Experimental footwork producer Jana Rush recorded her breathtaking new album, Painful Enlightenment, while battling depression, but she’s careful not to romanticize that fact. “At that time, I couldn’t be consistent with anything. I could start something and good luck with finishing it,” Rush explains. “The loss of hope, it’s a strange and empty feeling, and I hope nobody ever has to go through it.” As the semicolon on the album cover suggests, though, she found the will to continue. She sought treatment and came out the other side.

Released by UK label Planet Mu, Painful Enlightenment is Rush’s second full-length, and she’s hitting her stride. The album’s lead track, “Moanin’,” opens with a saxophone slithering effortlessly over a bed of snare drum and bass. “Suicidal Ideation” sounds like a video-game heroine dodging monsters, then falling into a deep chasm.

The Jana Rush album Painful Enlightenment came out August 13.

Though Rush began as a footwork DJ more than 25 years ago, her present-day music is difficult to categorize. It definitely incorporates fragments of juke, with disjointed staccato snares and thundering bass thuds. Chopped samples repeat relentlessly but seldom function as hooks. Painful Enlightenment oscillates between overwhelming tension and surprising delicacy—the title track includes what sounds like plucked guitar, and “G-Spot” uses birdcalls. Rush also sneaks moments of dark humor into the record, such as on “Disturbed,” where a sampled diva maniacally belts out, “I need someone / I need you!”—an obsessively repeated phrase that’s as desperate as it is ecstatic.

Rush created this mix for online record shop Bleep.com in August 2021.

Rush was born and raised on Chicago’s south side, moving to Chatham as a teen and graduating from the science-heavy AP program at South Shore High School in the late 1990s. “I was the only child, so I made a lot of my own entertainment,” she recalls. “When I discovered radio, I started listening to WBMX and WGCI, the mixes, like Ralphi ‘Raz’ Rosario, all of this classic house music, when ‘You Used to Hold Me’ was popular. That’s when I picked up house music, and it was just the best thing I ever heard.”

By age eight, Rush had already become curious about how electronic music was made. Her mother let her stay up late to watch a TV news segment that featured a local producer. (She forgets who.) “They had a studio, and they had a whole bunch of synthesizers and drum machines. Even then, I still didn’t know what I was looking at. I’m just like, ‘Why are these cool sounds coming out?’” remembers Rush. “But it started there.” 

In 1989, the radio station at Kennedy-King College began allowing kids from local schools to audition to spin on a show called The Young People’s Radio Network. Rush got involved that first year. “I started DJing on the radio station when I was ten at WKKC,” she says. “I stayed on that radio station all the way until I was 18 years old.” DJ Herman Orphey started spinning on The Young People’s Radio Network at age 16, Gant-Man at ten, and DJ Lil’Tal at 14. When Rush had been aboard for around four years, DJ Rashad, who’d just started high school, joined the show.

Jana Rush stands under elevated train tracks in a shirt reading "We Are Chicago."
“I have an abundance of creation in me, and I know I was put here to create,” says Jana Rush. Credit: Courtesy the artist

In 1993, Rush and Rashad started hanging out together at the Rink on East 87th Street. Soon they approached DJ Malcolm, who already had a gig there, and talked him into letting them spin with him. “I was kind of naive, but the first night I played at the Rink, I tried to play some commercial stuff, and I got booed off and basically told to take my dead ass home,” says Rush, laughing. “It was pretty mean, so some kids, it would have probably messed ’em up pretty bad. But for some reason I didn’t let that bother me—and I was kinda sensitive too. I kept going up there, and that’s how me and Rashad pretty much took over that place.”

DJ Mag posted this Jana Rush mix in December 2020.

After skating was done for the night, Rush and Rashad had a space where they could DJ for dancers. “It was ghetto house at first, all of the underground tracks from the Robert Taylor Homes. A lot of now prominent producers, they lived over there either in Stateway [Gardens] or they lived over there on Lake Park [Avenue],” Rush explains. “That sound was what you needed to survive a Rink party. At that time, it didn’t really have a name, because it was what it was. They started calling it footwork because that’s what people were doing, footworking. The music would get them all gassed up, and they would just be killing themselves off a Deeon track or off a techno track that may sound good.”

Rush argues that fast, hard techno from Chicago artists such as Robert Armani and Lester Fitzpatrick was just as important to the development of footwork as ghetto house was. “These DJs are not known in our circle, and they’re usually not incorporated in the history of the culture,” she says. “But I do think they should be given some kind of prominent status, because their tracks inspired a lot of what our stuff sounds like today.”

Rush began recording her own techno tracks in the late 1990s. She released a 1996 split EP with DJ Deeon on Dance Mania (she’s billed as “The Youngest Female DJ”) and a 1998 12-inch called Wicked for Contaminated Muzik.

In 1998, Rush walked away from music for a time, moving to Antioch, Illinois, to pursue a relationship and (at her mother’s encouragement) more education. She studied chemistry at the College of Lake County and enrolled in the school’s medical imaging program. Eventually she transferred to the University of Illinois Chicago, where at long last she completed her chemical engineering degree in 2016.

Today Rush works as a computed tomography (CT) technologist, a specialized kind of X-ray technician. “I came up in a household with people that worked in the medical field,” she explains. “My mother was in health-care management, so my life was spent in the hospital, basically.”

