“It’s getting bigger and bigger — it’s beautiful,” says RP Boo, the producer credited by many as the father of Chicago footwork. From its beginnings in the late Nineties, the genre — marked by dizzying loops, staccato synth stabs, antic polyrhythms and blasts of repetition, repetition, repetition — seemed designed to go everywhere and nowhere at once. Now, a half-decade after garnering global attention through the ear-bending Planet Mu compilation Bangs & Works Vol. 1, the sound of footwork is morphing into new forms from Poland to Japan, influencing the fringes of the avant-garde and taking stylistic leaps at home.
“It’s open[ed] so much that producers have been making it go from telling a paragraph of a story to becoming a novel,” says RP Boo. “It can rub off to a different genre and tell a story with tempos changing, bars changing. It can still be footwork but now with broader spaces and more people coming in.”
Since the release of Bangs & Works in 2010, new footwork releases have rushed out at a suitably disorienting clip. So far this year, the movement’s Chicago center has greeted fresh offerings by scenemakers RP Boo, Traxman, DJ Spinn, Jlin and the sadly departed DJ Rashad, among others. Collaborations have crossed borders to other cities and streamed overseas, where artists are also taking up the template on their own. As that happens, the template is bound to change — especially when the template is shifty and amorphous to begin with.
“We want to broaden the horizons and hope more people hear what we do,” says DJ Spinn, the genre’s reigning global ambassador, whose Off That Loud EP is due in September. “We do one style of music, but it goes so many different ways.”
One striking example came by way of the most acclaimed footwork full-length of the year thus far. Released this spring, Jlin’s Dark Energy made its mark because it is so different than footwork in its most elemental, pared-down form, with original production in place of samples and an expansive sound full of synthesized orchestral flourishes and airs of downcast drama that thicken the typical range of moods.
“The best way I can describe art is that it should be disturbing.” —Jlin
“People think ‘dark energy’ is a bad thing,” Jlin says. “It’s not. You can have euphoric moments and then turn around and be completely depressed and create something that is magnificent. The star comes from darkness, so how can darkness be all bad? The best way I can describe art is that it should be disturbing.”
RP Boo is also pushing the formative footwork style forward on Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints, a June release featuring 14 songs of both recent and older vintage. With a mix of lo-fi textures and manic samples that loop and intersect, the album both resurrects and refines the classic RP Boo sound.
“I try to keep some of the origin in it,” he says, “and you have to allow it to grow. The sound helps me, and I help the sound.”
The wider world is working it out as well. The Chicago contingent holds out praise for U.K. footwork popularizers like Addison Groove and Kode9, whose label Hyperdub does duty alongside fellow label Planet Mu to help footwork spread through vaster international networks. Other outsider favorites include the New York/Berlin artist Machinedrum, the Juke Bounce Werk crew from L.A. and Eastern Europeans affiliated with Polish Juke, among many more. Some of the connections come from Chicago directly, with the originators of footwork touring more extensively of late. DJ Spinn, especially, has been active in far-flung locales, including a tour that took him to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru.