Footwork is functional music at its core. It’s all in the name. Its purpose is to propel acrobatically nimble dancers into motion and send their feet flying.
Drawing from the deep bowels of house and emerging out of juke in the ‘90s, footwork too comes to us courtesy of Chicago and represents a hyper-localized scene from the city's South and West Sides. This Midwest product — part Miami bass, part ghetto house, part juke, and part house house — has spent this decade back in the music press consciousness almost entirely thanks to Teklife, a crew spearheaded by DJs Rashad and Spinn, the former of whom died in 2014.
This is music for dancers, where producers often cut a record for a particular dance crew and most of the DJs and producers begin as dancers themselves (and often even bring dancers in the studio while they’re laying out a track). Ghosting, dribbles, skates and two-step are some of the basics. For Angelenos who understand the jerkin’ scene, footwork operates similarly, as do Detroit jit and New Orleans bounce.
The sound is typically aggressive and fast, often spastic — beats per minute often reach the DnB or breaks ballpark (like 160 BPM and up) — with frenetic, skittering percussion. Vocal samples (often raunchy, in the 2 Live Crew tradition) are common, but verse-chorus-verse structured songs are extremely rare. And you’ve gotta have some foot-shuffling, bouncy bassline, of course.
A classic footwork track is often not over-produced but lean and minimal. The line between juke, footwork, ghetto house, and ghettotech can be rather fuzzy. One general rule of thumb is that juke often favors juicy basslines, is more butt-driven, and often features remixes of hip-hop tunes, whereas footwork tends to feature intricate percussion for step-driven dances. But if you’re getting caught up in the taxonomical differences, you’re not moving ass.
So here are some basic intro tracks to get you started. The usual caveats apply: This is a subjective primer for beginners. It’s probably best not to judge these songs unless you’ve got some serious low end on your sound system. And, please, don’t listen to them sitting down.
10. DJ Earl, “Smoking Reggie” feat. MoonDoctor and Oneohtrix Point Never (2016)
DJ Earl is a young gun who caught the footwork bug at Battle Groundz, one of the key underground spots in the scene, and was soon taken under the wings of Rashad and Spinn. This recently released collaboration with OPN and MoonDoctor may not have been out long enough to be a “bona fide classic,” but it signals fresh directions the sound is spilling out to, as fans around the world look to younger producers like Jlin, Earl, Manny, Taye and others to define the sound of footwork's future.
9. DJ Clent, “Bounce” (2004)
From the Low End projects on the South Side, DJ Clent (aka Clenton Hill) got his start putting out records on Dance Mania in the late '90s. Since then, he has released numerous party bombs, like “Bounce” here, which feels like Kraftwerk and Dr. Luke had a baby in a New Orleans bounce club. With its synth strings and only a handful of words (“bounce,” “whut!?”, and “drop that ass”), this one is a monster that'll leave stains in your pants.
8. DJ Roc, “Break It Down” (2010)
Not to be confused with Stones Throw's DJ Rocc, DJ Roc is South Side vet Clarence Johnson of the Bosses of the Circle crew and a stalwart on the scene in the '00s. For “Break It Down,” DJ Roc takes the Tevin Campbell early '90s cut “Shhh” and twists it into a footwork tune that seems to have one foot in U.K. garage, with its pitched and sped-up vocal hitting some nostalgic buttons and getting as close as footwork ever does to resembling pop-song structure.
7. Jlin, “Erotic Heat” (2011)
Jlin, real name Jerrilynn Patton, is the only woman on this list in an otherwise overwhelmingly male music scene. But the Gary, Indiana-based producer is one of the most original of this younger wave of footwork artists. She's a steelworker by day while producing as a side hustle. One thing she wanted to do was move away from sampling and generate more original sounds. Taken from one of the indispensable Bangers & Works compilations, “Erotic Heat” sounds like nothing else on this list. It's like she predicted FKA Twigs and puréed her in a footwork/U.K. dubstep blender.
6. DJ Rashad, “Ghost” (2011)
Rashad Harden was the Ron Hardy of this century. He played expressively, wildly, and had a charisma that few could rival. Along with DJ Spinn, Rashad was the ambassador this last decade, responsible for boosting footwork's interest internationally and developing a lot of younger producers under his tutelage. Like many of the producers and DJs in the scene, he began as a dancer. Before his passing, his productions breathed a whole new life into the footwork scene and helped take it to places outside the genre's initial framework. He added a sometimes psychedelic, sometimes bluesier or more soulful or even melancholy take on the sound, as on “Ghost,” which describes both a basic gliding footwork move and prophetically underscores the fact that Rashad, too, is now just a memory. The track samples Diana Ross and features shoutouts to different dancers in the scene.
5. DJ Spinn, “Bounce N Break Yo Back” (2007)
DJ Spinn (born Morris Harper) got his start as a member of the House-O-Matics dance crew before veering into production and getting a release on Dance Mania in the late '90s. From there, he became well known for his willingness to collaborate, and his work with Rashad is now the stuff of legend. His 2007 banger “Bounce N Break Yo Back” plays off the template of Clent's “Bounce” and represents a classic peak-time battle track.
4. RP Boo, “11-47-99” (2001)
RP Boo (nee Kavain Space) is one of the most respected juke/footwork-related artists from the first wave, and “11-47-99,” also known as “The Godzilla Track,” is his most notorious and controversial work. You'll notice that the video above credits DJ Slugo, another Chicago producer known for his contribution to ghetto house (and a guy who made headlines last year for getting fired from Chi-Raq). One version claims Boo wrote this for Slugo and didn't realize it had become a regional hit until later, which convinced him to release his own music.
The spine of this track is a sample of nefarious horns from the Godzilla film franchise and will be familiar to those of you who know Pharoahe Monch's “Simon Says.” You can hear how other artists like Hudson Mohawke and TNGHT basically cribbed their whole sound from this one track. In addition to having the combination of coolest real name and artist name, RP Boo claims to have coined the term and created the style of footwork — though (as with the debate over who created the term “house music”) it's all basically apocryphal at this point.
3. Traxman, “Pacman Juke” (2003)
Repping Chicago's West Side, Cornelius Ferguson aka Traxman is one of the scene's wisest elders and has been knocking around since the '90s, consistently turning out music ever since. For “Pacman Juke,” he took the 8-bit classic Pac-Man theme and flipped it into a funky club record, well before chiptune was (briefly) en vogue again during the blog-house era. This one would inspire countless imitators. Gobble, gobble, gobble.
2. DJ Deeon, “House-O-Matic” (1994)
This is a club tune that will be played long after we're all gone and is one of those Chicago records — like “Time for the Percolator” — that does so much with seemingly so little. Released on Dance Mania (one of the three most important house imprints of all time) by the South Side's Deeon Boyd, this record has been called “the blueprint for footwork” and Deeon has been steadily releasing music ever since.
1. DJ Rashad & DJ Spinn, “Space Juke” (2010)
There are many other relevant artists who deserve a mention, like DJ Trouble, DJ Milton, DJ Funk, DJ T Rell, and on and on. But it would criminal not to feature a collaboration between Spinn and Rashad here. “Space Juke” feels like it dips its toes way deeper into the water of classic Detroit techno than any other on this list and is simultaneously party music, paranoid and gleefully tweaked out — like Juan Atkins on lean.