Simply put, DJ Rashad put an entire movement on his back. For Chicago’s footwork scene, DJ Rashad was seen as the pinnacle. He was a guy who, of his own admission, was just “making trax” with his crew and saw his star rise over the last few years. TEKLIFE, a conglomerate of footwork producers that includes legends like Traxman and DJ Spinn alongside up-and-comers like DJ Earl, Taso, and DJ Taye (among others), are at the forefront of this sound, one that take influence from hip-hop, jungle, jazz, and house music into a dizzy, thumping brand of pure street music that’s always raw, and often duplicated. And while the sound has spawned scenes everywhere from Europe to Japan, Chicago’s the core.
Funny how it always goes back to Chicago.
Earlier this month, the dance music world lost a bonafide legend in Frankie Knuckles. He was a true pioneer, helping birth the building blocks that legions of dance music fans the world over know as house music. Pure four-to-the-floor material, a genre that’s spawned a number of permutations, and at the end of the same month, one of the pioneers of a wholly different take on that sound, footwork, is gone.
It was weird to see footwork grow the way it has. The rise of the scene was born from a number of different things; part of it is the total antithesis of what many consider to be stereotypical “EDM,” i.e. the more mainstream, obvious sounding tracks that soundtrack festivals and TV ads the world over. With many drum & bass and dubstep producers slowing down and speeding up the beats (respectively), that 160BPM lane was left wide open for interpretation. The same lane where jungle, a sound that DJ Rashad had been channeling as of late, also dwells. Producers like Mark Pritchard, Om Unit, and others seemed to call upon the growing scene in Chicago, which had been getting recognition from a pair of compilations from µ-Ziq’s Planet Mu imprint. The thing is, every scene needs a leader. A producer that has a foot in the roots of said scene, but knows how to channel that sound to the masses.
Enter Rashad Harden, better known to heads in the know as, simply, DJ Rashad. For the last decade, Rashad was putting on for the juke and footwork scenes. His first releases dropped as early as 2004, getting put on with his frequent collaborator DJ Spinn on singles like “Girl Bust Down,” before taking the rock and truly running with it. It was about two months before the impressive Bangs & Works, Vol. 1 compilation on Planet Mu that Rashad’s Itz Not Rite EP was released on Planet Mu. Featured on that six-track release is much of what we’d hear the producer curated over the next four years: a penchant for perfect, soul-dripping samples (the title track), acid experiments (“Who Da Coldest”), representing for his crew (“Teknitian”), and party-ready jams (“10 On Da Cush”). Over that next four years, it was as if Rashad was in college, spending most of his time perfecting on those points, winning more credits every semester.
Unsurprisingly, it took another few years before people started to truly understand.
See, everything moves in cycles, and while I won’t try to speculate on specific time frames in which some back-to-the-future reset will happen, you can usually feel the winds of change coming, and returning back to their essence. Living in a world where post-dubstep, pre-trap vibes were downright necessary for many of us to stay involved, DJ Rashad’s brand of music was poised to pop at some point. When we spoke to him back in October of 2013 before the release of his most fully-realized album, Double Cup, he had no problem either way with footwork crossing over: “if [footwork] were to crossover, it doesn’t make me either happy or angry. We’re just going to keep on doing what we’re doing, regardless. I don’t want to see it get commercialized, though, but if it does, it does. As long as it gets the attention it deserves, that’s what I’m concerned about.“
Maybe that’s why he wouldn’t trip about touring. He spent much of 2013 on the road, doing everything from hitting the road with Spinn on Chance The Rapper’s Social Experiment tour to hitting many places and spaces overseas. Hyperdub, the imprint that released Rashad’s biggest look to date, the impeccable Double Cup LP, helped expose Rashad to scenes that might not have been rocking with footwork that heavy, and it paid off. Through Rashad, the entire TEKLIFE crew was able top come through the woodwork. And Rashad was good for giving his brothers the light to shine in. Do a search for Rashad images online and you’re bound to see hella t-shirts with that iconic TEKLIFE logo on it. Do the knowledge on TEKLIFE and everyone from the emerging DJ Earl to the elder statesman Traxman will shine through, and for good reason. For the uninitiated, Rashad’s association will help enable others to get their foot in the door; for those in the know, it’s just seen as one homey who’s “on” lending a hand to those who might be in need, or solidifying what his crew was doing. And you can hear the similarity in how the sound dissipates throughout the crew members; while Rashad and Traxman share an affinity for crafting quality soul music into loops and samples for their own excursions, you can hear the jungle influence in the music of Taye and Earl. Everything moves in cycles, even within a crew so deep.
We’re not here to speculate on what Rashad might have been dealing with. Hearing that he overdosed is hard to take, especially with word on his passing still being in the early stages. You can go through his catalog and hear many references to drugs of a number of varieties, from pills to weed to lean. One of footwork’s staples is repetition; we imagine that some might find it hard to listen to Welcome to the Chi‘s “We Leanin,” where the “I’m leanin” vocal is only met with a repetitive “I’m geeked up off them barz, nigga.” We’re adults, and we aren’t angels. Maybe it’s just too soon to take in some of Rashad’s genius because many of his most upfront material contains references to substances that might have taken him from us way too early. His last album, Double Cup, contained tracks like “Reggie,” which we’ve marveled at for the simple fact that part of its essence is breaking down the price of weed. And while it was fun to be a fly-on-the-wall watching Rashad, Traxman, Manny, and J-Cush enjoying each other’s company with long blunts and good beats, watching it now can be a tad cryptic. Like Future said, I’m just being honest.
Look, I don’t know what the fuck to say. I’m no drug counselor, and I’m only a father to those in my circle. I can’t tell any other men or women how to live. I know that I can spend a week listening to the same Rashad tracks and not get bored. And I fucking hate that I’m only a few years younger than Rashad was, and he’s not here any more. Footwork, the 160BPM scene that has breathed new life into house and jungle for a 30-year-old dance music fan like me, is the wave of the future, yet is still not palatable for so many (it was just the other day where a DAD fan commented about footwork being over their head). Rashad was too future for this world while alive, and is now no longer living on it. I don’t know; it’s hard to make sense of the senselessness of life (and death). I do know that one of the most prolific producers in our scene was taken way too quickly, and being that he is a part of the dance music scene, overdosing and drug use (and abuse) is abundant throughout the culture – hell, a lot of dance music culture was born through (or alongside) drug culture. We’re just in a situation where someone I am a fan of has been taken completely out of the picture way too soon.
Think about it: it’s been a decade since he really started putting out material, and Double Cup still felt like the first time people truly “got” what he was doing. Now add that up with the hours of music that he released (either free or for a fee) in his time on this earth. Then think about the sheer volume of tracks footwork producers create, and imagine how much material Rashad was sitting on. We’re not guaranteed the opportunity to hear any of that, but just imagine what he had on his laptop.
It’s a crying fucking shame. All we can do is remember what made us fans of DJ Rashad, a producer who bucked convention and was able to win while putting his people on. For fans like me, who understood growing up in a cruel city while being black and into hip-hop and dance music at the same damn time, Rashad’s material spoke volumes to me. Well, still speaks to me. I’m better for having discovered (and fallen in love with) the footwork scene, and the world’s lost a real talent.
All we can do is hit repeat on his gems, continue to make people aware of the TEKLIFE crew, and do work in Rashad’s memory. Rest in power, Rashad.