DJ Rashad: a life lived at 160 bpm

The legendary footwork producer died tragically young. We take a look back at his music and the future he may have created

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dj Rashad
DJ Rashad was found in his Chicago home of a suspected drug overdose

DJ Rashad staked his claim early as one of the premier beatmakers of Chicago footwork, one of the most celebrated hyper–local genres since grime. Beginning ostensibly as a utilitarian style of music that facilitated high energy dance moves, with youths floating in empty gyms rather than fighting in dance battles, Rashad set himself apart from the scene with an eclectic sense of melody and melancholy. Thanks to DJs like Rashad, footwork left from Chicago and swept the world.

Rashad Harden passed away at the tragically early age of 34 this weekend. A drug overdose is the suspected cause of death. In contrast to many legendary artists past their prime, Rashad was taken from the dance scene while still producing vital new tracks. Listening to his upcoming EP We On 1 proves that Rashad was still hellbent on finding spaces between footwork’s strict bpm and syncopated drum patterns, and the critically acclaimed 2013 LP Double Cup shows Rashad adding acid and trap to add to his already huge bank of inspiration.

But it was the unforgettable leap in ideas he made in his Hyperdub debut Rollin’ EP that allowed for Rashad’s ascent; its centrepiece, "Let It Go", is a robotic ballad that can mean so much to dancer, clubber or blubber. From there, Rashad, alongside Teklife collaborator DJ Spinn, sent Europe’s festival elite into a rhythmic frenzy not seen since 90s rave. Footwork’s tempo of 160 bpm lends itself to ecstatic moments of hype and drop that don't happen as dramatically in conventional styles like house and techno.

Unless you’re well experienced in moving your feet at inhuman speed, footwork can be infuriatingly fast for most, translating into either a spectator sport or a brain-melting exercise for European avant-garders. But when the beat dismantles into a half-time finger click or 808 clap, there’s a heady sense of energy and bravado-driven release – much like a beatdown in a metalcore classic. Often compared to similarly fast styles like drum and bass and jungle, footwork's aggressive angularity and ghetto-ness uninvites itself from the EDM love-in of the past few summers.

It speaks volumes that UK labels including Planet Mu and Hyperdub gave Rashad his international voice, starting with his standout track "Itz Not Rite" on the seminal compilation primer Bangs & Works. In Rashad, these labels recognised Britain’s love for all things sped up, once symbolised by the chipmunked house vocals found in UK garage mixes. By the time Hyperdub owner Steve Goodman brought Rashad to his label, the producer was already working with elements of UK dance, culminating in 2013's "I Don't Give A Fuck". While the track samples American film dialogue (of Tupac in Harlem crime drama Juice, no less), it borrows from the gritty outlook of UK bass, from its false drops to the cold anti–atmosphere synth samples and London council estate-set video. 

The death of any artist in his prime is horrifying and sad. From the outpouring of condolences from fans to artists who have worked or shared a stage with him, you can tell Rashad touched people both musically and personally – not just through his output and influence, but through his effervescent energy. But if there's one silver lining in this tragedy, it's that DJ Rashad's passing will undoubtedly act as a gateway for those who saw footwork as a passing fad to revisit Rashad's work and better appreciate the genre. There's no better tribute than that.  

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