King Kemo is synonymous with Chicago’s footwork culture. That’s why when former NBA player and 2016 champion Iman Shumpert advanced to the final round of 2021 Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) competition on ABC, he immediately called King Kemo up to add some Chicago flavor to his Mirror Ball routine with partner Daniella Karagach.

On Monday, when Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” slid into one of Chicago’s most exalted footwork mixes, DJ Clent’s “Bounce,” everybody from the crib couldn’t contain themselves. Then Shumpert, an Oak Park and River Forest High School hoops king, came in hitting the Erks and 40s, which only took everyone’s excitement to the next level.

With that freestyle routine, their second performance of the night, Shumpert and Karagach were crowned the winners of season 30’s DWTS. And soon after, social media unearthed that 33-year-old King Kemo was the choreographer behind the winning finale.

“I’m still kicking. Can’t write me off yet,” King Kemo told The Triibe on Tuesday evening. 

We got a chance to chat with King Kemo about the inspiration behind the performance, and his 16 years in the Chicago footwork scene. 

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity].

Just want to say congratulations, man. Walk me through this. How did all this come together for you to get involved with the routine and choreography and everything?

King Kemo: So basically, like, I kind of already manifested it a little bit when I seen one of the episodes when he did the 40s. Me and Iman are pretty close. I did a job for him in LA probably in 2017 or 2018 for his Handlebar music video with Teyana Taylor. That was my first time meeting T. They kind of just brought me aboard as family. 

From there, I always stayed in touch. Anybody I come across, I always make sure that they see me as a friend first and just see me as somebody that’s loyal. So with that being said, I don’t really burn bridges. 

So in my situation, I knew that he was going to probably reach out to me at some point, just because of the brotherhood. And sure enough, he did, in the beginning of November, he reached out to me and we just pretty much locked it in from there. 

And then I went to LA and I just pretty much taught them, which was super kind of like, I don’t know, it was just inspiring to me, because just to watch how motivated they were to learn it. Just even Dani, that girl rocks. Everything I was teaching her, she was just eating it up. 

Shout out to Iman for just wanting to showcase Chicago on that level in that type of production. Whatever he wanted, I just gave him.

Where did the idea to have Missy’s “Lose Control” and DJ Clent’s “Bounce”?

King Kemo: DJ Clent is one of my top 5 DJs, so I sent over the tracks of [DJs] who inspire me. And then he chose “Bounce.” Actually, Iman was on the phone with me. He just couldn’t think of the DJ, he couldn’t think of the name of the song, but he was singing the tune. And I just automatically knew what it was, and I sent him the track. That was something that he wanted. The track, “Bounce,” that’s Chicago. “Lose Control,” I had no clue that they were going to do that. And then when I found out about it, it put me to the challenge [of] making sure I brought the choreo for it.

A lot of times when we think about basketball players, we think that they can’t dance or they’ll look awkward. Footwork is a fast movement. How do you teach Iman how to footwork? How do you teach Dani how to footwork?

King Kemo: Chicago footwork can be taught. That’s the thing. I’ve been teaching classes for almost seven years professionally now. I can teach anybody how to footwork and that’s just something that I’ve learned how to master.

Outside of that, like I said, Dani and Iman are very professional. They perfect everything. Ballroom — you watched the show. You watched the episode where you saw Iman really taking it serious. When he found out he was really gon go, when it was getting bigger and bigger, he started taking it seriously and making sure that he put the work in to make sure he presented himself the right way. He from the crib too, man. It was a fun routine. It was a fun thing to do. My whole vision was to bring back Chicago [and] improvise on different moments in Chicago.

We had the Erks in the beginning. We had the Shake-a-Lots. We had a moment where you saw the 40s. You saw a few different aspects and different perspectives of what Chicago was about at one era of time. The girls, when they was doing their dancing, there was some of their ideas too. Everybody sort of put their ideas in certain pockets [of the show] too, just to bring it all together. And that’s why I call them my “dream team,” because everybody worked together on this to bring this to life. It can’t get no better than that.

