Interview Issue 2018 | Music

From Rink to Radio

Ahead of Teklife’s latest album release, the Weekly sat down with three of its long standing members to talk Chicago, history of Teklife, and what it’s meant to them

Teklife is a crew of producers and DJs known for pioneering and popularizing footwork, a genre which produces some of the most futuristic sounds and styles in electronic music even as it draws upon decades of Chicago dance history. In the late 2000s, the group emerged from the Ghettoteknitianz outfit (2004-2009), and went on to prove itself as the decisive force in footwork’s explosion onto the international scene. Between drops on experimental electronic labels Planet Mu and Hyperdub, DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn began touring abroad, bringing their frenetic beats to a growing audience. Today, Teklife is known overseas for pushing footwork forward—and known locally for maintaining the culture.

So it felt like a homecoming in late July, when leading members of Teklife took to the Promontory in Hyde Park for an intimate and upbeat interview with music journalist Vivian Host on Red Bull’s “Peak Time” radio show. Through the banter and storytelling of Gant-Man, DJ Manny, DJ Spinn, DJ Taye, and Boylan, we got to know not just the story of Teklife, but the story of footwork.

In the beginning, there was juke: a sped-up deviation of ghetto house that took hold during the early 2000s. The infectious, intense sound was built upon booming 808 kicks, with claps and snares throbbing under tightly looped vocal samples—and it could be heard at parties around the South Side and suburbs, and at hubs like the Markham Roller Rink, where legends like DJ Deeon, DJ Spinn, DJ Rashad, and Gant-Man first spun the tracks that would become classics. Here, juke met footwork, a fast-paced and athletic style of dance. In time, the dancers and DJs nudged the BPM up to 160, and what we now call “footwork” began to form: a term encompassing the dance, the music, and the culture.

In interview at the Promontory, Host’s questions—and Spinn’s relentlessly hilarious riffs—made it clear how important the familial component of Teklife has been to the group’s success. The members onstage—like Taye, who joined Teklife by contacting Rashad through MySpace and Facebook—recalled supporting and pushing each other.

After the radio show—and a break for tacos—the afterparty began. As expected, the extended Teklife squad took over the turntables. But instead of a few long solo sets, they had two DJs spin simultaneously, each at their own deck. The DJs would excitedly tag in and out every five or ten minutes, creating a wildly energetic and varied set while showcasing their ability to improvise and adapt.To put it plainly, they went hard—and the audience did too. The Era, another esteemed footwork crew, joined in, dancing and showcasing their moves to the crowd as other footworkers joined in on.

As Gant-Man put it in conversation with the Weekly, this was an event “for the whole Chicago footwork culture—not just Teklife, but the whole Chicago footwork culture, the juke culture, the Ghetto House culture, just, just all in one. This is real Chicago.”

Interviews with three Teklife producers—Gant-Man, DJ Manny, and DJ Taye—follow. They have been edited for length and clarity.

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Gant-Man

Which tracks or artists made you think: “I want to make music?”

I [can] tell you this much. It was the late eighties, early nineties. You know, tracks that was made by Steve Poindexter, Mike Dunn, Armando, Robert Amani, Paul Johnson. When I heard Paul Johnson [it] sealed it, you know. And he was actually a DJ on the radio station that I was playing on when I was young—I was ten years old when I first started out on a college radio station called WKKC, at Kennedy King College. It’s like a historic place for a lot of Chicago South Side DJs.

When the nineties come in, that’s when you get the Robert Armani, Paul Johnson, and Cajmere—you know, a bunch of other people too. And then DJ Deeon with the ghetto house, DJ Funk with the ghetto house. And we hear it, and are like: yes, yes, this is tight.

This is like 1991. We’re like super kids, you know, and it was time to start learning how to make tracks. I got up on the Paul Johnson wing and ended up being his protégé. And he worked with me and showed me the equipment, and he saw me catch on within less than a day…so like, a few months later I was on my own [laughs]. We was producing tracks together and he was assisting me. That’s why I ended up going to put out my first record [on] Dance Mania. I was like fifteen, and then I did my first solo EP when I was sixteen.

And basically I made a lot of tracks [like] Paul Johnson house, but he sees in me to also make more like a slower and soulful and disco house, stuff like that. So I kind of had the best of both worlds, you know.

Could you tell us about the significance of labels like Dance Mania on ghetto house and the footwork world?

Yeah, well, you know, Dance Mania was a staple for Chicago House and ghetto house, and really more the underground house—what we call “jack trax,” you know. You had labels prior to that, but the nineties was our era: DJ Deeon, DJ Milton, DJ Funk, Jammin’ Gerald, Waxmaster, and DJ Slugo… Wow. It was just straight-up Chicago, South Side and West Side. And that label was around from the eighties all the way up until, I want to say, 2002? I think the last record I put out [on Dance Mania] was maybe like ‘98, ‘99.

