Fuelling The Footwork
Hold on, I’m talking real fast. My bad.” Footwork producer DJ Earl has just realised that he’s speaking at around 160BPM. He pauses, quietly laughing at the coincidence, and takes a moment. “I’ll slow down a little bit.”
During this frenetic speech, DJ Earl was paying homage to both his peers and contemporaries in the dimension of footwork – the often 160BPM, Chicago- born music and dance movement that Earl and the Teklife collective have been developing for over a decade. So every word counts. “Any opportunity I have been gifted is an opportunity presented by someone humble enough to realise that footwork wasn’t just about them,” he continues. “It’s about liberation and helping everybody. But anyway, where were we?”
25-year-old Earl Smith, aka DJ Earl, is part of the class of footwork’s present and future. Taking influence from the scene’s early architects such as RP Boo, DJ Clent and Traxman, Earl’s skill for broken beat production has also been lauded for its progression. As one of the younger members of the Teklife family, he’s able to utilise the genre’s aggressive dynamism and welds it with swooning slow jam romanticism. It’s a realm of footwork seldom explored until recently. Earl and other esteemed experimentalists including JLin, DJ Manny, DJ Taye and DJ Paypal are regarded as the genre’s next surge. And as footwork’s popularity continues to mushroom, the responsibility lies with these names in preserving their art- form’s very existence.
Spawned from the mutations of ghetto house, hip-hop, booty music and juke, the genre originally provided the soundtrack to dance crews in Chicago, who would battle against one another in any public space available, from ice rinks to dilapidated insurance offices. The dance, a frenzy of foot action and spasmodic legwork to the pulse of 160BPM and upward, remains somewhat local to the windy city. But, in recent years, the speed-centric velocity of the music has been injected into clubs and venues on an international scale. “It’s a beautiful thing,” Earl smiles. “We just started this thing making music on our computers, learning the craft, growing up in the juke community. The dance was just embedded in our lifestyles
from years past. But it’s the music that seemed to make sense of it all.”
Earl spent his former school years attending microcosmic dance events such as The War Zone and Battle Groundz. The latter is a local club night frequently held on a Sunday and originally idealised by footwork doyens DJ Spinn and the late DJ Rashad. Seniors of the neighbourhood used to organise these dances as a creative and safe outlet for teenagers. “For me and the younger generation of kids, we were drawn to these events because what else was there to do?” Earl became instantly enamoured by the events and the rhythmic complexities displayed by opposing dance troupes, and began fine-tuning his footwork as part of his crew Creation. “Crews made it cool,” he explains. “It made everything feel like a positive competitive sport. I was this young kid watching all these dance crews, trying to figure out which one was the best. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing.”
“I feel a responsibility to carry on the legacy that Spinn and Rashad created”
Battle Groundz was a place for Earl to fully immerse himself in every aspect of footwork. Attending the weekly event for a year, Earl became acquainted with its organisers, Spinn and Rashad, in 2009. Having started to veer more towards music production and DJing over the dance, Earl was invited to be a permanent Teklife member. “Ironically, the first thing they talked to me about was school and how my grades were,” he remembers. “They were on some real shit with us. No messing around. They needed us to be on point. They genuinely mentored us.
“Coming up under Rashad and Spinn was an opportunity they didn’t have to present us with in the first place,” he continues. “As I got older and more humble I realised they literally dedicated their lives to this music. They took all of us in and acted like older brothers to us all. And because of that I do feel a responsibility to carry on the legacy that they created by taking the time to hang out with some kids and open doors for us all for free.”
Talk on Rashad’s untimely passing back in 2014 is equally delicate as it is unavoidable for the DJ’s protégés. “I think I’ll always be in shock about it,” he laments. But since his mentor’s death, footwork has entered electronic music’s mass-market, with Earl being a major player in its maturation. “I think what really started to impact people is when Teklife started to tour. Purists were like ‘Oh you’re touring now, it’s supposed to be about Chicago’. But of course it’s about Chicago. We were born and raised in Chicago. The dance is bred there. People have their opinions about footwork’s evolution but some people can’t handle change. It’s crazy to see footwork played in a commercial space like Elevate Festival or Sonar because footwork’s from the hood. Literally from poverty stricken areas.”
Earl is currently based in New York. As he tells me, the move was essential for his well-being. “I wasn’t exactly in the safest neighbourhood. Chicago’s an amazing place but my levels of anxiety brought on by refusing to make basic decisions like going to the store because I’d be afraid of getting shot were difficult. I also couldn’t create in the space I was in. My parents’ housing situation wasn’t really conducive to loud sounds. I figured maybe I should try living in New York. But I’m always going to be rooted in Chicago. It’s part of who I am.”
Today, Earl is touring with Open Your Eyes, the first full-length record to be released by Teklife following a posthumous DJ Rashad album. Having collaborated with the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never on a number of tracks, Earl spent three consecutive days locked in the basement of his parents’ house with Manny and Taye to complete it. “Only left that room to use the bathroom and then come straight back,” he laughs. Following its release in August, the record has already been perceived as a confirmation of footwork’s stability for the future. But how far does Earl think both he and this subculture can stretch? “It’s not just a subculture anymore. It’s exercise. It’s aerobics. Footwork can fill all types of spaces. Gyms. Main stages. Clubs. Fashion runways. It now has the potential to be published everywhere.
“When it comes to what we do, even how Teklife came about, it’s always been about footwork’s natural progression,” he continues. “We do this everyday. We’re about that life. It’s our living soundtrack. It’s a literal documentation of who we are. Imagine if you could dance out the soundtrack to your life. If you could dance, if you could interpret all your emotions, feelings, thoughts and experiences into dance and sound. That’s footwork.”
Open Your Eyes is out now via Teklife. DJ Earl appears with footwork dancers at Ableton Loop, Berlin, 4-6 November