Dun-dun-dun da-dun dun-dun. Footwork moves fast. That’s not just its bpm: in the past decade the style has mutated and proliferated more than its originators could ever have imagined. Artists from around the world now take inspiration from its frenetic beats, while in Chicago originators and their acolytes continue to innovate.
The sound’s earliest tracks date back to the late ‘90s, but footwork’s watershed moment came in 2010 when British producer Mike Paradinas signed DJ Nate, a 20-year-old boy from Chicago, to his Planet Mu label and released the seminal Da Trak Genious, prompting a series of releases that introduced the sound to European ears and the wider world, including the first of Planet Mu’s two zeitgeist Bangs & Works footwork compilations. Despite his album’s acclaim, Nate then seemed to lose interest in footwork, missing his flight to a European tour arranged by Planet Mu and turning his attention to hip-hop and R&B. An accident left him paralysed from the waist down for almost two years, and he’s only just recovered.
The producer’s second album, Take Off Mode, comes as a surprise. Released through Planet Mu once again, the record comprises a handful of footwork tracks uploaded to Nate’s YouTube channel since 2010 along with remodels of stuff he had sent to the label 10 years ago. That makes sense: these tracks don’t differ much from Da Trak Genious, except in that they’re mostly not quite good enough to have made the album. Tunes like “Aww Baby What U Waitin” and “Talk To Me” use samples of soul singers deftly enough, but are nowhere near as soulful as “Turn Back Time” or the Tynisha Keli-sampling “Back Up Kid.”
Nate hails from north Chicago but often seemed like an outsider to the city’s nascent footwork scene, where just about every record featured collaborations between DJs Rashad, Spinn, Clent, and a host of other connected producers. While footwork’s sense of scenius has always been strong, Nate cast himself as a lone “Genious” (complete with his own spelling) and released an album of 25 tracks featuring nobody but himself. That's not say his music was anomalous: though individual, Da Trak Genious fit fairly comfortably with the other artists on Bangs & Works volumes one and two.
But today the progressions of Chicago’s perennial footwork denizens make Nate’s music seem dated. Four years after footwork’s European invasion, the Chicago community was devastated by the death of DJ Rashad, whose output is as untouchable as footwork gets. Yet the tragedy also seemed to energise the city’s tightly knit family of artists, drawing even more attention to the scene and encouraging emerging producers like DJ Taye, to whom Rashad was a mentor, to forge new paths for the sound.
Take Off Mode doesn’t forge any new paths so much as it retreads old ones. The likeable “Just Be Truu” is a speedy chipmunk vocal loop which a pink polo Kanye would have been proud of, but it’s nothing footwork fans haven’t heard before. Many a great footwork track has been conceived by the simple trick of looping hip-hop-ish instrumentals at 160bpm; and while Nate executes that skill with ease, he doesn’t challenge the footwork formula in the way that, say, Taye did on last year’s Still Trippin’, which blurred the lines between footwork and hip-hop (albeit with mixed results).
That said, Take Off Mode’s most retro moment is also its best. The wicked “Get Off Me (Betta Get Back)” is little more than a vocal loop folding repeatedly in on itself as occasional bass and sporadic snares writhe beneath. It recalls RP Boo’s primordial footwork prods of the late ‘90s and, before that, Steve Reich’s 1965 composition “It’s Gonna Rain.” Nate’s refrain (“get off my dick”) doesn’t have the apocalyptic resonance as Reich’s, but there’s a similar senseless joy in becoming lost in the rhythms formed between the repeated syllables, not to mention a similar bpm.
Yet even in its finest moments, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Take Off Mode is an attempt to rekindle the magic of footwork’s early days. Tracks like “Get Rid Of Em” and “Fuck Dat” are greatly enjoyable, even featuring winding synth lines that nod to ‘90s IDM, the sort which Paradinas used to make himself. But compared to the recent efforts of his label-mates like Jlin and RP Boo, the music feels unimaginative.
Planet Mu’s transatlantic footwork pollination of a decade ago echoes the arrival of house and techno in the UK in the late 1980s. Back then, Brits heard and misinterpreted the electronic forms of producers from Chicago and Detroit, creating their own bastardised versions in acid house and hardcore. Now, Chicagoan footwork, originally made for dancing, is inspiring European artists to make music for raving. Compared with transfusions with jungle (Philip D Kick), algorave (Rian Treanor), and so-called "global bass" (the Fractal Fantasy label), Take Off Mode is a blast from the past. Perhaps the most experimental track on the album is the nine-second “Wat U Wont 2 Do”—and looped to its full potential it could have been as powerful as Treanor’s “ATAXIA D3.”
Instead, Take Off Mode contents itself to bop and fidget within footwork’s established framework. If it triumphs—and there’s enough here for it to do so—it will be among fans nostalgic for the sound’s early days. It represents the second coming of an artist still capable of reminding us why we once loved him, returning to a genre that may just have moved on without him.
Take Off Mode is available now via Planet Mu.