Teklife has always been a bit of a Mt. Rushmore. Of course there’s DJ Rashad (RIP), the beloved originator, and his longtime partner-in-rhythm DJ Spinn. Gant-Man and Tre, although a little more removed from the public eye, round out the founding fathers. After that, the collective is long on membership but short on obvious heirs to the throne. DJ Earl is going to change that.
All of 24 years old when we met, DJ Earl is at the vanguard of the first generation of footwork musicians to be able to cite the genre’s originators as a formative influence. Accordingly, he takes on the same reverent tone when discussing Rashad and Spinn as do many other member of the collective.
This is not to suggest that Earl’s music doesn’t distinguish itself from its predecessors; he has carved out a distinct sonic signature across a rapid-fire run of EPs and, this past summer, his debut album, Open Your Eyes. The record is equally committed to honoring footwork’s past and promising exciting things in store for its future. Earl’s characteristic horns and jazzy pianos are joined by contributions from Daniel Lopatin—a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never—on several tracks.
I met Earl in the lobby of the Hilton in Raleigh, NC, during the 2015 Hopscotch Music Fest. Over the course of an hour he let me live vicariously through his experiences with Teklife, Hyperdub, and other titans of electronic music—a life that he repeatedly noted still doesn’t seem real. —Corrigan Blanchfield
When you’re putting a track together, do you have a go-to method? Do you start with percussion, synths, or something else?
DJ Earl:It’s not an exact process that I go in with. It’s situational, sometimes I’ll start out with sounds, or vocal samples, something that I want to chop. Usually when I start with percussion I’m making the more upbeat, crazy type of stuff for the dancers.
What do you look for in a sample? Do you think about lyrical content, or just something that you can make a melody out of?
DJ Earl:Kind of both. I go for melodies in soul samples, stuff with really dope basslines, but usually I like to just chop the samples and add my own melody to it or just create a melody and figure out how different samples fit in there. Sampling is just an artform in itself, something that’s been around since house music, ghetto house, the stuff that came before juke. It’s a tradition basically.
Do you have a default source for samples, or are you just listening to everything?
DJ Earl:I’m definitely more on the soulful, jazzy side—I played jazz when I was younger and did concert as well, wrote some sheet music and stuff. It’s more like the smooth, soulful-type stuff.
A ton of Teklife tracks come out with, like, four producers credited. Do you guys strive to pack the studio for sessions?
DJ Earl:Yeah, sometimes. We like to pair up and mix our styles, keep the tracks mad creative. There’s a lot of repetition in the style, so you’ve gotta bring different minds to keep it weird. Working with so many loops and repetition, you have to keep a high level of creativity.
With that format, how do you go about deciding whose album gets which track? I remember seeing you guys with Rashad in Chicago a couple years back and you had all this crazy stuff that ended up on a Taso album months later.
DJ Earl:Honestly it’s whoever comes up with the idea—they might’ve written the beat and come up with the hook. It’s definitely a group decision, but the idea is whoever put in the most work on the track. Those tracks that came out on Teklife til Da Next Life were just straight off tour, getting ready for Pitchfork, getting ready to finish up Double Cup tracks.
I barely made Double Cup too—the last track on the album, “I’m Too Hi”, we made that in my garage on some Logitech speakers in the middle of a Teklife meeting. Rashad just said “let’s make a track” and we smoked and kept saying “I’m… too… high” and just recorded it.
What do you mean when you say “Teklife meeting?” Is that a regular thing?
DJ Earl:We’re a group, and it’s a tradition—even before I was in the group, they used to meet up a lot and just talk about different agendas, different ways to stay creative. Just keeping a high level of communication so that we can all keep heading towards the same goal. With groups sometimes, if you don’t communicate it’s like everyone is heading in different directions.
How big is Teklife now?
DJ Earl:I think there are 30 of us now. We’ve got the Chicago group, of course, and then New York, people in LA, people in Denver, a whole international set in Europe. Mystic Stylez is in Serbia, they turn up out in Belgrade.
Coming up on jazz, how’d you get into footwork? What brought you into Teklife specifically?
