Early on Sunday morning during the Teklife set at MAD In Belgrade, the footwork crew launched into "Let It Go", a seminal track by their founder, DJ Rashad, who tragically died last month. As the icy synths, torn samples and incessant kick drums drifted out into the night, everybody lost their shit onstage. The song's minimal vocal served as a serenade – this was Teklife "letting go", but also holding on forever. It was the culmination of three years of collaboration and friendship between musicians in Chicago and Belgrade; they may seem an unlikely pair of cities to come together, but thanks in part to Fatima Al Qadiri, have developed a cross-continent history of mutual appreciation.
Footwork, which originated from juke, is a mutant strain of Chicago house with beats sometimes pushed all the way to 165 bpm, lent the rhythmic swing of hip hop and decorated with minimal vocal loops. Out of juke and footwork came Teklife, a 21-person family of musical partners from across the world, founded by Rashad. Chicago is obviously the group's main base, but one member, Durban, is originally from Brixton; another two, a duo known as Tripletrain, are from NYC; and DJs Feloneezy and Jackie Dagger are from Belgrade. Labels worldwide are taking chances on the collective too – in 2012 the French label Moveltraxx put out Teklife member DJ Earl's Nolife EP, and Hyperdub embraced Teklife the following year when it signed Rashad for his seminal album Double Cup.
The Serbian connection began four years ago, when Feloneezy saw Chicago footwork legend DJ Spinn, Rashad's closest ally, perform in Graz, Austria. His mind was blown. He returned to Serbia with a mission: to reinvigorate a tired Belgrade club scene hamstrung with formulaic structures and conservative restrictions. Balkan wars had affected the economy: less money meant fewer people making art, people had barely any mobility, and the infrastructure of the capital's music scene had suffered. With Dagger, his longtime associate and friend, he created Mystic Stylez, a nine-strong DJ crew devoted to footwork and whatever else they feel like spinning. The first Mystic Stylez night took place on the Belgrade boat Klub 20/44, a venue that sails parties across the river Sava.
"Footwork is a whole different approach to rhythm," Feloneezy says, "and it was completely different to what I'd been hearing. At first I had no idea why I liked it, but I just came back to it again and again. Then I met Spinn in 2010, pretty early for footwork to be heard outside of Chicago. I took it back to Belgrade, and at first we were emptying floors. Now people love it."
Dagger backs the theory: "It was weird to everyone like, three years ago, but now the club is banging when we play footwork! We do a Teklife party every month where we play only Chi music. People in Belgrade know – when someone from our crew is playing they are gonna hear footwork, juke or ghetto house at some point."
After Feloneezy and Dagger hosted Fatima Al Qadiri as their guest at the 2012 SHARE conference in Belgrade, she reported back to Rashad in some disbelief about this new Serbian scene obsessed with footwork, the genre he had pioneered. "Fatima told Rashad and J-Cush that there was a crew in Belgrade who were repping Teklife real hard," says Dagger. "Then we talked with them a lot about music, and they were sending us loads of tracks. After a few months we booked Rash and Spinn in Belgrade, we were playing together, partying... They ended up staying for three days." Eventually, Rashad asked them to become part of Teklife.
Feloneezy and Dagger, still the only two members of Mystic Stylez "officially" inducted into Teklife, met ten years ago as youthful skateboarders and metal fans. Dagger still plays in two metal bands, and waxes lyrical about the level of technical quality held by the skaters in his city. They are fascinating, enthusiastic young men, and cultural touchstones for a new wave of Serbian creativity coursing through Belgrade's underground.
It seems as though you can have a party anywhere in the city; the Fortress, a war memorial at the top of Belgrade that holds tanks, cannons and other remnants of battle, represents the variety of party destinations on offer. By day it's a tourist spot, but by night it hosts raves that continue past morning. One older Serbian remembers (not so fondly), an era during the 90s when Serbian football fans would turn up at the Fortress wired on homemade amphetamines and demand that the volume be turned up before eventually turning violent.
Despite being named after a classic hip hop album and containing members passionate about everything from library music to soul, the Mystic Stylez night currently draws mainly on the influence of Chicago's footwork output and the determination to showcase the qualities of the Belgrade scene. "The Teklife show was one of the most emotional moments of my life," Dagger says, "especially after all that's happened with Rashad. Also, we want to put Belgrade on the map, so this was one of the things we were most proud to be a part of, to show everyone what we have here."
"We mix fast and try to DJ like we're in the crowd having a party," says Feloneezy. "We would stop if it wasn't fun, we'd just quit. The sound is new and people want to hear it in Belgrade. We let anyone join in our parties – that's the main thing, to have fun with everyone." An aside: they're phenomenally talented DJs who mix exquisitely at the speed of lightning, switching tempos and genres effortlessly.
When Rashad died it quickly became clear from the flood of grief that he wasn't just an innovator, but an inspiration. As we sit alone in Belgrade, with the sun descending on the city, Feloneezy describes the incomprensible mixture of emotions that he still feels about Rashad's passing, his pains and his promises.
"He was a really good friend of mine and I was also such a big fan of his! I felt so strange when he died – I'd lost a friend but also someone who completely influenced my surroundings and what I do. If Rashad and Spinn hadn't taken footwork out of Chicago a few years back, I honestly don't know if we'd be here DJing. We might have got completely bored. When he died, I just listened to so many Rashad and Spinn tracks because I couldn't listen to anything else, I was in a state of shock. But it's important to keep pushing this music for Rashad, because it's exactly what he would want. I know Spinn is gonna do it big time and so are all of us. It's a mixture of emotions, but Teklife must go on – there are thousands of tracks ready to come out."
Dagger: "News about his death hit me hard. All of us. I didn't sleep for three days after hearing about it. He showed so much love to our community in Belgrade. He was that guy who connected everyone, and everyone loved him!"
Prior to the MAD performance, Teklife spend their downtime making tracks backstage, all huddled together around tables, frantically making beats until their batteries run out. There seems to be nothing else on their minds except making tracks to DJ, and they collaborate with whoever is around (listen to Feloneezy's hook up with North Carolinan producer DJ Paypal here). The following night Feloneezy and Dagger perform again with Mystic Stylez, and play one of these fresh compositions. The audience erupts.
Dedicated to carrying the torch of footwork through Europe, Mystic Stylez are turning heritage into destiny. "I want to keep pushing this sound, I would DJ every night if I could," says Feloneezy. "Whenever I can, I'll do it - It's what I live for."
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