It’s hard to think of a genre better suited for compilations than footwork. Comps let tracks exist as individual entities in a set, related not by some overarching narrative but through action and reaction. The setting reinforces the inherent kineticism of music often made by former dancers, and the sharp turns required to keep the dancefloor competitive (what some listeners find exhausting about footwork is part of what keeps it vital—that shark-like need to keep moving or die). Above all else, though, the compilation format honors the sense of community embedded in footwork’s DNA: this is music meant to be made and experienced together. In 2014, no one embodies that communal spirit more than Teklife, the (mostly) Chicago-based crew of producers and DJs and the driving force behind footwork’s gradual expansion from a regional to global phenomenon. Even Double Cup— the game-changing 2013 solo album from Teklife founder and scene ambassador DJ Rashad, widely understood as the genre’s finest full-length release—was a family affair; of the album’s 14 tracks, 12 were collaborative.
Rashad passed away suddenly this April, at age 34 and in the prime of his career. His name appears only once on the tracklist, but his legacy is the lifeblood of Next Life, a memorial collection of new works presented by Teklife and long-standing footwork advocate Hyperdub. (Proceeds from the album go entirely to Rashad’s son, Chad.) Rashad’s one official contribution, “OTS”, isn’t the most immediately gripping of the album, though it does hit the sweet spot between his two best modes: bare-bones, chant-driven booty house and heady, melody-oriented Rhodes workouts, at times firmly grounded on the dancefloor and at times levitating just above it. But even the track itself is a collaborative effort, joined by Teklife heavy hitters and close friends DJ Spinn, DJ Manny, and Taso. In any other sphere, a single track by four distinct producers might read as a little absurd; in Teklife, where the joy of collaboration is its own reward, that’s just how it goes.
Lest we forget, this is still “the Chi, the city of hella haters,” a phrase coined by Kanye West in 2007 on Consequence album cut “Grammy Family” but expressed a thousand times over elsewhere in Chicago over the years. It’s a city fractured by design, its system of geographic and socioeconomic segregation in place since the Great Migration and exacerbated in the 2000s by the failure of the most extreme public housing redevelopment project in American history. Culturally, the result is an archipelagic cluster of subcultures that often never grow beyond their niche; even when scenes thrive, they don’t often spread. Combine that with Chicago’s lingering reputation as cultural fly-over territory, despite decades of musical history to the contrary. There’s a prevailing tinge of dread among musicians in the area, that there isn’t enough light for everyone to get shine here and even less money to make your art profitable, feeding a bitter undercurrent of competitiveness that courses quietly beneath Chicago’s music scene. Within this context especially, the brotherhood that animates and unifies the tracks compiled on Next Life cannot be overstated.
Even considered outside of its sentimental context, it’s a strong collection, on par with either of the scene-surveying Bangs & Works compilations that introduced footwork to dance music aesthetes worldwide in the early 2010s. It’s bittersweet, but the void left by Rashad leaves room for a closer look at Teklife’s less heralded new guard and veterans whose legacies have yet to be fully acknowledged. DJ Earl and DJ Taye, two of the crew’s youngest members and the most promising of footwork’s second generation, shine on “Do This Again”, striking a balance between familiarity and innovation. Scene pioneers Traxman and RP Boo, credited for inventing footwork as we know it, thrive at the other end of the spectrum; Traxman’s “Sit Ya Self Down” is a particularly refined example of his breed of tender kitsch, and Boo’s “That’s It 4 Lil Ma” is efficiently deranged, overwhelming with a bare minimum of components. “Jungle Juke” is a straight shot of unwarped, 140-BPM ghetto house, true to form for fellow trailblazer Gant-Man, who beat Planet Mu to the punch by five years in 2005 with his official remix of Beyoncé’s “Check On It”, effectively juke’s major label debut. DJ Manny, another of the crew’s founders despite his young age and a permanent fixture on practically every major Teklife release, delivers one of the album’s best moments on “Harvey Ratchet”, a masterful streamlining of his vocal-oriented sampling style.
Next Life closes with “U Should No”, an ecstatically campy finale that repeatedly devolves from disco-ready four-on-the-floor into stuttering free-for-all. It’s an interesting gesture: three out-of-towners and relative Teklife rookies (DJ Paypal is from North Carolina, Feloneezy and Jackie Dagger hold down Belgrade’s surprisingly devoted footwork scene) deliver the closing statement that nudges your attention back towards Chicago’s house music history.
If there’s one glaring difference between this collection and the Bangs & Works surveys, it’s the inclusion of artists outside the Chicago city limits; elsewhere on the album are contributions from New York duo Tripletrain and New York-via-UK producer Durban. As footwork has grown into a national movement, with Teklife members regularly touring overseas and releases often distributed by British labels, long-time fans and purists have worried that the genre’s rawness might become diluted or glamorously re-touched. Instead, Teklife’s steady globalization has only strengthened the movement. There has been no re-packaging of the crew’s original appeal. Considering that reappropriation has always been central to the sample-heavy art—absorbing and recontextualizing influences, drawing cross-genre parallels or simply fucking stuff up—the increasing exposure to new sounds has only made the music more interesting. Where mid-’00s footwork was rife with hip-hop and soul inflections, Next Life (and much of Teklife’s output from the last few years) incorporates bits of jungle and d’n’b just as deftly.
The word “forward-thinking” is often tossed around when discussing footwork; Next Life makes a case that “outward-thinking” might be a more accurate way to put it. The movement’s trajectory in recent years hasn’t been linear so much as expansive, a three-dimensional broadening of horizons. Certainly the music is futuristic, but that doesn’t entirely capture what’s most exciting about footwork in 2014: that the insatiable curiosity of the Teklife crew has thrown into high gear a “Katamari Damacy”-style mode of folding new cultural touchstones into their established sound, keeping footwork’s essence intact but constantly evolving. More than anything, Next Life is a testament to footwork’s endless possibilities—proof that there’s no one “right way” to do this stuff, even as it expands well beyond its original context. There couldn’t be a better way to honor the memory of the guy who understood its limitless potential more than anyone.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/14giTFu