Did you have to fly out there for it?

King Kemo: Of course. I had to get out there to LA in a timely matter because the show was airing on Monday, so they had to get me out there as soon as possible so they can get the choreo done. I got out there Wednesday morning. So my goal was to get them ready by Saturday. So by Friday, Saturday, they’d have a show.

To have Chicago culture, footwork and juke culture, DJ Clent, you because you’re a phenomenon in your own right, what does that mean to have all of this on that platform on ABC?

King Kemo: It’s monumental. It’s so monumental for me because I’ve been doing this for so long, you know. I did ABC [Dancing with the Stars] in 2019, so it’s nostalgic for me. I went on as a dancer. And now to come back as a choreographer that actually won the whole thing with the choreography, that right there alone put me in a different element. I’m still on Cloud 9. I’m still coming off of it. I literally just landed in Chicago this morning. I haven’t even had a chance to really kick it and party and do whatever to celebrate basically.

It means a lot for me because, you know, choreography is like art. You’re gonna always see it forever. No matter what the artist does, that choreo is gonna be there forever. So for me, it was bigger than me just actually doing a performance because I got asked to do the performance. But I was, like, it’s not my moment to do it. It’s my moment to choreograph. Everything ain’t meant for everybody so you got to understand your place and your position.

That’s important too. I think a lot of times people get discouraged when it’s not them in the spotlight or in front of the camera. A lot of times, dancers are in the background. How do you balance being a dancer and choreographer, but not necessarily being the star of the show?

King Kemo: I’m over here on Instagram right now, and Chicago Media Takeout just posted Lil Kemo as Iman’s choreographer. And I’m looking at that, like, Lil Kemo? How did he get any credit? That’s crazy. So everybody’s hitting me up, like, no, you need to correct that. And nobody ever knew, Travon is Lil Kemo. I gave him my name. He looked up to me. Everywhere I looked, he was in my shadow and I was, like, OK. I’m going to put you under my wing. 

Just to answer that question. It’s like, you really gotta be prepared for all of that shit. Even though you might be in a position where you’ve gotta make a decision, you have to be mature and experienced enough to know that you don’t have to put yourself in the limelight to get limelight or to get recognition. Because it’s times where people are selfish, always want to be in the limelight, and that sinks the ship sometimes. In this situation, I knew that my calling wasn’t to be in the scene. It was to be behind the scenes. I been doing this for so long, everything ain’t for everybody to be in the scene. And I think Iman and ‘nem trusted me with just giving y’all my visual.

A behind-the-scenes look at King Kemo in practice with Shumpert and Daniella Karagach. Photo by King Kemo.
What do you want people to take away from having your choreography on DWTS, having it on the finale night, having Iman and ‘nem take home the trophy on finale night, having Chicago on the map?

King Kemo: I really want people to understand that, like Denzel [Washington] would say, You might fall down a 1,000 times but that one time you get up, it can be life changing. Like, man, I done been through so much in this culture. So many No’s. So many doors slammed in my face. So many times where people just thought Chicago footwork was dead. I’m always just pushing it. 


You gotta stick to your ground. You have a gift, stick to it. Because at the end of the day, you’re going to be that 1% out of the 99% that’s going to get recognized. It might not be overnight. It might not happen in two years, but you’ve just gotta keep pushing.

And I want people to understand that, with Iman and Dani’s situation, hard work does pay off. You got to really just work hard for it. They were the underdogs the whole show and they came out on top. When you see Dani and Iman, think of possibilities. Use them as motivation and inspiration. If they can do it, I can do it. At this point, they just made history and that ain’t gon go nowhere. History is there.

And you made history too!

King Kemo: Yes, thank you. Thank you. We all made history together on this. It’s up and it’s stuck, for real.

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE.