On My Way: The Legacy of DJ Rashad

A look back at the life and career of the great DJ Rashad on the anniversary of his death.
By    April 27, 2015

Art by Elevate Festival

Jack Lowery is da coldest.

In the year since DJ Rashad’s sudden passing, it’s easy to forget how people used to talk about footwork.  It wasn’t that long ago that the genre was considered to be just another passing fad in the world of electronic music.  Even as recently as his 2013 Rollin’ EP, most people assumed that Hyperdub’s obsession with the hypnotically breakneck footwork sound would be a sort of small footnote in the grand scheme of things, but Rashad never saw things that way.  He took a niche corner of electronic music and showed the rest of the world a different take on music from Chicago’s south side.

Rashad was an infinitely likable figure in the music world, and in the never ending outpouring of shootings, gang violence, and crime coming out of Chicago, he was a small glimmer of hope.  His friends and TekLife cohorts were present with everything he did, and he never forgot to shout out Chicago and bring it back to his hometown to promote his own brand of relentless positivity.

But as uplifting as his work could be, there was always a profound sense of loss in DJ Rashad’s music, and with his untimely passing, this absence has only grown. Rashad’s sudden death was only made all the more painful by conflicting reports of how he actually died.  It took months for the world to finally find out what had happened, but the final verdict of drug overdose felt especially crippling.  Narcotics were always present in his music, but this felt different. People asked Rashad in interviews about some of the more somber samples he had in his songs, and he usually seemed uncomfortable and shrugged it off with a generic answer like, “I was just trying to put soul onto the track” or “It just came from a certain place.”  The idea that he was struggling with drug addiction like this seemed remote for somebody who never failed to look at the brighter side of things.

At first, Rashad’s overdose cast a shadow over his music, but after a while it became apparent that there had been a certain darkness all along.  Seminal tracks like “Let it Go” show a depth of emotion that his public persona rarely let on, and going back and listening to the blissed out horror of Double Cup’s closing track, “I’m Too Hi” eerily foreshadows what was to come.  But few tracks showed Rashad’s pain like his Gil Scott Heron tribute, “I’m Gone.”  In footworks’ typical fashion, Rashad only sampled a few lines of Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is”:

“I left three days ago
But no one seems to know I’m gone
Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain”

Rashad also sampled the same Scott-Heron song a year later in his track, “On My Way.”  Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where is the Hatred Is” is sort of an anomaly within Rashad’s music.  It’s the only song DJ Rashad ever sampled twice, and it’s also his only release with a Scott-Heron sample on it.  Rashad kept coming back to this specific song as if it was something he had left unfinished, and the sections that he choose not to sample might be more telling as to where his mind was:

“Stand as far away from me as you can
and ask me why
Hang on to your rosary beads
close your eyes to watch me die
You keep saying, kick it, quit it
God, but did you ever try
to turn your sick soul inside out
So that the world can watch you did
Home is where I live inside
my white powder dreams
Home was once an empty vacuum
that’s filled now with my silent screams
Home is where the needle marks
try to heal my broken heart
And it might not be such a bad idea
if I never go home again”

Gil Scott Heron probably never heard DJ Rashad’s music, but he might be the figure in black music history that Rashad’s legacy resembles the most.  Both had such a critical take on the problems in their communities, and yet neither of them seemed to be able to escape these same downfalls.  Rashad fell into the pit-hole of almost all jazz legends, chasing a dragon he never seemed to find.

In the constant barrage of new music trends and genres, DJ Rashad’s music still feels as fresh as it ever did.  Double Cup is one of the strongest electronic albums in recent memory, and terms like juke and footwork are now permanently lodged in the vernaculars of pop music.  But what makes Rashad’s life and music so compelling is how much he changed people’s perceptions of Chicago’s urban environment.  He never tried to downplay the city’s violence and crime, but he did give another option to the stereotype of it being an inner-city wasteland.  Media outlets are all too quick to jump on any statistic that supports the idea that Chicago is too damaged to save, but if there’s anything we can learn from DJ Rashad, it’s that genuine creativity still manages to thrive in the midst of chaos, and these “dire situations” are all too often dotted with unrecognized positivity.

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