Kiana Mickles chats to the founders of a label that deepened LA's relationship with footwork.
The deviant offshoot of ghetto house, Chicago footwork quietly developed in isolation for two decades until around 2010, when Planet Mu’s Bangs & Works Vol.1 elevated the genre to the global stage. And even then, it took years for the rest of the world to understand footwork. The jittering style wasn't originally produced for casual listening, but for steamy warehouses and isolated gyms, where agile legs jerked as if commanded by puppet strings. The main ambassadors hailed from Chicago-based label Teklife, which was founded by footwork pioneer DJ Rashad in 2010. Two years later, Rashad presented a globalized, accessible take on footwork with his breakthrough LP, Double Cup, and the genre finally took off. Teklife's networks gradually expanded to the UK, Japan and, with the help of JBW, the West Coast.
But when Jae Drago (Joey) and DJ Noir (Alexis) met 20 years ago, their shared love for footwork wasn't what initially sparked the flame. Before the advent of Tinder and mind-numbing dating apps, Joey walked over to Alexis at a bar, which led to a sprawling night spent bonding over the Lakers. As the evening winded down, Joey had nearly left the bar without Alexis's number. While Joey wasn't yet a DJ at the time, Alexis had already been heavily involved in LA's drum & bass scene.
"My friend said, 'Oh you could never talk to that girl. She's the queen of the scene,'" Joey recalls. "And I said, 'Oh word?'" So Joey walked back in, asked her for her number, and she gave it to him. Like the truism goes, when you know, you know. They met that Sunday, and moved in together by Wednesday.
In the mid-aughts, LA's drum & bass scene was entering a new phase. "It was becoming more like EDM, and really going away from its roots," Joey explains. So when the two discovered footwork, it was a breath of fresh air. Like many of the members of Juke Bounce Werk, their first introduction to the genre was through stumbling upon Chicago battle videos on YouTube. But their true eureka moment was when they discovered a DJ Roc station on Pandora while painting their apartment. "It slapped us in the face," Joey enthuses, shaking his head. "We couldn't even finish what we were doing." From there, the two went on a hunt for all the juke and footwork they could find on iTunes, then bought it all, dropping $700 on their fresh collection.
It was also through this pursuit of footwork releases that the pair discovered Bandcamp, and the variety of Teklife producers that were steadily releasing there. By this time, they were both DJs and slowly making the transition from vinyl to digital. Once they were acquainted with Serato, they released a critical mix in 2013, during the golden age of Soundcloud. This mix was noticed by Teklife's DJ Tre, who picked up on the numerous Teklife tracks featured in the project, and was shocked that anyone outside of Chicago was hip to the landlocked genre. Once he began sending tracks to the pair, their connection was solidified. Some time after, Joey and Alexis met with their fellow junglist friend Darren (Sonic D) and realized they had all been individually fixated with this music. Naturally, they decided to go on a quest for footwork in their local scene, only to return dispirited. No one was playing out footwork in LA.
They took it upon themselves to start a night presenting footwork to the LA scene. After a stint at a small bar, they hit up Tre and offered to fly him out to one of their first attempts at a larger party. When fellow Teklife member DJ Earl heard about the event, he asked to join the lineup as well. Now two Chicago DJs had been locked in, but the circumstances for a debut show couldn't have been less optimal. There were storm delays in Chicago, power adapters had been misplaced and headliners Earl and Tre arrived at LAX late. By the grace of some higher power, the crew still managed to drive through Hollywood, pick up the DJs at 11:30 PM and race back to Hollywood in the nick of time. Teklife arrived at the venue at 12:01 AM, one minute after their planned set time.
