Credit: <br/>Photo by Nick Accardi

DJ Hank, 27, moved to Chicago from North Carolina in 2011 to become a bike messenger. He began producing footwork tracks within a year, after befriending members of the influential Teklife collective. In April, Louisville label Sophomore Lounge issued his first 12-inch, Traffic Control.

As told to Leor Galil

A big catalyst was pirating FL Studio back when I was in middle school—I just started making beats, not taking it too seriously. When I was in high school I started playing with a couple different bands, just by going to a lot of DIY stuff that was all ages. I saw this band Whatever Brains, and they were all way older than me—I was like 15 years old. They were already touring and gearing up to record and shit. I wrote them a message on MySpace, like, “Man, I was at y’all’s show, I’m 15, you guys are lit.” They responded, “Do you want to be in our band?” So I started playing with them, going on tours, and recorded a couple albums with them.

I was making rap beats to start off with, but then I started hearing some electronic music and tried to incorporate that a little bit. I never tried making [footwork] tracks until I came to Chicago. Going to Battlegrounds, meeting Manny, Phil, and Rashad—that was the catalyst for me to be like, “Let me try to make some tracks.”

Right after graduating high school, I was working two or three jobs. I was doing food delivery in North Carolina. I knew that they have bike messengers up in Chicago, and there would probably be more opportunities for me here. Through touring with Whatever Brains, I knew some people and played in Chicago before I came here. I knew it was pretty affordable; it was cheaper for me to get a place in Chicago than it was for me to get something back home.

I fired up Google one day and started calling all the messenger companies I could find. In retrospect, that was probably crazy to be a bike-messenger manager in Chicago getting an e-mail like, “Yo, I’m this 18-year-old kid. I don’t even live there, but I want to come work for you guys.”

Footwork came on my radar through YouTube: Wala Cam dance videos. I didn’t make the connection between the dance and the music till a couple years later. How it came to me actually getting connected was, I’m here in Chicago, and I don’t really know a lot of people. I’m 18; Chicago’s a very 21-and-up town. I went to see an all-ages show with Rashad and Spinn at the Metro, and at the end of the night they were like, “Catch us tomorrow—we’re gonna be at Battlegrounds.”

When you go to Battlegrounds, pretty much everybody that’s there is dancing. If you’re not dancing, you’re gonna look out of place—it’s a real tight-knit community anyway. People were probably scratching their heads, like, “Who’s this new guy.” But I was received warmly as soon as I walked in the door. Manny had come up to me, introduced himself, and started introducing me to a bunch of people.

YouTube video
  • This undated video of Red Legends at Battlegrounds was uploaded in November 2015.

That first day I went to Battlegrounds was a legendary night. A group called Red Legends was battling everybody—that’s honestly one of the craziest nights for footworking I’ve ever seen. Something with the culture just instantly made sense, coming from a punk background. I think footwork music is pretty subversive. It’s raw. It’s not like a club setting; it’s all ages.

You couldn’t really hear footwork tracks to the extent that you can get it now—it’s almost a little bit oversaturated now. But back then, you could be listening to music at Battlegrounds and not recognize a single track for, like, hours—this is all hot off the presses. That’s how I got started. After the first time going to Battlegrounds, I kept going to different events.

[For Traffic Control] I definitely wanted to do something that was less sample based—like, less straight remixes. There’s obviously still samples on the album; I used samples from cell phones, traffic sounds, and social-media videos. Those were the motifs I wanted to draw on for the album, ’cause it’s something that really reflected my life in a very personal and honest way. The song “Traffic Control,” with all the traffic sounds on it, that was a track that I had wanted to make for a couple years. I had a concept in my head just from being a bike messenger; it just took me a couple years to unlock what I needed to do on that one.

There’s two [bike messenger] categories: one is food messengers, and the other people are, like, paper messengers, legal messengers, whatever you want to call it. There’s been a mass exodus from the Loop—everyone’s working from home, so we’ve been struggling just keeping our work up because no one’s downtown right now. We’re hanging in there.

I’m the operations manager at my company. I got promoted almost two years ago. I still do deliveries, but I’m the leader for my bike team. I’m just trying to think one step ahead, and trying to figure out what we can do to stay afloat and keep the money coming in. I’ve got about 20 people on my team.

All these different big shifts happen, where we had 9/11 and now we’ve got COVID, and that is gonna drastically alter the bike-messenger game. It’s definitely an industry that was already on the cutting block in some ways. In the ten years that I’ve been in Chicago, I’ve noticed a lot of changes: less companies, companies are folding, there’s way less bike messengers out.

I just moved houses. I haven’t done music in two months ’cause all my stuff’s been in boxes—I just got all my music stuff set up, so I’m real excited. I was initially trying to go do some shows, but it’s been cool. Got a new house, and that’s something to be happy for.  v