When [Dance Mania] left, it was sad because we didn’t have anywhere else to put out tracks. We had to go to other sources, we had to go to outside labels and find our own way and learn how to utilize the internet. It was just a whole ‘nother world. But the scene back then was, wow. It was great, because this music originated on the South and West Side[s] of Chicago and neighborhoods. The hood, you know? South Side project buildings, that’s where the parties were. Like, it wasn’t no clubs playing ghetto house. It wasn’t like any kind of like radio at all—it took years to where DJs took chances on playing it.

So, it was just a party. It was underground. It was like, you knew where to find this music—either from the DJs themselves, or from mom and pop stores. Because we were pressing our own tapes and CDs, and also Ray Barney from Dance Mania, he was a distributor. It was basically like, you had to hustle. You had to hustle the parties, you had to hustle the mixtapes, and you had to hustle the tracks. We [were] doing this all underground, and wasn’t too much help except for Dance Mania.

The fans was the ones who really kept it going, because they were attending the parties. They really wanted to come out. They knew that’s where the party was, and in those days if a party was four or five hours, you would have seventy-five percent ghetto house and juke, and the other twenty-five percent would be hip-hop and R&B and slow songs, whatever, you know. And then you right back to playing the ghetto house and the juke. So yeah, it was massive, it was massive, but it was underground and it was still street violence and gang violence out here. So you had to be careful with certain areas you went to.

Of course Chicago always been segregated, so it was kind of people stayed on they own side of town, their own little neighborhoods. But when it comes down to ghetto house and the juke music, the footwork, the whole scene—none of that matters when it comes down to this music and this lifestyle, and the dancing, and just the whole culture. Everybody don’t even think about that—that this helps everybody who’s in this escape from all that. So that was like the beauty of it. And it’s always going to be a staple in Chicago. It don’t matter what generation, you know. [There] is always going to be ghetto house, juke, and footwork.

What are you working on right now?

Actually, I’ve been working on stuff for years, man. And you know, I probably—not probably, I know I need to stop being critical on myself and just put stuff out there. That’s the best way of explaining it.

But I’ve been working on a lot of things. I’m definitely gearing towards my EP release on Teklife. I’m gonna say it’s gonna be [out] at the beginning of the year. But I make music, I got remixes out there, I do collabs, [and] features. Whether I’m doing my own tracks or featuring vocals, I’m always putting my music out on the internet with the guys.

What are you excited about right now?

Honestly, because all my life has been music-related…those be the things that make me happy. Like, this event tonight…[and] this whole viral juke craze that’s been going on back in Chicago lately, everybody just been wanting to juke again. You know, just everything that’s been going on related to Chicago dance music, I’m inspired by. I’m inspired to put out music I’ve been making for years, as well as working on a whole bunch of new music.

I love summertime Chicago, Lately, I’m just starting to feel that 1998 energy again. Like, ooh, I’ve been dying for this for years. I’ve had waves because I’ve been in the game for so long, DJing and producing—next year will be literally thirty years I’ve been a DJ, professionally. 2019 will be my thirtieth year. So that’s something I’m happy about. And I still have more work to do—as long as I’m alive, I’ll be doing something music-related.

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DJ Manny

How did you first get involved with footwork?

When I was around my brother, I used to go to juke parties, and he introduced me to footwork, taught me how to dance. I knew right there and then—yeah, this is where I need to be at. It kept me out of trouble… It was actually fun and all, because it got me girls through. [laughs] That’s one reason why I did it, because back then, girls liked footwork. My freshman year in high school, I was at my homie’s house, and he was making music too, and he showed me how to use FruityLoops [production software]. And I just took it from there and ran with it.

So your music was played at the skate rinks, but you don’t skate. So what was going on there, what was the scene, what was happening on a typical Friday night?

It was like a teenage party happening—one room for the girls that skate, and the other room [was] the dance room for the teenagers. We would go to the juke room and watch them skate, and go back into the room and try and do they moves without footwork. It took me a while to get it, I started at like ten. I’m twenty-eight now, eighteen years!

How did you fall in with Teklife?

I was at the rink, and Spinn and Rashad was there. My homie was playing tracks, and then he was playing my music. And everyone was like, “Ooh, he cold!” [And I was like,] that’s me. [laughs] It went from there, like, come on home, bro. [Now] all of us help each other out, and we’re together. Like, the older generation put us on, and we put on the older generation with new music and stuff like that. I recently [been] with Taye, it was Taye and Spinn, then it was Rashad a lot. And I just came from Boylan’s house today making music with him. So all of us, like, collab.

