In Conversation with The Era: "We Want to Push the Culture to the Next Level"
We spoke to Litebulb, Manny and Paypal about the past, present and future of footwork.
Photo by Leondotcom
I was very lucky to take part in an intimate footworking class with Chicago dance supremos, The Era. I was awful. Despite footwork being a relatively new phenomenon in Europe, Chicago's scene has been thriving for over 20 years with a rich footwork history running through the city's culture, seriously impacting the lives of adults and children in the area as a form of dance that directly inspires the music that it's linked with. After my footworking class, smelling like an elephant's armpit and wearing what looks like a year 8 P.E. kit, I sat down with The Era's Litebulb and Chief Manny, with a little help from Teklife producer DJ Paypal to talk about footworking's history, the perception of dance, and where they can take their art from here.
THUMP will be debuting a Wills Glasspiegel-directed documentary on The Era this week, so watch this space for that.
THUMP: Can you explain how you guys got into footworking?
Manny: We started as the group 'New Era' to create a performance thing, but it didn't really work out. We saw the music taking off and going these other places, so the next step was the culture needing to go as a whole as opposed to just the music. Our main goal was to keep footwork as music AND dance everywhere.
Litebulb: We all had a point where we were all starting to do New Era but we all had to get jobs. I was already touring with Rashad and Spinn from 2011 til now, then they said I could bring somebody else. I had a think about that, but if I brought somebody else, we'd be under Teklife... What if we work with them? We build our own thing, and come up with the work ourselves. We combined everything into one company – a dance company, from the ground up. It was really an ever-growing process, from seeing the music go somewhere, to saying "Okay, well it ain't a show without us!" You need the full experience. You NEED to be in that circle with us.
So you built this from the ground up, and as the reputation of footwork became bigger, so did you?
Manny: We're just trying to make sure that all five of us are on the same page and that the crew is tight enough that we're all doing the same thing and people start to see the full culture. The only other place that had picked up on it was Japan. When you go to Japan, it's not just the music. There's a whole footwork culture – the whole dance culture. If we can get that going everywhere and bring the culture to all these different places, footwork's going to be the biggest thing.
Litebulb: When we go see artists like Missy Elliott perform, we're loving her dancers. That's what people need to learn to appreciate more – the value in that. That's what we mean by changing the perception of dance. When you think about dance, you can't tell your kids to be dancers when they grow up. Why? When ballet is so huge, and everything else is so huge, why can't street dance be? You're not gonna see dancers that look like us anyway a lot of the time.
Are you guys working on a full stage show?
Litebulb: Yeah! That's like our version of an album. It's called '160' and it's premiering next year in June. With this stage show, we're going to transform the way people view footworking. We want to show them our perspective, not the media's perspective of Chicago. There's dancing happening in the streets anyway, and we wanna showcase that through our work onstage. It's going to be an experience. People need to see it. They need to know what it really is.
Do you think by the time that's out that the culture will have shifted worldwide?
Manny: It's gonna take some time. It's not gonna be like "as soon as this stage show is out" or "as soon as this album drops". It's gonna take time just to instil it in people. It started as a big juke party almost, where you had people partying, but you had footworkers there and whole crews were showing up. That's how crews make their name – from these big parties that DJs are DJing at. People don't see that just yet because the dance ain't with it. When people see that and they catch to it, footwork's gonna be everywhere.
Litebulb: We gotta introduce each other man. We've got to speak to each other first. We can just walk right past each other, but we're all humans, so we've got a lot of things in common when you think about it, and dance is one of them. Dance, art, music and culture – everyone has that in common, but dance is always the one that's pushed to the side. So we've got to start talking more, sharing these interests and building a real community. Not just footworkers, but everybody.
We should be able to go see a poet, a painter, and then Kanye West on the same stage. It should be like that. We can have all art, but why not have it on one stage? We can do it ourselves. We can empower ourselves. It's the only way. Other than that, you're only gonna get what everybody has told you to do, especially a dancer. That's got to change. It starts with us and each one of y'all.
Manny: Back in Chicago growing up in the footwork scene, if you were the coldest footworker, you were that dude. People look up to you like "damn, he's got that shit on the dancing side." People see that you can beat a man by dancing, you don't have to be cool or sitting in the party just looking. You can be the man from dancing. I can't wait 'til people see that. It's gonna come.
Footworking's not just a club thing. I've seen videos of you guys just doing it on the street...
