Photo: William Glasspiegel / courtesy of Backspin Promotion

They’re Finally Listening: An Interview with RP Boo, the Inventor of Footwork

The legendary RP Boo discusses the development of footwork, his contributions, the influence of the late DJ Rashad, and his new album, Fingers, Banks Pads & Shoe Prints.
RP Boo
Fingers, Banks Pads & Shoe Prints
Planet Mu

RP Boo is footwork. He straight up says in the final track of his new album. But do we believe him? Damn straight.

Footwork, the music, actually spawned from footwork, the dance. RP Boo, aka Kavain Space, was there, spinning Chicago house (or ghetto house) records for small rooms full of skilled dancers, often in the form of “battles.” Chicago house can be intense and dirty, but also bright and groovy, the mark left by memories of disco and soul on the streets of Chicago. Boo’s footwork represents one evolution of Chicago house, composed of drum machine toms, high hats, and claps, uncanny samples, and wicked fast tempos.

Boo excels the repetitive, polyrhythmic, frantic nature of footwork (in a recent PopMatters review, he even garnered comparisons to minimalist composer Philip Glass and harsh noise musician Merzbow, if that means anything). When I asked him about those early footwork battles, he rattled off some fifteen obscure Chicago house DJs: “These are people whose tracks I was playing on vinyl that I learned to get to know years later. But I was able to play these tracks totally different from what it was. And the crowd loved it.” As part of the dance group House-O-Matics and with the help of a few fellow DJs, RP began producing his own tracks. And the rest is history. Well, it’s becoming history.

It hasn’t been easy for RP Boo to make a name for himself. Into the aughts, he watched several of his friends and allies, like the late DJ Rashad, excel commercially, using the foundation Boo had developed, all while he continued to work day jobs. In fact, before 2013’s Legacy, chronicling his work up until that point, Boo had never received a proper album release. But the people are finally starting to catch up with Boo. Thanks to support from Rashad, powerhouse footwork collective Teklife, his label Planet Mu, and the power of the Internet, Boo’s day has finally arrived. It’s just taken Boo a decade of bad luck to come to terms with self-promotion and artistic comprise. And while Boo doesn’t seem to harbor much resentment, he has strong feelings about mistreatment of the footwork credo.

RP Boo is an unquestionably sincere artist. He extols his contemporaries, values the exchange of musical knowledge, and above all else, does it for the fans. He’s more optimistic than ever for what’s to come, both for him and for those who follow in his footsteps after he’s gone. Boo’s not just interested in creating music; he’s interested in creating footwork, and he wants the world for those willing to join him.

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In the early ’90s, you were involved with the dance group House-O-Matics as a DJ and a dancer. Can you explain how being around dance made you into a musician?

I was a DJ first, but I secretly wanted to learn how to dance, do a couple of dance moves. But when I got into this scene, I was able to actually start seeing these dancers do certain dances as a whole, and me spinning these Dance Mania [Records] tracks, was able to focus on them, and I enjoyed the movement. I wasn’t making tracks at the beginning. I was just a DJ, and the style that I had developed of just spinning along was just amazing, and I started having people talk to me about your style of how you mix the tracks.

When I started learning how to make the tracks, I was able to help out and be on the new foundation that was yet to become footwork. But we didn’t see it that way. It was just me giving back love. I was intimidated by the dancers on the floor even though I wanted to really learn how to dance. It was just constant grooves, so I said, “I can’t get on the floor,” because if I get on the floor, they don’t move. So that was just the start.

How’s your dancing these days?

[groaning] My dancing still hasn’t came to the point where I know it could be at.

I feel like, on your new album and a few recent footwork releases like Rashad’s Double Cup, there’s more variation than a lot of earlier footwork, in terms of melody and structure. I’m curious, do you see yourself as furthering pure footwork music, and what does that even mean?

Whatever, whatever I do, people follow the purity of it because it’s basically the beginning of the format of it: it’s the constant bass kicks versus the jazz part of it, the open instruments and how the sounds are being orchestrated. So it has the best of both worlds with this new album. Just a lot of this stuff on this album … what Planet Mu did was say, “We have your archive, but this is what we want to present because we are the people that’s able to play it in the UK and Europe, and this is how we feel.”