DJ Earl:It started with me doing traditional instruments, playing the drums and a little saxophone and flute and getting into concert and marching bands. I was writing music and performing throughout grammar school and then touring with some orchestra bands in high school. It’s a weird world, really political with first and second chairs. People were real aggressive, getting into the competition. I wasn’t really fucking with that, you know, I just like the music and the live experience and playing the instruments.
I grew up in a neighborhood where they play juke; I’d step outside and hear the music. On the weekends all my friends would go to the skating rinks. Juke started out in different halls and skating rinks before moving up. It didn’t make it into nightclubs until years later because it was outlawed. When they’d play juke in the clubs it’d go really crazy and get rowdy so club owners banned it all.
So you couldn’t avoid it in Chicago?
DJ Earl:Basically. I guess it was meant to happen no matter what because I grew up in the culture. A lot of my friends footworked, I went to school with people that did it, and I just wound up right smack in the middle of it. Eventually I got educated on the music and the producers and started dancing myself. A couple years into it, in 2008, I went to Battlegrounds and saw Spinn and Rashad for the first time. I’d heard juke and footwork tracks, but never at that level. They were sampling all kinds of shit like Roy Ayers, George Clinton, all types of people. Old-school hip-hop, it was fucking my head up. They’d show up late and play for hours at this spot on the south side called Battlegrounds, every week.
I was DJing around then as well and got the courage to start talking to them. One time Rashad just came up to me and said, “man, I like your tracks” and I was like, “Oh, dope, for real?” He told me to keep it coming and then the next year, still going to Battlegrounds every weekend, I started playing with those guys and learning Serato. After that I finally got the courage to ask Rashad about joining.
Do you see you guys as being in friendly competition within Teklife?
DJ Earl:Of course! We keep each other motivated—somebody will flip something and then a different dude will go back and re-flip it. I feel like a lot of DJs in Chicago weren’t coming with the sound that we had and the competition with other DJs got boring over time. We would just battle each other, literally call each other like, “I got fifteen new tracks, see you at Battlegrounds” and then, “I got twenty new tracks, it’s crackin’”. We would work on stuff together but when you’re apart you’re trying to fuck each other up. Fuck each other up to make each other better though.
Do you see competition between Teklife and other DJs out of Chicago? Is everybody trying to join Teklife? I’m thinking about DJ Nate, RP Boo, guys like that.
DJ Earl:Not necessarily. Of course there are a lot of people trying to be in, but pretty much all of the crews stay separate. A couple DJs hop through different groups, come through and get kicked out, but we keep our roster pretty fresh and tight. It’s more of a family than a group—anyone in it we’ve met and kicked it with, hung out for a long time and then asked them to join. Some people got invited, some people asked and had to try out.
What’s the tryout like?
DJ Earl:It used to consist of setting up turntables and you’d come and explain why you wanted to be in, what you’d bring to the group, what you’ve got going on in your life. It’s a screening process, and then you’d play the music. We’d be trying to see what sounds you’d bring to the group. It’s a group vote, not even a majority thing—everybody has to say yes or you don’t make it.
So footwork was obviously a Chicago thing for years and then it really got put on the map by those Bangs & Works tapes. How did you guys get hooked with Planet Mu, Hyperdub, all these Euro labels?
DJ Earl:Yeah, in 2010 it really kicked off hard—shoutout Mike Paradinas and Planet Mu. Battlegrounds was starting to be documented, showing up on YouTube, and I guess different DJs like Machinedrum and Addison Groove, were starting to catch the videos and hear about the music.
DJs had been playing juke and footwork for years because music had been getting put out on the Detroit label Juke Trax, as well as Database and Dance Mania so a lot of overseas DJs were educated but it hadn’t made it to the bigger levels. Over time the music got more in rotation though the internet—YouTube and Soundcloud as well—and Mike Paradinas started hitting everybody up about doing this compilation and we were down. Everybody was in on it, and it seemed like it’d be a big move for the culture.
The whole sound has gone completely worldwide—you were just in Mexico, Spinn hit Brazil. It’s crazy that there’s so much music to dance to down there but they’re still looking to Chicago.
