DJ Spinn Speaks on the Past, Present, and Future of TEKLIFE

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Since 2013’s critically acclaimed Double Cup album, the leaders of Chicago’s unique juke and footwork sounds, DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, have been steadily winning an international fan base. Their TEKLIFE collective, built alongside DJ Gant-Man and DJ Manny, thrives on fast-paced sonic energy, which comes straight out of their home territory of Chicago’s underground dance scene. Known as juke, DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn have recently played international audiences with an increased interest in their sound, a kind of hip-hop set to warp drive. It’s resonating and vibrant music, and if their recent worldwide tour is any indication, clubs across Russia, Japan and Europe are paying serious attention to them.

The undercurrent of their brand of juke is a driven, heartbeat-quickening tempo that regularly clocks in at 160 BPM, set to cleanly placed bass kicks, smooth grooves and melodic incentives to let it go, and recite Juicy J lyrics. Now, with the recent release of DJ Rashad’s We On 1 EP on Southern Belle Recordings, the two artists seem ready to present juke to the masses.

Unfortunately, DJ Rashad’s career was cut criminally short; he passed away on Saturday, April 26. At 34, with the promise of a huge year, juke lovers, and musical peers like Chance the Rapper and 2 Chainz, paid their respects on social media.

Just one day before DJ Rashad moved tragically from being a pioneering leader of juke and DJ to watch, to a legendary musician that died far, far too soon, I sat down with right-hand man, DJ Spinn, in Toronto.

What are you most excited for in 2014?
My son coming. That’s number one. I’m excited about a lot of shows, too, but my son coming, that’s gonna be awesome. Everybody keeps trying to talk all this crazy shit, I’m like, “Yo, I’m straight.” I just don’t wanna have a kid broke. That’s the worst. I got it real good. I got a future. *laughs* Everybody tell me “you know, the kid’s gonna keep you up all night.” I’m like, “Sure!” That’s what babies do! I just gotta think of a name, man.

Well you have to see the baby before you can give a name.
That’s what I keep telling my girl, man! We can come up with names. It’s just gotta come to me, I don’t wanna rush it. In reality, I’m a junior. I just dropped it off my name, I denounced it. My father wasn’t around, I met him when I was 27. (laughs)

Are you nervous about becoming a father?
I’m nervous about the delivery date. I just wanna be there when the baby is born. I gotta go overseas. The due date is July 13. I gotta go back overseas the 14th or 15th.

Do you still do the footwork every so often?
What, the dance? (laughs) Man that shit’s done for me. Actually, I did footwork at the Breakin’ Convention in London in 2012. I did 10 seconds and was tired as fuck. (laughs)

Where’d the name TEKLIFE come from?
Well, we were called Ghetto Teknitianz, and we learned you can’t go too many places with “Ghetto” in front of your name. (laughs) I mean, just being honest, know what I mean? So we had to come up with something commercial, but not necessarily “commercial,” reminiscent of what we do. Still an extension of Ghetto Teknitianz, you know? That’s TEKLIFE. That’s what we do.

What’s the pre-show ritual?
A blunt or two. Five, if I can (laughs).

Did you ever meet Frankie Knuckles?
We met at the Red Bull Lecture, when we was on the couch in Madrid. That was the first time I met him, and then another Red Bull party in Chicago, at Smart Bar. All us was DJing that, two sides. It was crazy, man.

You grew up listening to him.
Man, I grew up listening to everybody, but Cajmere? That was the dude, man. “Percolator,” that was the track. Frankie Knuckles was a bit before my time as far as house go, but the music always is there, you know.

His estate got a letter from the President.
That only makes sense, Obama’s from Chicago.

Where’s Rashad? I thought you guys would be touring together.
Nah, he was just with us but he got problems with Canada and shit. He had to get this paperwork, man. He was just in Brazil the last few weeks, and we didn’t get a chance to get it all sorted. Show was already booked and he tried.

Is he at the airport?
Nah he’s back at Chicago. He was taking a train to Windsor, then over here. It didn’t make sense so he just went back.

Canada has such problems with border crossing and some artists. Like, I know Freddie Gibbs can’t come…
Aww man, why the fuck Gibbs can’t come? We’re actually working on some remixes for him and shit. We been working with Gibbs for a little while. He wanted to get in the studio with us, actually, he been sending us acapellas, beats, all that shit. Just been chopping shit up. Yeah, I fuck with Gibbs hard. I met him in 2010 at the Mad Decent Block Party in Chicago. We didn’t know who he was, then. He came up moving to L.A., ain’t shit in the Midwest.

