Label of the Month: Teklife

Learn the story behind Teklife — the close-knit Chicago crew of Footwork DJs and Producers who turned their homegrown sound into a global phenomenon.

15 min
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Apr 2, 2024
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By
Marcus Barnes

Despite spreading out beyond the confines of Chicago, where it was birthed, footwork still retains the core local characteristics that have made it such an incendiary, and entertaining, form of music. With Teklife leading the charge, the music has gone worldwide, blessing dance floors across the world with a sound that is quintessentially Chi-town; it’s rough and raw, syncopated rhythms pump out of the speakers at up to 160bpm, familiar samples appear and they’re utilised repetitively, but there’s a smoothness at its heart too. This harmonious juxtaposition is one aspect of the music that makes it so unique. “We basically use a lot of the same drum machines, or at least the drum sounds, that we used from ghetto house and juke style,” explains Gant-Man, an elder statesman of the Chicago scene. His history goes way to the late eighties, when he was inspired by an older brother to become one of the youngest DJs on the radio, aged just 10. Moving through early ghetto house, to juke and footwork, he’s lived through the evolution and been immersed in the culture from day one. “Footwork is just faster, it's 160 beats per minute. It’s the way you do that signature kick drum, with the timing,” he adds.

I speak with Gant-Man and DJ Spinn separately on the same day. They’re both enjoying the first glimmer of spring in Chicago and both reppin’ Teklife, wearing tops with the logo emblazoned across the front. Both men emanate a positive and passionate attitude, Spinn especially practically exudes positivity - so much so I can almost feel it coming through the laptop screen on our call. This energy is also present in the music and the dancing, which is so intrinsically connected to the genre - and which gave it its name. Footwork refers to the style of dance that began to emerge in the clubs and streets of Chicago, parallel to the evolution of the music.

All over the world there are so many genres of electronic music, many of which elicit a way of dancing - house is typically more contained than the frenetic moves associated with drum’n’bass, for example. But few can claim a very particular form of dancing, that also has a deep, symbiotic relationship with its development. Dancing and dancing crews have been a Chi-town tradition for generations. Spinn and fellow Teklife founder, the late great DJ Rashad, were dancers. The link between music and organised dance cliques has been essential to the birth of footwork, through its founders, through the other DJs who were playing juke, and, most critically, the dancers who began demanding music that would soundtrack their ‘footwork’ on the dance floor.

Though there was a two-year age gap between them, Spinn and Rashad were in the same homeroom at high school. Their progressive teacher allowed class members to play music on the stereo every Friday. “As soon as that was said, me and him were like, ‘We own the radio, nobody object? Nobody object?’ That's how we really sparked,” Spinn explains, highlighting the fact that they’d seen each other at popular spots around the city. One of those was Markham Roller Rink.

Photos by: Ashes57

Check out Teklife's Label of the Month chart on Beatport
Spinn Rashad
Gant Man Beatportal

Going way back to the beginning of the 20th Century (1902, to be precise, when the first public rink - The Chicago Coliseum - opened) roller rinks have been part of the urban landscape in Chicago, and several other US cities. They became community hubs, places where locals could connect and have fun, and keep fit, skating. In the eighties especially, DJ culture filtered into the rinks and began to provide the soundtrack to young, and older, peoples’ nights. This is where Spinn, Rashad and Gant-Man got some of their schooling. “I was playing at the rink called the Fitness Factory. I started having a residency there in 1994 and I was there every Saturday for a good two and a half years,” Gant tells me. “It was a few of them, say like four main rinks, in Chicago. One on the north side, called Rainbow Roller Rink, then you had two on the south side, the Fitness Factory and Route. Route 66 is the actual name of it. Then you had Markham,” he continues, explaining that a lot of dance events were also held at banquet halls. One in particular, the Dolton Expo Center was famed for the events it held.

