After years of ruling the battlegrounds of Chicago, DJ Rashad has, in a surprising yet hugely appropriate turn of events, stepped up for British superlabel Hyperdub and presented a set of the most forward-thinking footwork that you’re likely to hear in months. If you’ve experienced one of Kode9’s inimitable sets in the past year or tuned in to the Hyperdub Rinse slot, you’ll be familiar with the labelhead’s ability to effortlessly assimilate the genre into the labyrinth history of British dance music as well as the idiosyncratic sound of his label. That ability carries through into this release, where Rashad, in parallel, imbues his mongrel sound with a sense of melancholy, thus fitting in comfortably with Hyperdub’s tendency to thrive on depleted serotonin levels.
To understand the full implications of this being released on Hyperdub and also for those of you who may be unfamiliar with footwork and its history, we shall provide some context. Our introduction to the sound, as we suspect was most peoples’, was Planet Mu’s “Bangs and Works” compilation which was released in late 2010 and joined a slew of discs on the label from the genre’s lynchpins (DJ Rashad, DJ Roc, DJ Spinn and later Traxman) as well as its wildly creative youth (DJ Nate in the early days and later Young Smoke and DJ Earl). Of course, juke and footwork have history well beyond Planet Mu’s early support (in fact if you asked Rashad what the first footwork track was he’d say Cajmere’s 1992 classic “Percolator“), but it was thanks to Planet Mu that the sound found an audience outside of its small but varied scene on the south side of Chicago and really gave birth to the fleet-footed outburst that followed.
Since then, footwork has experienced a rapid and rabid period of interpretation and recontextualisation. The sound has been infused with cosmic futurism by Kuedo and Ital Tek, shrouded in murky dankness by slava and howse, watered down and pop-ified by Machinedrum, married with jungle by Om Unit and featured as a prominent chunk in the rainbow internet vomit that was #seapunk. It’s been deconstructed and mutated by the Japanese, mellowed and polished by the Russians, metallised and imbued with dubstep’s bassweight by the UK’s Cosmic Bridge crew and Good Street Records, melded with worldwide ghetto tropes in the futuristic pastiche of Fade To Mind and even made an appearance in the D’n’B powerhouse Exit Records. All the while the Chicago crew themselves continued to crystalise their sound and explore the possibilities of footwork, with 2012 seeing the arrival of excellent long players from scene stalwarts Traxman, DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad himself. These releases charted high on many formidable end of year lists and garnered support from luminaries and tastemakers as esteemed as Mike Paradinas, Mark Pritchard and Kode9 amongst others. Suffice to say, we’ve come a long way.
Yet, despite all this fantastic appropriation, the footwork don and the Teklife crew in general have continued to push the boundaries further and harder than most, never sounding tired or uninspired. In this context, Rashad’s ability to keep it fresh is not only undeniable but astounding. Rashad’s use of breaks, increased attention to detail and melancholic vibe are all good examples of his progression, highlighting his incorporation of the worldwide explosion back into his own sound.
“Rollin” begins proceedings with bursts of cymbal hiss that pan from left to right speaker in stuttered glory before Rashad takes himself on a bleepy solo that dances gracefully around his mournful vocal sample. While what made the Teklife general’s earlier work so arresting was its simplistic immediacy and spontaneity, Rashad here revels in detail. Reverberating piano twinkles trail off before they’ve even begun and occasionally Rashad adds a ploinking drip sample to the tail-end of his raw claps. These are details that were only revealed after several listens. That’s unusual for footwork; what originally captured us about “R House,” for example, definitely wasn’t its fine-tuned soundbytes and tweakage.
“Let It Go” carries on the sombre tone, its stirring synth combines with a remorseful diva to form a high-speed, late night epic that fully demonstrates the producer’s heightened production values. It all sounds very clean and expensive – hi-hats sparkle, samples are warm and seductive, snares are full and resonant, long gone are the metallic, over-compressed crackles or lo-fi horn samples of 2k10. The track also sees Rashad drawing the rhythmic parallels between breaks and bangs more precisely than many attempts before it. They commingle with nuance and energy, drum hits ricochet off each other, entangled in a constant rhythmic tug of war between past and future. Refreshingly, the don, unlike many of the jungle footwork experimenters, uses breaks with restraint and thus for a different purpose – they are employed to spark short peaks of hysteria or offset a stripped down section rather than underlie an entire track.
“Drums Please,” featuring protege DJ Manny, kicks off with luscious snare rolls that wander around in a forest of paradiddle-ing mayhem. The raucous rolls give way to meal-dislodging sub pressure, crunchy snare splats, ear-splitting synth noodles and of course a classic footwork switchup where lulling chords fully synthesis the coldness that precedes. After years of hearing those beautiful chords enter the picture, it still takes us by surprise and it still inspires a warm glow in our hearts. “Broken Heart” sees Rashad in typical form with his long-time partner in crime DJ Spinn. Pulsating bangs protrude rudely through one of Spinn’s signature soul samples that’s tightly interlocked with gushing strings and a foundational kick-snare drum loop. Spinn and Rashad have never sounded so full and complex in their stop-start, cut-and-paste sampledelia.
DJ Rashad has produced an EP that maintains all of its integrity, the raw energy and insatiable creativity of footwork, but also contributes to the producer’s unstoppable progression. It’s a release that should see the Chi sound reach an even wider audience and indicates that, for footwork, the best may be yet to come.
“Rollin'” will be available on Hyperdub on the 18th of March.