The year is 1984. Kavain Wayne Space is 12 years old. He stands in a bedroom in his cousin’s house on the south side of Chicago and watches DJs setting up for a party for the first time in his life.
The DJs out there know how it goes. You haul in a table, arrange your mixer and decks, and get all huffy, straining to untangle a spaghetti mess of cords. If it’s 1984, you lug milk crates of 12-inch singles up and down stairs. Maybe you hunch over to flick through your stack, envisioning how you’ll blend a D-Train instrumental into “Set It Out”. A chore for the DJ. Forgettable for the average bystander. But not for young Kavain.
Nowadays, Kavain catches wreck on the turntables by the name RP Boo. He’s perhaps best known for creating a genre called footwork, a mutant offshoot of ghetto house. The objective of this music – which often moves at the pace of techno, is punctuated by electro’s metallic pop, layers sample stabs à la 1980’s hip-hop, and stutters with the unpredictability of IDM, all while staying locked to a strictly quantized rhythm – is to make battle dancers go wild.
“I couldn’t imagine what Djing would actually look like,” Kavain says. As a teenager in 1984, he had only heard DJs mixing records on the Chicago airwaves. “I was too young to go to clubs. I’m from the west side. The clubs were downtown. Those were more of the adults that were going to parties. It was so underground it was basically like you had to know somebody that knew somebody to go to these parties.”
RP Boo caught stray 808 claps blasted from boomboxes tuned into the Hot Mix 5 on WBMX. The revered DJ crew consisted of Kenny “Jammin” Jason, Farley “Funkin” Keith (a.k.a. Farley “Jackmaster” Funk), Mickey “Mixin” Oliver, Ralphi Rosario, and Scott “Smokin” Silz, who was replaced in 1985 by Julian “Jumpin” Perez. They transmitted drum machine-laden mixes of funk, new wave, and European synthpop to stereos throughout the Windy City, helping build the foundation for house music.
“The format for me [as a DJ] was laid by listening to the Hot Mix 5 and trying to be clear and clean on the cut,” Kavain says. “[As a teenager,] I’m listening to this music. I’m listening to the Hot Mix 5. I’m just enjoying seeing people dance to it. Everybody had the boombox outside, dancing. At that moment, I was like, ‘Man, I want to be a DJ.’ But I never saw anybody DJ until 1984.”
RP Boo’s DJ style is best described as fluid. For proof, check out his hour-long set for Just Jam, in which he flawlessly mixes his snare-fronted track “No Return” into a DJ Rashad rework of a mid-1990s floor filler while rocking a knitted Chicago Bulls beanie peaked by a pom-pom all backed by footage of iceberg calving. He’s smooth on the fader and the EQ. About 20 minutes in, he executes an extended blend and an abrupt cut to the next track during the same transition. Kenny Jason, one of Chicago’s finest with a crossfader, would smile to know he reared such an adept local DJ on his WBMX mix shows.
RP Boo describes his introduction to DJing as a sort of revelation. “It was some house DJs that lived in my cousin’s neighborhood. I didn’t know they were DJs until, one day, my cousin decided to have a house party. It was two brothers, Chris and John. John was the older brother. Chris was the younger brother. I think they were about two years apart. But they were just so laid back. Only those that knew them knew they were DJs. I didn’t imagine they were DJs because they never really talked about the music. They were friends of the family. They lived the next block from my cousin. They were within walking distance to bring the turntables and the crates of records. They set them up in one of the bedrooms, and I stood there and watched them set it up.
“Now, here comes the time to play the music. As they were mixing, it was so perfect. The blends were perfect. The transitions were perfect. The tracks were super right. It was flawless. When I first saw [mixing records] that way, I was hooked, magnetized. As they were mixing, I was like, ‘This is like the radio! This is what the radio looks like.'”
RP Boo’s memories of childhood house parties paint a picture of Black music in Chicago during a vibrant moment of transition. Nascent Chicago house productions rubbed shoulders against the hot sounds of New York City electro soon to fade from favor, and the first batch of Detroit techno beamed from the mothership of the Electrifying Mojo.
“That’s when the Chicago jack tracks were coming hard,” Kavain says. “The music at that time was transitioning from the New York breakdance/b-boy music, like Afrika Bambataa, a couple of those joints, and electronic dance music that was really strong for breakdancers. And they used to mix that with the jack tracks. It was like magic. And I always used to dance.
“This was like right before house came in. So you got all the Chicago people at that time. ‘Move Your Body’ wasn’t out. Marshall Jefferson was just coming out. When Farley [Jack Master Funk] done did that ‘Jack the Bass’, that was just coming out. I was listening to it as it was happening.
“When I moved far south [in Chicago] in 1985, now here comes Steve Silk Hurley. Now here comes Farley pushing out more of his stuff. A lot of the stuff I was listening to that the DJs were playing was imports. A lot of imports from the UK and Europe. That and a lot of Detroit house. ‘No UFOs’. I think I got a copy of ‘No UFOs’ on vinyl. That was one of my favorites. Still one of my favorites.”
It’s tempting to look for influences in the music Kavain would eventually make as RP Boo. Like the earliest Chicago jack tracks, RP Boo’s style of ghetto house and footwork features raw electronic percussion within a sparse sonic canvas. Turn the tweeters too loud, and the snares slice sharp as straight razors. Vocals, which might be sampled from sources disparate as Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Paul McCartney, stammer on or just slightly off rhythm. The human voice is smushed to a block and switched on and off with the push of a button, another function of the mechanistic groove. Though a track like “Baby Come On” is decades of subgenres and dance trends removed from “Jack the Bass”, it retains a similar formula and attains the same hypnotic thrall. As the painter Peter Schmidt observed, repetition is a form of change.