At the rinks Spinn and Rashad got their foundational entry point to DJing. Spinn’s earliest “DJ” exploits came through making tapes, using a very basic set up at home that had one cassette deck, a turntable and a vocal recorder deck with a pitch on it. “I was listening to whatever ghetto house I could find. A lot of the mixtapes back then, they let a lot of stuff just breathe so I could really mix,” he explains. “I could mix with the one pitch deck. I was decent with it, I ain't gonna lie to you”. As his friendship with Rashad developed, he soon discovered that Rashad’s home setup was a little more advanced. “I see how serious he was when I got invited to his house for the first time. I'm seeing turntables… everything and he’s like, what, 14... 15?” he reveals. “I'm like, ‘Dude, you got all this stuff’ drum machine, mixer with a sampler on it. A little something really, but I never saw a setup like this, not a kid with it”.

Joining infamous dance crew House-O-Matics took the friendship, and their professional ambitions, a step further. While the dancing was central to the crew’s dynamics, Spinn and Rashad saw their membership as a gateway to DJing. They wanted to be the best, as Spinn recalls, “Back in the day, you had to be great at something. So like, if you were into basketball, you couldn’t just be good. You got to be great,” he says. “It was like man, I think we got this music and dancing… We on our way to do something great with it”. At such a young age, both Rashad and Spinn knew they were destined for greatness. There was no question of that.

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Musically, the two DJs found their feet with ghetto house, moving into juke. Spinn’s early cut ‘Bout It Bout It Mix’ made it onto Dance Mania at the end of the nineties, before he and Rashad appeared on DJ Chip and DJ Thadz’s LP Bang Ski with their tracks ‘Chicken Headz’ and ‘Child Abuse’. In 2004 they worked together on the Girl Bust Down EP for Juke Trax and in 2007 Spinn dropped the classic ‘Bounce N Break Yo Back’. These early cuts demonstrated a clear ability to work the dance floor with their productions, tapping into the culture from which they had emerged themselves. This was music designed to get people moving, music for the dance crews to battle to. From this formative period, footwork began to materialise.

Elsewhere, Gant-Man had already been sharpening his skills on the radio from the age of 10, moving on to the rinks and banquet halls, before he made inroads into Chicago’s rave scene. His ghetto house productions elevated his status in the city, and he soon became a prominent figure in the Chicago scene. As many DJs find when they start producing, by testing his music out at the parties he was playing, Gant-Man’s approach to production took influence from the dance floor. From hip house and early acts like Ten City, through to Crystal Waters, Black Box and Chicago’s homegrown Dance Mania cuts of the late eighties and early nineties, Gant’s tastes were always firmly rooted in the electronic side of things. His godbrother is Tyree Cooper and his mentor was the legend Paul Johnson, and his first release was The Youngest Professional D.J. EP on Dance Mania back in 1995. Though not initially formally connected, there were flashpoints in the lives of Gant-Man and Rashad, where they would cross paths. They would occasionally bump into each other - firstly, in 1991, when Gant-Man was hosting his radio show on WKKC, and later on at a Chicago rave. But it wasn’t until 2004 when a longer-term connection between Gant, Rashad and the rest of the emergent Teklife family came about.

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In the meantime throughout the late nineties and into the 2000s, gentle shifts occurred in the music that was being produced in Chicago. Ghetto house gave way to juke, which gave way to footwork (though the terms are often deemed to be interchangeable). “Once we got into the 2000s era, the dancers really only wanted the tracks that would make them footwork. So, there’s a difference between party tracks, ones that make people want to jump up and down, or get girls doing the booty shake, and then people saying ‘I want to footwork’,” Gant-Man explains. “Whether you're a guy or girl, if you footwork and you focus on your feet, you want to dance to the tracks that make them feet move”. It was through reconnecting with Rashad during this period that Gant-Man was, in his own words, inducted into the blossoming collective.

Another influence on the artists was the Bud Billiken Parade, which is America’s largest African-American parade. It was inaugurated in 1926 and still runs today. The parade, and its impact on Spinn and other dancers, foreshadows the Battlegroundz - a gathering that came later, but which also played a key role in the development of the music. “From when we was little ‘til we got old enough to perform in it, that [the parade] was a milestone right there. Performing at the Bud Billiken meant you get to be on TV, especially if you were with a good group. So to be with House-O-Matic, you're definitely gonna get some TV time,” Spinn explains. “They won the little dance championship at the end. They were champions. All that set the stage for when it's all over - at the end of the parade is some tennis courts, and that's where everybody met up to battle”.