So I have nothing against it; I know I made this music. [pause] It’s old to me, some of it, but it’s gonna always be new to the people. And dealing with the press I have here and in the UK have has taught to go, “Hey, this is what you do. You wanna stay relevant? This is what you do.” It’s like, I have to be silent sometimes. But this album right here, as I listen to it after I got it back, even though it was mine, I saw it differently. I really saw it differently. And the choices that Planet Mu came up with to say, “Well hey, this is what we’d like to present you,” even though I had some say [about it], I enjoy them. I really enjoy this album.

So if you could put out an album yourself of your own footwork music, how would it be different?

[struggling] It would have to be basically undistributed: no Planet Mu, no nothing else, no Hyperdub, no nothing. It would have to be, “This is RP Boo, this is what I want you to have for the time being.” I have so much to give, but I can’t give it all at one time because it would be overpowering. But it’s all about staying relevant. I have no problems with Planet Mu or dealing with Hyperdub — Hyperdub is the label Rashad dealt with, Spinn dealt with. But there is a connection. And like Rashad say, in so many words, “Due to [the fact that] we’re on two different labels, the world would see us as competitors, but they don’t understand who we are.” We are two people, where I can take one label, and you can take the other label, and we just enjoy ourselves and have a ball with it.

Teklife has been the crew that has gone so far, and I tell people from Chicago, “We don’t compete with each other. The labels don’t compete with each other.” The people here in Chicago think there’s a competition. Nah, dancing [battles] has nothing to do with this music. The only difference is we come from a dancing background. Music will always outlast the dance. That’s what we try to teach people back in Chicago. I haven’t felt as much happiness for this album as I did for Legacy. This album right here is basically saying, “This is what RP was like before there was a legacy.” Now the Classics EP [released in April on Planet Mu], that was set perfectly.

Given the Internet and all that it brings, a lot of people are discovering your music that probably knew nothing about Chicago house or footwork dancing? What do you think about someone who’s listening to your music not for dancing but for doing work or just hanging out? Is that okay?

Very! It is okay! They are the people that help see what I couldn’t see. We as human beings still have an issue of how to understand the lens of a camera and how powerful airwaves can be. Those people that are actually taking it to another level and saying, “Hey we understand what this is.” They are those that can spread it further than we can.

So you’re of course credited as inventing the footwork genre, at a time when house was music was going in all kinds directions. How intent were you on creating something new?

No, that wasn’t my goal. The goal was for me to be represented. That’s all it is. So I just put out what I felt, and I tell you, I didn’t see how technology would come and how things would progress. I just lived day by day, and that’s how I still do it. But now I see, it’s about understanding social media, cameras, networking. It was the future, but we didn’t understand it. It’s either gonna work for your advantage, or it’s gonna work against you. That’s the issue. So it worked with me. [pauses] But everybody in this world has a gift. It’s just about being able to identify it, and at that point in time, I didn’t identify the gift that I had.

Just like that track “Finish Line D’jayz” [from the 2007 mixtape Dude Off 59th Street, also on his new album]. It wasn’t dedicated to nobody outside of Chicago. The person that was being picked on at that time was Traxman. He was being a person who said, “Hey, congratulations,” talking to another DJ that we are very good friends with, and somebody just came out of somewhere and said, “DJ something or other, he’s the greatest, can’t nobody beat him.” And Traxman tried to say, “Hey, we do the same thing. We make music, different side of town.” And that’s how I came up with the title for “Finish Line D’jayz”. It was a dedication, to say, “Either we do it together as a whole, or I’ma make your DJ look like crap.”

Were you after something universal, or were you just focused on Chicago, in the moment?

It was interesting in Chicago at that moment. One of the tracks, “Try 2 Break” [from Classics Vol. 1] was one of the first tracks that I looked at to see where people were going. I knew what I really wanted to do with the track, so I gave credit to what I was hearing before I made the track. And that was the song, “Weekend”, Larry Levan, when I first saw House-O-Matics actually dance, I just wanted to get my hands on them. And when Deeon said, “Beat that hoe.” So I put it all together, and I was like, “I like it, but how are the world and Chicago gonna take it?”

So I played it to two DJs, DJ Thadz and DJ Slugo, and I asked them, “How did you like this,” and they were like, “We like it.” So I said, “Now it’s time for me to play it.” When I played that track, I had to actually witness what it was gonna be like. And witnessing the outcome was amazing. People, kids, the youth, the teenagers, the secretly adults, sitting in the corner babysitting was like, “Man this track is wild.” And I saw the outcome on the floor, and I say, “This is what I need to do,” and I kept going.

Can you describe those very first footwork battles? Were people surprised by what they were hearing, and were they having any trouble dancing?