Starting in 2002, Rush returned to making tracks, working off and on with support from Rashad. At one point, Rashad even asked Rush to join his Teklife crew, but she wasn’t ready. “I didn’t want to be that person that represents a brand or has the advantages of a brand, but you don’t put in the work. I don’t like that look—that’s sloppy,” says Rush. “I didn’t know that was going to be the last time we would actually be able to discuss that.” Tragically, Rashad passed away at age 34 in 2014.

In late 2014, UK artist Lara Rix-Martin heard tracks Rush had posted online and reached out, resulting in the 2016 EP MPC 7635 on Rix-Martin’s new label, Objects Limited, which describes itself on Bandcamp as “focused on featuring marginalised genders.” A year later, Rush released the album Pariah, also on Objects Limited, where she abstracts footwork into experimental territory—its music includes plenty of complex interplay between bass and beats and little in the way of vocals.

Jana Rush with a large sound system at an Elliot Bergman exhibit at Shane Campbell Gallery
Jana Rush at an Elliot Bergman exhibit at Shane Campbell Gallery in September 2020 Credit: Wills Glasspiegel

Between 2015 and 2018, as her career as a producer blossomed, Rush worked as a project manager for vegetable-oil manufacturer Loders Croklaan. Her eyes light up when she explains how she helped troubleshoot an issue with the composition of palm oil a client was using in pizza dough. “I guess [the owner] was using our oil for his dough, and his dough wasn’t breaking right when people would bite into it,” she explains. “He had us out there to taste the pizza and talk about the quality, and we had to figure out what was wrong with the oil that we sent him—was it degrading too quick when you cook it? We had to go actually figure this shit out!”

The process of creating tracks occasionally calls for thinking that parallels a food-engineering mindset. When I ask Rush about her use of a sample from Lil’ Louis’s “I Called U (Why’d U Fall)” on “Suicidal Ideation,” she explains, “I was just making gumbo. I was just putting a whole bunch of sounds together and hoping that I can balance the tracks and make everything sound OK, because I like flavors.”

I ask Rush if her new music is meant for home listening or the dance floor. “I don’t know,” she admits. “Wherever it feeds your energy. You might not vibe with the whole album, but you’re going to at least find one track that you understand and basically relate to.”

Rush originally intended to release Painful Enlightenment in 2020, but she had a difficult time finishing it. Planet Mu label head Mike Paradinas was patient—up to a point. “It was only [when] Mike was like, ‘No, we’ve gotta go now!’ that I was like, all right, I’m gonna get my shit together,” Rush acknowledges. “I needed that kick in the ass at the end, because I would probably still be working on it right now.”

An August 2020 Jana Rush mix for Tinned Heat, a show by DJ Dome Zero on London-based webstation Soho Radio

To make two of the album’s 11 tracks, Rush collaborated with Teklife member DJ Paypal. They complemented each other easily, without even needing to talk much. “We actually did those live and in-studio in 2018,” says Rush. “We just recorded it, and that was it. We were supposed to be able to go back and work on it, but Paypal’s laptop got stolen a week after we did those tracks, so that’s why it is what it is.”

Rush’s tool kit includes three Akai MPC samplers, Ableton Live for sequencing, and a Native Instruments Maschine for synthesis. Among her favorite artists are Tyler, the Creator and Kanye West, both of whom she cites as dream collaborators. Other artists she’d like to work with include UK bass producer Ikonika, New York footwork DJ and producer Sucia!, Chicago footwork producer, actress, and artist Cuenique, and NY bass DJ Anna Morgan. “Females don’t ever just get together and make shit, so that would be dope,” Rush enthuses.

RP Boo, DJ Taye, Jana Rush, DJ Manny
Fri 9/10, 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, $20, $15 in advance, 21+

Rush performs at Smart Bar on Friday, September 10, with RP Boo, DJ Taye, and DJ Manny. The show celebrates the release of RP Boo’s album Established!, also on Planet Mu. Rush hasn’t yet decided if she’ll play live or DJ. Recently she’s been streaming mixes online, including for episodes of Club Initiative, a Chicago-based biweekly livestream by DJ and producer Composuresquad (who hopes to present the series’s first in-person event next month). She also has an upcoming gig for Boiler Room, the well-known London-based electronic-music livestreaming platform.

YouTube video
A Jana Rush set for Club Initiative from April 2019

During our hour-long video call, Rush speaks quickly but precisely and bursts into the occasional goofy laugh. “I’m chill, but I can’t suffer bullshit,” she says. “I like to sit on the lakefront and just look at the sky, look at the water, and think about fluid dynamics and shit like that. I like to watch airplanes. Sometimes I like to bird-watch. I’m somehow drawn to nature.”

Rush was just starting to come out of her period of depression when the pandemic hit. Lockdown provided her a welcome opportunity to pause and reflect, and she spent some of that socially distanced time in the outdoors. “The world was literally quiet. You’ve got animals out. I just thought that was beautiful. It was tragic what was happening and what it had to take for that to happen, but I just thought it was beautiful, quarantining,” she says. “I wasn’t spending a lot of time in front of the TV and social media, but I was thinking about trying to figure out why am I depressed, and the problem that I found for myself was the lack of empowerment. So now I just live and try to construct the ways to empower myself.”

Rush is content with her level of success. Working a full-time job allows her to focus on creating the type of music she wants to make, without worrying about selling enough records (or enough tickets) to put food on the table. “I have an abundance of creation in me, and I know I was put here to create,” she says. “Even though it may not be to the level of Beyoncé or Kanye or Jay-Z, that’s not the point. It’s already been written that somebody’s going to like me. It may not be a lot of people, but I will be heard.”