While audiences abroad have eagerly devoured the few compilations, Youtube videos, magazine features and gigs IRL, the story of juke and footwork and its relationship to a long history of music and dance in Chicago remains to be told. There is no one better to tell this story than Traxman himself—not only one of the scene’s OGs and a central figure in Rashad and Spinn’s Ghetto Teknitianz collective, but a historian with an unrivaled knowledge of Chicago dance music history.
“If people got their education—that’s why I do a lot of these interviews—then they’d know it comes from house music. It’s all house music. We’re here in Chicago and and sometimes people just don’t understand that this is house music at it’s its best—it just got younger.”
Even the associated dance style, known as footwork, is an evolution of an art form that’s been thriving in Chicago’s underground since house music was called house music. “Footwork is just a part of the style of juke. It was a part of ghetto house, and it was a part of even regular house music. However they’re doing it now it’s still footworking and there are different interpretations of it.” The light-speed, syncopated kinetic energy that is so central to the dance moves and rhythms of juke and footwork now reflects the constant evolution of a form that knows very few boundaries.
It’s really experimental, like, ‘I’m doing this, and maybe it might work.’ We’re just taking big chances.”
Da Mind of Traxman is the first internationally-distributed full-length album to come from the city’s Ghetto Teknitianz collective, who are juggernauts in a scene where producers might make twenty-five tracks in a day, but rarely share them outside of the very local context of recorded mixes, footwork battles, and dance parties.
Juke and footwork as we know them now have been bubbling in the hood with very little international media spotlight since the early 2000s, and for the last decade the sound has circulated among a small and intensely loyal regional audience in only a handful of local venues. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the Tekz’ first release of this scope—a collection of juke and footwork tracks out of context, intended for an international audience—comes not direct from Chicago but via an experimental record label based about 80 miles Southeast of London; Planet Mu.
In the Chi the music finds a home amongst the small handful of dance parties and weekly or monthly footwork battles held in whatever Southside and Westside venues they can get their hands on—Battlegroundz is on Sundays at an empty storefront on 87th street, and T.U.F.F is a roving competition that has lived in an elementary school gymnasium and a daycare. Footwork battles provide a physical, palpable, and localized social milieu, and more so than other styles of electronic music, the social element is inextricable from the beats themselves. After wrapping a session in the studio, Traxman says, “we always go to the dancers to see how they react to it.”
One of the most important points to understand about this is that there would be no footwork beats without the footworkers. The DJs and the dancers—often one in the same—are tethered in a feedback loop, co-determining each other’s developments and playing to each other’s needs. DJ Rashad’s “Ghost” is specifically designed to accommodate the dance move of the same name, calling out four of the city’s coldest footworkers by name- “Poo, AG, Que, Lightbulb.” Another Rashad production commands “dribble to the left, dribble to the left, dribble to the right, dribble to the right.” And sure, lots of songs demand specific dance moves. The difference here is that only a few people can pull these ones off with their dignity and/or spinal column intact.
Juke producer and fellow GhettoTeknitian DJ Spinn told me in an interview last summer that even without the Pitchfork writeups and Euro tours, the Tekz would still be doing the same thing back home- making beats, hosting battles, constantly and competitively pushing the limits of the form. “We were always competitive,” says Traxman. “We get together in the studio and we’re like, ‘Yo, I got something for your ass!’ Rashad would play like ten bangers, I’d be like, ‘Ugghh,’ and then I go home and I make twenty-five of my own and Rashad will be like ‘Ugghh. Where you’d get that sample from?’”
Chicago’s ghetto house tracks weren’t always as fast and furious as we know them now– it was when dancers started pushing producers to step it up that artists like Traxman and the GhettoTeknitianz collective he represents began cranking the beat-per-minute and twisting rhythms into insane, human-pretzel inducing syncopations. This competitive attitude and the three-way dialogue between feet, ears and fingers are the forces behind the scene’s constant flux and evolution.
