DJ Taye Credit: Allison Ziemba

Last month I saw Chicago footwork producer DJ Taye perform in the middle of the afternoon in 38-degree weather on a stubby stage set up in the street next to the Empty Bottle. His set was part of the club’s annual daylong outdoor festival, Music Frozen Dancing, which historically favors rock—every headliner has been a rock band, and this year psych-rock rebels Oh Sees topped the five-act bill. Taye was the only performer to use a DJ rig, and I had to wonder how many people in the crowd knew what to expect when he powered it up.

Footwork is a descendent of house music, likewise born in Chicago, but its sui generis sound relies much more on mutated rhythms and hectic tempos. In the minds of the genre’s most orthodox fans and practitioners, a footwork track has to go at least 140 beats per minute, and it’s supposed to be made with a dance battle in mind. The style’s characteristic layered beats often employ dramatic contrasts in speed, pitch, density, and location in sonic space—you might get a sparse, booming bass line that feels like it’s pressing up against your chest, overlaid with a busy, chattering synth pattern that echoes as though it’s on the other side of a soccer stadium. This gives dancers lots of things to grab on to—and it also helps explain why, outside the black communities in Chicago who built footwork, it tends to be marketed to fans of experimental music, almost by definition a small niche. I couldn’t say how many fans of experimental music were at Music Frozen Dancing, but the crowd was mostly white. It seemed fair to expect that quite a few folks were about to learn what footwork is.

Footwork grew out of the ghetto-house scene on the south and west sides in the late 1990s, and for the better part of a decade now it’s been a global phenomenon. Credit for its reach goes largely to DJ Spinn and the late DJ Rashad, the Chicago producers who cofounded the Teklife collective—other members include footwork originator RP Boo, dance-music veteran Traxman, and the 23-year-old Taye. Tastemaking UK electronic-music labels Hyperdub and Planet Mu gave footwork an international boost too. In 2010, when Planet Mu dropped the compilation Bangs & Works Vol.1, it caused a sea change—the world outside Chicago was suddenly aware of the existence of a footwork scene, rather than just a handful of idiosyncratic producers. Since then, communities in countries as far-flung as Poland and Japan have adopted and adapted the sound. Taye himself toured with Canadian singer-producer Jessy Lanza in 2016, playing at the Empty Bottle that June.

I’m sure at least a few of the people bundled up for Music Frozen Dancing were at that show, and some of them had surely heard footwork before. But even those fans might’ve been surprised to see Taye pick up a microphone and rap—most footwork is basically instrumental, incorporating vocals only in the form of samples or short looped hooks delivered by the producer. Taye raps all over his new debut full-length, though, and no way was he going to leave that material out of his set. The album is called Still Trippin’, and Hyperdub released it last Friday.

“I was rapping and writing before I ever touched a DJ deck or FL Studio or a producer program,” Taye says. “I mean, I’ve always been rapping, since I was a kid.” Born Dante Sanders, Taye got his hip-hop education before he was even old enough for school. “[My] parents just kinda passed it down,” he says, “listening to, like, older gangsta rap—from Geto Boys to Tupac or Mobb Deep. Even nowadays my mom still listens to new stuff. It was always around me.” His history of listening to and making rap has helped him chart a path for footwork’s future.

Taye is hardly the first to bring footwork and rap together, and the overlap between the two in and around Chicago has enriched both styles. In 2007 rap duo Dude ‘N Nem helped nudge footwork into the spotlight by applying its sprightly syncopated rhythms to the minor hit “Watch My Feet,” and in 2009 political rap group BBU pushed the hybridization further with the cult favorite “Chi Don’t Dance.” But with Still Trippin’ Taye has accomplished the most logical and organic combination yet—his rapping is just as crucial as the footwork elements to the success of his tracks. These aren’t rap songs borrowing from footwork but rather footwork songs engineered to work with rap.

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Rap and footwork have been connected for as long as they’ve both existed, and most of the threads that link them are also connected to the founders of Teklife. As footwork took shape in the late 90s, DJ Rashad began to mentor a young Chicago DJ named Emmanuel Nickerson, aka rapper-producer Mano, who’d go on to cofound Treated Crew, tour as Kanye West’s DJ, and collaborate with the Weeknd. In the mid-aughts Rashad and Spinn shared their skills with DJ Oreo, who’d already DJed at dance battles for the CAN TV show Wala Cam and would soon cofound a footwork battle clique called Heat Squad. Oreo has since toured with Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper.

Rashad’s 2011 album Just a Taste Vol. One includes “Ghetto Tekz Runnin It,” which features rapid-fire rhyming from Chicago MC Add-2. Further collaborations with rappers continued to trickle out after the DJ’s death in April 2014—the most notable is probably “Dubby,” with Spinn and Danny Brown, which dropped in August 2015 and later appeared on Spinn’s Off That Loud EP. That same year Mic Terror released the EP Live From Your Mama’s House, which brought together Treated Crew rappers and Teklife producers. And when hugely talented local footworking crew the Era made their debut mixtape, 2016’s In the Wurkz, the dancers didn’t just commission the obligatory Teklife instrumentals—they also added their own rapping (they call it “footworking with words”).

