October 9, 2013

121505631_640Son Raw’s in the fast lane.

I spend most of my time here writing about Grime out of personal interest, but let there be no doubt that over on the other side of the Atlantic, Juke/Footwork is just as vital a musical form. In addition to its revitalizing impact on Drum & Bass and foundational influence on the nascent Slow/Fast scene, Footwork itself is proving to be one of the most exciting movements in American music: a post-rap avant-guard that has as much to do with Techno’s lofty idealism as the carnal Booty-House roots it emerged from. Just as importantly, it’s a versatile form with each producer exploring different aspects of the style/tempo to divergent and contradictory results.

First up, DJ Rashad is unleashing his second full length in two years with Double Cup and it just might be Footwork’s crowning achievement to date. Combining the futuristic jazz chords of mid-era Detroit Techno to Chicago Hip-Hop soul sampling and London breakbeats, it’s an ultra-confident LP that’s as rhythmically adventurous as it is texturally breezy. On paper, the formula is simple: a couple of chords or chops combined to a weed/molly/lean/pussy related vocal and some of the most intense drums known to man, mix to taste.

In practice, this musical alchemy feels like a quantum leap forward in American urban music: why waste time recording a whole rap when all you need are a couple of bars from DJ Spinn to loop up? Why settle for plodding 4X4 drumming or played out trap when you have the tools to accelerate into the future? Why settle solely for Drill’s relentless negativity when you can balance that worldview out with hope and optimism? Granted, this ain’t a Common record and we’ve fallen pretty far from grace when the alternative to Chief Keef releases tracks like “Drank, Kush Barz” and the Juice-sampling monster that is “I don’t Give a Fuck.” By the time you reach the absolutely sublime Floetry-inspired “Let U Know” however, you’re left with no doubt that this like his Jazz, Funk, House and Hip-Hop predecessors before him, Rashad is not only pushing music forward, he’s finding beauty in the struggles of American reality and that’s something to be celebrated.

While Rashad pushes Footwork in more accessible directions with precise drumming, detailed song structures and breezy textures, his TekLife compatriot Traxman wants nothing of the sort. On TekLife Vol 3, the 20+ year Chicago veteran has no room for compromise, delivering punishing battle track after punishing battle track to the point of exhaustion. Sane men won’t make it through disc one: psychosis inducing tracks like “Buddah Muzik”, “Japan” and the bizarre, MJ sampling “Killing Fields” will ensure that. Those who soldier on will eventually reach a point where the constant repetition ceases to sound like dancer-food and starts to take on bizarre Phillip Glass-like quality as various elements begin to phase in and out of sync. Ultimately, while the album is overlong by half, Traxman’s mind-numbing brutalism is the perfect compliment to Rashad’s breezy optimism. Who said Jazz (or Juke) was easy?

Finally, beyond Chicago’s borders, the Berlin-Based Machinedrum is also making a return with Vapor City on Ninja Tune. I’m conflicted about Machinedrum: on one hand Room(s) is one of my favorite albums from the past few years but on the other, his work as Sepalcure lack any sort of solidity and he has a mustache only a mother could love. Thankfully, facial hair aside, Vapor City is a potent reminder of what made Room(s) so compulsively listenable: high-speed drum patterns counter-balancing gauzy ambient vocals. No one’s denying that the formula is lighter than Traxman’s head-bashing rhythm science, but so what? When you balance out your Clams Casino haze with Metalheadz-ready drumming, no one’s going to argue if the results land closer to Four Tet than 4-Hero. By leaving the hard stuff to the originators, Machinedrum crucially expands Footwork’s range of sonic possibilities, opening new possibilities not only for outsiders, but for originators back in the Chi who’re well aware of what he’s doing. Technically, I think this is a concept album about an imaginary dream city but that kind of stuff always gets lost on me when it comes to instrumental music. Suffice to say, it’s trippy mane.

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