Photography by Luis Pinto
One night, about a decade ago, a 15-year old Earl was spinning at Battle Groundz – the now legendary footwork hub in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Chatham – when he was approached by none other than DJ Rashad. A good 10 years his senior, and already a local legend, Rashad might’ve come off as intimidating if he wasn’t so genuine. “I been peepin you,” he told teenage Earl, “I like your tracks.”
A decade later, DJ Earl is in on the road in Oakland, carrying the torch for Teklife, the sprawling 20-plus-artist house that Rashad and his partner in crime, Spinn, built. The last ten years have brought the label shine and success—world tours touching down everywhere from Tokyo to Antwerp to wherever, a global cult following, pretty universal recognition as true innovators—but also real tragedy. In the wake of the death of Teklife’s spiritual leader, though, Rashad’s disciples have been active as ever in pushing the music, and by extension, his legacy, forward.
From a creative standpoint, nobody has been as productive or as exciting as Earl. His latest, last year’s gorgeous Live Love Teklife showcased some of the things he does best, pairing zoney, rhodes-infused soul spaceouts with skittery footwork drums.
These days, Earl is camped out in New York, lamping in a Hell’s Kitchen one bedroom cooking up tracks and occasionally hitting the road for gigs. Full disclosure, he’s out here for the second time in a year to play a W&B-related show (the first alongside Taso, the second this Saturday with Spinn).
Riding around West Oakland, we get a chance to chop it up about a few things. We talk about the little known Teklife-Bay connection, about Double Cup‘s genesis just across the water in Taso’s SF apartment, and how a few of my personal favorites from Live Love were recorded at his agent’s house here in the Town, making use of a housemate’s vintage Rhodes and analog synth collection. He talks about his family connections in the Bay, and he floats the idea of renting a studio here. I ask about Chicago and we exchange familiar stories about rent prices, about gentrification, displacement, hood-to-the-suburbs migration.
Eventually, he plugs in the aux cord and plays some new stuff, heavier and harder-driving than Live Love‘s late night haze. He’s been working with Daniel Lopatin, the mastermind behind Oneohtrix Point Never, on something we’ll hear soon, he says. When we get a chance to sit down, I ask him about Teklife mythology, about where he’s been and where he’s gonna take it.
Can you give me a quick idea of the Teklife state of the union? Where are you guys at as a musical family?
Well, we’re all working through the label, Teklife. Delphine, Ashes 57, is running it in conjunction with Spinn and the rest of us. Right now, we’re all just in the lab trying to make a bunch of next level footwork, push the music, some crazy visual shows, getting dancers more involved.
How does that dynamic look as compared to the early days, when everyone was still back in Chicago working together?
Well Rashad was around obviously, and we were just making tracks. We’d make like 30 or 40 a week and go to different events around Chicago to supply the footworkers with brand new tracks. It was really just for the love back then.
Was anybody making any money back then?
We were making money. It wasn’t much though, just enough to put back into what we were doing. [Making music] can be expensive. With the older generation, Rashad was a father. And the younger generation, we were just young adults at the time trying to get our life together, taking music seriously, but still living with our parents making music in the basement.
I’m 25 now, and it’s crazy where we are. Everything happened so organically, but so fast. It’s still getting crazier too.
You guys have obviously covered a lot of ground globally. Has there been a moment out on tour where you had that “holy shit, I never thought I’d be here” kinda realization?
It was me, Spinn, and Taso on this Mexico tour. And at one point, we were performing on top of this pyramid, and I had that moment. “Damn, I’m really randomly in Mexico on top of one of the craziest pyramids in the world…like how the fuck did I get here?” type shit.
Given how specific footwork is to the culture of Chicago, is it ever strange to go places globally and see the different ways people connect to it? Do you ever feel protective of it?
Nah, we love to see the different reactions to it. It gives us inspiration and keeps the music going. It’s just rhythm man, it’s about the environment we create.
I mean, we definitely get to see some funny footwork. But we also travel to these places like Japan or LA – there’s a big footwork scene out there. It’s crazy. And plus, you can come do whatever you wanna do to footwork. Just listen to the music and do what you feel.
Do you remember the first time meeting Rashad? Did you have to work up some courage to go say what’s up?
He actually came up to me. I was like 15 at the time. We were at Battlegroundz and he just walked up said, “I been peepin you, I can see you know how to DJ, I like your tracks.” And from there, we just kept it going. I’d see him around, and he was the one to encourage me to get super serious about it. He was like that with everybody – he encouraged a lot of people to be the best they could be. Rashad was a really great person man.
In terms of the trajectory of footwork, and the landscape now, where do you wanna take things with your music?
I just want to make all types of music. I’ve made all kinds of music my whole life. I used to play in orchestras and travelling jazz bands when I was younger, mostly doing percussion, some saxophone. So I just want people to keep an open ear to different kinds of rhythms, different ideas.
Do you feel like you want to avoid getting pigeonholed as a footwork producer?
It is what it is. I let people call the music whatever they want to call it, I just put it out. I’m not worried about labels. But I’m also from Chicago and I want people to remember why I got involved with music in the first place – being a part of Teklife and what that means.
You were telling me about how Oneohtrix Point Never has been involved with the last record. How’d that come together?
I met [Daniel] in Vancouver, at the New Forms Festival. He played this crazy next-level set, and then later on caught my set and reached out, and told me, “I want you to come to [his label] Software.”
Just off top, he pitched you on that?
Yeah, like “What is it gonna take?” I wasn’t that familiar with what he did at the time, but he’s an amazing guy. Without revealing too many details in terms of what happened next, I have a record coming out on Teklife, and Daniel did get involved with the record. We put together the entire album together actually, he was very hands on.
Are there specific pockets of music you’re keeping an ear out for right now?
I keep a pretty open ear man, I listen to everything. I listen to jazz records, rock, crazy percussionists, Latin stuff, footwork, drum n bass, dub, dubstep – like Diplo, Skrillex, whatever. You know, everything. And that’s how I want people to take in my music.
I have a relevant place in the footwork scene and that’s cool, but we’re just artists at the end of the day. We’re gonna evolve into new things regardless, because artists evolve all the time. At the same time I also see 160 [BPM] as something I’ll do for the rest of my life.
Special thanks to DJ Earl and DJ Spinn for turning out Brix 581 this past Saturday, and to Luis at Love U Down for helping bring it all together.