I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

"It's a Battle”: The Footwork & Juke of the Windy City

by Justin Martinez
June 17, 2014

Footwork was a Windy City creation. Which means it came with its own urban progressivism that, in this instance, began with the house that Frankie Knuckles built.

There is the dance and there is the music, of which RP Boo and DJ Rashad are the forerunners. The music is as an extension of jungle as Chicago house, but more Chicago house than hip hop -- though there’s enough electronica in hip hop now that the distinction is almost worthless. (RP Boo’s label is Planet Mu, founded by Mike Paradinas. As Miles Raymer of Chicago Reader noted, “The forefathers of footwork music may be Green Velvet and Gant-Man, but it’s got more in common with Aphex Twin and Burial.”) The only thing to say is it’s fast: “aggressive tempos of 155-165 bpms” is how The Guardian’s Hazel Sheffield put it in 2010.

“You know what sounds inspired me? All sounds,” RP Boo told a National Public Radio documentary crew. “It’s all sounds. All sounds. Because the ear is a part of who we are; a lot of people gotta understand you need your ears. There’s no limitation to your ears… Chicago’s roots is dance.” He used a Roland R-70 drum machine in the beginning, the mid-90s: little clicks, untreated high hats and snares, an occassional clap. Scratching is mostly absent. Like many before him, he samples Full Metal Jacket on more than one track. The samples repeat like a mantra and they’re strange listens without the athleticism to go with it. His tracks are somewhat unadorned, almost dated because their focus is to keep the dancer’s focus.

Detroit Jit dancer Will “Sisko” Green might as well be talking about footwork: “It’s got a history going all the way back to the 1920s with jitterbug dance, lindyhopping, Charleston -- it incorporates all of those moves.” Some moves are called dribbles, skates, bangs. RP Boo: “I used to be a dancer. And a lot of the dancers that was in the group with me in House-o-Matics, they was more footworkers but we never knew in the years to come that it would become a style of music to help ‘em out.” Like breaking, footwork battles and dance-offs were pivotal. The venues, like the popular Battle Groundz, are typically low-rent storefronts that look like inner city barbershops, with scratched-up faded tiles and bad lighting. Endless Youtube videos look this way. All the events appear drug-free and disciplined. It is hardly underground; dancers have appeared on America’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, and other mainstream competitions.

It’s this one-upmanship that always seems to propel new scenes to new levels. House lost its edge and the ghettos created ghetto house -- the Dance Mania label was the big player there (1985-2001). Juke (“a phrase used to describe a banging party” -- thanks, XLR8R) appeared for the club-grinding crowd. Footwork arose as a deconstruction of that. In the music itself, DJ Rashad (along with DJ Spinn and Traxman) added a more expanded palate. They added fresher, glitchier sample skipping. It was chopped up better. Amen breaks dropped in from the drum & bass genre, probably inspired by touring in the UK and Europe.

Rolling Stone called Rashad “one of the most innovative and important pioneers the art form has ever seen”. He told Spin, “Basically, we just want to represent things the right way, and keep people hip to the streets, to the real shit.”

DJ Rashad also started out a dancer. He told Lisa Blanning at Electronic Beats, “I was dancing—that was the thing, it was like basketball, football, skating or anything else. It was something everybody did, especially when you were younger. You might have grew out of it once you got to junior in high school, or you kept going…

“Then I was like, ‘I want to DJ the music.’ A lot of DJs back then didn’t take me seriously because of the dancing. DJing back then was really serious: if you didn’t DJ on Technics 1200s, if you didn’t have records, you weren’t considered a DJ. Versus now, you could just be on the internet, say you’re a DJ, and there you are. You really had to prove yourself back then, it was really competitive. So, I gave up the dancing and went straight for DJing, concentrated on that. Dancing was more an outlet for me just to have fun, get girls.”

To The Quietus: “My goal is now, that you don't have to footwork or dance. As long as you get into it and enjoy it, that's cool. You don't have to know certain moves to get down with the music. Just have a good time. That's what I'm trying to have and get across to people. As long as you feel the rhythm and the bass, just vibe with it, you'll be alright. It's for everybody, not just footworkers.”

Rashad Harden was pronounced dead at 1:50pm on April 27th in his Chicago apartment as a result of complications due to a blood-clot in the leg, less than a month after the passing of the “Godfather of House Music”, Frankie Knuckles. He was 35.


Galil, Leor. “Talking about Godzilla’s footprint on footwork with RP Boo.” Chicago Reader, May 16, 2014.

DJ Rashad + DJ Spinn: Teklife in Monterrey”. Pitchfork TV (dir. Jim Larson).

Pearl, Max. “Making Tracks: Chicago Footwork”. Thump/Vice Magazine (December 3, 2013). 

Justin Martinez is a playwright living in Lawrence, Kansas.  His work can be found at www.racialfacial.com.