The Production of Space in Chicago Footwork

Adam Laurence

University of Sussex (UK)


Music's spatial dynamics are a site of evolving academic discourse. David Byrne astutely compares the dry acoustics of the African plains, that allowed polyrhythms to be used in African music, with the wet and reflective reverb of Western European churches and cathedrals that demanded the composers of the Middle Ages use long and expansive tones in their choral chants (2013: 18-19). However, ”space”, as I will demonstrate, extends beyond the material and articulates itself in a number of dimensions. In relation to footwork, an understanding of space is crucial. Footwork, a genre that branched off the increasingly commercialised house and juke scenes, is uniquely distinguishable by the "precise ferocity of its sonic palette and the precise ferocity of the dancers' movements" (Brar 2016: 22). This idea of the body existing as a space is crucial to an understanding of footwork's relation to space.

In this article, I will begin by positioning South and West Chicago as a generative force for the production of footwork music (and equally of footwork music’s production of its own distinguishable spaces). This claim draws on Dhanveer Singh Brar’s assertion that footwork possesses a "phonic materiality… the mechanism for the realization of the force of blackness" (2017: 23). This is a mode of production that draws on the awareness of the self as fuel for the articulation of lived experience as expressed through the phonic. This is an important theoretical underpinning for this essay, as it helps to explain footwork as a “ghetto” music. Secondly, I will combine this conceptual framework with musical analyses of specific case studies. This is done in order to illuminate the ways in which there is a direct relationship between footwork producers, DJs and dancers, which will in turn demonstrate the music’s spatially generative and conductive capacities. Lastly, I will question the gendered spaces that footwork hosts, and present it as a genre that enacts a set of contradictory behaviours towards its treatment of gender and the presence of women. Thus, a synthesis of these three approaches to footwork will support my claim that footwork, through its particular production and reflection of space, is a native expression of South and West Chicago.

We must first situate footwork within its ”social” space in order to appreciate the symbiosis of the genre’s "insistent sociality" (Brar 2017: 23) with its musicality; thus it is essential to pin down an understanding of the ‘ghetto’. Of particular notoriety in America, Chicago’s South and West sides have been experiencing dramatic depopulation and gentrification for the last decade. As the subject of intense sociological and historiographical debate since the 1930s (Haynes and Hutchinson 2009: 347-52), the ghetto is often framed as an area of concentrated poverty and depopulation. To incorporate Henri Lefebvre’s claim that "social space… is a social product" (1991: 26), a particular insight into footwork is formed—that there is a relationship "between the sound and the performativity of footwork" and "lived experience internal to Chicago’s South and West Sides" (Brar 2017: 22). By this, it is meant that footwork necessarily enacts a reflection of the social space in which it inhabits. We see this in the fact that footwork nights and dance battles are frequently held in community centres, ice skating rinks or other low-cost and easily manageable locations (Timandbarrytv 2014). This particular use of architectural space that is socially re-appropriated, as well as contributing to footwork’s status as “underground” can be seen as a generator of the sound and movement of footwork itself. The dance battles, communal yet adversarial (nights are explicitly known as ”Battle Groundz” or “The War Zone”) at the same time, is distinct from the uncoordinated nature of traditional dance music club floors. From the architectural spaces used to the sound made, we can observe key constitutive elements of what makes footwork particular to the locales of South and West Chicago.

