You could pin it on Addison Groove’s Footcrab. Chicago’s juke scene had been popping off in it’s own local manner for years but it was the stuttering sounds of the Swamp81 release, and Addison Groove’s DJ sets, that first introduced most UK listeners to the fast, repetitive, polyrythmic sounds of juke, and to literally thousands of tunes that only exist on YouTube, on now-defunct US website imeem or as MP3 on the hardrives of a handful of Chi-Town DJs.
The sound has been around for years, mostly as a localised branch of ghetto house, running at around 160bpm and characterised by scattered triplets, headstrong, counter-intuitive percussion and pitched 808 toms, danced to by kids scattering their limbs at double time like crazy sped-up, butter-soled upright breakdancers. If house were a family, then ’80s producers like Adonis, Jesse Saunders, Lil Louis and Armando are the parents, Cajmere’s ‘The Percolator’ is the product of their underage liaison, and juke’s his rowdy kid brother. Listen to a track like Maurice Joshua’s ‘I Got A Big Dick’, which came out on Trax Records in 1988, or some of the mid-late ’90s Dance Mania tracks Daft Punk used to play in their sets, and you can hear a pretty unbroken lineage from the house of the past to the juke and footwork locally-famous standards like Gant Man’s ‘Juke Dat Juke Dat’.
24 year old DJ Roc, who hails from the locally-infamous Ida B. Wells projects is one of the DJs at the centre of the juke loop. “There’s a lot of activity going on in Chicago and a lot of talent going on. We got history, history from way back,” he says, on the phone, after three ping-pong attempts to connect for the interview. “Now, people really paying attention and it’s really picking up. I never thought it would pick up, but Chicago’s on the map, it’s doing things with music, dancing, it’s really picking up. They giving Chicago a chance.”
They certainly are. DJs including Loefah, Girl Unit, Ramadanman and Headhunter aka Addison Groove are incorporating footwork tracks in their sets and productions; there’s a small but thriving international scene, including DJs Leatherface and Hilti of the Parisian Nightmare Juke Squad (who brought Rashad over to play, but were thwarted by immigration who wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have a visa); and the forthcoming Planet Mu compilation, Bangs & Works Vol. 1 looks set to bring the music to a whole new listenership. “I started to hear something I hadn’t heard before, in terms of the format of tracks,” says label boss Mike Paradinas. “If you’re not a music junkie it’s going to sound like a mess, with ridiculous repetitive samples. I don’t hear that. I heard something I loved in it.”
But before we head any deeper into the world of Wala Cams (youtube it) and DJs with names like Spinn and Gant-Man and DJPJ we need to clear up a few of the basics, specifically the difference between juke and footwork, two distinct, if overlapping areas of Chicago music culture. DJ Rashad is another of the pivotal scene producers who has been brought to broader attention by both leading edge DJ sets and Planet Mu, and with tracks like the bleepy jerked-out ‘Tecnitianz’. “Juke is the music but footwork is the music and the dance. Due to going out of town, people weren’t familiar with the one-clap, so we had to remake Top 40 tunes, juke ’em out. [Kanye West’s] ‘Flashing Lights’, we juked it out so people that were familiar with that song could get familiar with our songs, and get ’em interested.”
Chrissy Murderbot, the Chicago-based DJ, producer and man behind the endless mixtapes up at murderbot.com, is on hand to clarify: “Footwork is a subset of juke music. And its like juke is pretty much any uptempo Chicago music which grew out of ghetto house. It’s like jungle and drum n bass, where you can say you’re into one of them but do you mean the whole genre or do you mean jungle jungle like amen and ragga vocals? So juke is the overarching thing and footwork is either the dancing or the more sideways, rhythmically varied subset of juke that goes with the footwork battles.”
It’s footwork that spun Mike Paradinas out, and made him sign up some of the major players on the scene to his Planet Mu label. “Footwork reminded me of when hardcore began mutating into jungle, those more ‘what the fuck’ moments in sample usage. It made me think of Suburban Bass, [Smart E’s] Sesame’s Treet, darkcore things like Hardwire. There’s also darkside footwork. There’s panic tracks like the Scotty jungle tracks. They’re not aware of the link, but similar things are happening. There are tracks that sample pop songs and there are more stripped, raw ones.”
Putting Bangs & Works together has taken the best part of a year. “I had to find the artists first,” says Paradinas. “There were no labels to licence off. We found Nate via one of his old teachers. We’d found a video from his high school, so we knew where he’d gone, and we found a website from his teacher who’d designed a site for Get Up Entertainment which was Nate’s old crew. There was a lot of searching Facebook for people no-one had heard of and who hadn’t released anything.”
Roc was one of the artists Paradinas got hold of. He started making music in 2001, banging out juke beats being on the lunch room tables at school. Like many of the producers and DJs (most do both, although DJ Nate is an exception and only makes music, which incidentally is much more like jukes out hip hop than anything else) Roc started out as a dancer. You can’t really get the music without understanding the dancing. “Most of the tracks have a repetitive vocal,” says Paradinas. “They’re the names of dancers, or they’re the names of moves. ‘Where yo dead man?’ [from DJ Elmoe’s Whea Yo Ghost, Whea Yo Deadman’] is referring to a move. The dead man is a basic move. If you can’t do a basic move, get out of the circle. The vocals are to do with intimidating or provoking the dancers. I’m still picking up on what half the stuff means.”
The symbiotic relationship between the music and the dancing is crystal clear; a connection of more mutual push and pull than between hip hop and breakdancing, which quickly expanded away from simply making beats for b-boys. As a dancer, Roc saw firsthand how footwork dancing required faster and faster music as the moves became even more lightening-fast. “The footwork, the dancing made it get faster,” he says. “I had to dance and I had to make tracks for dancers. I knew what they wanted.”
Roc also ran a night, at a 400-capacity hall, on 111th Street, with a church on the first floor. “We throw our own parties and other DJs, DJ Clent, other DJs from other camps would come down and get their shine on. It was peaceful, everybody was dancing, you had footwork circles all around the place, hip rollers hip rolling to their favourite song, it was just fun.” Footwork events happen in different places and spaces as Chrissy Murderbot points out. “Footwork battles are mostly a room and there’s a circle and everyone else is standing around and watching. They happen in the South Side. Then there are house parties on the west side mostly. The house parties are in the neighbourhoods that are more mixed, like Humboldt Park or further west. That’s where you hear the same music but dance to it, a little bit closer to a rave or illegal loft party. That’s usually what I’m at. Sometimes they’re at legitimate clubs, on the Northside, that’s a little more for special occasions, ‘oh we’re bringing the hood rats to the Northside’ so white kids can pay $35 to dance to it. You’ll get a different experience.”
At the heart of it, like with all music scenes, it’s fair to say that my juke is different from the inside, to the people actually in the scene, than is it to interested outsiders elsewhere in the world. My idea of juke and footwork, here in a London kitchen, peering into their world through jumpy youtube clips of battles in someone garage, or through a hundred similarly lo-fi myspace tunes, is probably not how Roc and Rashad and Nate see it. Over to Chrissy Murderbot: “I read an interview with Aphex Twin a long time ago where he talked about Detroit Techno, saying it’s OK but he couldn’t get it into because he didn’t understand how Americans think. I was really into jungle and garage and it was really interesting music that was doing new things, but I grew up in a place that was all about hip hop and house music and we didn’t have Jamaicans and the Criminal Justice Act. The Chicago context always made sense to me. So to have Chicago doing these really interesting things and leading the way again is really nice, because it’s interesting in the way the British music is, but it’s personal, and… visceral.”
Words: Emma Warren
Photography: Dave Quam