Once a year, on the second Saturday of August, thousands of Chicagoans descend upon Martin Luther King Drive on the city's South Side to behold the Bud Billiken Parade, the oldest and largest African-American parade in the United States. Launched in 1929 by Robert S. Abbot, founder of historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender, it's a celebration of youth and education, traveling down King Drive from 39th Street to 55th and heralding the start of the school year with performances by local dance groups. As a showcase for a variety of Chicago dance styles—stepping, bop-ing, drill teams, hip hop, and more—the Bud is also a site of particular historical importance for Chicago's footwork scene, as it has been since the mid-'90s.
In a recent interview with THUMP, RP Boo—often considered the father of the footwork sound—remembers being one of the first footwork producers to spin at the parade in the mid-'90s." I saw the dance crew House-O-Matics come down to the parade with a bunch of house music, and I said to myself, 'They look good,'" he recalls. "Two years later, I met the House-O-Matics president Ronnie Sloan, and he said, 'Hey, can you DJ for me at the parade?" Before long, dance battles were taking place beside, between, and sometimes on parade floats, and as well as at the tennis courts in nearby Washington Park. According to Marcus Hendrix, founder and president of the K-Phi-9 dance troupe, key footwork dance moves like "the holy ghost" and "the dribbles" evolved from the routines of local fraternity dance troupes. New dances inspire new tracks; new tracks inspire new dances. The footwork cycles continues.
This summer, THUMP traveled to the Bud with footwork historian and documentarian Wills Glasspiegel to make a video for RP Boo's "Bangin' On King Drive," a track he cut all the way back in 2005—expressly for that year's Bud Billiken Parade. The track, which did indeed debut at the parade, didn't see release until this June, with RP Boo's Fingers, Bank Pads & Show Prints album for Planet Mu. RP Boo made a special mix of "Bang'n on King Drive" for the video, with an intro beat that matches the marching cadences of the parade and an outro blend that veers into the classic Bangs and Works cut "Heavy Heat." Somewhere between a documentary and a music video, Glasspiegel's film captures RP Boo DJing live on King Drive at this year's parade with K-Phi-9, along with cameos from The Era footwork crew, Juke Boi, and the South Shore Drill Team. The video ends at a footworker's BBQ behind DJ Earl's house, where RP Boo got on the grill and played a few records for the dancers in the driveway.
Watch "Bang'n on King Drive" above, and read a behind-the-scenes interview with Glasspiegel for the full story behind the video below.
How did this video come about?
RP and I came up with this video concept years ago. I was inspired by RP's stories about the Bud Billiken Parade, how he used to walk the parade route every August before the parade started. The more I studied and learned about the history of footwork in Chicago, it was obvious that the parade was an important place for the development of footwork as a culture. DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, DJ Clent, DJ Earl—all these DJs and many more grew up dancing and making music for the parade. There's even a whole genre of footwork tracks that you could consider "parade tracks," because of the way they fit that propulsive motion of dancing down King Drive. DJs like RP will also often speed up their tracks at the parade, just to keep the energy high for the dancers. They've got a long way to go, and it can get pretty hot under the summer sun.
What's the history of the Bud Billiken Parade?
I'm still learning! It's cool how making this video is sparking new conversations and bringing the history of the parade to the surface. The parade route—from 33rd to 55th—has been the route since 1929. It's often considered the oldest and largest African-American parade in the United States. The Billiken (from which the parade takes its name) is a good luck charm that protects children. The parade concludes in Jackson Park, designed by Frederik Olmstead, the architect who worked on Central Park in NYC.
Tell us about K-Phi-9, the dance group that appears prominently in the video.
K-Phi-9 are the stars of the show! RP has worked for many years with the founder of K-Phi-9, Marcus Hendrix, so the collaboration was a natural fit. K-Phi-9 was started in the '90s as a fraternity stepping group, and over the years, it has evolved into a group that focuses on young women, all of whom must try out for the group and keep their grades up. Marcus's daughter grew up in K-Phi-9, and it is very much a family and community affair. Everyone is proud to see the girls and boys dance at the Bud Billiken Parade.
What's footwork's relationship with the parade?
The Bud was ground zero for debuting new tracks, and often these tracks were customized by DJs for dance groups like U-Phi-U and House-O-Matics. Footwork dancing is one kind of dancing that local dance crews often include in their routines at the parade. Dancers take turns doing solo improvisations in a circle or at the front of the stage. You can see that in the video with K-Phi-9. It's as if the whole history of footwork is made visible at the Bud.As RP told me, "The dancing you see Juke Boi doing in the video [at 1:54]—that dance move is from where footwork was born out of. That's the key—you've got the key right there!"
Footwork's history was also cemented right after the parade, at a nearby park where footwork battles broke and made many dancers' reputations in Chicago. Many of them still remember the details of battles from years ago. The blue court in the video is where those battles used to happen. It's not the safest part of town these days, so the battles have moved on to other arenas, but The Era and I went back to the courts to drum up the memory of those great days, to pay homage to the spirit of footwork and the legends that danced on that pavement.
It's always an honor to meet up with members of footwork's older generations—in particular, Ant Brown (photo below), who is widely considered the father of footwork dancing in Chicago. In the late '80s, Ant consolidated a series of local moves into a new dance vocabulary, schooling local dancers at his practice space, which was known as The Dungeon.
What's RP Boo's personal history with the parade?
RP Boo was actually the first DJ to actually spin records on a float at the Parade when he was the DJ for House-O-Matics in the '90s. This track "Bang'n On King Drive" was made in 2005, but never officially released until recently on Planet Mu. It's a stalwart footwork classic, known by anyone who footworked in Chicago in the 2000s. It can be categorized as a "parade track," but it can also be categorized as a neighborhood track. Across the archive of footwork tracks, you can find a number of songs that refer to specific geographic areas in Chicago. This one happens to refer to an important mainline of South Side identity and cultural pride: Martin Luther King Drive between 39th Street and 55th Street.
Tell us about the Era, the group of footworkers dancing alongside K-Phi-9?
The Era is one of the most prominent footwork crews in Chicago right now. I've been working with them on their creative team for the last year. It's been an amazing thing to collaborate with the group. Chief Manny and I have been working steadily on video and footwork film content for the last year, and working towards the creation of a feature-length footwork documentary. Litebulb was just awarded a prestigious grant for dancers in Chicago, and is now developing a multimedia dance performance piece. Our work is highly collaborative. As a Chicagoan myself, it's inspiring to be able to do work across the many divides in our city. Stay tuned: lots more to come in the next year.
What's the story behind the final scene?
The conclusion of our "Bang'n On King Drive" video takes place at a BBQ behind DJ Earl's house on the South Side. It's an after party that we organized to follow the vibe of the parade. Earl's mom, Gracie Smith, is the best, and their house is basically one of my favorite places to shoot and hang out in Chicago. B Rael, a footworker who is pursuing a career as a visual artist, also brought a painting he made to hang in the background of our video shoot. The painting depicts AG, a legendary Chicago footworker and old friend to DJ Rashad. "We are now at the stage where the world considers us artists," RP told the crowd at the BBQ, recognizing the love he's been receiving across the world, and bringing that feeling back home to Chicago.
How did you link up with RP Boo in the first place?
I'm currently getting a PhD in African American Studies and American Studies at Yale, where my research is focused on footwork and the history of dance on film. I've worked for six years with RP Boo. We first met in 2009, when I was an NPR journalist covering footwork in Chicago. We are close friends and frequent collaborators. I first heard RP Boo's music through Dave Quam's groundbreaking blog, and one interview they did together that I recommend.