DJ Collective Teklife: The Musical Conductors Keeping Chicago's Footwork Scene Alive
After a July 19th live taping of Red Bull Radio’s daily show Peak Time Live at the stylish eatery The Promontory, on the south side of Chicago—centered around the Windy City's footwork crew Teklife—a four-hour dance party was set to ensue. As the event's set was being meticulously broken down, and the once-seated audience members eagerly awaited their chance to decimate the dance floor under flashing lights, a small dance circle formed in between the bar and the DJ booth. This small congregation started as a close, tight-knit group of onlookers watching the frenetic leg acrobatics of those engaging in footwork dancing, while most of those in attendance were refilling their drinks, or decompressing on the outside area on that warm, Chicago evening.
Even after the curtains separating the bar area from the prepared dancefloor were removed and access to more space was revealed, those in the circle were too transfixed on the dizzying dance moves to even notice. No one moved until someone continually instructed one of the dancers to start up a “follow me.” At first glance, “follow me” entails one person in the middle of the circle doing dance moves while staring at the person who is supposed to hop into the center of the dance floor after they are finished. If you get too close to the center you're either mesmerized by the dancing or overcome with an unshakable compulsion to show everyone some footwork. After a while, those from outside began migrating to the outer regions of the dance circle, hoping to get just a glimpse of what they had been missing out on.
That’s Chicago footwork—and Teklife to an extent—in a nutshell. It’s a cultural movement that has cultivated a diehard following in a relatively small part of a larger music industry. Its expansion is predicated on how well the music and dancing can turn people’s intrigue into immersion. A movement that may be ignored at first by the larger majority, until they see just how fun it actually is.
But, that’s only the tip of the DJ needle.
Teklife, co-founded by Chicago legends DJ Spinn and the late DJ Rashad, is a collective of producers, dancers and other DJs primarily known for their work in the Chicago footwork scene. Footwork, to put it simply, is a music genre descendant of ghetto house and juke, played at 160 beats per minute (bpm), founded on the foot working dance style of intricate, fast-paced foot dances. In 20 seconds of a Teklife footwork set, you’d probably see one person do 15 leg crosses, a few slides, and an innumerable amount of foot stomps just to keep up with the beautifully chaotic mesh of sounds.
In front of a modestly packed audience seated at cafe-style tables with soft lighting, five of Teklife’s most prominent members—DJ Spinn, DJ Manny, DJ Gant-Man, DJ Taye, and Boylan—spoke with moderator, and world-renowned DJ Vivian Host about how the group came to be, and what exactly Teklife is.
Most of its members have been entrenched in the Chicago music scene before they were old enough to DJ for adults. Gant-Man, at 10 years old, was one of the youngest DJs ever on radio, cutting and mixing at college radio station WKKC 89.3 FM, a fact that still lights up his usually subdued demeanor at the Peak Time taping. Spinn and Rashad met at age 13 at the Markham Roller Rink after Spinn was mesmerized by Rashad’s penchant for dancing and deejaying, almost simultaneously–a style that would later define Teklife.
“He was mixing two records at the same time; blending them. Came down, started dancing with everybody on the floor, went back up there, and started deejaying again. When I seen that I was like, ‘Yeah, I got to get to know fam,’” Spinn said at the event.
Most of Teklife’s oldest DJ’s, including Spinn, Rashad, and 28-year-old DJ Manny, were dancers before they ever touched a turntable, and leveraged that experience into informed deejaying styles. “I was dancing before I was producing and deejaying, so I already knew what I wanted to dance off of,” Manny told Vibe. “I would go to parties and play, and I’d already knew what people wanted to hear. So, I took that in, and made myself a producer.”
Besides being DJs and dancers, some of the Teklife DJs had to be part-mad scientists in order to achieve the futuristic sound of ghetto house, juke, and footwork with the technology of their time. “The old school MPCs from the '90s, you had a lot of sampling time back then, but not a lot of time,” Gant-Man shared before bursting into a hearty laugh. “It was like mad science and physics altogether. Your brain just had to outwork the machine. We didn't have no ability to time-stretch.” Time-stretching is the technique of changing the speed of a piece of audio without affecting its pitch, a key feature in the transmogrifying sound the group would soon become known for.
Technology isn't just a conduit for their artistic expression, it is at the center of the group’s very existence. “The internet introduced us to a lot of people we wouldn’t have ever known,” Spinn told Vibe. Boylan was a substitute teacher with a passion for deejaying when he linked with Rashad on Myspace. DJ Taye first reached out to Spinn on Facebook for advice about what MPC he should purchase, before auditioning to join the group at the famed Chicago footwork dance spot, Battlegroundz. The name Teklife probably would’ve still been GhettoTeknitianz, the original, smaller group the collective sprouted from had it not been for the internet. “Basically, like around 2011 and the beginning of 2012, we said we were going to switch it up one more ‘gain because of the internet, really, and because everyone was claiming they were GhettoTeknitianz.”
Now the group boasts members all the way from South Side, Chicago to Oslo, Norway.
The Peak Time taping also doubled as a crash course on the history of Chicago juke, ghetto house, and footwork, with Host playing numerous songs during intermissions. That’s when the somewhat shy Teklife members who periodically had to be coaxed into even speaking by Host would show their erudition of the Chicago sound.