Footwork should not only be framed within an understanding of socio-economical parameters, but also in district-based, and even imagined spaces. The genre has roots within house/ghetto house and juke music (Quam 2017). However, these can be immediately separated with what footwork has become: a “faster, uglier and even more hyperlocal mutation of Juke” (Brar 2017: 26). This idea of the hyperlocal is crucial in order to effectively situate footwork within a specific space. For producers of footwork, the districts of South and West Chicago proved crucial in the formation of their genre, as the spaces became a force of musical reaction. DJ Rashad talks about how the West Side was known for DJing at blisteringly fast tempos (up to 180bpm), "and so we met West Side halfway since they come out South and we did 160, and it's been working ever since" (Timandbarrytv 2014). What appears to be the case therefore is that, while there are territorial distinctions within Chicago, there is a sense of collaboration and compromise between the South and West sides. In a shared apathy and disaffection with the increasingly commercialised house and juke scenes, an imagined community, and thus a space, was created. Through this imagined community therefore, space came to represent more than physical demarcations and came to encompass shared values. Space incorporates more than material surroundings, or even imagined spatial communities; it also includes the body. Many attest to an "intersection of sound, space and sensation" as it occurs within the body (Ouzounian 2006: 69-79). Therefore, an understanding of footwork’s relationship with the body is crucial. Footwork is distinguishable by its "complex arrangement of rhythmic textures at a rate of propulsion that on initial exposure seems to place the music at the limits of the listenable" (Brar 2017: 21). Rhythmically, a clear comparison can be made against the more “four to the floor” style of house and juke music, where a clear signifier of all four main beats are established by a kick drum. Because of this negated pulse, a sonic space opens up for the dancers to occupy in a free and fluid state. A particularly good example of this sense of rhythmic abstraction can be found in the sparse “Eraser” by RP Boo (Various Artists 2010). Beginning with a fuzzy drone, a simple percussive click maps out the beat. Shortly after this, an electronic snare claps with an emphasis on beats two and four of the bar. However, this sense of rigidity dissolves when the “fuck that burn 'em all” sample appears. At 1:20, we hear the sample appear initially on the second beat of the bar, but in the following bar, the sample begins on the third beat. This switchover continues for a number of bars. Despite this, rather than serving to obscure the music and make a physical relationship with the sound hard to attain, this acts as a canvas upon which the dancer “fills in the blanks”. This is indicative of footwork’s "graphic command of blank space" (Mistry 2015) something that emerges from both a calling for these “blanks” to be filled in physically, as well as the result of instruction by the dance circle to sit back. Footwork often makes reference to particular dance moves that constitute the basics of the style, such as in “Whea Yo Ghost At, Whea Yo Dead Man” by DJ Elmoe (Various Artists 2010) which calls upon the dancers to perform the ”ghost”, a staple footwork move. Additionally tunes such as “Star Wars” by DJ Killa E (Various Artists 2010) employ trumpet and brass-like stabs at the beginnings and throughout, as a kind of call to arms/war at the Battle Groundz. Considering video evidence of the dance battles available online (the medium through which Planet Mu label boss Mike Paradinas discovered footwork), most battles and videos are exclusively male. And if we are to discuss the body as a musical-spatial device, then the body on a gendered level must also be considered.

In theorising Chicago footwork as a gendered space, I wish not to confine my argument within a narrative of simply claiming that it either does or does not possess a ‘gendered’ musical assemblage. Instead, I borrow from Christabel Stirling’s “Beyond the Dance Floor” to interrogate the perceptions of ‘maleness’ within the space of footwork, internal and external. For Stirling, historically gendered associations with genres have "come to be experienced teleologically—as essentialised, or always already there" (Stirling 2016: 141). Thus, rather than there being a ‘natural’ or biological basis for gendered genre-based divisions, these behaviours have historical roots that undertake a self-perpetuation. Stirling’s thesis provides a compelling take on some of the attitudes and reflections many footwork DJs and producers supply of their genre. DJ Traxman notes:

Bros they had moves, you know like, ‘I can dance’ you know, ‘I can do my footwork in the circle’ you know, cause peoples were fascinated by that but then again you had the girls when the parts come, you know, you got the girls hitting the floor (Timandbarrytv 2014).

Similarly, DJ Manny says that "footwork’s come a long way… at the time all the females would just be standing around and all the guys would be in the corner just battling, so it kind of offset the party" (Timandbarrytv 2014). An initial analysis of these two accounts would be one that pointed to footwork as a musical assemblage that is generative of, and perhaps reflective of, gendered dynamics. Indeed, taking Traxman's and Manny’s word, a picture is built up of the interactions between men and women within footwork spaces. However, if we synthesise this observation with Stirling’s account of historically gendered entrenchment, these two quotes from Traxman and Manny suggest more about their attitudes and perspectives towards gender dynamics within their scene. For here, both Traxman and Manny suggest that the rhythmic complexity and intense speed of footwork combine to produce an inherently “masculine” sound. If this is the case, lack of gender inclusivity could be seen as a feeling of ”away-ness” from the perspective of women. By “away-ness” “historically mediated orientation away from an object” is meant, with the result being “women resistant to inclusion” (Stirling 2016: 139-40). Thus, if a discussion of gender is to be brought into the question of footwork’s production and reflection of space, then two observations should be made. First, that an exploration into internal perceptions about gender dynamics rather than simply presenting a gendered separation (or lack thereof) proves a more useful method within the context of dance music. Second, that these dynamics do exist, but only due to the historical solidification of these perceptions.