The event was a resounding hit, and encouraged JBW to commit to a regular night with their former partner Neuropunk called Rocksteady, which took place at former karaoke bar Tokyo Beat. Through hosting events, they also discovered footwork dance crews in LA, which they soon incorporated into their events. One of the first footworkers they met was the legend-level Chicago dancer King Charles, who was teaching classes in LA at the time. As educators of the art form, it was imperative that JBW showcase footwork music in tandem with its dance culture. And as their connection to Chicago deepened, they increasingly prioritized flying out DJs directly from the Windy City. "When we came together, it became this actual bridge from Chicago to Los Angeles," Alexis reflects.
The curation of Rocksteady sets allowed for other genres, like jungle or dubstep, to have their moment, but the performances were mostly transitions into the main highlight of the night, which was the battle. "It's a different translation of the music when you're actually seeing the full spectrum of footwork. The battle, the DJ, the music," Alexis says, as Joey nods beside her. When I speak to Darren, he shares similar sentiments about the importance of meeting King Charles in preserving footwork's integrity at Rocksteady. "You really have to bring footwork culture together with the dancers. That was what was so important for us when we started. Thank God we met with King Charles because he put us in contact with so many people.
"When you pair the dance with the music, you have a better understanding of the genre. You understand this culture much more. Footwork has so many parallels to watching the birth of hip-hop. I know if I play this music to someone by itself, nobody's really going to latch on."
Over the next four years, Rocksteady hosted the likes of Chicago trailblazers RP Boo, Jlin and DJ Spinn, along with international figures from Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The idea was to invite a wide variety of crews from LA and across the globe, introducing a diverse audience to footwork in a way that wasn't intimidating. Rocksteady would take place every Tuesday evening until licensing issues led Tokyo Beat to shutter overnight.
The post-Tokyo Beat era wasn't as smooth-sailing. After four years, the relationship that the collective had cultivated with the former venue owners couldn't be matched. Hosting a weekly party proved difficult when venues demanded high turnouts, which the collective felt restricted by. Coordinating with the fast-paced schedules of internationally touring dance crews also grew tiresome, particularly in the summer, when most were traveling outside of the country. Rocksteady nights, while still successful, increasingly grew into one-off underground ventures. But something else was brewing simultaneously.
The label's first releases came as the Rocksteady nights grew. The debut compilation was a name-your-price record released as a way to raise enough funds to fly someone out to the show. But nothing was released without the direct green light from their peers in Chicago. "We definitely reached out to Chicago first, you know, to let them know, 'This is what our intentions are,'" Darren stresses. "We want to put this together. We want you guys to definitely first and foremost, be a part of this." He continues, "This is how we pay our respects. This is how we humble ourselves."
That first record, featuring DJ Tre, Darren himself and Neuropunk, has the influence of Double Cup written all over it. The signature soft contours and nostalgic sampling paired with militant drum machine patterns found across the compilation were one of the last gifts the footwork pioneer gave the genre before his tragic passing in 2014.
The compilations would continue every year with meticulous curation and a broadened pool of producers. Last year, they announced open calls for the first time while putting together the seventh JBW compilation. The result was a 39-track release with an even greater number of artists making the final cut. And the album's influences extend far beyond footwork. Jersey club, Miami ghetto-tech and experimental juke from Poland all make appearances, demonstrating the label's growing dedication to highlighting the vast corners of the underground outside of the 160 BPM paradigm.
More than ever before, the label is at home in versatility. When asked about the defining elements of the label's sound, Kush Jones describes it as constantly evolving. "We used to sit down and say, we have to make 160, or we have to keep it footwork and juke. We still do that, but we are also like, if you are strong and developed in another sound, then you should also be free."
The most prolific member of the collective, Bronx-born and Brooklyn-based producer Kush Jones perhaps best encapsulates the ethos of the label with his busy and ever-changing output. His debut on the label was 2017's Momentum EP, which boasts footwork founding father DJ Clent on mastering credits. Described as a landmark JBW record, it embodies the high-energy soulfulness that connects the widespread threads of the label's roster. But what makes the record a standout is its captivating emotional undertones. Kush produced the EP while attempting to move past a challenging period in his life, owing the project's "somberness" to the various obstacles he was confronting at the time.
