DJ Rashad & the Body Electric Poetics of the Chicago Footwork Scene
The synths fire like the loaded guns planted in the middle of the jungle gyms on the playgrounds of Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods, black breaking as jade breaks astral fabulous in the pavement. And the one-line blues sample is the bloodied body of the stricken, rising, chicken spot in the corner of one eye, his sisters sobbing single file as they pass his casket, in the other. Emmett Till connotation turned inward. That was in Chicago too, where thousands watched his swollen blue open as sun proof. Let us hallucinate together, let the bell jar shatter. The Chicago Footwork dance and music scene, beautiful fugitives running circles around themselves on the killing field, the outside violence turned in with shy belligerence, harkens to the the first drummers who were tap dancers languaging the cottonfields with the haunted codes of escape, beyond the purple star zone. How far can you stretch one line, the same handful of words repeating, before that sameness gains variety, repetition’s road to nuance. And as the words stutter, repeat, shatter, come back together, reap, the dancers, assembled in a juke circle, heads downcast, are stepping so fast and intricate they should trip or disappear or fly, can’t hear you, their footwork becomes what you hear in the music: impassive silence, interwoven with the one dragging line I’m rolling down a lonely highway, and a huddle of Jordans, floating dragons, also planted in the playground, skipping as only the brutalized know how to skip, empty spaces where the beat should be, Double Dutch without the ropes, safer, closer to the edge, some hope. A minute or so later we hear asking god to please forgive me she’ll come back and she’ll forgive me, feet rejoice in soft stampede, one man falls to his knees.
Performance here is as a form of privacy shared between poet drummer and dancer and they are all one. The musicians start out as dancers who hear a music that doesn’t exist in the tangible world, they hear it with their bodies and go on to create that music so that they can move with it and become intangible themselves. The music gives them words to pull it together, to unify its maker with what he makes. In a city where the threat of death by the hands of a familiar is as familiar as your own fluctuating image, beauty is in a hurry, sped up, drugged, and sustained by radio frequencies that jar on purpose. Sometimes the only route to privacy is to be intentionally incomprehensible, an anti-performance, and ensconced in that wall of sound, thought and feeling can open, the body can open, in a way that it must close in daily life. Secrets are confessed on the dance floor, poems are scribbled on the backs of death threats, black bodies fast forward in a march toward a sound that stands in for a future. The future is reformed sound. Revolution beings acoustically. Listen to the siren fade behind the cheering and rioting.
Decolonization is always a violent event, Fanon wrote. But this violence today encompasses more numbness than traditional pain, a numbness that is pain extended beyond the conscious mind, invading your sleep until you begin sleeping while awake. Sleep walking, speed talking, fleeing the stalked circumference of urban life for a boundless, placeless and implacable new day, new daze. Walk for me. Through this bruised lament, rolling down a lonely highway, asking god to please forgive, she’ll wake up and… suddenly three minutes in the rolling churns toward a dealer, where the Molly?, the pure MDMA, forget-me-not golden lady impossibly jaded holy rollers parading in place, wear the Molly, clean heart swallowing itself as a bitter pill to treat the hollow. This song Rollin’ is for me the thesis of Footwork as a form; as a poetic form that reminds the body how to poem in the world even when endangered, unburdened. Paraphrased, it chronicles a man’s quest to use the machines at hand to reassert his humanity, to live in the image of a god, as a god, as one who transcends himself in a context where basic transcendence requires risking one’s life for pleasure enough to not go numb.