Having acknowledged the gendered spaces that operate within the locales of South and West Chicago, to consider producers external to this region, especially when they are women, reveals intriguing insights. If this is done, what is at stake is Stirling’s rejection of a biology of sound. To illustrate this, let us consider the work of the producer Jlin (Jerilyn Patton). By existing outside of Chicago, as well as being a woman, Jlin challenges established spaces within footwork on two levels. Renowned experimental electronic producer Actress, said of techno producer UMFANG that she is able to create transitions and elements to the music "which men rarely can do because they’re always copying another artist. They’re fanboys, forever fanboys" (Ravens 2017). This idea that as a result of living outside of male-dominated spaces women perceive and create in opposition to men, is highly applicable in this scenario. On a musical-production level, Jlin actively avoids the use of samples (with the exception of occasional vocal samples) (Fintoni 2015), a key ingredient of footwork.

When I started… I was sampling and one day I had asked my mom to listen to the sample of Teena Marie… I asked her what she thought about it and she said: ‘It’s OK, but what do you sound like?’ (Duncan 2016).

In not using samples and using her own sourced material, Jlin not only produces an altogether different quality to the sound but, crucially actively reflects and produces an alternate space. To be sure, male producers do add their own vocal input, but the cry of “I am the Queen! You are not my equals”, provides contrast to the largely demeaning lyrics of male producers (Timandbarrytv 2014). Jlin, as a producer caught up in the particular "gendered socio-musical formations" of footwork, is "reflexively engaged with the gendered implications of the sounds" that she produces (Stirling 2016: 131). This is further exemplified by her relationship with movement. Seeking inspiration from ballet, Jlin writes music specifically for women dancers such as the track “I Am The Queen” (Jlin 2015), which was made for the Footwork dancer Cristal (Duncan 2017). In this, we see mirrors with the collaboration between dancers and producers in male footwork circles (Timandbarrytv 2014). Thus, Jlin presents strong signifiers of herself acting outside of traditionally male-dominated spaces. However, this is not to implicate her exclusion from these spaces. Jlin herself says that "there’s a masculine/feminine thing going on where the two are intertwined. I’d say the feminine part of it is buried inside what I do, whereas the sound itself is bold in a masculine way" (Fintoni 2015). This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it reinforces "essentialist beliefs that particular sounds and aesthetic qualities are inherently abhorrent to women" (Stirling 2016: 134). Second, and in contrast, it suggests Jlin’s ability to effectively negotiate this space and use her creative practice "to experiment with social change" (Stirling 2016: 131). Thus, Jlin can be seen to be “away” from and “present” to gendered spaces simultaneously.


I have demonstrated footwork’s receptive, as well as generative force for the reflection and production of space. More specifically, footwork has precise "relations between bodily movement and sound" (Brar 2017: 23). As a receiver of physical commands from the dance battles and crews (their own battle formations determined by the DIY spaces that they use), footwork producers are provided with a set of physical parameters, around which they negotiate. Simultaneously, footwork producers adopt the role of conductor over dancers and dance battles. On the one hand, rhythmic stabs and frenzied syncopation and intricacy set a standard of intensity for the dancers. On the other, “open” sonic space (as seen in Eraser by RP Boo) can be constructed to delineate where dancers should “fill in the blanks”. A gendered space appears to exist within the footwork scene, and through an application of Stirling’s thesis, this can be explained by a historical entrenchment that permeates into the perceptions of sound on a bodily level from both men and women producing music. This has implications for a reading of footwork in relation to space, as it complicates the bodily aspect of footwork (a phonic- materiality) to incorporate a discussion of gender. What becomes clear is that there are a multitude of spaces that footwork reflects and produces. While a larger study into footwork’s spatial dynamics could have scope to suggest what implications the emergent scene in Japan (Thump 2017) has on a framing of footwork as locally specific to Chicago, I believe that I have provided a sound case for footwork’s particularism to Chicago.


I give credit and thanks to Dhanveer Singh Brar and his 2016 paper “Architekture and Teklife in the Hyperghetto: The Sonic Ecology of Footwork” for providing the inspiration and foundation my essay draws upon. I encourage everyone to purchase his recent works ”Teklife, Ghettoville, Eski: The Sonic Ecologies of Black Music in the Early 21st Century” (Brar 2021) and “Beefy's Tune (Dean Blunt Edit)” (Brar 2020).

I would also like to sincerely thank Dr. Christopher Warne, Professor Lucy Robinson and Dr. Mimi Haddon at the University of Sussex for their guidance, inspiration and support throughout my time working with them. Additional shout-outs to Nathan and Mette for their surgical eyes on my ramblings.

Author Biography

Adam Laurence is an American Studies and History graduate from the University of Sussex. Originally written in 2017, a version of this paper won the 2019 British American Studies Association Undergraduate Essay Prize. Adam’s dissertation was entitled “Theories of ’NON’: Investigating Historiographical Collapse Through the Online Experimental Underground”. Adam continues to run the experimental radio, podcast and live events series Search History, a platform dedicated to unlikely connections across genres, mediums, localities and times.




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