Rashad Harden, better known as DJ Rashad, died yesterday at the age of 35.
  • Sun-Times
  • Rashad Harden, better known as DJ Rashad, died yesterday at the age of 35.

Calumet City footwork master Rashad Harden, better known as DJ Rashad, died Saturday at the age of 35. Harden had been one of the biggest names in footwork, a fast-paced style of dance music that evolved out of ghetto house in the 90s. Along with frequent collaborator Morris Harper (aka DJ Spinn) and the rest of their footwork collective, Teklife, Harden helped bring this unique local sound to the rest of the world. He toured internationally and released music through chic electronic labels Planet Mu (which included Rashad on its renowned 2010 footwork compilation, Bangs & Works, Vol. 1) and Hyperdub, the London label run by influential dubstep pioneer Kode9.

Rashad dropped three releases through Hyperdub last year, including his excellent recent album, Double Cup, which came out in October. The strangely frenetic footwork sound can be quite disorienting—on many tracks beats fly by at around 160 BPM, pitch-shifted samples are played in stuttering loops, an irregular bass throbs at a blaring volume—but on Double Cup Rashad and a slew of Teklife members moved towards something more accessible. Cuts such as “Let U No” and “Feelin” have a mesmerizing, sparkling pop quality while retaining footwork’s unusual and fast pulse. Just today, Houston producer Wheez-ie is releasing a DJ Rashad EP called We On 1 through his new label, Southern Belle Recordings.

Despite having been behind the decks for more than two decades—his father told the Sun-Times that Harden began DJing at the age of 10 or 11—Harden was really beginning to hit his stride. Just last year he played Pitchfork Music Festival, performed at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of its free “Wired Fridays” series, and toured with Chance the Rapper on the Chicago MC’s Acid Rap victory-lap trek. Harden was also scheduled to tour Europe last fall, but a near-fatal car accident in October forced him to cancel that trip—he didn’t stay down for long and he headed back on the road in November.

Harden’s death comes less than a month after the passing of Chicago house icon Francis Nicholls, better known as Frankie Knuckles. It’s been a very difficult month for Chicago’s music scene. The community lost two figures who pioneered genres of music unique to this city that made waves around the world. We’ll be grappling with Harden’s influence long after this weekend, and his Teklife crew will continue to make his imprint bigger and wider.

I’m reminded of something Teklife producer Nate Boylan told me when I interviewed him for the Reader‘s People Issue in the fall. Boylan spoke lovingly about how he first connected with Harden on MySpace, around the time Harden was releasing music on influential Michigan label Juke Trax, and he told me about the essence of Teklife. “Teklife, it’s like, you can hear it come through in the tracks,” Boylan said. “It’s that life, it’s when you’re on the decks and you’re making people go nuts—people that can’t even footwork and they’re dancing like crazy people. Teklife is the whole process of making the tracks. It’s not just making the tracks, we hang out, we’re friends, we go on adventures.”

Teklife isn’t just a collective of footwork producers—it’s also a word that evokes the fond memories of hanging out at late-night warehouse parties or an inside joke that has somehow stuck around long after it was first told. I understood some of the essence of Teklife, or about as much as an outsider possibly could, when I saw Harden and Harper at the first of Chance the Rapper’s two-night stint at the Riviera in November. The duo were performing on a balcony just above the right side of the stage, and once Chance finished his set they started dropping one footwork track after another. Looking down at the crowd from where I’d been seated I watched a kid wearing a backpack bust some footwork moves as a circle formed around him, and elsewhere down below teenagers were bopping up and down. Footwork can be strange, but Harden had a talent for getting anyone to dance to it.