Chicago producers DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn (real names Rashad Harden and Morris Harper) have found themselves in an enviable position as international ambassadors of Chicago footwork. Over the past few years, the frequent collaborators have been bringing their idiosyncratic brand of dance music to locales as exotic as Tokyo, Switzerland, and Romania. This is remarkable considering footwork’s deep-rooted history in the South and West Sides of Chicago, where dance crews gather in rec centers and warehouses to let their feet fly in a battle for supremacy. Rashad and Spinn both cut their teeth at these venues, cranking out five or six tunes per day to use at the next clash.
That astounding prolificacy seems slightly less imposing when you consider the relatively minimal number of musical elements that constitute a basic footwork track. Archetypal footworking music commands a raw urgency that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, but many tracks adhere to a fairly rigorous set of conventions. The seminal work of RP Boo, often cited as the first footwork producer, established a template that followers would soon build from. His track “11-47-99” (aka “the Godzilla track” aka “Heavy Heat” aka “Another RP Track”) contains all the requisite ingredients: the stuttering, criss-crossed samples sliced and diced beyond recognition, the 808 pattern limping along on its syncopated death march, the throbbing bass pulse lurking like a monster beneath the floorboards. Apart from the 400 or so footwork dancers currently living in Chicago, most listeners would characterize these sounds as bizarre, undanceable, or downright terrifying.
Although Rashad and Spinn made names for themselves by meeting the genre on its own terms (“Reverb” is a particularly nasty Rashad cut that basically eschews any and all reference points to the canon of Western music), their true genius lies in their ongoing effort to push the sound in fresh, innovative directions. For these guys, footwork is a guiding principle rather than a strict formula. With releases like TEKLIFE Vol. 2 and the Rollin’ EP, Rashad and Spinn are searching beyond Chicago for inspiration – their recent output may not be particularly well-suited for battle circles, but it does represent entirely new modes of expression and a transcendence of “real” footwork’s austerity in favor of greater accessibility. To date, the culmination of this approach is Rashad’s full-length album Double Cup, released last fall on Hyperdub to rave reviews. Working with Spinn on several tracks, Rashad integrates stylistic reference points from soul, acid house, and G-funk with footwork’s trademark restlessness to craft a collection of party starters, stomach churners, and heart breakers. Plenty of these tracks contain earworm vocal hooks, which become even more hypnotic as Rashad playfully unspools them bit by bit. “Only One”, a virtuosic display featuring Spinn and fellow Teklifer DJ Taso, finds Rashad operating at the peak of his technical abilities.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Rashad and Spinn’s trajectory has been the degree of emotional nuance they’ve managed to coax from the building blocks of footwork. The collaboration “Let Me Baby” is likely as close as we’ll get to a footwork slow jam, featuring an alluring male voice (currently unidentified despite my frantic Googling) floating over a typically smoky chord progression from Spinn. Their Double Cup track “Let U No” is equally sensual, as a well-worn sample of Floetry’s “Say Yes” glides effortlessly through a gauntlet of percussion - like a ballerina weaving through a swarm of Hitchcock’s birds.
However, nothing compares to “Let It Go”, Rashad’s masterpiece-to-date from last year’s Rollin’ EP. A rhythmic confluence of footwork and jungle (the genre’s distant cousin from the UK), the track is moving in hyperspeed from the get-go, but the fluidity and grace of the drum pattern inspires hypnosis rather than agitation. The effect is similar to the ruminative state one enters when looking out a bus window, particularly as a pulsating string sample enters the mix and quivers with yearning. The song’s title is howled in desperation throughout, an ambiguous plea that allows the listener to conjure his or her own “it” to let go: sadness, anger, love, guilt, obsession. It is a humanist hymn, one that celebrates our agency to control our outlook on life yet recognizes the difficulty in overcoming our emotional burdens. That it manages to convey this sentiment in so few words is a testament to Rashad’s intuition as a composer. There are no wasted elements here, and each sample radiates with an unimaginable potency as it gets whipped up into Rashad’s tornado of drums and distress. Let’s hear the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem top that.
After years of touring the globe, DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn will bring their singular style of dance music to the USC campus. I’m pretty sure this is the first time footwork has ever been featured here at the university, unless Springfest booked RP Boo to open for Blink-182 in the late 90’s or something. Expect to hear favorites from Double Cup as well as some killer reworks of popular hip-hop tracks, like the duo’s version of G.O.O.D. Music’s “Mercy”. Be warned that footworking in the Annenberg Bowl may be more difficult than footworking on level ground, so use caution when stepping into the circle. See you on March 29th.