DJ Earl:Spinn did Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and came back and met up with me and Taso and The Era in Mexico. It was dope, an experience in itself. I got to check out one of the biggest pyramid bases in Cholula, and man—Mexico City is a huge-ass city. It made me feel like Chicago’s not even that big. Contrary to American media, Mexico is really dope. They try and keep you away, but there’s danger everywhere.
As far as the Hyperdub connection goes, has getting signed and checking out your labelmates opened your mind to a lot of new stuff?
DJ Earl:Hell yes. Hyperdub is fucking amazing—outside of the music they are amazing people. Steve is a fucking genius, Kode9 is just all-around amazing, intelligent, sonically in-tune. I met a lot of the Hyperdub roster and everybody is just chill as hell. They go hard, man, and they’re just about the music culture, not just trends.
As far as releasing music, I’m just now getting properly educated in the last few years but everybody loves Hyperdub. They have a worldwide sound, and the UK in general is amazing—I got to play Fabric with Kode9 in Room 1 and that shit was just incredible. I got to tour different regions with them and the label’s presence is just all over. The UK, of course, Belgrade, Barcelona…I actually heard that Russia gave a really good response to Rashad and Spinn. South America was really dope too. Their vibe is on the music—they don’t have as many resources to be educated on the whole scene and they’re just into the sounds.
On the topic of releasing music, you’re pretty active on Soundcloud. Was that big when the movement starting blowing up?
DJ Earl:Soundcloud was a major push in the very beginning and it was definitely a lot of exposure. A lot of tracks got crazy plays and blogs would pick them up. It plays a big role in getting DJs involved instead of labels, keeping fans in-tune even if you’re not releasing a lot of music. Especially from 2008-2010, when everything was falling into place, Soundcloud was one of the key links to the public.
It’s pretty weird, what’s happening with Soundcloud right now—they’re definitely not fucking with DJ culture and remixes. I feel like as long as the music isn’t being sold and if people are clearing their samples…it’s just the major labels getting back, they’re really after DJ culture right now. We’re in the age of information—everything’s shifting, moving, and trending, and Soundcloud could just be nothing tomorrow. It’s that simple.
Returning to Teklife, what’s the significance of some of the numbers that are everywhere? 57 and 6613 come to mind.
DJ Earl:Ok, well 6613 is some nostalgic, inside joke stuff that Rashad and Spinn and their friends came up with years ago. It doesn’t mean anything negative, just some inside joke type of shit. 57 is Ashes57, she’s from the UK and an amazing artist and pretty much half of the business—Ashes57 met Teklife and we formed Teklife57, the partnership. I believe she did the Teklife logo as well.
Do you know how that new track from Spinn and Danny Brown, “Dubby,” came about?
DJ Earl:Spinn and Rashad were touring and I guess they crossed paths with Brown at some point. Danny Brown is very hip to underground culture, always has been. He’s from Detroit, and that’s a sister city of Chicago even going back to house music and Detroit Techno; even then, all the old heads were trading knowledge and equipment and kicking off the movements. They met up on some great minds think alike type shit and just knocked it out.
Is there any more collaborative work with more typical hip-hop MCs on the way?
DJ Earl:Well we did the Live From Your Mama’s House tape with Mic Terror and Treated Crew just now. It was going on for years before that project, but we were trying to push footwork more to the forefront and return to hip-hop collaborations when that made more sense for the movement. You can expect a lot more to come though.
On that note, do you all still have a lot of work from Rashad in the vault?
DJ Earl:Oh man, Rashad has endless tracks. His library is like – we could release music from him until his son is grown. Rashad was a fucking beast, and his level of productivity was unbelievable at all times. We’d be at Battlegrounds every week and Rashad would have 15, 20 new tracks every week. He made way more than that and just brought what made the cut. They were just testing music out on the footworkers every week. The message that he always gave us was to go hard, keep making music, stay productive, and it’ll all work out—he was a prime example of that. Rashad would make tracks until he literally fell asleep on the MPC. He’d wake up and be right back making tracks half-asleep, eyes closed, killing it nonstop.