DJ Earl: "Let's Work" [ft. MoonDoctoR and Oneohtrix Point Never] (via SoundCloud)
While on tour last year, Earl Smith stood atop the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico, an iconic structure that first began its ascent around 2,000 years ago, and thought, Damn, how did I get here? Alongside him was one of his mentors, footwork pioneer DJ Spinn, who felt an unseen force up there that day, like a kind of clarity had washed over them. It was a moment. And it was a long way from the suburbs of Chicago, where the two first met in a dilapidated room nearly a decade ago.
Back then, Earl was a high school freshman in awe of the sounds Spinn and DJ Rashad were coming up with at Battle Groundz, a footwork institution and local club night nestled in an aging insurance office. On Sunday nights, the space became a veritable laboratory for Chicago’s homebrewed black avant-garde, and it’s where the familial Teklife crew coalesced. DJs played freshly minted tracks to energetic dancers, who tamed the relentless 160 BPM thump into balletic twists, pivots, and pirouettes. It’s where Earl’s education started, a historical site all its own.
But part of his apprenticeship came to an abrupt halt two years ago, when Rashad passed away. At the time, Earl found it impossible to even consider making music—he was too overtaken, and the knowledge he had gained seemed to vanish under the weight of grief. Rashad was the creative father for an entire generation of producers from Chicago to Belgrade; his body of work and its indelible mark of personality permeates, surrounds, and informs so much of what Earl and all of Teklife continues to do.
A few months after Rashad’s death, Earl locked himself in his parent’s basement with fellow Teklifers DJ Manny and Taye for three days. Numerous tracks were made, and two rough sketches from that day eventually made their way to Earl’s new album, Open Your Eyes, which also features contributions from Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin as well as longtime collaborators MoonDoctoR and FreshtillDef.
The album is emotionally textured and complicated. Perhaps more so than any of Rashad’s students, Earl has been able to make melancholic footwork, which yokes the essential tension between loneliness and community. Talking about the album’s inescapable sense of loss, Taye says, “It might not come out happy, but it comes out.”
DJ Earl: "All INN" [ft. Suzi Analogue] (via SoundCloud)
At the end of last year, Earl decided to leave Chicago for New York, and I meet the 25-year-old at the Hell’s Kitchen studio apartment he shares with his partner, Maya Simone Shipman. He takes a second to answer the door, but I can hear the faint whiff of music being made behind the wall, the pitter patter of kick drums. He is quiet and thoughtful in conversation, which runs in interesting contrast to his animated stage presence—this is a guy who can gracefully footwork along to Death Grips.
Shipman, who makes music as Suzi Analogue, tells me that she was in the process of mourning her mother when she met Earl, and their shared healing came via creative collaboration, through finding life in their art. So in a way, Open Your Eyes is simultaneously an elegy and a sampling of what’s to come. Lopatin’s freak touch is a haunting presence, giving Earl’s emotional sound an alien character. It makes the experience of the album disembodied, strangely solitary and affecting.
Taking the subway back to Brooklyn after talking with Earl, I nod off. A loud conversation wakes me up. “Look at the footwork—it’s like happy feet,” one teenager says to another. I open up my eyes to see them intimating the rapid tap of footwork, their boombox spitting static as it attempts to keep up with the frenetic pace of the music. They don’t even know that the future lives a few stops away.
Pitchfork: What were some of your early musical experiences growing up in Chicago?
DJ Earl: I grew up in the juke era, so it was booty music and juke dance remixes of popular hip-hop songs. When we were teenagers it was all about going to skating rinks and little theaters. It was hot dogs, freezer pizzas, nachos, chips, and lots of soda to keep the kids hyped while they skated. I did my fair share of skating. I can still get out there and do my thing—no backflips though.
We got to see people like Spinn and Rashad. I progressed into learning about the dancing through school. During the summertime they would bring out a huge system and play music for the whole neighborhood. I was also touring with an orchestra and playing in the school band. I did some saxophone, flute, and percussion. I toured with an orchestra and played with jazz bands. But I didn’t like that whole world, the first-chair second-chair shit. I wasn’t with that. I was already going through living in the Southeast side of Chicago, trying to be a young kid in the hood making it back and forth to school.
What makes producing footwork different from other forms of electronic music?
When I first started I didn’t know how to approach it. I never really could make footwork until I met DJ Manny. Nobody was breaking down how to produce it or how to translate the dance, because I wasn’t really good at the dance yet either. Anybody can make four-to-the-floor beats, but the footwork stuff has a certain feel to it. And it fits in a different way when you’re an actual footwork dancer. We make our music from a dancer’s perspective. I’m not saying I dance every single time I make a song, but once the dance clicks, the music becomes much more natural. For me, it’s more of an organic self expression, not a super-cerebral type of process. I think everybody should learn how to footwork. It’s not super easy but it’s learnable. A lot of people around the world are learning how to do it. If you’re healthy and you think you can do it, you should try.
What did you do differently with Open Your Eyes compared to your earlier work?
FreshtillDef and Suzi were helpful in the process, because I really wanted a woman’s opinion, so I could keep the record balanced. I didn’t want it to be aggressive and male, because I’ve been doing that for a long time. I wanted it to still have that raw feel, but also have moments that are softer. It’s not filled with aggressive dance battle tracks. Together, we all narrowed down the vibe over two years. The album is kind of jazzy. It’s dancey. You can nod your head. The vibe is ambient. We’re trying to get people to approach footwork differently and change people’s perception about what it can really sound like.
DJ Earl: "Smoking Reggie" [ft. MoonDoctoR and Oneohtrix Point Never] (via SoundCloud)
What music did Daniel Lopatin give you to listen when you guys first started working together?
What did you think of Daniel’s music as Oneohtrix Point Never?
His music sort of reminds me of Kraftwerk, but just from another alien world. When I sat down to listen to his last album, I kept thinking, What the fuck made him do this? That’s the same kind of vibe I’m on right now. I just want to make people think. We make music from the same perspective. It’s why we resonate with each other’s work.
DJ Earl: "Grind" [ft. Wiki] (via SoundCloud)
What were you listening to over the last two years that made an impact on the album?
Ab-Soul’s These Days... really changed the way I was producing: the ambient-soulful vibe to it. That album is a little underrated in my opinion. Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside influenced me to be a little different. But man, I listen to a pretty wide spectrum. My girl Suzi put me onto Björk. I’m listening to Death Grips, Kode9’s album Nothing, Jessy Lanza’s Oh No, Future’s EVOL, and Skepta’s Konnichiwa.
I read that you were listening to System of a Down too?
Ah yes! I got into them because of Death Grips. I’ll listen to that music, then Ab-Soul, then Roy Ayers, then stuff from the crew. I’m just like, My mind’s unlocking some shit, all these sounds! It keeps the music fresh; it’s giving my music an edge. I’m working with a lot of people right now, like Wiki, Sporting Life, the Letter Racer crew, Antwon. I’m also working on a film around this ambient track I made called “Inevitable Shift.” Naturally, I don’t only make footwork music.
DJ Earl: "Dark Summer ++ Inevitable Shift" (via SoundCloud)