When documented/ scrutinized, the top Footwork DJs are filmed in their bedrooms drinking Red Bull or something malted and thanking their mothers for soul records from the 60s and 70s. Thanks to soul music’s ability to morph, would-be dead or dreaded bodies are jubilantly and sorrowfully scrambling to organize around soulfully thugged-out pleas meeting demands, walk for me. The born ambassador of the movement, DJ Rashad, carries a deep charisma around in his sometimes sad sometimes gleeful eyes. The kind that comes when carelessness and excellence mingle in one soul: truth afraid to take itself too seriously. He seems both lucid and disoriented in the footage as he explains the origins of the Footwork velocity in 140 bpm House music, now sped up to anywhere from 150 to 168 bpm. A lesson in doing more with less, time’s scarcity heckled forth by space walking. And the headquarters of it all, the venue where each Footwork crew gathers, is called Battleground. A basement with a checkered linoleum floor and a modest equipment stand. At least 50 dancers and 10 or 15 DJs meet here most nights to trade movements, strategies, with a few rules of engagement: Do all your moves from left to right, (as should be a decolonized literacy), know the basics, recreate yourself every day.
This violence is also peace / We real cool
The crew of Footwork DJs Teklife is described by one of its phenoms and Rashad’s closest companion, DJ Spinn, as ‘pretty much a collective, we get on them big machines and we get technical with it, but ghetto.’ Chicago has a deep history of this kind of collectivity, from Fletcher Henderson’s Big Band to The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s rogue improvising across forms and styles to Sun Ra’s idyllic early arkestras to the AACM, a self-made ladder for black classical musicians. Parallel and interwoven with that legacy is the history of displaced post-reconstruction Black Americans leaving the South for factory jobs up North or out West. From Louis Armstrong to Sam Cooke to my own father, Chicago was the first stop on the railway system between the Deep South and the West for many musicians; the first glimpse at urban life, a lifestyle met with immediate recoil in the form of bands and gangs and ghettos, slums, cancers, and triumphs of the black spirit which had been freed from one kind of bondage into another form of treachery, much harder to breach.
In a culture where wealth had historically been measured by togetherness, isolation was called for in the city, codes were called for, to admit we loved one another we had to unlearn that self-rejection, and dance and music were the forces that made it possible to survive at all. The more violently alienated life became, the more tender the music needed to be. The gospel with which Sam Cooke launched his recording career, so full of love of forgiveness, was for this same reason, confrontational in that context; how had love and optimism prevailed amidst squalor and tireless labor. The ability to organize a big band was proof that black men could lead an army, inebriated or sober, with their queen on vocals on the frontlines. The house occupied by the members of the free jazz group Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the legendary word-of-mouth concerts held therein, were proof that we could own and run our own venues. Even Billie Holiday owned a Chicago nightclub for a while, even as restrictive covenants prevented black so-called citizens from owning land in most neighborhoods. We owned it anyways, anyway we could.
Eventually came the quantum stride from the jazz dominated era that was the 20s through the 60s into the new, more synthetic improvised music of 70s and 80s and 90s. While hip hop, with its relaxed militancy narrated the New York ghettos, an almost playful quickening pervaded Chicago and Detroit. Maybe Chicago’s role as the frontier, first refuge from the gentility of the South, means it will always move a little bit faster, and that we must look there to see what’s coming for our other urban centers. A new form there promises revolution elsewhere, deterioration there is the first sign of the whole nation’s illness, the body count there a muted reminder that this is war. The success of the music at moving more bodies than crime, a sign of who’s winning. Chicago is the center, the belly of this American beast, and when you let the core atrophy the extremities gangrene. The zoned-out coasts grow vampiric. But when Footwork’s energy supports the core, the rest of us can harness to strength to run.