Another pivotal release for the imprint was DJ Swisha's Uptown Dream. At the time Swisha, now based in Brooklyn but formerly in LA, had been DJing Rocksteady nights regularly, and was toying with the idea of producing juke with UKG samples. The concept was finally realized during a trip to New York, when he raided a friend's vinyl collection in the Bronx. The result was a UKG-160 BPM crossover that felt incredibly fresh.
DJ Compton's JBW debut Welcome To Compton is another label highlight. As his name suggests, the producer's home base is Compton, but his arrangements sound like they came right out of the warehouses of Chicago. The stark production and multidirectional drums feel like they were produced with dancers in mind—when listening to his music, it's difficult to not imagine the wizzing feet that often pair authentic battle footwork.
A true product of the internet age, JBW's founders emphasize the importance of Soundcloud and Bandcamp in the collective's formation. One name that emerges often is Surly, a footwork producer from New Zealand whom Joey and Alexis first discovered during a casual Soundcloud dig. Though he only had 50 followers on his page, they were impressed with what they found. Joey shot him a message requesting to hear more of his material, and the zip folder they were sent in response left them equal parts blown away and perplexed. "I'm like, 'Where the fuck did you even come from?' And he's like, 'I don't know, I don't know,'" Joey laughs. Unbeknownst to them at the time, RP Boo was playing alongside Surly on a lineup in New Zealand, and the footwork icon reported back with a glowing review of his set. Surly joined the label's roster not long after, and his debut on the imprint, Surly EP, shows his outside take on footwork, drawing from brooding jazz, dubstep and bass music.
Recent protests demanding racial justice have called into question the electronic music industry's insidious role in the erasure of Black music, and not even the biggest names have been spared appraisal. During the first swells of this ongoing discourse, Alexis penned a DJ Mag piece critiquing the tone-deaf rebranding of footwork as across-the-board "160 BPM" music. It is clear through our interviews the indebtedness Joey, Alexis and Darren feel to Chicago. When asked if part of their mission was ever to forge a distinctive LA sound within footwork, I am met with a visceral response from Joey and Alexis. In the way you'd expect from long-term partners, they negate my question while completing each other's sentences. "We always want to maintain respect and integrity with our relationships and what we were able to build with Chicago..." Alexis starts. "Because we saw the rest of the world..." adds Joey. "Doing the opposite," Alexis finishes.
"You can't take a sound and exclude the people who created it and say, this is our sound. No, it's either Chicago footwork or it's other."
JBW's mix blazes past action-packed footwork and jungle from their own, showing off the diverse approaches to the genres that define the label.
01. U Kno Tha Vibes - DJ SWISHA
02. The Swell - DJ NOIR x SONIC D
03. Hackin' Cough - SONIC D
04. Pierre Dub - KUSH JONES
05. Anna & Her Toms - DJ SWISHA
06. 155 Drum Tool - SURLY
07. Torcida - KUSH JONES x DJ SWISHA
08. The Yard - TEEP
09. MoveBounceWerk - COMPTON x DJ SWISHA
10. Twelve 16' - KUSH JONES
11. Thirteen Leaf Dancers - SURLY
12. Conozco - SCATTA
13. Boat Meeting - COMPTON
14. 2 HITS - COMPTON x SONIC D
15. Dyson - G FREQUENT
16. Further - SCATTA x DJ SWISHA
17. Future Shape - G FREQUENT
18. On Rhodes - DJ SWISHA x KUSH JONES x SURLY
19. Horn Dem Foos - JAE DRAGO x DJ NOIR
20. Methods - DJ SWISHA
21. NRG Rush - SURLY
22. Going Thru - KUSH JONES
23. Gangster Strategy -[JAE DRAGO EDIT] AVON STRINGER
24. Never Letting GoOoo - DJ SWISHA