Footwork Fave DJ Earl Talks Expanding The Sound While Guarding The Legacy

By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 19, 2016 3:14PM

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DJ Earl / Photo: Alexander Richter
DJ Earl rose out of the second wave of Chicago footwork, following the path laid out by pioneers like the late DJ Rashad and RP Boo. But even for such a mutable and rhythmically intricate genre, Earl stands out for his adventurousness, swerving into everything from experimental ambient to buggy synthesizer jams.

His new album, Open Your Eyes, available today on Teklife, keenly splits the difference between footwork proper and broader-reaching impulses. Earl frequently collaborates with an aesthetically diverse bunch (outrĂ© producer Lee Bannon and Wiki of art-rap duo Ratking, for example); and the new album also boasts an impressive guest roster, including footwork producers DJ Manny and DJ Taye, plus Daniel Lopatin, who records acclaimed experimental electronic music as Oneohtrix Point Never. Chicagoist spoke to Earl, who’s now based in New York, about the new record, collaborative variety, the state of footwork, Chicago gun violence and more.

How much conflict do you feel between maintaining a recognizably footwork blueprint and pushing the boundary?

I’m always going to make Chicago footwork, and pretty much every track on this record is Chicago footwork—but also pushing the envelope of what that can sound like. What direction does it go on a whole? That’s really out of my control at the this point; so I don’t dwell on it. I just naturally progress, get influenced and try to experiment in the studio. But footwork is going to constantly change. It’s inevitable.

Footwork had already changed before I was even around. The original format was much more minimal. But DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn and Gant-Man switched up switched that up before I was even part of it. But I still want to push the envelope. We always want to challenge expectations.

You collaborate with artists from all walks. Tell me about working with Daniel Lopatin for this record.

We met in Vancouver at the New Forms Festival. We just talked—then eventually exchanged music. I just passed along demoes when I was first working on the album, and it resonated.

Working with Dan was pretty cool. He’s a pretty far-out producer when it comes to what he releases. And he’s a pretty collaborative person. My stuff maybe wasn’t exactly what he was used to making or hearing all the time, but it clicked. At one point he commented that my music reminded him of his own—but without the drums. Neither of us saw it coming; it just naturally happened. But the way musicians cross paths, maybe it was bound to happen.

Both your Teklife crew and footwork as a whole are much more prominent than they were just a few years ago.

I try not to worry about how or if it blows up; I just want to be creative. But at the same time, its something you have to think about—especially with Teklife as a brand, and us getting global recognition. We push to get a bigger audience and a bigger support system, so we can do dope things with the platform, do more showcases. But you do think, “Man, is footwork going to be this oversaturated thing?” It might, it might not be. Hopefully it doesn’t get to that point. But I say, anybody who loves the music and feels the influence should get involved the way they want to—oversaturation or not.

I assume you’ve been offered some big-name collaborations.

Especially when Rashad was alive, a lot of crazy opportunities definitely came our way. None that I want to legally speak on. (Laughs) But now, yeah, some big opportunities do come my way. But we’re very selective with how we approach any offers. Very selective. I’m not so quick to take every opportunity thrown. But for Chicago footwork, people are definitely knocking at the door.

Who of a big stature would you want to work with?

There are definitely high-profile artists that I’d like to collaborate with. I’d love to work with people from TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment, whose associated artists include Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad and Schoolboy Q). Ab-Soul is my favorite rapper these days. But I just want to see what happens, not force anything. To be honest, when Rashad and Spinn went on tour with Chance the Rapper (for the Social Experiment Tour in late 2013), Teklife got a huge upgrade in exposure. People know and have connections in the industry. They’re just more on a wait and see kind of tip.

You’re now based in New York. How’s the transition?

Well, I got booked to play ghe20g0th1k before I lived here. When I eventually moved to New York, a lot of people were interested in what I was doing. Footwork had already reached from the first wave. I could play parties and hang out. And there was no intense violence situation. It felt like a safe space to me.

Does Chicago violence still weigh heavily on your mind?

I definitely still feel the violence that goes on. The first conversation I had with someone when I got home, we talked about what’s going on in New York, and the market and how cool it is to network and spread opportunities to work. But then it immediately went into Chicago violence. My friend said, “It’s odd. I’ve had to watch myself, and we’ve added security.” The first thing my mom said to me when I walked in the door was, “Oh, I was worried. I thought you didn’t make it from the airport.” I was like, “Why would you say that?” She said, “Chicago’s so crazy. They’re even shooting people on the expressway. It’s everywhere.” My parents have lived here all their life and never been fazed. But now? There are just too many guns.

DJ Earl's Open Your Eyes is available now.