How’s it been on Hyperdub?
Great man, got a release coming soon as I get done (laughs). We got tracks. I wanna make more of the Double Cup-style tracks, as far as the originality we came with, with Rashad. Like, it was a team effort. Rashad is the leader of the team, but that’s how we work. Rashad, he do so much music, man. It’s insane. I just wanna keep the bar up high. Do Double Cup times two.

Quadrouple Cup.
(laughs) Yeah. Because that’s what keeps the level up for the next guy who’s coming up, whether it’s me, Rashad, or DJ Earl, DJ Taye, anybody in the crew who’s coming out. It’s like, we wanna set the bar so when you listen to one of my songs, you like “oh so now I gotta come with this!” It’s reciprocal energy, man. Gotta keep it going.

The reach you and DJ Rashad have with juke is crazy.
Well, it took us 18 years. (laughs) The last four years, that’s the pinnacle right there.

How’s it feel?
Awesome. But it’s like work never done, so. That’s the type of mind frame I keep. I don’t get content, I want to make shit bigger and better. I ain’t the last person to live, shit. I wanna make it better for people after me, open up doors. A lot of cats didn’t do it for us, they closed, slammed it on us, hit our toes. (laughs) “Hey man, you can’t get in? What’s that crazy shit?

You guys are right into current sounds of hip-hop, eh? Do you keep an ear on what the radio’s playing?
You got to. That’s just DJ intuition. We listen to everybody. That’s our music, it’s a mixture of everything. Gotta stay current. And in a way, we do our own thing as well, but we like to mess with popular music, though. That’s what people like, we just take it and do it our way.

To see Stones Throw put your Juke remix of DaM FunK and Snoop Dogg on their homepage is a great example of how juke has no real limits to what influences it can take.
Yeah, man. I met DaM at South by Southwest. We were so excited to meet each other, man. It was all good, big fan of his work. We happen to have the same manager, that’s how that remix happened.

That track, having the opportunity to work with a name like Snoop and DaM, crazy. When our manager told us we were like “oh, shit it’s real.” We sent the mix, waited, then it’s official. We were geeked. It’s the level of music we’ve been waiting for, man.

You and Rashad are like the leaders of bringing juke and footwork, Chicago-branded sounds, to an international audience.
That’s what they say, man. (laughs) It’s awesome. I just wanna make people proud, make the people happy.

We all push ourselves. Like I said, me and Rashad, we been doing this for 18 years, you know, we want everything to be right. We don’t wanna rush into anything. We wanna be grown men about it, be decent role models to certain people, but still have fun with our music. Let people know, we’re real people too, but have fun, live your life. Enjoy yourself, for real.

Is the touring life an adjustment?
It feels like something we should have done a long time ago. Feels right. The perfect shoe size. This is what we’re supposed to do.

There was a point in Chicago, where all we wanted was to be radio DJs. We thought that was the pinnacle. You get the radio, steady gigs, but Chicago radio, man. So much politics. (laughs) We thought if we do good enough it was a natural thing, somebody’d put us on. But, even getting juke on the radio, it never happened at first. They still stick to they same format. They got new DJs, but I don’t know man, it’s kind of disrespectful to what we do. Playing juke without having an official juke DJ. There’s only one official juke DJ on the radio, DJ Mathis. We came up with him, making tracks, when we as like 15. He was one of the guys, went to college, came back with a job at the radio. It’s real political, man.

That’s surprising.
It’s controlled, I don’t know by who! *laughs* It’s all good. I just got this bittersweet feeling about home, man. It’s like I love it and I hate it. To the point cause that’s where I’m from and it made me who I am, but I hate it because just drama and bullshit that goes on. And a lot of hating, man. The number one thing in Chicago, cats hate. They don’t wanna see nobody do better than them, man. That’s just insane, because if I’m doing good, and I can help somebody else do good, it’s a chain reaction. It multiplies. But it’s the opposite, you got more hate, multiplies to more haters hating on what you do.

Cats in Chicago, too, they used to say “y’all do that Euro tracks.” And we just say “man, we’re just doing what we do!” And yeah we been to Europe, but that ain’t no Euro track. Juke from Chicago! It’s crazy, man. People don’t understand until they get put in a situation or they get wise and mature to understand, cause when I was coming up, I was mad at Kanye and R. Kelly and anyone that was from Chicago, they didn’t stay! When Kanye moved out of Chicago we’d be like “man, what the fuck, why you leave?” But now I understand why people leave, you grow. (laughs) And I found these places in the world that fits me better than Chicago.

