Footwork: What Is It, and How Do You Make It? **UPDATED
Like so much dance music in the world today, Chicago’s footwork style owes a big debt to house. Sure, it may not sound anything like the deep-and-soulful vibes of classic Marshall Jefferson or Frankie Knuckles tracks, but the hyper-paced sound (and its attendant culture) shares a similar lineage with so many house subgenres, having worked its way through multiple scenes within a scene, providing the soundtrack for dance crews to battle it out on the floor, and becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. Here’s what you need to know about what it is and how to make it.
MOVE YOUR FEET
To start, footwork is primarily a dance music style that pays homage to Chicago house and hip-hop—but manages to sound unlike either. Due to its off-kilter time signatures, skittering snares and kicks, and frenetic tempo, it isn’t the easiest music to dance to (at least in the conventional club sense), but for an experimentally inclined ear, footwork explodes with intricate drum patterns, crazy sample programming, and a truly raw, DIY aesthetic. Much like hip-hop, footwork isn’t just a style of music—it’s a culture that brings together music production, eye-popping dance moves, and a playfully confrontational battle vibe.
WHERE U FROM?
The term “footwork” is often (incorrectly) used interchangeably with “juke,” the style’s closely related cousin. Truth is, the two genres do have a lot in common: both are direct descendants of ghetto house (a rougher, tougher, faster strain of house Chicago that was popularized in the late ‘90s), both run somewhere in the 150-160-BPM range, and, confusingly, both have associated dance styles of the same name. Where footwork and juke music differ is that the former is a bit more frantically paced—slightly more aggressive, and utilizing an abstract, hip-hop-styled approach to production (ie. pitched-down vocals, more sample-focused)—whereas juke is essentially a grittier, dirtier, faster version of house, made more for grinding than gettin’ fancy on the dance floor.
To take a long look back at footwork, it’s worth starting with some of the Dance Mania label’s most prominent artists, like mid-’90s ghetto-house kings DJ Deeon, DJ Slugo, and DJ Funk—who had already sped up house’s traditional tempo to 140 BPM—to see how the sound evolved.
By the early 2000s, folks like RP Boo and DJ Clent were taking the foundation laid by Dance Mania and turning the sound on its ear, speeding it up even more, but, unlike juke, messing with its straight-ahead 4/4 groove to give footwork its signature rhythms.
Today, in the Windy City, DJ Spinn, DJ Rashad, and Traxman are some of footwork’s most well-known purveyors, but, with the attention paid to them by UK labels like Planet Mu and Hyperdub, their influence has spread all over the world. Artists like Machinedrum and the UK’s Addison Groove have also put their own spin on the sound.
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BUT CAN YOU DANCE TO IT?
Short answer: Yes. But it takes some serious speed, flexibility, and practice—especially if you’re gonna step to the circle, which is where the battle is waged. Crews like Wolf Pack and Terra Squad regularly spar with one another on the dance floors of teen centers throughout Chicago, and because of dancing’s huge role in the footwork scene, producers (many of whom are or were also dancers) make tracks specifically for the intricate, quick-paced, leg-twisting manoeuvres that characterize the style.
Like pretty much every form of dance music, there is, at the very least, a template for plotting out a general beat for the style. Point Blank has developed a quick lesson on getting the basics down for a juke beat with 808 kicks, which will get enthusiastic Ableton producers on their way, and below Computer Music has assembled a similar tutorial. They’re not explicitly footwork tutorials—but that’s where you get to put your own spin on it. For the old-school method, Traxman knocks out a sample-based beat on his MPC in the video below that.
Have you experimented with making juke and footwork tracks? Have a tip to share? Let us know about it in the comments below.
We’re sad to report that footwork pioneer DJ Rashad (aka Rashad Harden) died yesterday, April 26, in his hometown of Chicago. According to the Sun-Times, Harden was found dead of a suspected drug overdose. He was scheduled to perform later that night in Detroit with collaborator DJ Spinn, who commented: “It’s just a tragic loss of a great musical genius.”
New information was revealed today that DJ Rashad died of a blood clot in his leg, not of a drug overdose. The drug paraphernalia found near his body was marijuana-related, says The Guardian.
Rashad’s new EP, We On 1, was set for release on Monday. He was 34 years old.