I don’t know much about footwork, a high-speed, intricately sliced ‘n’ diced form of dance music originating from Chicago. I bought two compilations, Bangs & Works Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and they didn’t really do much for me. What makes the music unique is obvious from the first time you listen to it. Footwork producers chop up samples from all sorts of genres, making no real attempt to hide their sources but warping them to fit their purpose. Voices and instruments are sped up or slowed down radically, and laid over choppy, staccato but extremely fast — generally around 160 bpm — programmed beats. Those beats are totally digital, a series of pops and hisses, and because of the speed with which they roll by, the bass drum is often more of a smack than a boom. Not always, though. Bangs & Works Vol. 2: The Best of Chicago Footwork included two early tracks from Jlin, “Erotic Heat” and “Asylum,” each of which punched way above its weight in terms of low end and introduced elements mostly absent in others’ work.
Jlin, real name Jerrilynn Patton, has broken out of the footwork pack by doing something very different with the form. Her three albums to date present a highly abstracted version of footwork that seems to owe as much to Autechre or Aphex Twin as to the sound of underground Chicago warehouse dance parties. Instead of carving up recognizable samples, she creates her own sounds, more like a techno producer than a DJ. Unsurprisingly, her intellectualized take on what started out as an extremely visceral style has earned her a lot of critical credibility; there’s a reason she’s been on the cover of The Wire and, say, DJ Rashad has not.
She told The Wire‘s Frances Morgan in 2017, “I have heard some songs with loops that are great — I just can’t do it. For me it’s a sin. Every sequence that I make up, I have to make it from scratch. I can never use a loop or some kind of preset…It goes back to the individual. What do you sound like? Because right now you’re just taking someone else’s shit and arranging it. But we still don’t know what you sound like, and the fact that it hasn’t dawned on you to say, what do I sound like? Where do I fit in all of this? I guess that’s the issue I have.”
This reminds me of a quote from William Parker in Cisco Bradley‘s book Universal Tonality: “If you spend your life trying to be Charlie Parker, who will be you? We fail musically when we try to be something other than ourselves.”
Her first album, 2015’s Dark Energy, was stark and minimal. Some tracks had no conventional melody at all and were entirely structured out of interlocking rhythms with the occasional spoken voice popping up to offer cryptic commentary (a lot of these seemed like they were swiped from horror movies). Other voices were chopped up and stuttering in the manner of late ’80s electro and freestyle. Others might throw a single shimmering keyboard frequency, or a one-finger melody, into the mix, but the whole thing stayed skeletal, impelling itself forward with a twitchy two-AM energy.
Jlin‘s 2017 release, Black Origami, was a sensation. It topped critics’ lists and while I didn’t connect with it at the time, I’ve come to find it more and more fascinating and even scary. The skeletal frameworks and rapidly shifting rhythmic patterns are the same as on Dark Energy, but even more complex, and she mixes a much wider variety of sounds. The combination of hissing and popping drum machines, wet-sounding hand percussion, echoing finger snaps, and tympani(!) on “Enigma” is a genuine achievement, unlike anything I’ve ever heard in the “dance music” arena. And when the bass drops, it’s enough to implode your skull.
In 2018, she released Autobiography, the score to a dance piece by choreographer Wayne McGregor. Because this was written for ballet dancers, not for dancefloors, the music was more abstract and at times beatless. The tracks were also longer; nothing Jlin had released before 2018 was longer than four and a half minutes, but some of these ran five or even six. When there was a beat, it was often more straightforward than before, and the starkness and minimalism of a piece like “Unorthodox Elements” brought to mind Detroit techno pioneer Robert Hood, whose soundtracks to post-industrial urban decay could give you nightmares.
Since Autobiography, Jlin has released the occasional stray track or remix, but largely remained out of sight. This week, though, she has re-emerged with a four-track EP, Embryo, and while it may contain only 14 minutes of music, it’s stunning.
The titles — “Embryo,” “Rabbit Hole,” “Auto Pilot” and “Connect the Dots” — suggest both tunneling inward and reflexive/involuntary action. Taken collectively, they add up to a somewhat dark message suited to pandemic time. Jlin is sheltering in place, making music the way she always has, these titles seem to say. And indeed, the music possesses a somewhat obsessive quality. It begins with a staticky pummel straight out of Autechre, with squelching synths that bring to mind Aphex Twin‘s Analord series of 12″ singles. The beat jumps around, creating the illusion that it’s speeding up and slowing down when it’s really just giving you a second or two to breathe before coming back even stronger. It’s almost too fast to dance to; you don’t have the reflexes for it, or enough limbs.
The second track, “Auto Pilot,” is much closer to conventional techno. The synth melody has a space-age quality, the echo like a Doppler effect. Sharp digital handclaps fly by so fast they’re almost drum ‘n’ bass beats, and a disembodied voice occasionally mutters from the deep middle of the mix. That sound, and a hammer-like drum that appears in the track’s final seconds, feel like callbacks to Keith LeBlanc‘s Major Malfunction album from 1987. “Connect the Dots” is the most frantic piece on Embryo; it flies by so fast, nodding your head to the beat could give you whiplash or a concussion. The final track, “Rabbit Hole,” is significantly slower, a comedown that’s all tick and squelch, the bass almost womblike. This EP is mercifully short — 45 or 50 minutes of music this intense, this meticulously constructed, would be too much for most people to take. Its dark intensity is well suited to cold winter months, though. Curl up on the couch and let it blast you.