DJ PJ’s frenetic 808 bass on "Chase Me" had Spinn and Gant-Man gleefully reminiscing on how the song would incite fights. Once RP Boo’s "Baby Come On" transformed from a funk-sounding vocal sample over sparse kick drums into the fast-paced festival of sounds, all the Teklife members gushed about how the 1997 track was ahead of its time. Some people in the audience didn’t let the cafe-style dim lighting and seating stop them from shoulder swaying to the songs either.
Manny, Rashad, and Spinn all met when they were in their early teens, respectively, and on-stage the five Teklife members had a familial feel to their group that permeated the crowd. Some audience members shouted out names of old group members, and some live-streamed the entire chat on their phones, turning the usually informal podcast taping format into one akin to a family gathering. This sight was incongruous with an inconvenient truth every member of Teklife that I spoke with shared: Chicago doesn’t fully support its own.
“To me, Chicago has always been a buyer's market, and not a seller's market, first and foremost. We buy everybody else. It's always been that way,” Gant-Man told Vibe. “That's the reason why Chicago rap couldn't really blow up, because we buy other people’s music.”
During a respite from the organized madness of the Peak Time after-party, I spoke with two young men from Chicago in line waiting to chase their Red Bull drinks with free tacos. The brief conversation we had shared a similar sentiment I noticed from locals I spoke to about Teklife before and after the event:
Me: Do you mind if I speak to y’all about Teklife?
*Both shoot perplexed looks at one another*
Me: It’s for a Vibe Magazine feature. Just your thoughts on Teklife.
Man 1: What’s Teklife?
Me: The reason we’re all here.
Man 2: We’re here for the drinks.
But not every longtime Chicago resident was ignorant of Teklife’s impact. Ron, 38, was born and raised in Chicago and says he grew up listening to members of Teklife like DJ Rashad, Gant-Man, and Spinn. But, he did highlight a trend of Chicago artists having to leave their hometown to gain popularity. “To me, [Teklife] is bigger internationally than they are here, and that may be something bigger than I can speak to, but I know some of the biggest Chicago acts had to leave Chicago to make it bigger.”
Even with a somewhat cynical view of his hometown, Gant-Man does attest there are “times when [Chicago] comes out, and supports, and show out for each other, and really represent.” But, even that upswell of support is hard to catapult Teklife, and Footwork music, from being underground when the national perception of Chicago is that of perpetual violence and there’s already a genre of music that mirrors it.
“As far as Chicago making a really big statement, it wasn't until all of the violence in Chicago and the drill scene that was emerging. So you have the media focusing on the violence in Chicago. Now, here is a scene that talks about it,” Gant-Man told Vibe. “The whole footwork scene is not put in the industry as a part of pop music.”
One Chicagoan who has always supported Teklife is Chance the Rapper. Rashad and Spinn linked up with Chance backstage at one of the young Chicago MC’s first shows in Paris—thanks to one of Spinn’s proteges, DJ Oreo, being Chance’s tour DJ at the time. “We get to the back, and Chance was like ‘DJ Rashad? What?! Bro, I grew up on the battle shit,’” Spinn told Vibe. “Then, I can almost say this was the first thing Chance said: ‘How would y’all like to go on tour with me?’” Next thing they knew, Rashad and Spinn were spreading the Teklife sound across America on Chance’s 2013 Social Experiment Tour.
In today’s music industry the highest paid EDM DJs last year–Tiesto and Calvin Harris–pulled in $87.5 million in 2017. Meanwhile, members of the most popular footwork crew in the world face the real possibility of not even making minimum wage for their work. “We can work a whole year and not make [$25,000],” Spinn revealed at the event.
No one could definitively explain why this gap in popularity and recognition between two, ostensibly similar genres of music. But, there was this sense that Teklife and footwork as it is, may not be right for mass consumption, yet. “I think this is still very much an underground genre, and it's at 160 bpm, so it's not as accessible to everyone, in terms of just dancing,” Host shared with Vibe.
Teklife’s biggest supporter wasn’t at The Promontory in body, but was unmistakably present in spirit. Teklife founder and leader DJ Rashad was snatched away from the waking world on April 26th, 2014, at the age of 34, when he was found dead in an apartment on the west side of Chicago. Autopsy reports say he died from an overdose of heroin, cocaine, and Xanax, but Rashad’s family and some Teklife members dispute these findings. His cause of death may be debatable, but his lasting impact is immutable; a hush permeated the audience at the Peak Time taping, as well as the group, by simply invoking Rashad’s name.
One minute Spinn was jubilantly recounting Gant-Man’s sexcapades in club bathrooms, struggling to talk coherently through bouts of laughter. Then, in a matter of seconds, his voice grew somber, struggling now to get the words out to recount similar club shenanigans he had with Rashad. A hush blanketed the entire venue whenever anyone spoke about the lauded fallen DJ.
“I think his passing left a huge void,” Host told Vibe. “But to Spinn and others’ credit, Teklife is so meaningful to everyone that they just carried on, and carried on what Rashad’s vision was and what he would’ve wanted for the whole crew.”
Part of that vision is pushing the culture forward, which some in Teklife already have plans to do. “Eventually, I want to make a different genre of music, per se. But, I have to put my feet down for what I’m known for,” Spinn told Vibe.
Until the future arrives, Teklife will keep the feet working, all for the love of the music.