October 23, 2013

Test Spins: DJ Rashad, Double Cup

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Upon hearing DJ Rashad’s “I Don’t Give a Fuck,” the excellently titled lead single from this year’s Double Cup, I was not sure how to feel. Was it an incredible, slightly disorienting footwork anthem that flipped dubstep atmospheres (the Burial kind, not the Skrillex kind) into something infinitely more danceable? Or was it the sound of a drum machine sputtering while trying to connect to a noisy dialup modem?

Whatever it was, it was my introduction to DJ Rashad and Chicago’s thriving footwork scene. From the inception of house music to the industrial, Chicago has been the birthplace of many an underground dance music phenomenon. Footwork is an update of juke, the sexually explicit 808-driven style that emerged in Chicago during the ’90s. R.P. Boo, regularly cited as the genre’s inventor, says footwork’s development was a reaction to the denizens of the dancefloor: “The more I see these dancers out here doin’ these things, the more I feed off of them, and my music gets better.” Dancers incorporate quick foot movements and bodily twists into a manically athletic dance that seeks to match the scatter-shot drums of the music. To a newcomer, it sounds fresh, unpredictable and, frankly, a little bit alienating. For the life of me, I cannot imagine the Pixel crowd getting rowdy to footwork’s stumbling cadences.

Regardless of my preconceptions, Double Cup is one hell of a footwork primer. DJ Rashad, who emerged as the preeminent producer within the scene, creates jazzy noise collages vaguely reminiscent of Flying Lotus.  Like many regional dance styles, footwork’s trademarks are somewhat rigid: hypnotic synth chords, ethereal pitch-shifted vocal samples and methamphetamine-charged hi-hat ticks prevail. The hooks to all the tracks are spoken and repeated ad nauseum, creating slogans out of seemingly innocuous phrases. There’s a little bit of cloud rap’s reverb-heavy production and a lot of lyrics about smoking weed. Footwork might have the sort of easily replicable structures that will be broken down in hundreds of Ableton Live tutorials, but it’s evident that DJ Rashad is the man responsible for writing the manual.

This isn’t to say that Double Cup is steadfastly monochromatic. In fact, it is Rashad’s encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago’s long-standing dance music history that transforms the album from niche curiosity to one of this year’s most impressive dance full-lengths. True to its name, “Acid Bit” takes the abrasive synth leads of acid house and marries it to jungle’s ramshackle clatter. “I’m Too Hi” is drum and bass of the highest quality; it digs up the oft-recycled “Amen Break” and revitalizes it, Dr. Frankenstein style, into an ode to that late-night cross-faded feeling, and “Pass That Shit” is G-Funk filtered through trap snares and Clams Casino’s patented haze-scented aesthetic. While I’m sure that Double Cup will inspire many Brooklyn-based copycats, it’ll be difficult for anyone to replicate DJ Rashad’s versatility and measured genre experiments.

As far as the bafflingly left-field “I Don’t Give a Fuck” goes: it’s a genuine mind-fuck. On it, Rashad earns the John Cage comparisons some have leveled at him while making the most aggressively sinister track I’ve heard all year. Its whooshing synths, atonal EKG noises and nihilistic mantra provides the ultimate soundtrack to a city whose youth culture, as has been widely documented, is on the verge of a violent breakdown.

It’d be an uneducated proposition to say that Double Cup is footwork’s pinnacle, but I can’t imagine another producer creating something that sounds this definitive. Lots of dance cultures come and go, unnoticed by album-fetishizing squares like myself due to a focus on singles, but Double Cup is the sort of long-lasting document that could act as a gateway drug for young producers for generations to come. Yes, we’ll have to endure a veritable tidal wave of imitators, but we’ve always got DJ Rashad to remind us of what footwork is capable of.

James Rainis is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].