How has footwork dancing influenced your production?

It helps a lot, because I know people want to hear it and want to dance too. Especially going out of state and out of town, listening to other music and stuff, influenced me to make other stuff than footwork—and put it all back in footwork, all the other genres back in footwork.

How would you describe your style?

I’d say I got the laidback, more—on some cool, get the crowd going—the track ladies. [laughs]

So, what are you working on right now?

Um—I’m dropping a 140 EP soon—140 as in BPM. Like, slowing it down a little bit. But imma make those 140 tracks into 160 too, so there’s gonna be two different…it’s gonna be like a ghetto house and a footwork type.

How does Chicago impact the way you produce and DJ?

It impacts a lot, because where I’m from is rough, so I like to take my everyday life and put it in my music. So like, I see somebody smoking a backwood, I go and create a track about a backwood. Type like that. It don’t have to [be about something], but that’s how I want to bring it in…see, I make tracks for stuff that’s going on in life for real.

Do you have any dream collaborations?

I’d like to produce with Zaytoven, I ain’t going to lie. Either Zaytoven or Kode9, I’d like to make a track with Kode9—I first met Kode9 in New York in like 2012, and he came did a show with me and Rashad.

What’s touring like for you?

It’s love, to see people dancing, dancing to your music…that’s what’s up, it’s like life-changing to me. Helping somebody else out, like changing they lives. Somebody told me that before, they walked up to me like, “you changed my life bro.” And I like hearing that. It’s a different reaction from out of town, like…Here, I get more love out of town than here. Smart Bar parties be rocking, and it’s love there. But when I go out of town, I get more respect out of town than here.

What should people know about Teklife?

Just know it’s life-changing, basically. Because it definitely changed my life.

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DJ Taye

How did you get into producing?

I’d say probably when I was about eight, I was in a band, I played the trumpet and I had a drum set. I never really got any drum lessons, so I never figured out how to play the drums for real, but a few years later I was just—I don’t know—still interested in it. So I was figuring  out how to electronically do it, on computers. Just fooling around with it, really, when I was younger—that’s where it started.

How have your influences changed over time?

Yeah, [at first] it was just more basic, straight-up. It wasn’t really a specific producer. There was a couple of down South producers at the time that no one was listening to. But now, just music [from] around the world. Cause I keep travelling and hearing other people’s sets. Like, Gqom, the South African dance music. Stuff like that influences my style.

Even though you were sampling less on Still Trippin’, I’m interested in your sampling technique. Do you think sampling is just about sound, or does cultural context factor in too?

Yeah, I mean it was a long time coming, so that was definitely a conscious choice. But I definitely think it’s about the culture, where it’s coming from. It goes hand-in-hand. It can be situational, where people won’t even have to know, [but] certain people will know what they’re using. For instance…with Teklife, they have a full vault full of samples that will never be discovered, because they’re not on any database online. So stuff like that. But about the culture, where it’s actually coming from.

What does collaboration means for you and your music?

In the studio, [it’s] a learning experience, both sides for me. Like, like-mindedness, shared perception—that’s how you get it, collaborating with somebody. It’s not  just doing this for how it look—it’s just natural.

I don’t really have a favorite [person to collaborate with], probably. Just the team—definitely have had the team. Making music with people who don’t even know how to produce, you know, like—I know people who are guitarists, people who play drums, people who play trumpet. Don’t know how to produce a thing, but they want to come collaborate. So once I started doing that, it’s kinda hard to stick to one person.

What are your plans right now?

I’m working on releasing another EP for Hyperdub, working on a mixtape. And hopefully I want to see where this can go—with the next EP, with Still Trippin’—to put out the visuals and stuff…like, a video series, so I want to see how that all pans out, then go onto the next project. It’s going to be fun. I’m just excited to move, see where things go with—with the Teklife, feels like we can get everybody in a great spot. And I just, just excited, how we—what we’re going to do next.

How does Chicago impact your music?

I definitely have my own clear perception of it, from going out to other places and just seeing. You know how some people think they have it the worst, but, you know, people have had it worse. It puts an attitude on your music a bit. Kind of influences the way…it’s a bigger picture thing. Now I need some substance to the music, you know what I mean? Music can be about anything, that’s all I’m saying. You’re sharing pictures.

Teklife will release WFM, the latest album from its member Heavee and featuring collaborations with Gant-Man, DJ Taye, the late DJ Rashad, and more on Friday, September 7.

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Sam Basté is a contributor to the Weekly. This is her first article.

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