dhanveer singh brar

Ghetto Thermodynamics1

Dhanveer Brar traces DJ Rashad’s music to its roots in black radical social life.


To say that DJ Rashad was a footwork producer is disingenuous, because footwork has never been made by producers. Footwork is the outcome of pressure created by the movement of dancers. What is heard in footwork is the force of dancers movements within the circle. The circle is where battles take place, where the force and pressure of dancers movements were exerted upon Rashad. The movement of dancers in battle generates the overproduction of rhythmic differentiation—also understood as footwork’s speed—of which Rashad was an amplifier.2 What is heard in footwork as the furious combination of top layer claps, mid-range synth squeals, and bass rumble, is the phono-material imprint of dancers movements.3 Rashad understood this as a ghost imprint, the sonic apparition of ghost crews in his sound.4


To say that DJ Rashad was a footwork producer is entirely on point, because footwork has always been made by producers. Footwork is the outcome of producers pressurising movements from dancers. Rashad drove the kineticism of their limbs as they battled. The intensity of the degrees of rhythmic variations in his tracks should not be understood as a set of instructions he was issuing to dancers though. What can be heard in footwork is the production of an incantatory edge which compels dancers to battle. Rashad made ghosts of dancers, made ghost dancers, made ghosts dance. The precision of the degrees of rhythmic differentiation in his production style compelled dancers to make circles. In turn he was compelled by their gestural experiments in speed to create even more of the pressure necessary for dancers to continually make circles.5


Rashad operated at the juncture between dancers and producers, as they animated the production of footwork. Emerging as a dancer with the House-O-Matics and Wolf Pack crews he possessed a muscular knowledge of the relations of force at work within the circle.6 It is no surprise that when he produced tracks, it was often with dancers in the room.


If footwork is about the frenzied manufacturing of vibe, Rashad could be considered its premier conductor.7 Footwork is about manufacturing vibe through the intensification of the degrees of differentiation between dancers and producers as they animate degrees of rhythmic differentiation across each other. Footwork involves taking these speeds and transforming them into vibe through the ongoing production of battle circles. Rashad, therefore, was a node within a general system of conduction. It is not solely conduction in its musical registers that is being invoked here, but also conduction as it understood as mode of heat transference. Rashad was an amplifier of Chicago’s unique ghetto thermodynamics.8 What could be heard in his sound was socially strategised overabundance, a phono-material reaction that kept on spilling over because its vibe couldn’t be held.


As music made in Chicago’s South and West sides, Rashad was aware that footwork was dimensional. The battle circle is as much about the production of ground as it is about audio. The way Chicago’s ghetto thermodynamics fuel footwork means it generates infinitely expanding ground from within what is deemed to be restricted territory. Footwork’s status as battle music has more at stake than combat. It must not be forgotten that it is music located within a territory which is thought to be encircled by a city. The footwork circle in Chicago operates under the ongoing pressures of racist logic, which manifest themselves through police power, restrictions on movement and urban geography, all combining to designate the city’s South and West sides ecologically black.9 Duress, though, is not the limit of black social life in Chicago, in the same way that it is not the limit of footwork. In both cases it might be the other way around. Supposedly contained within a cordon sanitaire, footwork produces an incessant musical overpopulation which necessitates the production of new ground in ways that explodes those confines whilst holding the circle together.10 What can be heard in footwork is not only ghost limbs, but the imprint of ghost architecture.


Rashad was so attuned to the relation between limbs and architecture, between expansionary circles and confined ground, that he was able to give all of this activity a name—Teklife. Operating in the clash between dancer’s movements and producer’s sensory fields, he realised the forces generated by the circle constituted an ever-expanding space into which he could load, seemingly infinitely, the vibe that constituted the phono-materiality of his footwork sound. In calling it Teklife, Rashad was signalling the way his music was already the outcome of a general intellect to be found embedded within the Chicago hyperghetto—a territory deemed to be underpopulated with people but overpopulated with problems. Teklife is evidence of something buried deep within, and bubbling on the surface of, areas of Chicago that some well meaning high minds choose to describe as warehouses for post-industrial capital’s discarded materials.11 Rashad’s footwork sound both resolutely stays “there” and overflows with such generativity that the designation “there” can no longer act as a container.12 It desediments the ground of the distinction between “here” and “there”, ghetto and metropole.13


To say that Rashad’s Double Cup allows us to dance our way out of the prisons of our identities is a fundamental misinterpretation of its dynamics.14 This album, as with all of Rashad’s work, is nothing other than black music. It is black music because what it does is spill over with the blackness some might, from the outside, presuppose as the inherent racial characteristics of the territory from which the music emerged, when in reality it is blackness as the grounded sociality of incessant experimentation internal to South and West Chicago that is being rendered audible.15 The generativity of the latter announces and short-circuits the regulative impulse of the former. Rashad’s overabundant yet precise deployment of high-end scatter and low-end pulse allowed him to animate latent formations of Teklife in a range of other environments. The sense-memory London carries of jungle, for example, meant that it was suitably primed for the arrival of footwork.


