Birthplace Chicago

From house to footwork—the wild dancers of Chi-Town


South Side Chicago by EPAInstitute for Sound and Music

It's not for nothing that Chicago has the nickname the Windy City. Wherever you are in this city by Lake Michigan, the wind is always stroking your cheek. On hot summer days and nights, that's very pleasant and is one reason why the locals like to chill outside until late at night, listening to music.

Chicago (2017) by Thomas VenkerInstitute for Sound and Music

In winter, on the other hand, the stiff breeze ensures that people retreat behind their own four walls—if they have any to call their own, because Chicago has high numbers of homeless people, and not only on the famous Southside; and now the winters are getting colder and tougher and the suffering is ever more apparent.

At the same time, the obvious poverty also drives a musical and artistic scene that has grown out of people's experiences: nowhere are performers more political than in Chi-Town. 

The factors influencing the scene include the Art Institute of Chicago and the city's long musical history in general, artists like Chaka Khan, Curtis Mayfield, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Chicago is also regarded as the birthplace of house music—as can be seen from clubs like the Warehouse (subsequently the Music Box), the Music Institute, and the current flagship club for Chicago club culture, the Smartbar. 

Smartbar, Chicago, Thomas Venker, 2017, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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Chicago Driveway (2017) by Thomas VenkerInstitute for Sound and Music

But in the last 15 years the scene has been less about house, jazz, and soul. The city preferred something more energetic: footwork is the name of the dance and the music written for it.  

This upbeat (150 bpm and more) hybrid of hip-hop and ghetto house is now a permanent part of the city's musical story; not least because footwork parties are often combined with dance battles, where you'll be left open-mouthed at the speed and agility of the dancers. 

While they mostly keep their upper body still, their legs whirl all the faster. It may even remind some people of the virtuoso Northern Soul dances of the late 1960s which were in turn influenced by American soul dances. There have been numerous defining individuals: 

RP Boo @ Pitchfork Festival (2016-07-16) by swimfinfanInstitute for Sound and Music


DJ Rashad (2013) by Timothy MisirInstitute for Sound and Music



Jlin at Moogfest (2016) by Thomas VenkerInstitute for Sound and Music

Jlin Narlei, to give the producer behind the alias Jlin her full name, has carved out a remarkable career for herself since her debut album Dark Energy which came out in 2015. That is due in large part to her curiosity and the tremendously hard work that she puts into her music.

Whereas other producers pause after finishing an album and devote themselves mainly to live performances, she has numerous projects on the go at the same time. Even though her touring schedule was intensive and sent her all over the world, at the same time she was also tackling another ambitious project, the score for Autobiography. That was the result of a collaboration with English choreographer and dancer Wayne McGregor.  

No one exactly knows who invented house music. One thing is certain: in the early 1980s, after the notorious Disco Demolition Night in Chicago when thousands of disco records were destroyed and the city as a whole—partly motivated by racism—turned its face against black disco music, young DJs experimented in clubs and on radio shows with electronic music from Europe, Italo-disco, new beat, and post-punk. 

The Forum by Jim RobertsInstitute for Sound and Music

However, before footwork emerged and Chicago dance music appeared in operas again, it had a rocky road to tread, from its earliest days until it reached the situation today. What is it they say? IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS JACK … 

Every Friday at WBMX in Chicago, the Hot Mix 5 used to play—consisting of Farley Jackmaster Funk, Mickey Mixin Oliver, Ralphi Rosario, Kenny Jammin Jason, and Scott Smokin Silz—a sound that had most of Chicago's young people huddled together in front of their radios. 

These sounds, driven by a drum machine, were entirely new, but could already be enjoyed at the clubs where Frankie Knuckles worked as the DJ. Defining tracks like Move Your Body (Marshall Jefferson) and Can You Feel It (Mr. Fingers) came out on labels like Trax Records. House was born. 

Frankie Knuckles ADE (2012) by deepstereoInstitute for Sound and Music

… And Jack had a Groove

But at the end of the eighties, times changed. The artists from Chicago themselves benefited less and less from the hype about the new sound. Whereas in England you could always top the charts with the UK pop version of the sound, in Chicago few musicians managed it.  

This resulted in many musicians concentrating on becoming their own version of Robert Hood, at least in their home city. The tracks became noisier, funkier, raunchier—and faster. 

Alongside squelching Acid projects and experiments, gradually the so-called ghetto house or Dance Mania sound emerged. There were some musicians associated with the Dance Mania label who felt a strong urge to create music and dance at over 140 bpm.

Where house music had inherited a certain queerness from disco, the new sound made a furor with its overwhelming vulgarity. Many tracks no longer referred to togetherness, brotherhood, and freakishness, but more to asses and titties.

Jlin at Moogfest (2016) by Thomas VenkerInstitute for Sound and Music

Ghetto house became juke, and juke became footwork. And footwork emerged as another style for female and gay artists—the feedback from Chicago began to echo across the Atlantic to Europe at the end of the 2000s. That included Jlin.  

Five years ago, Jlin Narlei took her love of experimentation in footwork to a new level with Dark Energy, which appeared on Planet Mu, the label belonging to British music producer Mike Paradinas. 

The album is a fantastic sound journey into a field of dark energy, as suggested by the title. There is an incredible constant tension in the air, you feel all the anxiety and anger that has been written into the music—but also the joy that this music can act as a valve to release the omnipresent feeling of being the underdog that black people unfortunately still have to experience every day in the USA (and in so many other parts of the world). 

The UK music magazine Wire put the album at no. 1 in the 2015 charts. But it was not only sound nerds who pounced on Narlei's ultraenergetic sound scenarios—the fashion designer Rick Owens chose her music for his catwalk at the Paris Fashion Week, thereby presenting his models with a real challenge. 

It's no surprise that there are lots of African-American themes at the heart of Dark Energy in view of the fact that 50% of the population of Indiana—where Jlin was born in the town of Gary—and Chicago are black, and the associated problems in the city. On the album, songs such as Black Diamond, Black Ballet, Guantanamo, and Mansa Musa show her continuing preoccupation with the grievances of her home region.

Jlin Narlei's second album also has the word black in the title. Black Origami reflects the way she works, as she explains: "Everything is based on a white sheet of paper that I keep refolding. The black in the title stands for the space in which I move."

On meeting the artist in Durham, North Carolina, and asking her whether she feels the pressure of high expectations, she shakes her head: "No, I drive myself on. Even if I had won nine Grammys, I would never feel satisfied. You have to expose yourself to the pain of failure. And I don't want to be Jlin the brand but always create something new and unexpected." 

Narlei goes on to insist that as an artist you should never forget that you are leading a privileged life. "However tired I am, I always remember that people have come just to hear me."

By the way, a particularly nice place to let the wind of Chicago stroke your cheek is Montrose Dog Beach, situated in the west of the city. From here you have a wonderful view of downtown Chicago with its stunning skyline, the visual blueprint for the irresistible Jacking groove of house music in Chicago.

The ideal place to listen to tracks like Promised Land by Joe Smooth …

… Bring Down The Walls by Fingers Inc …

Someday by CeCe Rogers …

… and Love Can`t Turn Around by Farley Jackmaster Funk on your boom box and dream of better, fairer times in the USA. 

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