Since coming to the international fore around 2010, Chicago’s footwork scene has been represented by the precise, swaggering output of its elder statesmen, namely Traxman, DJ Rashad, and DJ Spinn. While these producers have taken some younger artists under their collective wing—DJ Earl, for example—there has lately been a conspicuous absence of more leftfield releases. Of the labels outside Chicago championing footwork, Planet Mu undoubtedly has the highest budget, releasing mainstays and young oddities alike. Despite this diversity, the label has long been primarily known as a home for experimental material, and this tendency has also marked its taste in footwork producers. Its first foray into the genre was a pair of records by the divisively melancholic and lo-fi DJ Nate, and it has since released two volumes of Bangs & Works, which compile the work of lesser-known and frequently abstract producers, many of them still teenagers. Eighteen-year-old Young Smoke (a.k.a. David Davis) first appeared last year on the second Bangs & Works edition, and Space Zone marks his solo debut.
That said, Davis’s three tracks on the compilation were a far cry from its weirdest moments. Their crisp drum palette and stuttering sample chops were pretty standard for the genre, though skillfully deployed—the helium soul-laced “Wouldn T Get Far” sounding like a close cousin to Traxman’s recent material. All this made the relatively inexperienced Young Smoke an unlikely candidate to to be drafted for a full Planet Mu LP, at least when compared with some of his more eccentric peers. Luckily, Space Zone shows that Davis has managed to develop a nuanced sound, and as a result, it sits as one of the scene’s most unique long-players yet.
As one might assume from the album's title, Davis imbues his tracks with acidic, hostile, and sci-fi-indebted motifs. Planet Mu attests that he strictly uses his own soft synths, and while the bombastic loops on “Heat Impact” may sound uncannily like a sports network’s introduction music, they're a rare exception. This reliance on synthesizers and lack of overt sampling place Space Zone in a realm alongside Detroit's jit artists, as well as non-Chicagoan footwork practitioners like LiL JaBBA, who rely on other sound sources to distance themselves from the scene’s insular originators.
Nevertheless, The Space Zone is not the work of an outsider. Its patterns, alternately jittery and storming, fall perfectly in line next to recent turns by the likes of DJ Rashad. And unlike the work of moody cult operators like DJ Nate or DJ Elmoe, it’s quite easy to picture them soundtracking an actual battle. “Destroy Him My Robots” is particularly vicious, with sputtering warning signals and stray bleeps lending the spare rhythm an alien energy. The high-speed electro of “Korrupted Star” is particularly akin to DJ Stingray's work, underpinned with a dizzy arpeggio which staggers slightly off-speed. The mellow pads on “Summer Breeze 2” may fall in line with the track’s title, but the arpeggiated squirts that run throughout give it a dark, inhuman edge. While Davis does a superb job of maintaining this cold intensity throughout the record’s body, a few peripheral tracks seem out of place—namely the sunnily vocoded title track and the seemingly requisite weed anthem, “High Den A Mother Fucka.”
For the most part, Space Zone is refreshingly free of these sorts of hackneyed tracks. It’s sensical that dancers might prefer outsized, hyperactive takes on say, Gucci Mane, for their charisma alone, and as any of the scene's godfathers will attest, footwork is for the dancers. But the byproduct of that influence is a plethora of formulaic tracks, and the staples—whether about weed or romance—can wear thin. Davis understands this well, and accordingly aims his music elsewhere. Space Zone, then, is an assured and original debut. In spite of its occasional missteps, it ably bridges futuristic synthscapes with the rhythmic dexterity of footwork’s foremost practitioners.