Taye contributed to Live From Your Mama’s House and In the Wurkz, and his new album builds on those efforts. His rugged, rubber-burning rapping adds another textural layer to his omnivorous music, and his tracks have a loose effervescence and polished, even pretty sound that contrasts with the rough edges and harsh tones of more conventional footwork—this seems to make it easier for other MCs to engage with his style, and Cool Kids rapper Chuck Inglish appears on the Still Trippin’ cut “Get It Jukin.” All that said, Taye remains rooted in footwork tradition: his synth melodies hum like they’re about to levitate, his muscular, galloping bass provides footwork dancers with a firm rhythmic lifeline, and his panoply of percussion evolves throughout each song, just as it needs to in order to keep dancers engaged and provide cues for them to jump into a battle.

Taye’s footwork has its roots in the hip-hop beats he started making at age 11. Born in Calumet Heights, he’d been living with his family in the south suburbs since age six, and by the time he caught the music bug he could throw a rock and hit any of a dozen aspiring rappers or producers. “When I was just doing rap stuff, I wanted to be different,” he says. “As a rapper—if I was just that, or even a producer-rapper, I felt like my beats was gonna get tweaked, or somebody was gonna take my style, or I really wasn’t gonna go nowhere.” He developed his own style by drawing on “snap,” a dance-focused, club-centric Atlanta sound that emerged in the mid-2000s, after the heyday of crunk. “It was kind of a Chicago version of the snap rap that was going on back then,” Taye says. “I would say it was kind of a weirder sound—I kept some of that sound in my footwork today.”

Taye first encountered footwork in the early aughts, a couple years before he started producing. “Me and my friend, we both found this CD of, like, random footwork stuff—I don’t know if we found it at school or on the sidewalk,” he says. “I had to be around nine years old at the time.” The music didn’t click with him then, but early in his time at Thornton Township High in south-suburban Harvey (he graduated in 2012), footwork suddenly made sense to him. “Once I first heard Rashad’s music on iTunes—it was like, ‘This is bigger than anything to me,'” Taye says. “Almost a decade ago, I had that thought. ‘Why isn’t this the biggest music in the world?'”

DJ Taye waits for his imaginary nail polish to dry.
DJ Taye waits for his imaginary nail polish to dry.Credit: Allison Ziemba

In 2010, when Taye was 16, Spinn held open auditions for Teklife, then still called GhettoTeknitianz. At that point Taye was still green, with very little in-the-flesh exposure to the footwork scene—he’d never gone to the Chatham footwork arena Battlegrounds, instead simply making music at home and uploading it to the Web. But he recognized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when he saw one, and he showed up to the audition with a track. “My friends who showed me footwork, they said, ‘This is the weakest footwork track I’ve heard in my life,'” Taye says. “But when I took it to the GhettoTeknitianz tryout, they was like, ‘Yeah, you good.'” Taye remembers that his song sampled “Get Em High” off Kanye West’s College Dropout.

Taye joined the collective that same year, just as it began to break out internationally—he remembers Rashad talking about traveling to London for the first time. While Rashad and Spinn seized new opportunities for themselves, they also elevated the rest of their crew—and the culture they’d fought hard to create. “As soon as I got in, Rashad and Spinn, they just didn’t want anybody other than them to go through what they had to go through,” Taye says. “They did make it easier for us coming through the door.”

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The arrival of Rashad’s pop-forward 2013 album Double Cup set a high bar for the younger members of Teklife. Taye considered it the gold standard when he debuted on Hyperdub with the 2015 EP Break It Down, and it inspired him when he began working on Still Trippin’ that same year. “I was trying to continue to develop my own sound within footwork,” he says. “I was trying to think of what could be the next crazy thing to be doing. At the time, that’s two years after Double Cup. I was trying to still do something new, still trying to keep it real.”

Unfortunately Taye’s laptop was stolen shortly before the November 2016 release of his Move Out EP, so he had to re-create a couple Still Trippin’ tracks from scratch. The second time around, he could build on what he’d learned on the first pass. “I’m a firm believer in ‘everything happens for a reason,'” he says. “So if that computer wasn’t stolen, I don’t think that album would sound like this.”

Taye describes the nearly three years he spent on Still Trippin’ as a period of hard-core songwriting. He’s committed to his craft at every level, and it shows when he hits the stage. At Music Frozen Dancing, he wrapped up his first turn on the mike by stepping clear of the DJ table to show off his footwork skills, dancing so hard his wallet fell out of his pants pocket. Toward the end of the set, he took another turn dancing—and when he bent down to retrieve the wallet, he worked it so smoothly into his moves you might’ve thought he’d planted it there as part of his routine.

Taye says he wants to supersize his show, and by dancing to his own tracks he already illustrates the core aspects of how footwork music evolved to function. His confident focus on the mike establishes him as a triple threat: he’s a rapper and a producer, not just a producer dabbling in rap, and by convincing hip-hop fans to take him seriously, he hopes to introduce them to the less familiar sounds of footwork. “I just want to up the experience more,” he says. “I just want it to be more relatable to more people too.”  v