The first time I heard Chicago footwork, via Planet Mu’s 2010 compilation, Bangs & Works, my brain took a minute to catch up to my ears. It was a thrill to feel so confounded. I had no idea what was going on, but I was in love. It wasn’t just the breakneck, totally bonkers rhythms, but the fact that this was a music born of dancing, born for dancing, and that it was through the dancing that footwork revealed itself. My eureka moment was when I realized the chaotic pace was a gift to the dancer, providing endless hinges for them to pivot off and, with that, endless new possibilities for the body. In a time when musical movements are spawned on Soundcloud and blossom on Bandcamp, footwork had undeniable geography: a blood, sweat and tears culture in Chicago. It might sound like it’s from the future, but it had been nurtured on Chicago soil for two decades. Like the dancers, Chicago producers DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn pivoted off the Bangs & Work compilation and took their music around the world, from Russia to Japan.
It was in April 2011 that I got to understand footwork in context when Rashad and Spinn brought three dancers—Lite Bulb, DJ Manny and A.J.—with them to London for a performance at a street dance festival held at the austere dance theater Sadler’s Wells. Though we were the same age, Rashad had a fatherly way about him, no doubt from shepherding the three young dancers across the Atlantic on their first trip to Europe. There was something elder statesman about the way he talked about footwork too, with great care and responsibility. This was a music he’d been dancing to since he was in seventh grade; this was his life. That’s not to say he didn’t like joking around: after filming the dancers on my phone for a short video piece I was making for Dummy Mag, Rashad proved he still had the moves by doing an impromptu running man, to the delight of Light Bulb and co. Afterward, we all traipsed over to the pub next door and got pints, which is where Rashad and Spinn told me about the event they threw every Sunday in Chicago at a daycare centre. “It’s just something we love to do, it’s a positive thing,” Rashad said in the video interview, explaining that he and Spinn made no money at all at the gig: all the door money went into a pot awarded to the best dancer of the night. “They come out and they get to hear new tracks, win money, they might even learn some new moves or gain some respect.” That dedication floored me at the time, and still floors me.
In the three years since that initial meeting, I met Rashad many times, mainly in nightclubs in London where I would sweatily hug him after yet another incredible set. He never failed to give me props for doing that first interview, a move that always touched me. While the whole Bangs & Works crew continued to make music, it was Rashad who cartwheeled ahead, honing his craft and mining new emotional depths and sonic heights with every release. The last time we spoke was back in October, in the run-up to the release of his formidable Double Cup album on Hyperdub. He was getting over a nasty hip injury (he’d been in a car accident) yet, diligent as ever, took my call from a doctor’s office. I asked him why footwork, and specifically his footwork music, was so sad, and for once he was a little lost for words but then gathered himself to say: “Ah well, most of the times in those samples it’s pretty much how I felt.” The one that’s been playing in my head since hearing the inconceivable news that Rashad died on Saturday is the one that appears in “Let It Go.” While I don’t think anyone who heard his music or met him is any fit state to do that any time yet, its message of love, loss, grief and forgiveness is one that’s as wise and open as Rashad was–in music and in life.