After the battles, came the after parties with the parade providing the perfect opportunity to promote the events. “That was the culture, as far as that's what bred footwork.. this competition: You got to get with a dance group to perform in the parade so you could get seen. After that you go out as a representative and take part in the footwork battles, and we just do some Chicago stuff. That progressed into the after parties,” he tells us.

The battles, where footwork dancers would face off against one another, were often soundtracked by Rashad and Spinn, and the Battlegroundz also became the spot where they connected with other members of the first iteration of Teklife - the Ghettoteknitianz. Rashad’s passion and influence were contagious and, combined with Spinn’s equally driven outlook, the fuel behind a new movement in Chicago. When Gant-Man reconnected with Rashad in 2004, it was his work ethic and prolific creativity that captivated the Chicago elder. “I was just like, ‘Wow, like, he's a trackaholic! I always say that Rashad made tracks like Tupac made raps. I was amazed at his work ethic and how he could just make a track, without overthinking it. He made a track and he recorded it,” Gant-Man says. “I was just around them seeing what they had going on. They were showing me what’s up and I'm showing them what I had. I wouldn't call myself a legend, then at least, but I had been in the game for years already and a lot of guys respected me”.

Beatport DJ Rashad

This mutual exchange represents a core philosophy of Teklife, where to be inducted you’ve got to be saying something, and doing something that catches their attention. Going back to Spinn talking about having to be great, not just “good” at something, the bar is high when it comes to Teklife’s seal of quality. But there is also room for the exchange of knowledge and skills, whether that be from an older member to a younger member, or vice versa. It’s not about teaching per se, you have to come to Teklife with your own thing going on, but there’s room to grow and learn from one another.

As the Ghettoteknitianz, things really began to kick off for Rashad, Spinn and the crew. However, in 2011 they changed the name to Teklife due to the negative connotations of the word ‘ghetto’. Support from Hyperdub and Planet Mu helped give them a more global platform, and international bookings started to flow in. Releases such as Bangs & Works Vol. 1 (A Chicago Footwork Compilation) and Rashad’s Double Cup LP were pivotal in raising their international profile and introducing people from all over the world to a sound that was incubated and nurtured locally in Chicago for many years. The holistic nature of footwork, where dance and music are so intrinsically connected, has resonated with fans all over the planet, and there are now international dance troupes who pledge allegiance to the footwork lifestyle.

When Rashad passed away in 2014, his legacy was already assured by the emergence of this global network. That’s on top of the work he put into cultivating footwork and its nuances, the sprawling catalogue of tracks, the DJing, the dancing and the impact on those around him. ”That was my brother from another mother, straight up,” Spinn says. “My first son, his name is Rashad. He just so happened to be born that July, after Rashad passed in July 2014”. The past decade has presented Spinn with some very challenging moments; the death of his close friend, having his belongings stolen in Peru and then getting burgled in Chicago and losing what little mementos he had left of Rashad, losing his mother and then being hit by the pandemic. It’s been tough, but there have also been plenty of positive experiences. “I’ve been having these reflections - being with my kids and being with self - and understanding that, man, I got a lot to do. And it's a lot bigger than me, I'm just here to play my part.”

What that means, besides continuing to sign and release music, make his own music and get out there on the road, is that Spinn is also working with the education system in Chicago to secure grants for projects that will reach out to young people. Every step of the way, it’s been the local community in Chi-town that has supported and influenced the evolution of its homegrown music; going all the way back to the roots of house music, to acid house, ghetto house, juke and footwork, and much more. By utilising his success, knowledge and experience for the benefit of local youngsters, Spinn is keeping the communal spirit of his culture well and truly alive. In doing so, he honours the spirit of Rashad too, whose positive influence is still being felt today in every facet of the global footwork community.

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