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Music by VICE

DJ Rashad, 1979-2014: Why He Mattered, Why He’ll Be Missed

The Chicago footwork leader made us want to be more than just fans—we wanted to be part of a movement.

by Max Pearl
Apr 28 2014, 10:00pm

Last night on 87th Street in the South Side of Chicago, the relentless noise of distorted sub bass, squeaking sneakers, and spirited shit-talking came to a halt as the dancers and DJs of Battlegroundz shared a moment of silence for DJ Rashad. L-shaped hands floated in the air to celebrate Life, heads tilted down in respect to the footwork movement's most powerful figurehead, the only sound for a lasting moment was the clicking of the camera phone that captured the scene. This weekend Chicago lost one of its soldiers, a man who has been obsessively and single-mindedly devoted to his city's music since he joined his first dance crew nearly 20 years ago. And through all of the intercontinental tours, year-end album lists, and high-profile gigs, the always-humble DJ and producer never forgot where he came from.

Born in Hammond, Indiana, Rashad Harden rode the arc of Chicago house music from its infancy, getting his start as a dancer and a DJ in 1992 for the group House-O-Matics. From the 90s into the early 2000s, Rashad and his partner Spinn became in-demand DJs around town, playing to huge crowds of teens at venues like the Dolton Expo Center and the Markham Roller Rink. In the early 00s, when many of his contemporaries were still stuck on the party-oriented (and X-rated) ghetto house sound, Rashad was already experimenting with the faster tempos and abstract rhythms of what we now know as footwork. Alongside friends and frequent collaborators like RP Boo, DJ Clent, and Gant-Man, he caught the attention of the international music community in a way that hadn't happened since the mid-90s.

At the turn of the 10s, footwork music piqued the interest of club kids and experimentalists abroad, thanks in part to international tastemakers who were doing their best to bring the gospel home. 2010 saw him gigging in Paris and making his debut in New York City as well, spinning alongside Jersey and Baltimore club pioneer DJ Tameil and close friend Dave Quam, who also provided Rashad with one of his first major pieces of press—a cover story in XLR8R—that is still one of the most authoritative articles on this style of music and dance.

In 2011 he partnered with NYC promoter and DJ Jamie Imanian-Friedman, aka J-Cush, to found Lit City, a record label and event series that brought many of Chicago's juke and footwork stars to Brooklyn for the first time. The spring and summer of that year was the first time most New York tastemakers had ever heard juke and footwork live and when newcomer DJ Manny showed off his bangs and works in the basement of Santos Party House one April night, it was one of the first times that anyone outside of the Chi had ever seen feet move quite like that. By 2012 Rashad was regularly traveling between New York, Chicago, and Europe—making plenty of stops in the UK, where his early support came from the future-gazing Night Slugs family, and from Hyperdub founder Kode 9.

Now, the movement that Rashad started is bigger than Chicago: It's a global force built around a conglomerate of fans, friends, and collaborators known as Teklife. There are footwork parties in Belgrade and Poland. There are dance battles in Tokyo and New Years parties in Brooklyn with hundreds of kids queuing around one block and then again around another.

There was always an urgency about Rashad's music that has made his apostles want to be more than just fans. They want to be Teklife themselves, devotees shouting from the rooftops so that everyone can understand, like they do, that this is the future of music. The style that Rashad pioneered is so liberated from convention, so deeply experimental, that to be a fan is to blaze trails in a dance music landscape that can often feel tepid by comparison. It is because of this originality that the Teklife crew huddles so close together, even across seemingly uncrossable borders—they're all sharing a secret that the world isn't in on yet.

The way Rashad saw it, anyone could be Teklife if they wanted it, which is why the message spread far and stuck fast. Ultimately it was Rashad's own outlook on life—inclusive, open-minded, and welcoming—that nurtured this tight-knit global musical movement, making it the family that it is today.

To learn more about Rashad's Teklife collective, watch our short film Making Tracks: Chicago Footwork

@maxpearl