Chicago's Footwork Music And Dance Get A Transatlantic Lift : The Record Footwork, a popular style of dance from Chicago, gets its own compilation via a British dance label.

Chicago's Footwork Music And Dance Get A Transatlantic Lift

In small corners of the globe, dancers are putting the pedal to the floor. In L.A. there's krumping. In Detroit, jit. In the South African town of Soweto, shangaan. All these types of dancing have one thing in common: you gotta be quick -- split second micro-moves can decide the fate of a performance.

Watch a video of Chicago footwork producers, DJs and dancers talking about their scene and the music they make -- and dancing.

In Chicago, a city known for its impact on modern dance music, a style called footwork is picking up steam. With two compilations of footwork tracks being released, we spoke to the people making the music, pushing the dance style forward and spreading the word about their homegrown scene.

As a dance, footwork is a blindingly fast-paced movement of the feet in which dancers string together combinations of twists and turns with seamless transitions. Like krumping or jit, footworkers use these combinations to battle each other, competing in the middle of a circle of dancers for money or street cred.

The music that footworkers dance to developed out of a similar style of dance music called juke in the mid '90s. Juke music has an extremely fast tempo, around 160 beats per minute, but it features bass kicks, claps, high hats and samples in very short increments. In footwork, the beats per minute are the same, but the bass drum is used more sparingly. Also absent is much of the percussion and vocals that clutter juke's beats, leaving behind a half tempo that allows dancers more room to express themselves. The tracks -- repetitive and hypnotic -- often have a grungy, lo-fi aesthetic.

Nearly every DJ we spoke to credits R.P. Boo as footwork's inventor. Boo came up in the juke scene as a dancer and producer, and says he spaced out the music's beats as he noticed dancers responding. He says that the dancing still drives the direction of the music.

"The more I see these dancers out here doin' these things, the more I feed off of them, and my music gets better," Boo says.

Like Boo, footwork producers almost always begin their careers as dancers, graduating to DJs that spin other people's records at parties, and eventually producing their own footwork tracks. The fate of these productions lies in the hands of the next batch of dancers. A track that receives a weak reaction will have a short lifespan.

"It's the dance that applies the evolutionary pressure," says Nate Boylan, a high school science teacher and producer. And where dance drives innovation in the music, competition drives innovation in dance.

"It's a competitive sport." says Boo.

Within the footworking community, different dance groups and DJ cliques compete with one another for supremacy. Though competition on the dancefloor fuels innovation, every so often it spills outside of the ring. Rival DJ groups like the Ghettotekz and the Bosses Of The Circle do not often work together. There is also a divide between dancers from the West side and dancers from the South side of Chicago. Boo says disagreements between DJs get in the way of collaborative progress. "We got people that don't even like each other, and for what cause?" he asks.

This tension could be blamed for the difficulty footworkers have had in extending their reach, but recent developments could push the genre in front of new audiences. Two weeks ago upstart Chicago label Ghettophiles released a compilation of music that brought together DJs in Chicago, and now, leading electronic British label Planet Mu has commissioned a compilation called Bangs and Works Vol. 1. Set to be released in the U.S. December 14th, it offers an unparalleled cross section of the footwork community.

Planet Mu abel owner Mike Paradinas says he became interested in the genre because it reminded him of what was happening at home.

"A light bulb went on and I said this reminds of what's been going on in the last 15 years in U.K. music," Paradinas says. "[It uses] a lot of the same samples we used in breakbeat-hardcore and jungle," which are also U.K.-based offshoots of early Chicago house. "So I'd been listening to this stuff from DJ Nate, R.P. Boo, people like that on YouTube ... it just struck a chord in my head."

Paradinas is the outsider that Chicago footwork needed to bring its artists' music together, says DJ Roc, a member of Bosses Of The Circle.

"It's the first thing that had me shakin' my head, like, damn, it took Mike to put out a compilation for all us to be on one CD at the same time," Roc says. "I mean like, man, my group ain't out here sayin' we the best, or we takin over and all that. People need to put all that bull**** aside. Lets do this like a union, for the love of the game. We all from the same place, we getting music from the same place, so why do it matter if you scream you the best?"

DJs from different sets say that there are stylistic differences between groups and regions -- West and South -- though of all of the DJs interviewed, none could pinpoint what exactly differentiates their music. The differences in dancing styles are more noticeable, according to Da Queen Crystal Da Pistol, a 22-year-old Southside footworker who has been dancing since she was 14. She battles every Sunday at an event called Battlegroundz, held at the Final Phase Dance Studio, as a member of the group Leaders Of The New School.

"Basically, our style is cleaner. The West Side was known for dropping, and doin' something on the ground," she says, and then adds with a laugh, "But they evolving to the South Side now."

No matter how serious the competition gets between these various groups, it's nothing compared to what happens outside of the dancing world. For many, footwork is a refuge from the violence and crime that plagues their neighborhoods.

"We lost two fellow members to street violence, and they wasn't even them type of people, it was just who they was around. They got caught up in the street,"
says 
Aaron Neal (also known as A.G.), the founder of Terror Squad, a dance group from the South Side. He says that footworking is a way for him to participate in something positive.

"We choose not to be out there gangbanging," he says. "It's like picking up a basketball or a football for your school. You doin' something positive at the end of the day that's keeping you alive."

In that respect, the footworking community is bound by a commitment to a craft above all other distractions. They often scoff at the money-centric nature of hip-hop, a genre with similarly modest beginnings in basements and block parties throughout the South Bronx. Though footwork still lives in Chicago basements and studios -- a niche genre for house music nuts and lovers of hand-held videos -- the rest of us are finally getting a chance to see it.