What do you make of the violence going on in Chicago?
It was worse in the ’90s, man, when I was in high school. The early, mid-nineties. It’s crazy now, but it was higher numbers when I was younger. Now it’s younger kids. I’m tired of all this stupid violence, man.

I can say this about Chicago; it’s one of the realest cities you could ever go to, or be from, or whatever. It ain’t no sugarcoating, you got the hustlers, swindlers and it’s right in your face. And if you from there you can recognize it real quick, know what I mean? It’s Chicago’s pace. We talk super fast in Chicago.

But the youth in Chicago, man. We trying to do something for them. That’s why we stay doing our footwork, man, to show the kids. Right now we got this thing called bop‎ in Chicago that’s blowing up. I seen cats on the Steve Harvey show, the Morning shows, the news shows, doing the bop, and that’s cool, I ain’t dissing it. But to me, footwork it’s the culture. Bopping not a culture. All that drill music not a culture. It’s a thing that’s for right now, for 2014.

Is it a fad?
I can’t say it’s a fad, but it’s not a culture. Footwork, what we do with the music and with the dancing, it’s people that live and die for what we do. I’ve seen it, literally. To come out to our shows, to do their best, stay out of trouble, you know what I mean? That was the most influential thing about it. That’s what got me out of trouble, to wanna be “that dude.” If I could be that dude, you know what I mean, show kids another way, that you could get out of Chicago. That’s what a lot of kids don’t get a chance to do, you know. A lot of people from Chicago just have family in Chicago. Myself, if I had family elsewhere, I’d have left a while ago, on something a bit different. But from touring and doing all this, I’ve seen a lot of places. It makes me look back on my city like, “man, why y’all so stuck in this rut?” It’s like they’re stuck. They don’t know what they’re gonna do to get out, if they even wanna get out.

What’s stuck out about Chicago now that you’ve played a lot of foreign cities?
I can literally just see the city decay. Other than downtown, the wealthy parts, it’s abandoned man. Whole neighborhoods, no houses. It’s crazy. When you got dilapidated homes, it brings down the property value, the type of people that move places. I see it just plainly, man. Like, “I was living there all this time? Wow.” Yeah, man. It took a couple times for me to tour, like, everything changed about my view back home. See the whole difference, the buildings, the people, and everything.

How do you find music?
Man, I just go surfing on the Internet. I just look. It’s weird, a lot of people they mess with me, they say “let’s go to the record store.” And I say, “man I got a record store on my laptop!” I hate to sound like that, but I’m not looking for no records, man.

Internet came up, as far as I remember. We got the internet at our house in ’97, all it was was AOL. It’s totally different now. But I ain’t mad at it, because without the Internet, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing over the world. It’s about putting music out here now, once you put it out, people check you out at shows, they check you out, you got a fan base. It’s all good, I ain’t mad at nobody, if they came out yesterday, and got a million followers or fans, hey, I wanna take notes. (laughs) It could be the dumbest shit, but there has to be something that gets that many people liking it.

Has that always been your disposition towards other artists?
I don’t got no hate in my blood for nobody. Man, I always got my personal opinion. I don’t voice my personal opinion all the time. I’m not Kanye. (laughs) Words can come back to haunt you and shit. So I keep it to myself, especially with Chicago and the attention we getting with music, man. My mama helped me get humble, whenever I got a big head she’d slap the shit out of me. “Be respectful.” That’s what I learned.

Humility, respect, that’s the keys of life, right there. To be a man, with respect and dignity, just be humble, period. Appreciate what God gave you. If you don’t, it’s gonna get taken from you. As quick as you come up, you’d fall. I appreciate everything, being here talking with you man. I can’t say it was a specific dream, but it was in the making of a plan Rashad and I thought of a long time ago. “We see a lot of people doing music, why can’t we do it?” We persevered. We stuck with it.

You’ve seen a lot.
A lot of people come and go.

What’s a constant, when you’re pursuing your art?
Family. My family always there. And I got good friends, my friends are always there for me.

You and Rashad are longtime friends.
Man, hell yeah, man. That’s my brother right there. All of us at TEKLIFE, we brothers. We might get on each others nerves, we party hard, and we work harder. That’s the work ethic, right there.

You can follow Toronto-based writer Eric Zaworski via Twitter: @peacelovez.

  • LZRKMMNDR

    excellent, if a bit chilling, interview