Litebulb: Yeah! That's what it's about! That's where it's from! But then y'all got the version where it's a party for adults. If the adults in Chicago come here, they're gonna love it because you usually footwork til you're about 24/25, then you have kids and get a job. That's it. There was never a scene for the footworkers that were 25 and up. We didn't know what to do. What we're doing now is what footworkers are supposed to be doing if they get to 25, 26, 27, 28.
Manny: You're supposed to be able to go to New York and there be another footwork crew there and you can battle them.
Litebulb: We should be able to share moves and go to parties with them as adults. There should be a scene for that in Chicago.
If you introduce someone new to footwork, especially some of the more obscure stuff, they might not get it. But if you show them a video with some of the dancing, it's like "Ah yeah!" It's the dance element that's the more infectious side of it... It's the thing that you can latch on to.
Manny: Being a dancer is a way more different experience to just listening to the music. I don't know how to just listen to the music without thinking of dance moves to go with it.
Litebulb: Most of the DJs used to be dancers! Spinn was a dancer, Rashad was a dancer, RP Boo, Taye, Earl – all footworkers first, so they transferred that over to the music, which helped.
Manny: Even some of the music; if you listen to RP Boo's music now, it's still geared to the footworkers. That's starting to separate, but we're trying to bring it back. If a footwork crew is killing, the producers need to be like "damn, we need to make music for those dancers."
So in other scenes, the dancers are inspired by the music, but with footwork, the music is inspired by the dancers.
Manny: Well that's how it started.
Paypal: It's almost losing that because we're not around the dancers all the time. When I was in Japan, that was really inspiring to see footworkeragain right in front of me dancing to tracks. It made me think about what I need to make.
Manny: I ain't gonna lie, RP Boo's still got it good with that.
Litebulb: He's still got that core, but you know why? Some of his tracks are from 10 years, 20 years ago, so that sound is still there!
Manny: We love it. He's sweating while he's DJing.
Paypal: He's footworking behind the DJ booth!
Litebulb: Teklife's music right now is so evolving and so good because they're getting other stuff happening with the music. We need to get other genres involved with the music so they start liking it too, then we can bring it back to where it comes from.
Paypal: The good thing about that is, the separation comes from people just being able to watch videos, but if someone sees a footworker live, it changes their perspective on it. It's a completely different thing, watching a video compared to watching someone's feet.
One of the things I learned from doing the class and seeing both of you dance individually, there were different personalities coming through!
Litebulb: But it's just like when you see Wu-Tang. It's different artists that are big, different personalities. It's the same way with dancers.
Litebulb: That's me coming through.
Paypal: Art is just how you speak.
Litebulb: That's what it's all about. Working together, seeing the change happen, and being a part of it. We get too steady with standing back and not doing anything about it, when there are people that work. We want to push the culture to the next level.
So do you guys feel inhibited by the club environment? By the fact that only 18 year olds/21+ year olds can come into those kind of shows? Do you want to access the youth that way?
Manny: No, because we've still got to set the scene for the adults. Once we have the scene set for adults, once the kids grow up, the scene is already set for them. So they're like "Okay, as kids we were learning and perfecting it. Now we're going to adult clubs and everybody in here is dancing. Everybody in here is representing their own crew."
Litebulb: To the point where we don't know who's cold.
Manny: That right. We don't know, but we're gonna see you on the floor. Someone recently was like "Do y'all realise the responsibility y'all got?" If footwork culture dies, it's because we didn't execute it.
Is that the case though? Would it not be because more people aren't involved?
Manny: Right, but now that we've got this platform to try and some people don't, it's like "you had the chance but what did y'all do? Y'all had the opportunity"
Litebulb: We could shake the world with what we're doing.
Manny: We've got the tools. Now we've just got to execute it. Somebody put that on us. "If y'all don't execute, then footwork dies"
So does that make you feel any kind of pressure?
Manny: I didn't feel pressure, but when he said that, I was like "Damn, I never thought of it like that"
Litebulb: I kind of already felt that way, which is why I'm so excited to bring Jody here. He completes us. He footworks too. He one of the coldest footworkers in our group too. We're gonna produce and DJ with him, and it just makes us one collective, but we're dancers first.
How do you plan on getting footwork out there? Is it by visiting the world and doing it organically?
Litebulb: Not just that. That's one part of it.
Manny: We've got a lot of video content too.