The Beauty of Inflections / The Beauty of Innuendos
Footwork is a poetic form because of how its most skilled technicians approach sampling, how they handle lines, which is how they handle land, how they handle their bodies in space and timelessness. The sample tells a story, a fixed glory affixed to a few lifted phrases oriented around rapid fire beats. This is far out beyond the tyranny of pentameter in a way that language on the page has yet to experience for fear of weirdness or because we court our strangeness too deliberately or concretely in writing; the meta-language of speaking which is utilized in Footwork, is often banished from the page. Or maybe we lack the Footwork/ Teklife sense of urgency, which, even as it gains popularity, cannot be appropriated unless you want to appropriate the modesty and discipline and danger that goes with it. Every song feels like a man’s last words. Rashad samples Gil Scott Heron at his most fragile, crying, I left three days ago but no one seems to know I’m gone, repeating seven times, lifted from Heron’s Home is where the Hatred is, the sample extends over a quicker, severed beat, and it might not be such a bad idea if I never went home again home again home again never went home again never went home again. DJ Rashad calls his version I’m gone. The beat is a warm metallic war cry that makes me want to twerk into a battle crawl and navigate some endless forest. This is a Footwork ballad with a bleeding heartbeat. Sneakers furling in slow motion through that candid basement air. This is literal. Rashad Harden is gone. He died of an overdose in April of 2014. He has performed this chant with his body or the chant has performed sorcery on him or premonition is a form of will. Or what if everyone who dies is suicidal? What do you know? No one seems to know who’s gone. Recall: She teaches us that voodoo was used as a means, during slavery, for slaves to break free from the slave master. When the slave wanted to break free from the master, the only way to get out a lot of times was to die. That’s right, to die. What if you’re slick you ain’t slick no more: confessional by accident like George Oppen or Hart Crane. Or as Gil Scott Heron goes on to explain in the original, did you ever try, to turn your sick soul inside out so that the world could watch you die? (Sidenote: is that what America is doing right now in this election?)
Footwork standards tend to share this meditative quality even when they’re just jiving She’s lurking on the ‘book, that pussy gon get took (Facebook that is), a modern romance rhymed into existence or Walk for Me a five minute long command repeating and echoing everyone from Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweetback to Paris Is Burning, serious associative play. What’s beautiful is how the redundancy of this format supersedes itself and emerges florid with texture and meaning. The distraught/ecstatic speed behind the words lifts them beyond what they repeat and opens a portal through which bodies escape feet first, a kind of time travel a few epochs ahead of hip hop for its controlled chaos, a return to that jazz consciousness where nothing is fixed or literal, though strict rules are in place and mastered so that they may be broken and rendered lyrical. When Amiri Baraka created a poetic form he called the Low-coup, a hybrid of the Haiku ‘cause we don’t have time to count syllables,’ he was doing something akin to what Footwork DJs and dancers do, hurrying into the brilliant flash of meaning or ‘forest of motives’ as he named it. Footwork is what Stevens called the beauty of inflections or the beauty of innuendoes; it captures both using abject repetition because life in Southside Chicago is that destabilized by the threat of casual terror as to be cohesive and stabilized by that same omnipresent threat, precarity is what’s promised, so the youth listen faster because they have less time for listening’s intimacy, the eroticism of the slow dance is turned inside/out too. It’s a luxury to listen to a whole story song, a few poignant lines stand in or intervene and tell the whole story. That is poetry at work, building a new futurist form with the atrophying tools it has inherited. This is how language guides the body and how the body guides language in an indomitable loop that gives survivors and martyrs alike some semblance of grace and justice. If we dutifully inhabit more quaint and colonized spaces, we do not get access to fractal Teklife/ Footwork paces, the wages of ‘safety’ is risk and therefore poetry, and where risks are least calculated poetry thrives.
The Double Cross of Naturalness
As life becomes more synthetic, adaptation, becoming more synthetic ourselves without growing contrived, makes us relevant. Purity, or even aspirations toward it, forces us to reject most of the conditioning we’re party to in this society. Food and music in packages. Water in bottles, air in oxygen bars or sold to multinational corporations so that they have the ‘right’ to pollute it. If we pollute ourselves we are being natural, falling in line, and can create poetry in the tenor of our times, so one line of logic goes. Living in New York as a transplant from California I remember deciding that seeing children laughing would have to stand in for seeing trees and full spectrum sunlight, the light and kinetic energy was reflected in them. But inevitably this approach comes to a crossroads where in order to adapt we must reuse elements of the past, both shared and personal, and access stored or remembered energy, or we have no sustainable resources. We’re seeing this amongst the middle class as more and more individuals begin working for tech companies and then resorting to festivals and hard drugs for their estranged bursts of human interaction. Toward a whole nation of adolescents.
