By Sam Rosenberg
On the Internet, history gets written backwards. Network consciousness starts on the periphery, as independent dots connect around the edges filling in the unknown piece-by-piece, reaching back to create a history and molding a collective impression. The cliché is that information travels on the web at near instantaneous speeds, but collectively piecing together the history of a scene from afar takes much longer than you would think, and leaves an uneven and distorted perception in the collective consciousness. The rise of interest in, and popularity of Chicago Footwork and Juke music outside of Chicago, particularly in England over the last two years, is a case study for the messy, complicated tangle of network historiography.
By comparison, the actual history of Juke and Footwork in Chicago is fairly simple. It’s easy to connect it to the long lineage of African-American music traditions and to see points of connection with popular dance music. Disco leads to House leads to Ghetto House leads to Juke and to Footwork. This chain is a timeline but also a pyramid with each step up growing smaller in terms of resources available to it and the size of the communities involved. By the end of the 90’s, Dance Mania, the premier label for Ghetto House, shut its doors and a corporate takeover sanitized Chicago radio, implementing national programming formats with little room for local music. Pivotal figures like DJ Deeon dropped out of the scene and younger producers and DJs waiting in the wings to join them now lacked the infrastructure and platforms to release their music and gain exposure outside of their communities.
Out of the spotlight even of most Chicagoans, and free from the commercial restraints of record labels and radio, the scene turned insular. The constant feedback loop between footwork dancers and DJs/producers pushed the sound through a rapid blur of innovation. Tempos soared from 130bpm to 160bpm. The repetitive chants from Ghetto House splintered into their constituent syllables and splattered across an increasingly complex rhythmic framework. Two distinct dance styles formed: Juke, a sped up extension of Ghetto House for male-to-female dancing in clubs and parties; and Footwork, the frantic, kinetic music of Footwork dance battles. While Juke had its share of big records that were inescapable in Chicago, and spread to the surrounding areas, especially Detroit, it was never the predominant music like House was in late 80’s. The audience for Footwork is even smaller: in a lecture for Red Bull Music Academy, DJ Rashad estimated that at any given time between 200 and 300 people were active in the battle scene. So how does a tiny subculture within an already marginalized community become the cachet style du jour within London’s dance music cognoscenti? Simple: YouTube.
Professors always warn their students of the dangers of using Wikipedia. It’s great for simple facts like dates and places, but when it comes to painting a picture of something resembling the truth you get an image that’s unfocused and out of proportion. The problem with Juke is that there is no definitive work chronicling the scene from an insider’s perspective to provide clarity, leaving YouTube’s distorted lens as the only option available to curious outsiders. It’s then possible to comprehend that DJ Nate, an 18-year-old aspiring rapper and producer with marginal connections to the scene, would be the first Juke artist to get a record deal outside of Chicago and not a thirty-something-year-old pioneer of the sound like DJ Rashad or Traxman. In 2008 and 2009 why would grown men waste their time uploading tracks to YouTube? Especially when, as working DJs with limited opportunities to release music, they were incentivized to keep their music exclusive to live sets and self-released mix tapes.
It’s hard to be mad at Mike Paradinas, the owner of Planet Mu, the label chiefly responsible for releasing Juke music outside of Chicago, because without him Juke would probably not be receiving anywhere close to the amount of attention it is. There has been considerable backlash towards Paradinas regarding his choice of releases and the problematic territory that comes with a white European commercializing African-American music from a scene in which he has no vested interest. While the bottom line may be that as a fully independent label it is Peradinas’ prerogative to release whatever music he likes — and by releasing this music that can sound alien to the uninitiated he has certainly taken a risk that has undoubtedly helped everyone involved with this music — his selection and Juke’s context within the ten plus years of Planet Mu releases have led to misperceptions and a skewed discourse surrounding the subculture.
Planet Mu has made its name by releasing a brand of music based around electronic dance idioms repurposed into more intellectualized formats not meant for club consumption. Juke, being dance music first and foremost, sits squarely outside of this, more akin to the source material used as a jumping off point for other artists on the label, as it was for Machinedrum’s 2011 release Room(s). As the sole curator of Juke releases outside of Chicago, his taste for the more experimental end of the music and his choice to release the sometimes sloppier productions — at least to the ears of Chicagoans — of younger, less dedicated producers presents an image of the music perhaps more exciting to his audience of beat fetishists eager for the next big sound to come from some unknown 18-year-old ghetto computer wizard. Unfortunately this approach greatly undercuts the work of well-known men who have dedicated their lives to creating an art form.
Ultimately its hard to know how much this is due to the blockage and imbalances in the flow of information about this music over the internet, and how much was due to Paradinas’ taste in music — or laziness in terms of due-diligence. Fortunately it seems that the ship is righting itself. While Nate dominated early on, DJ Rashad & DJ Spinn seem rightfully to have risen up as Juke’s ambassadors to the world, having recently completed a successful European Tour. Hopefully perception will eventually correct itself, or maybe the cyber-rubberneckers will lose attention and move on to the next trending topic.
When at age 6 Sam Rosenberg transcribed the Power Rangers’ theme song on a toy piano given to him by his parents, he began an uncommon musical career. Fast forward through piano and drum-kit stints to age 12, and Rosenberg was a rock and roll guitar player, performing in party and dance bands at his middle school in Brooklyn, New York. Move to high school and Rosenberg was playing jazz at the Beacon School, where he helped found the Beacon Jazz Band and was one of 25 students selected to perform multimedia music in three cities across India, a trip recorded in Anand Kamalaker’s 2010 documentary Building Bridges.
Rosenberg, now 22 and a jazz guitar major in his senior year at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, has become a cornerstone of Oberlin’s hip-hop scene. Since 2009, he’s held the position of hip-hop director at WOBC-91.5 FM, Oberlin’s student-operated radio station, and regularly brings MCs to campus through Hip-Hop 101, a student booking and promotional organization.
In 2010 Sam lived in Argentina for seven months, where he studied at the National School of the Arts and learned natural construction on an organic farm in Patagonia. Beginning in summer 2011, Rosenberg began working with Brooklyn-based Dutty Artz record-label boss DJ/Rupture on “The Soy Waltz,” an installation piece for Netherlands’ Incubate Festival.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com January 10, 2012