Being a musical tourist has never been easier. With the constant release of obscure reissues and compilations from around the world, you can easily pick up compilations of Zambian rock music from the ’70s, or Norwegian psychedelic folk, or even state sponsored pop music from North Korea. But like that one kid who went off to “discover themselves” in Mongolia after college, these compilations tend to be treated like novelties, or just short vacations from your regular listening habits.
Of course, there’s a difference between a tourist and a traveler. A traveler takes the experiences of their travels and tries their best to understand the culture and place they are experiencing as best they can, not just for the sake of the novelty of it, but to learn from it. Leland Jackson, AKA Ahnnu, AKA Cakedog, is a traveler.
Leland had been making ambient and experimental beat music as Ahnnu for years in Los Angeles, and before that in Richmond, Virginia, where he befriended, and later moved to L.A. with MNDSGN and Knxwledge. But after being exposed to and enlightened by Chicago footwork, Leland took it upon himself to learn as much as he could about its culture and music from his home base in Los Angeles. Studying Youtube videos of footwork dance battles, and connecting with Chicago producers online, Cakedog took the ambient, free flowing elements of his work as Ahnnu, and asserted his own style into footwork music — while simultaneously paying respects to the roots of the music in Chicago dance battles.
After playing around town, sometimes with O.G. Chicago footwork producers, and releasing an album on Leaving Records, Cakedog has become an integral part of the growing network of footwork producers and dancers in Los Angeles, a somewhat second home to the music after Chicago. I talked with Cakedog about footwork, L.A.’s scene, and connecting with one of the style’s originators, RP Boo, after the release of an EP entitled Champions. It’s in advance of the release of his second album for Leaving Records, tentatively titled Doggystyle. —Sam Ribakoff
How did you first discover juke/footwork?
Cakedog: It was around 2008-2009, a friend of mine introduced me to DJ Nate’s Da Track Genious which I really didn’t understand at first but I was drawn to its fidelity and composition. Eventually I found my way to hearing Bangs & Works Vol 1 and DJ Rashad’s work which really brought me deeper into footwork’s versatility and history. At that point I was actively seeking out footwork music.
What about the composition brought you into the music?
Cakedog: I think initially what confused me but also interested me was the speed and repetitiveness of the vocals. After hearing other producers and tracks I started to realize the flexibility of the speed in tracks and the vocals really serving as percussive elements in the composition. I also began to study the footwork dance which made it clear to me in a big way that the vocal elements were used for not only the sound of the track but for the energy and tension within the dance.
How did you discover the dance? A lot of people seemed to only “get” footwork when they saw people dancing to the music. Did you “understand” the music more fully?
Cakedog: Just through my own research on YouTube I found lots of videos and footwork competitions. I would watch these for hours and hours. The dance definitely brought me closer to my understanding of the music as a producer. For me it stood out clearly that the dance and music congregate to create that special energy. Personally at this point I can’t imagine producing footwork tracks without the awareness of the dancer. It really introduced a depth and complexity to the styles within the art that I always go to as a source of inspiration.
So when you’re making a track, do you imagine dancers dancing to it? Do you make it specifically for dancers?
Cakedog: When I make a track I do imagine how it might play out on the dancefloor but it isn’t necessarily on the forefront of my mind. Mostly what I try to aim for is making a track enjoyable to listen to just as music, but I do try and push a “battle” feel in my tracks to leave the door open for dancers to express themselves.
Were you already making music as Ahnnu when you started making footwork tracks? Did you feel freer to experiment with footwork because you weren’t in Chicago around the OGs of the style? Did you feel like you had to figure out how to make the music by yourself?
Cakedog: Yes, I was producing other music before I began trying my hand at creating footwork tracks.To be honest even at that time, before I began trying to put together my first tracks I was fully aware that the culture and history was deeper than I knew. Because of this I always kept a critical ear to what I make so that I honor and respect the source material, and actually I try not to approach experimentation in the same method I do with footwork tracks.
I’m aware it’s easy nowadays for newer artists to appropriate and dilute musical history through these new media formats. Specifically with footwork I want to support and build with the context and cultural landscape that already exists. So when I make footwork music it’s to interact in a very direct and social way whereas my Ahnnu material is meant to reach people in a more intimate manner.
I did assume at first there was a formula to footwork tracks. And a lot of people point to 160 BPM as a good basic starting point. But in my experience the BPM is flexible and only a part of the whole. I didn’t like a lot of my early tracks because I was wrapped up in the BPM and essentially flattening the track rhythmically I felt. My focus on the BPM only made me anchor the pace at 160, and I couldn’t help but feel the tracks were burdened by its speed.
The big picture for me when I started to find my groove in track making was how it felt first and foremost. It was when I began self studying the dance and started dancing myself I gained a new sense of the overall cadence. Actually I feel more compelled to footwork than making the music nowadays because it really helps me listen in a different way than I would from a production point of view.
Although no doubt your music is respectful and part of the continuum of the OG footwork pioneers, you’ve definitely added your own style to the genre. It’s hard to describe, but maybe adding more ambient elements to the music, especially on Menace in The Phantom. Is that fair, and something that you consciously bring to your music?
Cakedog: Yeah I’d say so. Playing with space in music is really the fun part and it’s just an overall practice in art making for me. I like that thought of ambiance in the footwork tracks too, it’s a unique blending of forces. It’s what’s interesting about the range and dynamic of footwork maybe. The rhythm can sound very fast yet have a slow feel or break into a slow groove in its own fluid way.
Now you’re friends with RP Boo and, I think, a part of the wider footwork community, but when Menace in the Phantom came out, did you get any accusations of appropriation? If so, how did you deal with that? And how did you become a part of the footwork community?
Cakedog: I had the honor and pleasure to hang out with RP Boo for a little while here in Los Angeles. He’s legendary to me and definitely a pillar in the footwork community. I’ve never had any accusations, but I do try and be responsible for my position. Footwork has a long, vibrant and personal history to the streets of Chicago, somewhere I’ve never been. So as the music starts to emerge in the market and in popular spaces I hope that I can help people know my music is only the tip of the iceberg of something that’s been around for a long time.
The footwork community is still growing too. Juke Bounce Werk here in Los Angeles is an excellent representation of that. I wouldn’t say I’m very socially active, but I have made some connections between producers and DJs who I admire. I hope to build more with other footwork producers, DJs, and dancers in the future.
It is amazing that footwork found a second home in LA. Do you think the footwork scene here will grow?
Cakedog: I agree! I think over time as the artist/promoter connections between LA and Chicago expand, I’m sure it will grow. It really does shine when shared in public spaces with dancers and systems that can handle the bass. Naturally it’s one of those things I think that once it gets into the minds of people, the intensity is contagious. But I also think bringing more Chicago artists out here is an amazing move too because it helps introduce newer audiences to the sound in the proper way.
Do you think LA footwork has a distinct sound?
Cakedog: I’d say it’s going to take a little while for there to be a distinct sound here in my opinion. Footwork in my mind will always be about Chicago. In that way I look at it more as a Chicago tradition practiced here in LA. Eventually I think there will be more distinct styles here in LA as newer artists come out. It will take time though. Especially as outsider artists from Chicago, we don’t have the context of what it was like to be a part of its birth and lineage firsthand.
Even now as I listen back to classic footwork tracks I’m reminded the craftsmanship of track making in footwork is deep. I think most producers who try to make their first footwork track realize this. It might sound simple to create but the finessing takes a long time to master.