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Chicago footwork has been around for almost two decades now but it’s only in the last couple of years it’s gained recognition outside of Chicago with the growing popularity of producers like DJ Nate, DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, and Planet Mu’s ‘Bangs & Works’ compilation at the end of last year. Footwork dancing was a response to the frenetic pace of ghetto house and juke music, the pumped-up, pimped-out descendants of Chicago house music. As the dancers’ desire for new music to move to grew, footwork music was born. A music made specifically for, and often by, the dancers.
Footwork dancing is thrilling to watch. It’s not just that the dancers’ energy is infectious, it’s through them footwork music makes sense. The disjointedness – the weird, languid melodies floating above rattling, speed-bombing beats – provides a multitude of hinges: moments within a track that present a step change, an angle at which to bend, to splice, to move this way or that.
There are 400 or so footwork dancers in Chicago according to Lite Bulb, one of the key dancers in the scene. They meet up regularly at footwork events in informal locations – from warehouses to daycare centres – to battle one-on-one or crew-on-crew, not just to earn the respect and admiration of the other dancers and the crowd but also battling themselves, ever hungry to be a better dancer.
I went along to Sadler’s Wells in north London on Monday 25th April to meet Lite Bulb, DJ Manny and A.G., three Chicago footwork dancers over with DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn for Planet Mu’s Footwork Tour while they rehearsed for street dance festival Breakin’ Convention. We chatted about what it takes to be a footwork dancer: a respect for the history; learning the basic steps of dribbles, erks, skates and ghost; always bringing something fresh; staying hungry; and having the confidence to really work the floor. See for yourself in this short film above, edited by Heidi Petty.
Despite being a solid scene for 15, 20 years now, Chicago footwork is only just now trickling through into the city’s more mainstream hip hop clubs, perhaps because it isn’t a music for a big club crowd – it’s a dialogue between producer and dancer, a tango, a back-and-forth. When producers like DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn are in the studio, they have the dancers with them. It means they have instant feedback – is this working? Are you feeling that? If it’s a yes, there’ll be dancing. One shrug and a beat will be abandoned. This symbiotic relationship is constantly pushing the music forward, twisting it, shaping it at a phenomenal rate. Rashad makes 5 or 6 tracks a day, creating a new arsenal of sound ready for the next battle.
In this unedited video below, Marcus from Planet Mu chats to DJ Spinn, DJ Rashad, DJ Manny, Lite Bulb and A.G. about the origins of footwork, how dancers get into it and its resonances with jungle and dubstep.
Both Rashad and Spinn were dancers before they made music – now both 30, they met over 15 years ago as kids in the same homeroom. From different parts of town, by rights they shouldn’t have been friends – lines are still drawn along zipcodes – but a love and hunger for the music, for the culture, drew them together. Here, over a pint, they talk briefly about the weekly footwork event they’ve thrown every Sunday for the last 3 years.
Ruth Saxelby interviewed Lite Bulb, DJ Manny and A.G., DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn in London on the 25th April 2011