Behind The Scenes Of Chicago's Footwork Renaissance

Photographer Wills Glasspiegel shares his candid shots of the figures at the heart of Chicago's footwork community.

Rashad Manny

Footwork, the bracing 160bpm dance music which grew out of Chicago house and juke music, has progressed from a long-established local scene into a worldwide movement over the past three or four years. Its rise is in part due to seminal releases by European labels such as Planet Mu and Hyperdub, the latter notably releasing the breakthrough LP Double Cup by the late DJ Rashad in 2013, and through tireless promotion of the sound by Lit City Trax here in New York. Since getting his first taste of it five years ago, Chicago-born photographer Wills Glasspiegel has become tightly embedded in the scene: earlier this year he participated as a founding advisor in the creation of dance crew The Era, led by preeminent dancer Litebulb; he's worked with the Teklife family in documenting their musical history for a forthcoming film; and the photos he's taken over the past five years capture the figures at the heart of footwork's genesis. This selection of pictures, published for the first time today, capture moments both prosaic and career-changing. There's Traxman, DJ Manny and Rashad blowing up NYC at one of J-Cush's Lit City Rave (pictured above), DJ Earl and Frost collaborating on a track in Earl's living room, and dancers Weezy and Murda Moma in the heat of the moment at Chicago's famed footwork dancing spot Battlegroundz. Below, Glasspiegel shares his story of being in the right place, at the right time, for one of the most important eras in dance music's history.

DJ Earl and footwork dancer Dre at Battlegroundz with the championship belt (2013).

WILLS GLASSPIEGEL: "The first I time I heard footwork was in 2010 from my friend Jamie, who goes by J-Cush and has a label called Lit City Trax. It was love at first listen. I was heading back home to Chicago for Thanksgiving and I had the opportunity to do a piece focused on footwork for NPR Music, which eventually turned into something for All Things Considered. That was the tip of the iceberg for me.

Footwork has definitely changed a lot. It's gone from a local thing to a global movement—a history that wasn't on the map in any way, shape, or form outside of this culture is beginning to be understood by people from all over the world. But at the same time, if you go to Battlegroundz on 87th Street in Chicago on any Sunday night, you're gonna feel some of that same energy that I felt originally upon becoming a part of the scene in 2010.

Murda Mommy, one of Chicago fiercest footworkers, in the circle at Battlegroundz (2014).
Japanese producer and dancer Weezy visiting Chicago and footworking for his first time to crowd approval at Battlgroundz (2014).
DJ Spinn and Lil JaBBA at Lit City Rave, 285 Kent (2012).

When Rashad passed, it was almost destined that we start The Era because it seemed like there was a real need for a dance wing to support what Teklife had been doing. Rashad had such a history with these guys—he'd known Litebulb for fifteen years—and they'd all grew together for so long. Something deep was there in terms of the role that we had to play as a crew, and I was just helping with organizing, with press, doing everything I could around that stage.

DJ Rashad and DJ Manny, one of Rashad’s key proteges, after a Teklife meeting on the west side (2012).

We gotta be real about it: because I come from the North Side of Chicago and a relatively well-to-do family, and I'm not black, I have access to a network and resources that these guys just don't have access to. Being honest about what people call privilege and trying to share that as much as possible, that's been a part of the dialogue. I try to offer as many resources as I have to offer when I'm working in the footwork scene, so sometimes that just means being a friend when you came to be a photographer.

Dancer Frost Da Boss and DJ Earl practicing in Earl’s basement (2013).
The Era dancers Chief Manny, Litebulb and P-Top practicing at Litebulb’s apartment in South Chicago (2014).
Footwork music and dance have long played a central role at the massive, summertime Bud Billiken Parade. Here's DJ Earl pictured on the decks on the float (2013).

We do a lot of things together. It's hard to classify what I do in terms of one role, or what any of those guys do in terms of one role. One memory is being at Earl's house, on the couch, somebody's making tracks, somebody's dancing, I'm taking photographs, and the night's going really well. That's always been what keeps me going: just chilling in somebody's basement, everybody's doing something creative, maybe somebody's doing animation or drawing. It's a real creative group of guys, and we keep it that way.

Teklife DJs and dancers outside DJ Earl's house in Roseland, South Chicago. From left: DJ Tre, DJ Earl, Frost and DJ Taye (2014).
DJ Clent and his daughter by the building where Clent grew up and produced number of iconic footwork mixtapes (2014).
Footwork originator RP Boo at home in Chicago, Sears Tower in the background (2013).

This idea that being a photographer allows you to see the world through other people's eyes—and see things that you would not have a chance to see, that's a major inspiration for my practice. Once you start picking up a camera and start seeing things through that perspective, and sharing that perspective with others, that can launch a beautiful life. I'm just following in the footsteps of my pictures."

Teklife business meeting with DJ Phil, DJ Rashad, DJ Manny and DJ Earl. (2013)
Traxman on stage at a Lit City party at 285 Kent. (2013)
TMO throws up an L, the Teklife hand gesture, at the iconic Anish Kapoor bean in downtown Chicago (2012).
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Behind The Scenes Of Chicago's Footwork Renaissance