UPDATE: NBC Chicago reports that DJ Rashad died of a drug overdose, with heroin, cocaine and alprazolam found in his body upon his death.
DJ Rashad, who passed away this weekend at the age of 34, was largely responsible for the enormous growth in popularity that Chicago footwork has seen worldwide in the last few years, carrying his culture on his back and into clubs all around the globe. The origins of the relentless music and dance culture remain an argument among Chicago DJs and dancers — nobody seems to be able to agree on what side of town it came from, or who first laid the foundation for the frenetic feet movements that thousands of kids pit against each other on a weekly basis. But one thing is certain: DJ Rashad was one of the most innovative and important pioneers the art form has ever seen.
Born Rashad Harden in Hammond, Indiana, and raised in the Chicago suburb of Calumet City, he cut his teeth playing drums and keyboards and dancing with the infamous dance crew House-O-Matics in middle school. Saving up his allowance, he eventually purchased a cheap sampler and a drum machine to try his hand at creating his own homegrown beats. He was first featured on the B-side to DJ Thadz and DJ Chip’s monster hit “Bang Ski,” released on legendary Chicago label Dance Mania in 1998. Deciding to commit to DJing full time, he would put out dozens of mixtapes and CDs alongside colleagues such as DJ Spinn, DJ Clent, RP Boo and Traxman, eventually cementing himself as one of the community’s most important figures.
As the Nineties ended, the music became faster, more unhinged. Claps and snares began to wander, and the bass began to roar. Rashad and his cohorts would set up shop at dance studios, roller skating rinks and other makeshift venues, where dancers would battle, following along the broken rhythms pouring out of the speakers. These events provided safe havens for inner city youth from various neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides, where kids could come and fight with their feet rather than firearms.
Along with fellow DJs, Rashad founded Ghettoteknitianz, a tightknit crew of DJs and dancers that would eventually become shortened to Teklife. Rashad began to play the big brother role to a handful of younger recruits such as DJ Earl, DJ Manny and DJ Taye, passing on his production knowledge to the next generation, and jumpstarting their careers. Rashad would hold frequent organizational meetings, where business was discussed and tasks were given to his kin. One time he told everybody in the squad that they had to make five new tracks by the end of the week, an assignment that he bragged he had completed in only a few hours. Rashad influenced his colleagues to stick together and work as a team, which ultimately helped take him and his Teklife family worldwide.
In 2010, footwork’s popularity reached new levels, and Rashad began touring the world extensively with his childhood friend Spinn, ultimately playing prestigious festivals such as Sonar in Barcelona, Festival NRMAL in Mexico, as well as Pitchfork Festival in his own hometown, which he was set to play again this year. His albums such as 2012’s Teklife Volume 1: Welcome to The Chi and 2013’s Double Cup received massive praise by the media, ending up on multiple year-end lists. Kids from all over the globe began trying their hand at imitating Rashad’s sound, and footwork became an international genre, no longer confined to the Chicago streets.
The music Rashad made was constantly in evolution; and as much as he influenced his peers, he was never afraid to have others rub off on him as well. After spending a lot of time touring in the U.K. and Europe, you began hearing the “Amen break” and other motifs from British dance music popping up in his tracks, often riding over his signature soulful Rhodes melodies. He was a true music lover, who loved his job and loved his fans, who came from all walks of life. I never saw someone so happy to be DJing, so thankful for being in the position to travel the world and spread his seeds. He had kids from everywhere from Brazil to Japan repping his Teklife brand, to the point where it almost seemed he had created some kind of cult. His most recent jaunts were an extensive nationwide tour with fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper, and a South American tour, his first trip to the continent. Even as his successes grew, he still remained the same humble guy, never ashamed of where he came from.
Everybody wanted to be his friend, as Rashad was the definition of “cool breeze.” He lit up the room wherever he was with his amazing charisma and charm, often rocking his signature black shades and white sweat towel on his shoulder. He loved to laugh and make others laugh, and while he gave off an enormous ray of confidence and positivity, he was always there for you if you were having troubles. He was one of my best friends in the entire world, who convinced me to start DJing and producing my own music, and I know I’m not the only one who can say that. He was more than willing to teach people the things he knew, and would often leave gigabytes of his music on your hard drive without having to ask.
Rashad’s death has shook the music world, and everyone who ever shared a moment with him is devastated. The legacy he left behind is one of enormous stature, one will live on forever. He changed the face of modern dance music, and footwork will never be the same without him. As the man himself would say, “Teklife to the next life.” I’ll see you on the other side, my brother.