Litebulb: We're not just dancers. We're a collective of artists and media. We do our own video content. With Thump, we actually shot and produced the video ourselves with our own team, and they want to launch it with their channel to support us. It's a real big thing, a documentary about us that's coming next week. We also produced the video for "Bangin' On King Drive" by RP Boo. We're just producing content for our community and at a high quality level.
Manny: Getting our community to see the 'All Day' video helped them realise that this shit is cool. We want it to be a thing for footworkers to make their own music video, so that it's strong content for people to look at.
Litebulb: Then they can perform those music videos on stage. That's the goal.
That's again bridging the gap between the producer, the DJ and the dancer. Making sure you've got exclusive tracks to dance to.
Litebulb: Let's get it live. When everyone's got their own DJ, their own dancers, their own teams. Rapping on footwork tracks, it happened, but we see it going even farther than that.
Manny: The start of that was Double Cup.
Paypal: I can see you guys in theatres and shit.
Litebulb: We just got a grant from Theaster Gates to work with him on a real big project, bridging the gap between us and the art world. We want to curate our own art exhibitions with Ashes57 too! Real life, footwork art. It should be considered that way.
Let's think about music for a bit. If you turned up to a show in London with a DJ, but there was other genres of music, would you still footwork?
Litebulb: We can footwork to anything, but it's best represented with footwork music. If we're at a party and they're playing other music and that's all they've got, we can dance if we like it. No discriminating. We love all music.
So there's a distinct difference between footwork dancing and footwork music?
Paypal: But you can still footwork to music that isn't footwork music
Litebulb: That's why it's so unique. We've got our own dance and our own music. But the music is mixed with jungle and drum n bass. It's mixed. It ain't just footwork anymore. We can do it to whatever, but it's best viewed to footwork music.
What are the main elements of a footwork track?
Paypal: Footwork means the trackmaker goes crazy. Juke is dance shit, party music. Footwork is where you go mental.
Manny: I think the hard bass
Litebulb: For me, it's the different variations in bass and the sound inside of the sample. It might not be the sample itself, but say there's a whistle, that could be the thing that's drawing me in. We like to go off the bass a lot too.
Manny: Another thing is the claps. Kode9's got this song and it doesn't sound like footwork, but you know it's footwork from the claps.
Paypal: They sound like the person who made them was thinking about it. It's not just random. None of that is random. It's all thought about. It's very precise.
Litebulb: I sat there with people like Spinn and Rashad – the dancers have helped them make tracks. We sit there and they listen to us and how we would move. Then we might tell them, "change that key" or "move that pattern".
So that's the recording process?
Manny: Not for all DJs. I'm pretty sure that DJ Manny was one of the coldest footworkers out. That's why everyone thinks his music is so good, because he's able to see where things should go. That's why Manny is so good, because he still dances.
Litebulb: Rashad was a part of a legendary group called Wolf Pack from back in the day. They taught us. Spinn was also part of that group. We were a part of Terror Squad. We learned from Wolf Pack. They weren't the original, but they learned from the original. The original was Anthony Brown and The Dungeon Boys. They taught Wolf Pack, then Wolf Pack taught Terror Squad, then we made our own stuff from Terror Squad. It trickled down so that they kept their wisdom, then we kept it going. We're the last of the mohicans, us 5. We're the last ones doing it the original way.
So it's up to you guys to spread the gospel, right
Litebulb: Yeah! But it's working though! It's already been spread!
Manny: There's really no pressure with dropping the ball because we're not gonna stop going with it.
What's the goal at the end of it?
Litebulb: One big community. One big community of successful people. Why can't that be possible? Why does it have to be one at the top then everybody else just so-so? It can't be like that! I'm not gonna get a million dollars, keep 500,000 myself then give you all 500,000 to share. I'm gonna split the whole meal with y'all. We're all together. That's what has to happen in every last industry, from art all the way to dance. Everybody is their own person. It's gotta happen, otherwise we're gonna keep having these issues where people are marginalised. There's gonna be a problem if we don't work together. If I'm getting paid an amount, I'm gonna split it in half so that the whole crew can come and perform with me.
Manny: Now they're gonna see us as a group, and that's what they're gonna ask for next time. If they see five, they're gonna say "Damn, we need five to come back." So that way, the next time we come back, we're not going out of pocket because you need five to make it work. Let's get the image seen, get the whole crew seen, now that's what they need because it's stuck in their head. You wouldn't book Outkast but just get Andre 3000, you'd get Outkast.