn, DJ Rashad, DJ Clent, Gant-Man, Traxman and of course RP Boo running with the new sound. As Spinn explains in his 2011 lecture with Teklife label and party co-founder Rashad, it was the collapse of Dance Mania in 2000 – a hugely respected Chicago house label – that created the space for footwork to really establish itself. [Listen to DJ Spinn at 00:29:10]
The story of footwork is entwined with the experience of living in the West and South sides of Chicago and the suburbs beyond (where Rashad grew up). In the city’s housing projects, besieged by poverty and generational unemployment, attacked and undermined by racist policing and corrupted politics, and coping with the effects of mind-numbing levels of violence, black communities nurtured creativity in music and art as a positive influence on the younger generations.
Rashad and Spinn are perhaps at their most passionate when discussing the free dance competitions they put on for local youth, offering cash prizes without a high entry fee (unlike many promoters who they regarded as exploitative). As Spinn explains, people would dance “like this all night for like six hours. For a little bit of money, but it’s mostly for the respect and the love of footworking.” [Listen to DJ Rashad at 00:46:04]
Both credit legendary dancer Ant Brown as one of the most talented of the scene’s early members, and the person who crystallised many footwork moves. “He’s the guy that taught us,” explains Spinn, “the one who invented footwork in Chicago, as far as modernizing it and making it with skill.” [Listen to DJ Spinn at 00:43:33]
Rashad had no limitation on what he would do or what he would try musically. I really liked that he never stayed in a box. He was trailblazing up until he passed away.
Dance contests were held all over the place: outside shops, in community centres and, most commonly, at the ice rinks dotted across the city. It was at one of these that a young DJ Rashad and Spinn first met, before taking a high school class together and becoming close friends. Both danced and DJ’d initially, though Rashad would mostly focus on DJing from his late teens onwards.
Sonically, footwork is a deliberate shredding of the ‘rules’ of house music, while the movements don’t conform to easy rhythmic patterns. Above all, footwork is about confounding people’s expectations – your dance competition rivals, the audience, the listener, and a society that demonises the young black people living in Chicago’s projects.
Putting the UK in juke
Eventually, this proudly local scene caught on abroad, thanks to three prominent figures in UK electronic music – Addison Groove (alias of Bristol dubstep producer Headhunter), Hyperdub boss Kode9, and Mike Paradinas, who runs cult UK label Planet Mu.
Seeded into the post-dubstep UK rave landscape via Planet Mu’s 2010 compilation Bangs and Works Vol. 1 and Addison Groove’s irresistible Footcrab – released on Swamp 81 the same year – the genre took root in London and Bristol. At this point Planet Mu was entering its second decade of developing unique voices in electronic music, explained by Mike Paradinas in a 2006 lecture for Red Bull. [Listen to Mike Paradinas at 00:29:07]
In the years that followed, Kode9’s Hyperdub teamed up with Rashad’s Teklife crew (formerly GhettoTeknitianz) to throw footwork parties in London. As he says in his 2010 lecture, three years before the release of Rashad’s Double Cup LP on the label, Kode9 saw the job of Hyperdub as finding a sound that “cuts across your favourite genres, joins the dots between dubstep, grime, funky, hip-hop, house, reggae. And that’s its own little cosmos.” [Listen to Kode9 at 00:21:11]
Having worked with artists like Flying Lotus and Samiyam from the LA beat scene, Kode9 reflects that, unlike his own process, many American producers “only spend a couple of minutes on tunes and it seems to be done, whereas, you know... they all make really short tracks as well.” [Listen to Kode9 at 00:22:07]
This also rings true for the footwork producers, with Rashad and Spinn saying they would make “countless” tracks each day. The more detailed, languid footwork style that Rashad developed on his Hyperdub releases, as compared with the early bangers made specifically for dancers, perhaps show some of Kode9, Hyperdub and the wider UK dance music scene’s influence on his production style.
My experiment was let’s make this juke-style music at dubstep speed
Addison Groove had built a strong friendship with Rashad and Spinn, and developed a UK footwork sound that won the respect of the Chicago originators. He booked DJ Rashad to play in London for the first time, while Rashad also remixed Addison Groove’s template-setting UK juke tune Footcrab, which the Bristol producer had made as an “experiment”, and a ladder in his sets between 140bpm dubstep and the faster Chicago footwork. “My experiment was let’s make this juke-style music at dubstep speed,” he explained in 2011. [Listen to Addison Groove at 00:13:24]
Footwork spreads its wings
In the years that have passed since footwork became a phenomenon in Europe, a younger generation of the Teklife crew took over the reins from Spinn and Rashad – who sadly passed away in 2014. These producer-DJs and dancers, such as DJ Earl and DJ Taye, have built on Rashad’s blueprint to complexify the sound, bring in even more elements of jungle, jazz and hip-hop, and also to showcase dance routines at festivals all over the globe.
Perhaps the most impressive of these newer talents is Jlin, from Gary, the industrial city in Indiana that was also the birthplace of Michael Jackson and Freddie Gibbs. In her lecture from 2018, she recalls how her early music taste veered from soul and pop legends to nu-metal and indie. “Sade is my favourite artist in the world. So that’s what I grew up listening to. I grew up listening to Phoebe Snow and Phyllis Hyman, and Anita Baker, Rachelle Ferrell. It’s so funny because when I went and got to my high school years, I hit the whole Evanescence [thing] and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I know it’s probably funny, but I thought Britney Spears’ Toxic song was the shit when I first heard it.” [Listen to Jlin at 00:13:43]
Living not far from Chicago, she also encountered footwork during her high school years, and became fascinated by it. At university, studying maths, she “discovered actually that math and music are exactly the same -- that’s something that Herbie Hancock talks about quite a bit.” [Listen to Jlin at 00:14:44]
Ducking out of class to make music in the library paid off. She was featured on the second volume of Planet Mu’s Bangs and Works compilation series in 2011 with a track called Erotic Heat that would go on to be used in a fashion show by designer Rick Owens. In fact it was also Jlin who suggested the compilation’s title to Paradinas, though she wasn’t ready to submit music until the second volume.
While Jlin doesn’t regard the music she makes now as footwork, she still pays her respects to the scene that captured her imagination as a teenager. ”The person that I felt the most in connection with, even though he’s passed away now, was probably Rashad,” she says. “Because Rashad had no limitation on what he would do or what he would try musically. I really liked that he never stayed in a box. He was trailblazing up until he passed away. It was amazing to witness, actually.” [Listen to Jlin at 00:18:34]
Three albums and an EP, all on Planet Mu, have followed. Her second LP, 2017’s Black Origami, was widely praised for its originality and breadth, and included a collaboration with revered ambient and modern classical composer William Basinski. The pair met at a show in LA, where they watched one another’s performances, and Basinski immediately suggested they have to work together. [Listen to Jlin at 00:47:33]
The track that resulted, Holy Child, was a “pivotal point”, she says, in her career. Now, she has turned her attention to bringing new sounds into her percussive arsenal. “That’s when my sound really started evolving because I stopped using just certain things and started going all over the diaspora, percussion-wise.” [Listen to Jlin at 00:51:44]
This sonic cross-pollination has, in many ways, typified the sound of footwork to date -- and continues to define the sound’s growth. In Europe, artists such as Berlin’s DJ Paypal continue to take inspiration from and develop this startling sound that came out of the Chicago suburbs two decades ago – and while footwork has travelled across the US and around the world since, it remains a fierce expression of the Windy City’s dizzying musical counterculture.