Traxman has been DJing for 31 years. Do the math and you’ll begin to understand how many successive waves of Chicago house music the man has seen as the sound has fallen in an out of favor on the international stage. “The same thing happened 25 years ago when they did the Love Fest in Europe,” he says. “Everyone that was doing all the music here started to fly over there- and I’m not saying change is bad; change is good- but I was always taught to keep one foot international and one foot in your neighborhood. Keep your ear to the streets.”
It’s clear that Traxman does just that, and The Mind of Traxman showcases his attention to diverse cultural references. Across eighteen tracks, the album seamlessly integrates everything from crunchy power chords to Kalimba melodies, classic jazz and Motown joints, acid synth lines and Israeli pop music from the 80s. He brings this whole constellation of histories and places together without gimmick. “I always looked at sampling as an art, you know, growing up listening to a lot of hip hop– that’s what did it.”
Frenetic, paranoid toms, sharp high hats, and aggressive snares arranged with architectural precision float over these layers of found sound while massive, gigantic pulses of sub bass radiate from underneath. Taunts, commands, obscenities, and vocal non sequiturs- “conquer that bitch,” “bussas goin’ wild,” “listen all you motherfuckers”- counterpoint jazzy chord progressions for a strange, disorienting effect. Am I getting serenaded by smoky keys or being verbally abused? Who knows. These unlikely juxtapositions of smooth and rough textures- the sexy, hypnotic sounds of Mccoy Tyner or Earth Wind and Fire going up against raw 808 beats and and vocal recordings spliced into near indecipherable micro-rhythms- are a large part of what makes Traxman’s sound so compelling.
Ferguson’s encyclopedic mind and eccentric approach to the art of sampling show in his deft manipulation of sonic obscurities ripped to digital from the floor-to-ceiling stacks of vinyl he stores in his basement. “I know where every record is. My brother X Ray helped me kick it off in the mid-90s, because he had the biggest, neatest record collection. I’d be hanging out with him and be thinking, ‘damn, my records look junky,’ so I just started to organize everything. Then I worked at two record shops. I worked at Barney’s and I worked at Out of the Past records. So I did a lot of organizing there. You can give me thousands and thousands of records, you can throw ‘em down, throw ‘em all on the floor, you give me two hours and I will organize everything. It’s like, ‘this is country, this is rock, this is funk and soul, this is jazz.’ I’ll go by alphabetical order in two hours.”
His massive, impeccably organized record collection is renowned throughout Chicago, and he’s never stopped collecting. “I love coming out to New York cuz there’s certain records I can find. If I go to Europe, or if I’m here, if I’m in a hick town, I need go to a record shop. Take me to a record store. I need to go to an old mom and pop’s record store. Take me to a garage sale. I need to find records.”
Whereas contemporaries throughout the long history of Chicago house music drew deep from the canon of disco, funk, and soul jams, Trax changed the game sampling J-Pop and movie soundtracks. If you ask the younger crop of juke and footwork purveyors about their forbearers, they’ll tell you that Traxman and RP Boo- the OGs of that ghetto house ish- revolutionized the sound with their deep crates and fantastic references; now everything is up for grabs. Traxman’s seminal footworking composition, “Hold It”, places the theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho front-and-center amidst sparse, slamming MPC beats and an endlessly looped mantra ‘hold it… hold it…’ One track from the Mind ofTraxman, Going Wild featuring AG and Rashad, pitches down Israeli songstress Ofra Haza’s 1988 single ‘Im Nin’Alu,’ balancing an unrelenting rhythm with a weightless middle-eastern vocal element.
How does a form like the juke/footwork continuum (juke being the more party-oriented, less abstract cousin of the eccentric footwork music made for battles) translate when plucked from this intensely local scene and brought to a global audience with no understanding of context- historically or culturally? “Respect to Machinedrum, [Planet Mu owner] Mike Paradinas. I love what they’re doing. They’re pushing our music to the forefront, and somebody’s got to do it. Somebody.” It’s up to the educators- the privileged middlemen- to lead their listeners on that paths towards enlightenment, and Traxman is happy to drop the history and the context to get you better acquainted. “I’m here to educate the kids that are doing the footwork tracks and the juke tracks- and the people all around the world- letting them know, this is where it came from.”
Photos by Wills Glasspiegel.