No, no, no! The battles is what helped spark the tracks to change. It was DJ Deeon, DJ Milton, DJ Slugo, Jammin Gerald, Traxman! Waxmaster, Gant-Man, Paul Johnson — Big Paul — Paul Johnson!, J.R. Dionte, Parris Mitchell, Emanuel Pippin (these people were the Dance Mania craze) DJ DMC, Joe P. These are people whose tracks I was playing on vinyl that I learned to get to know who they was years later. But I was able to play these tracks totally different from what it was. And the crowd loved it. I’m adding to what I see, basically looking at the footworkers at the time, which was dancers. My thing was not to let them fade out. They had so much fire in ’em. I was enjoying what I saw that they do. They motivated me. Still at that point in time, I wasn’t making tracks. Once I made tracks, it was like, “Lemme see what I can do to help them some more.” And that’s how it happened.

The fast tempo is a huge part of what makes footwork footwork? Why is it so fast?

A couple of dance groups from the west side of Chicago wanted to do somethin’ different. We still was recording off turntables into the tape decks, so it was, ” Hey, let’s take the 33 [rpm] and press 45, to the point where it’s all about the competition.” The producers of the tracks, who was able to basically do these performance tapes, if they was DJs, they say, “Let us join together and speed up the tempo to where it sound like a Mickey Mouse or a robot going crazy.” So that helped bring up from a 145 [bpm] to an instant 160.

Wasn’t ghetto house fast enough?

Yeah. But I was not one of the people that looked at that! There’s a guy that a lot of the footworkers give credit to. His name is Anthony Brown. He was one of the very first persons to hear the continuation of the style, and he actually told me that it was too fast and competitive, and it’s gonna downgrade the music and the sound, which it did. It actually did. It all worked out in their favor, but we had to say, “Well hey, we’re not gonna let something dictate what we do.” We put forth, we wanna see everyone have a good time. We stuck in there and say, “Well hey, everybody have to learn, whether you young or you old, you gotta learn.”

Could you give me a 160 bmp beat right now?

“Bang’n on King Dr.”! “Bang’n on King Dr.” is a 160. [We start singing the chorus together.] The thing about that is, I was able to master and manipulate to where, as a dancer, you could dance at a slower pace than a 160. It’s all about hearing what you need to hear. And if you hear it and catch certain sounds, you can dance slow. A lot of people don’t catch that. I’m real good at that. So when the dancers really particular and say, “Hey, can I dance slower to this?” “Oh yes, you can. Pick a sound.”

So several of your friends and contemporaries received more fame and fortune than you, even though a lot of their ideas came from directly you, and sometimes in not the nicest ways. You jealous?

[whispering] No! No no noooo. [chuckling] They gonna have to understand it’s two things gonna happen: either they’re gonna be on the same stage as me, or they’re not. If they’re not gonna be on the same stage as me, they gonna live in their own fantasy world by themselves. The day they stand on the same stage with me is gonna be the day where it’s gonna show. So it comes with the territory. I’m okay. I’m fine. I’m cool. There was times when I had to say, “Hey, why are they gonna get what I had to reap? What is a legacy?” A legacy outlives you. When it outlives you, the world doesn’t stop. Somebody else is gonna get so much more. I am just a seed. That’s all I am. So I had to realize, “Oh! That’s my job, to be a planter of this. I can’t take it with me when I’m gone.” I know that when I pass away, and I’m planning on passing away at a oooold age, the world is still gonna keep evolving. I can’t take the world with me. So, okay. Cool! That’s why I’m so humble. I know what’s gonna happen. But I don’t know who it’s going to be. That’s the problem. But it’s too many people now trying to come and say, “I’m gonna be next, I’m gonna be next.” Nah, nah, nah. So other than that, I’m still at work.

You once described “non-music” rhythms as the beginning of music. What non-music sounds most inspire you?

It’s anything that doesn’t have nothing to do with music. It’s birds chirping, it’s cars going past, it’s people talking, it’s things fallin’ on the ground. It’s when you can hear the wind blow, and the grass fall. One thing, if I could have actually caught it: it was a sound that after 9/11, here in the United States. I couldn’t see it. I just know it was a flying object. It was in the daytime. 9/11 was a Tuesday; it was either a Wednesday or a Thursday. It was a sound that went past in Chicago that I couldn’t see, but I could hear it, to where I never heard this sound before, of an aircraft. I couldn’t see it because it was a cloudy day. I didn’t understand it. If I’d had a recorder to record it, I would have recorded that sound and played it back. I never heard that sound ever again. We are at that point where you have to be open to what you hear and take advantage of it. So that’s what motivate me: the unseen and the unheard.

