Courtesy of The Era

The People is a section of The TRiiBE for opinion pieces on trending topics regarding Black Chicago. In this op-ed, Litebulb, a member of popular footwork crew The Era, shines light on the ongoing appropriation of Black Chicago’s music in the mainstream. 

Man. That new DJ Khaled & Drake song sounds just like Chicago juke and footwork. I don’t care what anybody says. It bites our hoodgrown style almost to a T. I could mainly tell by the tempo of the track being damn near 160 beats per minute, the typical speed for footwork, along with some other influences from the breakbeat Jersey Club genre out of the East Coast.

And the crazy thing about all of this is that DJ Khaled and Drake’s “To The Max” is possibly going to be 2017’s summer anthem. The even crazier thing is that Chicago urban radio is going to feed right into it, pumping out the song through the WGCI and Power 92 airwaves once or twice an hour until it essentially becomes Chicago’s summer anthem, too. 

Meanwhile, the city’s own juke and footwork producers – the originators and cultivators of this shit – still can’t get no play. Our own juke and footwork producers are invisible at home, and have been for years. They’re forced into the background, uncredited and sometimes paid to be silent. We never hear their names on our Black radio stations anymore, but we always hear their classic tracks being put in rotation.

I grew up in Chicago, so I heard the early workings of what evolved into juke and footwork music from Chicago house and ghetto house. These sounds frequented the radio way before I dove head-first into the culture as a footwork dancer. I’m 27 now and that was about 2005 or 2006 when I came onto the footwork scene. So I know a juke track when I hear one. I can feel footwork when I hear those intricate basslines, 808 drum kits and chopped, repetitive vocal samples. Not a day goes by where I don’t hear the influence of Chicago DJs like Clent’s “Back Up Off Me” within the work of hip-hop artists like Dej Loaf’s “Back Up Off Me,” in addition to the signature sounds of Chicago DJs’ tempos. I also hear Chicago in songs like “Never Catch Me” by Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar.

This happens because Chicago urban radio is no longer connected to the streets. So they have no idea that juke and footwork are still thriving in their own backyard, that eighth-graders still thirst for juke & footwork beats at basement parties and local footwork events, or that teens from dance groups like The Empire and battle groups like Terra Squad, Goon Squad, Creation and HaVoC are still battling at T.U.F.F. (The Underworld Footwork Factory) and BGz (Battlegounds) on the South and East sides of the city. Chicago radio today is too busy playing those few Migos, Future, Gucci and Drake songs every hour on the hour.

Chicago footwork crew, The Era, dancing at their March 2017 show at The Promontory in Hyde Park

But I will say this: footwork is always popular in Chicago. The dance is the culture – Black working-class artists and kids from our neighborhoods use the pavement as a creative outlet against the inequalities pitted against them. We are the cultural backbone of Chicago, though we feel like shadows in the background at times, and now you feel our culture pulsating through the mainstream with songs like DJ Khaled’s “To The Max” – and we still get no credit. This really concerns me on a personal level,  as an activist of dance and as one of the leaders of the footwork culture. After 30 years of hard work to push our beloved tunes forward, it hurts that we continue to go unrecognized while others profit and benefit from a sound created on our Chicago streets. It hurts even more to see our own juke and footwork leaders remain silent as this appropriation goes on.

The Era footwork crew: (from left to right) P-Top, Chief Manny, Litebulb & SteeLo

So even though Chicago artists in footwork and juke are often overshadowed, we continue to grow with each other first and foremost. Our creative nurturing comes from artist-to-artist networking and the spirit of collaboration, and these things gave birth to Chicago artists like Towkio, Chance the Rapper, KAMI, Greggo and more. We are the definition of community from the ground up. We are the uncredited work behind footwork and DJ Khaled’s version of it. Will DJ Khaled and Drake do anything for the Chicago dancers and producers who inspired their sound? Do they see us as collaborators and not just an invisible asset in his background?

Words are fickle these days. Social media is even more fickle. And the news is mostly fake, at least from what I’ve seen lately. But the work we, as footworkers, do on the dance floor is far from fake. The history behind our dance and DJs is deep and rich. If the older generations in Chicago music won’t fight for the culture, then me and my peers and the future generations to come will do so until we are respected like every other homegrown music culture in the world.

If you have a strong opinion about something related to Black Chicago, send us your thoughts: info@thetriibe.com.