This past year, UK dancefloors and headphones have been treated to a previously land-locked sound: the high energy, snare-inflected, sample-laced bump and bounce of Chicago’s juke and footwork. It’s thanks in part to Swamp 81, Loefah’s imprint that unleashed dub shapeshifter Ramadanman’s hyperactive ‘Work Them’ and introduced the house-geared moniker of dubstep’s Headhunter, Addison Groove (whose ‘Footcrab’ anthem relentlessly grabbed a hold of 2010’s bassbins). Now, as autumn creeps closer, London’s electronic stable Planet Mu has lined up releases from three of the Chicago scene’s standouts, allowing the rest of the world to taste something as unique and heavy as one of the Windy City’s notorious deep dish pizzas.
Sonically, the juke/footwork comparisons to grime/ dubstep are inevitable, sharing darkly-lit, escapist bass soundscapes and a similar rawness. But juke and footwork are simply Chicago through and through: community- knit, decade-spanning scenes that stand just as loud and proud in the city’s legacy as the classic sounds of Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers or Farley Jackmaster Funk.
Beyond the record sleeves and mix-tapes, juke/footwork revolve around footwork dancing, a step-based style with an intensely competitive and dedicated battle scene. From large-scale footworking events to spontaneous street battles, a footwork routine is an impossibly fast whirlwind of feet, creativity, attitude and water-tight popping & locking. Over the past four years, the energetic dance style — which has been lighting up hood-linked parties and dancefloors for nearly 20 years — has exploded into the mainstream, even stealing airtime on MTV. Footworkers have featured in music videos for The Count & Sinden’s ‘Beeper’ (featuring Chicagoan Kid Sister), Twista’s ‘Pimp Like Me,‘ Missy Elliott’s ‘Lose Control,’ and Dude N Nem’s ‘Watch My Feet’. Meanwhile, Chicago’s FootworKINGZ, a vibrant collective of performers, have been holding down national TV contests (such as America’s Got Talent) and finding their feet on stages around the world, including a globe-spanning tour with Madonna.
THE REAL HISTORY
As juke and footwork start to expand, it’s similar to the child’s game Telephone, where information is passed, misinterpreted and repeated incorrectly. Credit is rarely given where due and definitions never quite add up. To find out the real history, the only way to string together the frayed links is to head straight into the ‘hoods where it all began.
First up, meet the Geto DJ’z, unsung heroes of the city’s underground and Chicago’s largest DJ crew (30 members deep), most of whom can be found at their weekly Sunday get-together at DJ X-Ray’s house on the Westside. Playing all styles — from house to hip-hop to juke — since 1992, the Geto DJ’z include Traxman (aka ‘The Captain,’ whose ‘Get Down Lil’ Mama’ is the most undeniable juke anthem), legendary hip-hop masters X-Ray and Clash Titan, house DJ Danta Williams, and Jammin’ Gerald, the blueprint-setting icon who gave ghetto house a home at The Factory (a 300-capacity weekly party) from the mid ’80s until 1991.
From there, head a bit further west to find a bright 20-year-old holding the torch for Footwork’s younger generation: the prolific DJ Nate, whose immersive, hypnotic, tweaked-out Planet Mu debut (‘Da Track Genious’) hit worldwide shelves this past September.
Meanwhile, below the Chicago River, DJ Roc remains one of the undisputed kings of Chicity’s Southside, leading his crews Beat Squad and Bosses Of The Circle with an unmistakable rhythmic sound. After his three albums hit underground gold (‘Juke City’ Volumes 1-3), Roc is readying his tour de force, ‘The Crack Capone,’ for Planet Mu this October. The Southside is also home to the elusive pioneer and analogue-heavy RP Boo, more specifically the “Dude Off 59th Street,” whose ‘Godzilla’ classic set the tone for the darker edge of Footwork. But you need to tread even deeper south — to Chicago’s South suburb Markham - to stumble upon the charismatic Rashad and Spinn. Old school friends that became leaders of Juke Trax (a sub-label of Detroit ghetto-tech’s Database), the duo carried the baton for the generation after (Juke’s main label) Dance Mania’s downfall at the end of the ‘90s. It’s Rashad alone that stands as the last leg of the Planet Mu tripod, with his soul-stealing ‘Itz Not Rite’ EP.
Lastly, no footwork investigation would be complete without input from the feet that are kicking along the scene’s progression. Meet Southside’s Aaron “Aaron the Great” Neal (aka AG), creator of two infamous dance battle crews (Terra Squad and Leaders Of The New School), as well as an honorary member of the FootworKINGZ.
Take a seat for a quick-fire lesson through Footwork 101, with some of the genre’s most important and scene-rumbling innovators...
How did you first discover juke and footworking?
Rashad: “I started DJing when I was 10. When I was 11-years-old, I used to DJ on a college radio station [Kennedy King College Radio on the Southside] with DJ Nehpets, Gant-man and DJ Jana Rush. At 13, I started DJing at a skating rink in Markham, playing DJ Funk, D-Man, Deeon, Jammin’ Gerald, Traxman, Paul Johnson. I was just infatuated with the music.”
DJ Roc: “I grew up on the lower end of the Southside of Chicago in the projects. I was footworking and dancing since I was three-years-old. I grew up listening to DJ PJ, Deeon, Slugo; people would sell their mix-tapes on the streets and at parties. I used to dance a lot in my high school years. When I was 16 I started DJing; I made a setup out of two Playstations and a four-channel mixer.”
DJ Nate: “I never really liked footwork or juke music until my second year of high school. I started going to the