The last time I saw RP Boo, he was gleefully snapping selfies as he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time. It was the summer of 2013, and RP had just been fired from his dayjob at Lowe's. He was in town to play his first show in New York City in 2013—a long overdue achievement, considering that he is widely acknowledged as the originator of footwork, a hyper-kinetic, sample-based genre that soundtracks the dance troupes of Chicago.
In the two years since our last encounter, footwork took off in a big way. Teklife, the collective RP is tied to, became a household name among underground circles, with a close affiliation with heavyweight UK label Hyperdub and offshoots as far-flung as Belgrade. Many of the Chicago OGs have embarked on international tours and locked spots in festivals like Krakow's Unsound, Seattle's Decibel, and Monterrey's NRMAL.
Watch the video for "Your Choice," off RP Boo's latest album Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints
Two footwork compilations released on Planet Mu, Bangs & Works Vol. 1 and 2, are now veritable classics. And while the scene is still feeling aftershocks from the death of footwork pioneer DJ Rashad, new (female!) producers like Indiana-based Jlin are also tugging the sound in exciting, fresh directions.
As one of the founders of modern footwork, RP Boo has a special place in all of this. His 2013 debut album was called Legacy, a title that draws attention to both his role as an originator (his 1997 track "Baby Come On" from 1997 is considered footwork's earliest—and still one of its best), as well as the genre's murky history. RP continued tracing footwork's origins with another EP on Planet Mu called Classics in April 2015, which connected the genre with its predecessors, Chicago ghetto house and juke. (RP later tells me that Classics was originally titled Correct Gaps.)
In other words, a lot has happened to RP since his days working the shelves at Lowe's. But when he opens the door for me at his Airbnb in Brooklyn—where he will play a show called "Fathers of Footwork" at a local venue with DJ Spinn and Traxman later that night—he's still wearing the same eager grin that he had while walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. We take a seat in his sparse living room. The clanging of passing subways interrupts our conversation every few minutes, but RP doesn't seem to mind. I ask how he feels about his late-in-the-game career boost. His reply has more than a touch of Zen: "Everything started changing after I was 40. I didn't understand before then, but it was the right time. It wasn't in my control, and it was meant for me to do this. And that's wisdom."
Next month, RP will release his next album on Planet Mu, entitled Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints. The title was originally supposed to be Masterpiece, he tells me, in continuation with Legacy and Classics. But ultimately he decided to go with a title that sums up what footwork means to him: "the pads that you touch on the drum set, and shoe prints left on the dancefloor when everything else is gone."
Fingers brings together new tracks made after Legacy and older tracks RP made in the late 90s. In that respect, it's closer in spirit to Classics, in its attempt to contextualize footwork in a larger musical spectrum. "What Mike [Paradinas, the founder of Planet Mu] did with the Classics EP was ask a lot of the people around the world, where did footwork come from?," RP says. "Because we noticed that [seminal Chicago ghetto house label] Dance Mania ended at this time and footwork came here around the same time, but there was a gap. I had what was missing."
Footwork first started gaining attention outside of Chicago through YouTube videos of battling dancers. "When social media came into play, we were able to put our tracks up. It was more of footwork being displayed, none of the booty house," RP recalls. "But Dance Mania and booty house started getting big again because that's where we got our inspiration, and we would play that stuff in the background of our shows."
"I didn't do footwork all of a sudden. People depend on me for inspiration, just the way that I depend on DJ Deeon, the pioneer of ghetto house."
What RP did to advance ghetto house into footwork was move the groove from four-on-the-floor symmetry to a polyrhythmic spree. Layering various rhythms over each other is now a signature of RP Boo's sound, one that he credits to the simple fact of not having the proper tools he needed: "Everything was done on the Roland R70 drum machine and Akai S01. Back then, you had to have a chip for extended memory and sample time. But I never had that, so I had to make things work. Knowing what I wanted to use and how to use it, I could get the best of what I could get—which was limited, but I knew how to use that to the best of my abilities."
His of strange syncopation is all over Fingers, but best exemplified on older tracks like "Your Choice" (which comes with a gorgeous, abstract video that we're premiering exclusively above), and "Bang'n On King Dr"—both produced in the late 90s. The latter is an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the South Side of Chicago, a street that runs for 14 miles through many of the city's black neighborhoods. Every year, it hosts the oldest African-American parade in the United States—a tradition that has also been instrumental to the Chicago footwork scene. "At the end of the parade there's a park. We would go there, have a BBQ, and dance," RP says. Hence the line, "in the park we battle," which loops around cut up samples of street numbers.
RP claims he was the first to start DJing at these parades in the mid-90s. "I saw House-O-Matics [a Chicago dance group which RP Boo, Spinn and Rashad were all members of, and which served as a template for Teklife] come down into the parade with a bunch of house music, and I said to myself, 'they look good,'" he recalls. "Two years later, I met the president Ronnie Sloan, and he said, 'Hey, can you DJ for me at the parade?'"
Tracks like "Sleepy," "Bang'n On King Drive," and "Heat From Us" debuted during RP's DJ sets at these parades before they resurfaced on the new album. "I was in a flatbed truck with speakers and turntables on it. That legacy is still going on to this date. That's something I started," he says.
While much of Fingers is a throwback to footwork's formative years, RP also uses more recent tracks to comment on what's going on today. On "Finish Line D'jayz," the refrain "motherfuck your favorite DJ" repeats over and over again, turning into a menacing dictum against the competitiveness and in-fighting among Chicago's growing crop of footwork producers.
When I ask RP how he feels about footwork's globalization and the (inevitable) charges of cultural appropriation, he says, "There's no hatred outside of Chicago. It's the insiders. The outsiders are looking for a story, and it's sad to give them answers they don't want to hear—about the negativity." He rattles off frictions and rivalries between various local DJs that I won't print here for the sake of not fanning flames. "There's too much fuss. Why do we have a problem with this person? I didn't say anything and it's none of my business to get involved," he concludes, before changing tack and focusing on the future instead. "So now I'm dealing with labels to come, and I want them to be able to accept me for who I am. I will trust them, and be loyal to them. But for me to give them power—that's limited. There's nothing in this world that guaranteed."
As another train roars by outside the window, and RP stretches and gets up. He's decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge before his show—a journey he tells me has become somewhat of a ritual for him every time he's in New York. Before we go our own ways into the summer evening, he leaves me with one more thought: "My smiles are genuine. It's not a bragging right—if I can do this in my mid-40s, I'm saying, don't give up. Rashad ain't Jesus, and I ain't either."
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.