Black youth have a far better alibi. When instruments and music programs were removed from public schools, adapting Black teens meant turning the records of their ancestors playing instruments into instruments themselves, and a return to the troubador poet style of the griots, a re-privileging of storytelling and of the voice as the simplest self-taught musical form, poetry, with the lowest overhead, was given back to the people and forced to stand in for drums, trumpet, piano, sax, vibes, harp, healer.
Footwork and the Chicago scene of dancers and troubadours who vitalize it are nearly speechless with suppressed trauma and yet invaded by an electric/magnetic joie de vivre, and the tension between those two registers produces poet king leaders out of men who are just adapting, being natural in a toxic world. It is on this path of least resistance, the ingesting of Red Bull and Molly and Malt Liquor as staples alongside the diet of soul and jazz music alongside the lack of sunlight and clean air and water that accelerates life, making it more beautiful and more exotic and more impossible. When Gwendolyn Brooks, also living in Chicago, passed a pool hall full of young black teens skipping school and wrote her famous
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
she penned the earliest Footwork ballad. The language stutters in a similar stance, neither truly chastising nor forgiving, just announcing, telling a story in the voice of its subjects. The hipness that might have cost them their lives, might have been worth it to them, it is not for us to decide. In the etchings of feet and chalk on pavement their souls live on; and you don’t see mainstream society trying to domesticate the sacred street codes out of the hood in its typical colonial Kiplingesque effort to ‘save’ them, they suck their sickly impossibly natural blood instead, copy the dances and habits and harvest the organs left behind by the fallen/ risen, appropriate the very bodies being destroyed under society’s pathetic rubric for socio-economic growth, actually a rubric for tyranny.
Poetry on the page in this climate seems to be clamoring for a way to dance the way Rashad makes one phrase raise feet into mid-air and stay suspended there, safe; the written language wants to mobilize bodies this way but it is meant to regulate and sedate them in this society. That is the document’s intended function in a fascist era; agit prop for the state is what the state wants, just enough tension, just enough rebellion, to simulate what we call liberation or even protest without ever achieving it, just getting tangent to it and pretending fluently. As writers we can learn a lot from DJ Rashad, Spinn, and the whole Teklife connotation. We can get on these big machines and get technical with it, but colloquial. We can remix our rawest lived experiences with our fantasies of how our most utopian selves move through them, fly through them, dismantle their shackles. We can be both pure and natural in that way, defy the call to ruin ourselves for our work and avenge the lives of everyone from Miles Davis and Billie Holiday to Charlie Parker and JDilla to Weldon Irvine and DJ Rashad, who were too pure to not self-destruct in this context. Let our poems do the destroying so that we may live. And don’t sell your Vogue or your inner-child to Madonna or any of her cronies and lambs. Guard your most elaborate minimalism, a do-rag and some bantu knots, mourn the loss of ancient tongues by actively reimagining them, the way Monk left out notes so others would stop copying him, unhinge that code, make it dangerous to be a poet again, make it everything, we are a nation of poets. Give them their problem back, their greed, their violence, they envy, their boredom—their lust to be fluent in the more than words that you’re born master of; knowing you are the language the world wants to speak, it’s easier to shut up and dance. We hope Rashad knows he was forgiven in advance; that the urgency he personifies is our truest story, the poem we’re afraid to hear sober, and can’t remember in the morning, without moving, faster, more eternal.
Born in Waterloo, Iowa, poet and choreographer Harmony Holiday is the daughter of Northern Soul singer/songwriter Jimmy Holiday. Her father died when she was five, and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. Holiday earned a BA in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley and an MFA at...