“When I was four years old I was at my neighbour’s house, the kids were playing on the block as always, and my older cousin was listening to footwork on her headphones. So I asked her, ‘can I listen to it?’ She let me hear it and I never forgot that sound.” Thus Jlin tells me about her introduction to the incredibly fast-paced and dance oriented genre, footwork, that emigrated from Chicago to take the whole world by storm over the past few years.
It might seem odd for someone on this side of the pond to learn that this music has been around for so long, having been brought to our shores only recently from people like DJ Rashad and RP Boo, but over in Illinois it’s been growing slowly for a long time. Jlin said she found it “quite comical” the way the rest of the world has only just discovered the genre. Not that she was surprised by this explosion in the genre and the new international shape it has taken on, Jlin herself is on the British label Planet Mu where she recently released her fantastic debut Dark Energy, and said she is “pleased that it has gone worldwide and is continuing to grow every day. The world should hear the sharing of different cultures, different genres, it’s time for the arts to connect across the world.”
Not that she pigeonholes herself solely as a footwork producer, although that’s where she “wholeheartedly started” her music now only contains elements of footwork. Her music has grown beyond the simplistic tag of footwork however and Jlin claims “she has found her own sound” and her music is now something that she “cannot identify.” This isn’t the same old hogwash that many artists tend to peddle however, about their music being absolutely unique from everything else out there and it’s on critics not artists to separate swathes of music into genres. Jlin is right she truly has sound her own sound beyond just footwork.
Traditional footwork involves repeated use of sampling which Jlin strays from radically in her music. Jlin said this move away from the traditional techniques of sampling was natural for her. “By the end of 2009 I had become good at what was politically correct to do for footwork, and when I had gotten good at it I became excited and everything. Then one day I had my mum listen to a song of mine and she goes ‘sounds good, but what do you sound like?’ When she asked me that it changed everything for me.” It is from this point onwards that Jlin told me she found her own sound, and I could sense the deep type of pride and identity she felt was in her music. She also kept pointing me back to the fact that this has been a journey for her and over the course of it her sound has undergone an “evolution” and a “maturation”. “I think that’s good, you can adapt, you adjust, it’s not always the easiest thing, actually the harder the better, for me.”
Her departure from footwork becomes even more clear in the video for ‘Unknown Tongues’. The video is black & white and features a sole woman dancing to the music in her own style, often quite patiently to the frenetically speedy beats. It’s a far cry from the admittedly colourful but male dominated circles in which relentlessly pacey footwork battles take place. She tells me that she “was very pleased that footworking was not in the video”. She tells me that by saying this she means no disrespect to footwork, but keeps returning to the fact that this is “my own sound” and to prove that clearly she felt she needed to make some departures from the footwork scene.
Jlin’s music is often filled with fascinating vocal samples that furthers her claims about its uniqueness. They often herald in the start of a new track, and then are sprinkled throughout the rest of the song such as on album closer, ‘Abnormal Restriction’. A woman screams “I am not one of your fans. Who do you think you’re talking to?” This is again a cry of defiance of singularity and separation away from the masses, so we discussed where this sample came from. “I was afraid to watch the movie Mommie Dearest for years after the first time I saw it, so I decided to take vocals from it due to the fact it terrifies me and put it with the intensity of my work. It was kind of like a little pep talk to myself, so I decided to watch the whole movie through and I started getting these ideas, and just kind of went with it.”
After delving so much into the roots of her music and its tricky relationship to footwork, we discussed the roots of footwork itself. “I think the style comes from Chicago but the root of it is in Africa.” There is certainly some truth to this, many people have traced the dancing side of footwork to the Gule Wamkulu dance of Malawi and there’s some evidence that they might be getting closer again with RP Boo recently incorporating African genre Shangaan electro into a mix. On tracks like ‘Black Diamond’ there’s definitely a tribal feel to songs such as ‘Black Diamond’ but Jlin says this wasn’t “intentional”. “The only intent that I have is that my music be impactful. I never go in with a concept or a blueprint in terms of making a song, every song I come in, in the dark. Whatever comes out, just comes out.”
Finally we discussed that album artwork, a piece of smoking coal on a white background. “When you take a piece of coal and apply pressure to it, the more pressure you put on it, the better the diamond.” She made it clear that the fact that the piece of coal was smouldering meant that the process had started. She then compared herself to the piece of a coal, a work in progress, “I’m constantly maturing, learning to grow, I’m never satisfied. Even when something great happens to me I think, well if I can get to this point, keep reaching, keep climbing, keep jumping off those cliffs. That’s what I like to do, most of the time it’s stressful but then I definitely don’t like to operate in a comfort zone. I think failure is very important. Your failure to me is more important than your success.”