DJ Rashad made music that was the outcome of, and demanded, inhabitation. He had an acute feel for the furious activity of ghost limbs and the architectures of the circle. Rashad’s music was not so much music as location, a place built through the ecological engineering of speeds. In this respect Rashad was never one, but instead a spectacular emanation of an experimental sociality in Chicago that never stops. He was an exemplary case of ghetto thermodynamics seemingly contained by duress yet always overpopulating its limits. Rashad’s music overloaded those limits to the extent it became obvious when dancing to (which is to say inhabiting) it, that Teklife can be found everywhere, precisely because it never seems to stop pouring forth from the storage house of nowhere.

1.Full credit is to be given to Simon Barber for this poetically precise formulation, which unlocked and put together much of what follows. As he would no doubt acknowledge, the seemingly automatic spitting out of such formulae is never work done alone. Anything written here is the product of time spent studying with our friends Victor Manuel Cruz, Sam Fisher, Lucie Mercier and Ash Sharma. Having said that, blame any bullshit on me.

2.“Tempo in dance music is quite a misleading concept because really it just measures metre and doesn’t tell you anything about speed or rhythm. In a sense, I consider speed to mean something different from tempo. Speed is to do with the rhythmic density of the music, in all its polyrhythmic complexity. So to think about the speed of a track forces you to set the metre in relation to its half and double time rhythms. A track at 130 BPM can feel faster than a track at 140 BPM if the space between the dominant beats is most densely populated by rhythmic detail”.
—Angus Finlayson, “Interview: Kode9”Red Bull Music Academy, 13th July 2013. http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/magazine/kode9-2013-interview

3.“Since the first tracks tagged as footwork appeared in the late 1990s, their roaring sub-bass, minced vocal samples and knife-like claps … have been heard, almost exclusively, pouring out of roller rinks and school gyms in the Windy City’s predominantly black neighbourhoods on the South and West sides … A deconstructed version of juke, with spell-binding call and response vocal loops, primordial synth spasms, and syncopated bass and drum-machine patterns”
—Dave Quam, “These Feet Were Made for Workin’: Inside Chicago’s Explosive Footwork Scene” Spin, 5th July 2012. http://www.spin.com/articles/these-feet-were-made-workin-inside-chicagos-explosive-footwork-scene/

4.DJ Rashad, “Ghost”, Just A Taste, Ghettophiles, 2011.

5.“Dancers make up their own routines on the floor, with their shuffling feet following the lower frequencies and their bodies popping to the claps. A good footwork routine, full of “soul trains”, “pochanotases” and “ghosts” will have symmetry—the patterns that happen on the left side are followed through on the right—and gimmicks are frowned upon”—Dave Quam, “Battle Cats: From the rise of House in the 80s to today’s Juke and Footwork scenes, Chicago’s circle keeps expanding” XLR8R, 9th August 2010. http://www.xlr8r.com/features/2010/09/battle-cats-rise-house-music-80s

6.“Yes correct. I was dancing—that was the thing, it was like basketball, football, skating or anything else. It was something everybody did, especially when you were younger … That was the goal for us, to become House-O-Matics. You had to be good to get in that group. Technically, you lose a lot when you first start battling. But that’s how you get better—by battling people that are good, and then you catch on, and when you catch on you come back.”—Lisa Blanning, “Chi-Life: An Interview with DJ Rashad” Electronic Beats, 22nd July 2013. http://www.electronicbeats.net/en/features/interviews/chi-life-an-interview-with-dj-rashad/

7.“Anyway, I called these scenes ‘speed tribes’ (named after amphetamine-fuelled Japanese motorbike gangs) that worship speed gods, where the god was a speed, or more accurately an algorithm which carries a mathematical set of instructions of how rhythms and frequencies, it’s vibe should be organised. And it is these abstract, numerical gods (or demons) and the way they activate within a specific concrete geographical, physical context, dictating the ways people worship them (repetitive bodily movement in dance) which are what carry the essential differences between different styles”—Angus Finlayson, “Interview: Kode9” Red Bull Music Academy, 13th July 2013. http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/magazine/kode9-2013-interview