When you’re making a song, do you start out with an idea of what the song is about and then look for samples, or does the theme emerge once you find the right sample?

It could be either or! Either or. Either I could say something, I could leave it without a sample, I could take a sample and do something with the sample. It’s just about that melody or that sound. If I say something and feel, “Nah, that ain’t gonna work,” I just leave it as is. Just produce it.

So a few of your songs are pretty obscene. The first song on your new album, “1-2D-20’2”, is built around the line, “I got your bitch straight on my dick,” and the next song, “Bang’n On King Dr”, I’m pretty sure, is about banging on all these different streets.

So that was before … [pauses, grinning] When I did Dude Off 59th Street, I could tell what was going on in the streets at the time in Chicago. This was before we started doing anything overseas and it started growing. But I got tired. I really got tired. I was able to say, “This is what’s happening.” I did a track that’s been unreleased with the crew Juke Bounce Werk in California. There’s a mix that I got on their page on SoundCloud that’s called “Bust Down Juke Juke”. “Bust Down Juke Juke” is based on the streets of Chicago and what I saw. Even though I was not being this person, I was able to tell what other people were doing. I tell it the way I see fit but in a truthful manner. And that mix was so raunchy, and the lyrics were so amazing. Even porno was in that. I’m just telling you: it’s filth. It’s just filthy. But I grew. I grew. If I decided to still make those type of tracks, it would be worse than that, just verbally. I still haven’t heard nobody say because they don’t understand, and it’s sad. It’s very sad. But that’s what people think the world evolves around. It goes back to the beginning: the rhythm, the groove, the energy. So that’s what I have to keep there: the energy.

Although you made songs for years and years, you never had a feature length release until Legacy in 2013. Why did it take so long? Do you find recordings to be valuable?

Yeah, very valuable! It was 2012; Rashad was on tour. Rashad was a person that listened to what I saidl; we had good conversations. It was this one day, he came to an event, and I was looking for him. I think it was the G.E.T.O. DJz’s second annual picnic. They had just did the second Juke Fest. I seen Spinn, and he came out of nowhere and I was like, “Bro, congratulations, man. I’m glad to see you! Where’s Rashad?” He said, “Aw, he’s around somewhere,” but Rashad was in the cut. All of a sudden, here come Rashad, and Rashad was like, “Bro, you have to go.” “Why?” He said, “It’s time for you to go overseas. We already told them that you comin’.” I said, “Rashad, you know I have a job.” He said, “I know that you have a job, but we already said it. It’s time for you to go.” I said, “I need eight or nine months.” He said, “We did what we had to do. Now it’s time for you to go.”

When Rashad did that, it was more of, “What’s next?” My wife was there to hear the conversation. Me and her had just gotten married. And it was a conflict between what I do and what she does, and she didn’t understand it, and I didn’t understand the difference. So it was basically, “This is the future of what you do. Gotta get on airplanes. You gotta produce good music.” When I did Legacy, and when I went into New York the first time, that’s when I found out I had a press agent. I didn’t know what a press agent was. And I had to learn real fast, and with that being said, I can look back and be like, “Man, this is what it really is like.” So before Legacy came out, before Rashad told me, I’m used to a 9-to-5, man. I didn’t understand it. And now that Spinn, Taso, Traxman, those are the people that still keep going, but still say, “This is RP Boo. RP Boo listens to what we say.” We help each other.

But still, they are people that was in the same position that haven’t got glory that they see fit to where, if it wasn’t for me, you all wouldn’t have that. I’m gonna tell you something that’s the absolute truth, and can’t nobody take this away: when I first came into this business, there was Deeon, Milton, Slugo, a couple of other people from the west side, and they was doin’ their thing. I stepped in and was able to play their music at a different pace than they could. I was known for that. Then, there come another squad that was me, Rashad, other people to come. I was established before they even came, by my mixing. So I’m just there. And that’s how I ended up becoming a great spokesperson because I understand where I come from and I was looking where I’m going. It took me a while to understand that, but now I do understand that.

I’ve never had the honor of seeing you live … [He gives me a weird look.] …What?

Keep going!

So I’m curious how much your tracks vary between performances.