“I was able to come across [Chicago house records] in the mid-’90s by people just leaving crates of records,” Kavain said. “If I could find them at the record store in good condition, I was grabbing them.”
Kavain has Class Action’s version of “Weekend”, an immediate precursor to house music and one of the most sampled tracks in house music, in several of his tracks over the years. The song, a hit in its original form at Chicago’s revered Warehouse nightclub, is anthemic disco synthesized to proto-house ecstasy, the free-flowing live instrumentation replaced with drum machine patterns and juicy spurts of keyboard melody. RP Boo calls it “one of [his] all-time favorite tracks” on “Try 2 Break”, which features snippets of Christine Wiltshire’s vocals.
The song is sampled in two tracks on RP Boo’s latest compilation, Legacy Vol. 2, which collects productions from 2002 to 2007. “Under’D-Stat” loops a snippet of the instrumental beneath a sample from the Underdog theme. “Last Night” chops Wiltshire’s declaration to go out and party tonight, slowing her voice until it appears to operate outside of the tempo, an independent element in a track beginning to lose its shape. The drums and vocals pull apart, then appear to float closer again. The track resembles a sort of Cubist concoction arranged from the basic elements of bass-forward, four-to-the-floor dance music.
Fittingly enough, Kavain’s love for “Weekend” originates from a messy misremembrance, his teenage mind remixing childhood memories of hearing Natalie Cole over somebody else’s anthem for discotheque deliverance.
“A neighbor of mine would always play the 45 edition of Natalie Cole’s ‘Party Lights’. She played it every day, nonstop. I never heard this song no more after we moved. Next thing you know, when I moved to the south side, I started hearing ‘Weekend’. It just stuck with me in the mixes. It was very seldom people would play it. I got those two songs totally mixed up. I never knew the name of the song. All I knew was, ‘Tonight it’s party time / It’s party time tonight.’
“One day, I go into this record shop. I’m going through the records, and I see this track. It was on a blue label. I see ‘Weekend’, and in parenthesis, it says, ‘Tonight it’s party time.’ Somebody sold it to the record shop, but it ended up in the classic files. I knew the guy at the record shop. I said, ‘Can you play this joint right here?’ And he said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ And as he played it, I was like, ‘Okay, give it to me!’ I bought that record so fast. After I knew I had ‘Weekend,’ I didn’t buy any more records. I rushed home.”
Back at home, Kavain sampled “Weekend” and made “Try 2 Break”. “It was 1996. Ghetto house is about to start fading out. I go into the basement. I knew on the back [the record] had the acapella, the instrumental, the regular. I had already made ‘Baby Come On’. I had already done ‘The Ice Cream Truck’ and a couple of other classics. So I was like, ‘Let me make a track out of this.’
“When I made [‘Try 2 Break’], we were DJing at a spot in the south suburbs called Cavellini’s. I was very skeptical about playing that track. I was like, ‘I know I like it, but I don’t know how the people will like it,’ because nobody has ever sampled [‘Weekend’] and put it into a track. So as the night goes on, it’s my turn to play. So what I did was debuted it as the first track I played. As it came on, they were like, ‘Okay, cool.’ But then, when it started picking up the pace, and the beat started coming in hard, oh my god, that track just knocked that whole place out.
“More tracks came behind it, but every time I think of another way to flip it, here comes another way. I was using that sample in different parts for years. I think it was in 2013 or 2011 or 2012 when DJ Rashad used it in ‘Well Well Well’. I was in the building, and I was listening to it, and I just started laughing. I was like, ‘Oh, he done got me.'”
Footwork is RP Boo’s contribution to the history of Chicago music. After DJing for years in Chicago clubs and producing tracks primed for dance battles during his sets, he began experimenting with the blueprint, a natural progression for an artist deeply invested in his craft.
At the start of this article, I described footwork by drawing comparisons to techno, electro, 1980s hip-hop, and IDM. These observations, considered from a very broad perspective, are sort of accurate. Of course, footwork evolved from ghetto house. It feels wrong to describe the genre without acknowledging its immediate precursor. Getting granular with the genre details helps new listeners feel oriented. However, it doesn’t do justice to an enjoyable listening experience for new listeners because it’s so disorienting.
Footwork tracks challenge dancers to catch the groove within a jumble of percussion. The next step is to register that the jumble is the groove. This realization, at least to the outsider, doesn’t seem to occur as mental math work but rather from a dancer locking into the rhythm, propelling legs and feet to carve out peaks in the track that was always there but that the listener on her laptop at home might not have perceived. Footwork comes alive in the dance. Like the earliest house records blasting out of clubs in Chicago, it is a physical, functional music, a genre that achieves its complexity, its jagged, difficult form of beauty, not through mental strain but from the pure desire to move bodies.
The body’s desire to move shapes the music, too. For RP Boo, footwork came about as a challenge from a fellow footwork dancer. “One day, a friend of mine who was a very skilled dancer made a suggestion. He noticed that a lot of the footworkers at the time wouldn’t dance until they heard the bass kicks. He says, ‘Make a track. Just don’t throw no bass kicks in it.'”
“What I started doing was adding spaces instead of the bass kicks. Then I took the claps out. I took the clap out and replaced the clap with a snare. Or a top-hat snare. And that’s when it became so spacious. And people were like, ‘That’s the difference.’ All drum machines have a metronome, so no matter what, the four-on-the-floor it’s still sitting there. It’s just you gotta know what you doing.'”
RP Boo recalls his first time playing what would later be known as footwork.
“When it was time to play the track, the guy, as soon as it came on, just started dancing. But he could dance to anything. And the guy he was battling looked at me. He says, ‘When is the beat going to drop?’
“I look, and I say, ‘We got ’em.’
“No beat never came.”
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.