8.“Maybe I can pick up from that question. I’m worried about using this term because Ramon’s here and he actually knows about this stuff, but I want to add to the subatomic and cosmological a kind of thermodynamics. With Rashad, he is the master of this kind of ghetto thermodynamics, it’s kind of like a preservation of energy and a giving away. There’s a sort of fugitivity and intimacy. You have to be fugitive so you can preserve or conserve this energy, so you can give it away at some point.”—Simon Barber, “Black Studies: Grammars of the Fugitive,” “Workshop Session 1,” Goldsmiths College, Dec 6,7th 2014. https://archive.org/details/Blackstudiesgrammarsoffugitive

9.Horace R. Cayton & St Clair Drake, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, University of Chicago Press, 1970; Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960, University of Cambridge Press, 1983; Allan. H Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of A Negro Ghetto 1890-1920, University of Chicago Press, 1967.

10.“I just wrote down this phrase, maybe it will make sense, I dunno—The overpopulation of the measure in expanded space. In early renaissance music there were these composers associated with the musical concept of the black note. If you look at the early manuscripts, they were just hard to read because they were crowding so many notes into every measure, and it allowed for the emergence of the modern con≠ception of the tempered scale precisely in order to regulate this activity, to regulate this overpopulation of the measure. It strikes me that this is a music [DJ Rashad, “Feelin”, TekLife Vol 1: Welcome to the Chi] which is resisting the regulation of that overpopulation, it’s committed to this intense generativity that keeps filling up the musical measure. But the cool thing about it is that this filling up of musical measure seemingly beyond its capacities, first of all measure is maintained as rhythm, so you can dance, but at the same time that measure is maintained it also keeps expanding. There is this tremendous overpopulation but it doesn’t feel crowded. It feels like there’s still room to move around, to move around in the measure. It gives the lie to a whole range of intense regulatory—to justifications for regulation”. —Fred Moten, “Black Studies: Grammars of the Fugitive,” “Workshop Session 1,” Goldsmiths College, Dec 6,7th 2014. https://archive.org/details/Blackstudiesgrammarsoffugitive

11.“The hyperghetto now serves the negative economic function of storage of a surplus population devoid of market utility … a one-dimensional machinery for naked regulation, a human warehouse wherein are discarded those segments of urban society deemed disreputable, derelict and dangerous”—Loic Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh” Punishment and Society, Vol. 3, 1, Sage, 2001. p105.

12.“Here, what is understood as motleyness is now hidden and sheltered, even as racialisation and criminalisation remain in force and continue to expand. People come together here because they are black. But at the same time, they are black because they come together here.”—Laura Harris, “What Happened to the Motley Crew? C.LR. James, Helio Oiticica and the Aesthetic Sociality of Blackness” Social Text, Vol. 30, 3, 2012: p59.

13.“desedimentation … as in to make tremble by dislodging the layers of sedimented premises that hold it in place … hyperbolic force [which] elaborates itself as or with the kinetic and volatile disjunction of the empirical and the transcendental, of the mundane and the ontological, issuing thereby as a historical yet structural affront to systems of subjection, even as such systems configure the subordinate and supra-ordinate alike within its devolution”—Nahum Chandler, “Originary Displacement” Boundary 2, Vol. 27, No 3, Fall, 2000. pp.255, 283.

14.“More importantly, he suggests that—against all the odds—we might be able to dance our way out of the time-traps and identity prisons we are locked in.” —“Break It Down: Mark Fisher on DJ Rashad’s Double Cup” Electronic Beats, 22 October 2013. http://www.electronicbeats.net/en/features/essays/mark-fisher-on-dj-rashads-double-cup/

15.“The aesthetic sociality of blackness is an impoverished political assemblage that resides in the heart of the polity but operates under its ground and on its edge. It is not a re-membering of something that was broken but an ever-expanding invention. It develops by way of exclusion but it is not exclusionary, particularly since it is continuously subject to legitimated, but always incomplete, exploitation. Its resources, which can never be fully accessed by the structures and resources of legitimate political economy, are taken up the politically and economically illegitimate, in their insistence on living otherwise, in ways that resist oppression, denigration and exclusion and violate brutally imposed laws of property and propriety. It is a mode of intellectuality that, in the face of vicious constrictions of life, integrates the widest possible range of expression—corporeal, sensual, erotic, even violent.”—Laura Harris, “What Happened to the Motley Crew? C.L.R. James, Helio Oiticica and the Aesthetic Sociality of Blackness” Social Text, Vol. 30, 3, 2012. p.53

Article PDF - Read / Download

Read full Issue PDF here