I don’t have no format. I don’t have no playlist I can play. If the fans will say, “Hey, we like these,” I will play for the fans, just to give them a taste of what’s going on and who I really am. Cause the fans are the support. I’m not here to disappoint the fans. If the fans say, “Hey, just be who you are, that’s a whooooooole different show! A whole different show! It’s the moment. If they enjoying the moment and they say, “We don’t care about what was played. We just know that’s RP Boo, and we want RP Boo to be who he is,” that’s just a whole different show. No dictatorship. I enjoy playing how I feel.

I could go hours now. Just hours now! But it’s always one hour. I tell my agents, if I could get a two-hour show, I could do a two-hour show. If I’m getting paid for a two-hour show, that two hour show would be different from the one-hour show. And I could just fuckin’ go! Just go! [getting excited] And play who RP Boo really is. But the next show is different from the first show. Just tell the people, “Hey look, if you get to see me, just enjoy that time. If you see me again down the road, you will say, ‘This is a different show.'” That’s just how I am. It’s unpredictable.

I’m impressed that, this late in your career, you still feel so creative. Do you think footwork has the potential to be a social statement, for blacks, for Chicagoans, or for people in general?

Footwork has no color barrier! It just doesn’t! People think it does. Color has nothing to do with it! It’s what’s coming from the inside. It’s about being able to have this groove. I can look at people doing certain dance styles: NaeNae, Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson saw no color. I see no color. Quincy Jones sees no color. That’s legacies. When you understand, there’s something that was here before I was, and it’s about you being able to connect with that and produce, that’s what keeps it going. It has nothing to do with color. The roots of it, you can say, “Well this it where it come from.” That’s cool, that’s the starting point. But then it comes to a person having the expectations of, “Hey, I can take it to a further note or a further distance,” it’s gonna outlive them! That’s what they have to understand. But when a person say, “I did this,” stick their chest out, and not give credit to where it comes from, there’s gonna be somebody that’s gonna outdo them. At least, they gotta say, “Well, we got our history. Where did this come from? Who was the person that help bring this?” Hey, it’s gonna outlive me as well. I’m not gonna be here to witness it all.

So what do you think about recent musical styles like dubstep and trap. Do these influence your music at all?

Well, no. It was already done. When I first heard of dubstep, I was like, “What is dubstep?” As I heard it, I was like, “Oh, I can groove with dubstep. I can get on with dubstep.” As long as there are tempos and there are numbers within the tempos, there’s nothing new. Hey, it’s a family. Different styles, different genres, the tempos: there’s always something that was there before it. If it could be played within this mix, we got a party!

Which of today’s artists can you hype most strongly? Who do you listen to?

I’m still in the process of just giving! Machinedrum, Traxman, Spinn, there’s still things of Rashad’s that I got that nobody else heard of, other than Spinn. We say, “Aw, if we could just give it all at one time …” It’s still a lot of people I’m searching for. It’s just, the interviews, the high demands of people saying, “We want more of RP Boo.” If I hear something, I will go into it and say, “Thank you,” or if it’s something I’ve already heard, “Ahh, this is who this person really is,” I give credit. It’s ongoing. Just have an open mind: that’s how I am.

The final track on Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints is called “B’Ware”, which you dedicate to all your fellow footworkers and encourage them to work to fulfill their dreams. You even say, “I am footwork. I did it all.” and extend your help those who need it. The song centers on a Loggins and Messina sample, but you twist the lyrics so that it says, “Oh brother beware, a boy in his dreams.” What are you warning, and who’s this boy?

That’s the person who never know who they’re gonna be, but they have this fire and ambition to take it somewhere. I just wanna motivate somebody. I’m just the person to speak it, and that sample just helped bring it out. I never finished that track, but it’s just to the point, without doubt: “Go further than where I’m at.” And that track was actually being done in 2010, and that was the track to say, “Well hey, I know some day somebody’s gonna take it further.”

So you already have an album called Legacy. But you’re still making music. What do you think your legacy will be starting from here?

My legacy is being able to have people take it to other levels that I can’t go. That’s how the world evolves. When they say, “When you’re gone, you can’t take the world with you. The world still keeps moving,” it’s being able to go, “Well hey, this is something RP Boo, Rashad, and other people made the foundation.” We just have to keep going. I tell people, “When the world is completely stopped, the music will keep going.” The music will keep going because, when there’s no life on this earth, [with] the wind blowing, the clattering of the rain bouncing up against a car, the trees, leaves. That’s music still being heard. Humans won’t be able to hear it. It was here before we identified it. It’s just there.