Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect that Rand Sevilla’s name was misspelled.
The style of music that Rand Sevilla and Eric Lee Gale produce together as Sich Mang is called “wurkstep,” and so far they’re the only ones in the world making it. A large part of that has to do with the fact that the pair made up the name themselves, and so far its use is limited to the description field of one track on their SoundCloud page, a remix of Danish producer Kid Kishore’s underappreciated 2008 single, “Klap Perker.” (Prior to that they experimented with “jukestep,” “wurkstyle,” and “wurkkore,” among other neologisms.)
The other reason no one else out there is making wurkstep is that it probably hasn’t occurred to anyone to boil down Chicago juke and footwork music and dip it in a vat of garishly polychromatic psychedelia.
Despite a decent amount of mainstream attention directed at footwork dancing in recent years, the music itself has been the almost exclusive provenance of the young, black producers on the south and west sides who make it and the young, black dancers who know that while it’s possible to footwork to other types of music, doing so violates the unique symbiosis between the moves and the sounds. Footwork music on its own can be tough for outsiders to decode—it blasts along at 160 beats per minute, usually offers only the hint of a 4/4 rhythm, and almost always replaces actual melody with weird, detuned samples repeated to hypnotic effect.
On the other hand, the challenges that footwork music offers the listener are the same ones that tend to drive electronic music geeks mad with pleasure. (A lot of it sounds like something Aphex Twin wishes he’d come up with.) Just over a year ago the British imprint Planet Mu, owned by geeky electronic musician Mike Paradinas (aka μ-Ziq), began issuing the first official, label-backed releases in footwork history, and there’s since been a steady uptick in the influence of footwork on tracks originating outside the footwork scene—not to mention coverage of the genre in outlets such as Pitchfork and the Fader.
Footwork seems to be following the same trajectory as a number of dance music styles that originated within relatively small, out-of-the-way social groups—and then exploded from there with the help of keyed-in bloggers and DJs. (Cf. dubstep‘s evolution from chilly, cerebral head music to jock jam.) It seems inevitable that footwork would eventually be adopted by artsy, countercultural types, or as Sevilla puts it, “drug addicts like me,” who are also into, say, aesthetically demanding Tumblrs and limited edition cassette tapes, both of which Sich Mang also produces. (They’re currently at work on a split cassette with another local duo, the Drum, for Catholic Tapes.)
Sevilla and Gale are up front about the fact that they’re not part of Chicago’s footwork scene. “Which is kind of a point of contention, because it’s decidedly black and south side, the roots of it,” Sevilla says. “But I also think it’s fair that in today’s international music market you’re allowed to grab from different genres.”
“I’m sure if we get more popular that will be an issue,” says Gale. “We’ll probably get e-mails from people.”
They see their independence from the footwork community as an advantage. Like punk and metal, that scene can be extremely conservative in its overall view of what does and does not qualify as legitimate. “No one’s giving us shit and saying, ‘You’re not really making footwork,'” Gale explains.
Footwork purists probably wouldn’t be happy with Sich Mang’s wurkstep. (The name is pronounced with a “tch” and derives from the way Sevilla’s LA friends pronounce “sick, man.” “It’s very SEO-friendly,” he says. “You either get German websites or us.”) Traditional footwork is bare-minimalist in nature, usually limited to only three or four sonic elements per song, whereas Gale and Sevilla seem motivated by a philosophy of “too much is better than not enough,” and aren’t afraid to pile it on.
The pair also tends to dampen the drums’ impact, toning down footwork’s usual flurries of crackling toms in the midrange frequencies, and frequently drop the beat entirely to let whatever’s on top—vocal snippets, textural synths that border on New Age-y—drift off into soft clouds of reverb and bask in what Sevilla calls the “mantra-like” nature of footwork sampling. The “lean towards psychedelic transcendence” that Sich Mang references in their SoundCloud bio is no joke. “Music as a whole, to me, is about people connecting with the sensibility that we’re all riding the same time wave,” Sevilla explains. “When you splice it up in interesting and exciting ways that’s the magic.”
The precedence of texture over rhythm contributes to Sich Mang’s heretical view toward making footwork-inspired music. Basically, they don’t really care if you dance to it or not.
“I can listen to dance music whenever,” Gale says. “I can listen to it on the way to work at 10 AM. You don’t have to start dancing.”
Sevilla adds: “We’d like you to start dancing, though.”