It's only been a year since DJ Rashad’s sudden passing - on April 26th, 2014 - but already it’s easy to forget how footwork was previously perceived.
It wasn’t that long ago that the genre was considered by many critics to be just another passing fad in electronic music. Even as recently as the producer's 2013 EP 'Rollin', it was widely assumed in some circles that Hyperdub’s obsession with the breakbeat hypnotics of the footwork sound would ultimately become a small footnote in the grand scheme of things - but Rashad Hanif Harden never saw things that way.
Pushing this niche corner of electronic music forward, the electronic artist showed the rest of the world a different take on Chicago’s south side. Rashad was an infinitely likable figure in the music world, and in the never-ending media depiction of Chicago as an echo chamber of shootings, gang violence and crime, he was a small glimmer of hope.
Both friends and Tek Life cohorts alike were present with everything he did, never forgetting to shout out Chicago and bring it back to home in order to promote his own brand of relentless positivity.
But as uplifting as his work could be, there was always a profound sense of loss in DJ Rashad’s music and, with his untimely passing, this absence continues to grow. The producer’s sudden death was only made all the more painful by conflicting reports of how he actually died. In the end, it would take months for the world to finally find out what had happened, and the final verdict of drug overdose felt particularly crippling.
Drugs were always present in his music, but this felt different. People asked Rashad in interviews about some of the more sombre samples he had in his songs, usually gaining an uncomfortable response as he shrugged off their queries with a generic answer. The idea that he was struggling with drug abuse in this fashion seemed remote for somebody who never failed to look at the brighter side of things.
At first, Rashad’s overdose cast a shadow over his music, but after closer examination it became apparent that there had always been a certain darkness to his production style. Seminal tracks like 'Let It Go' show a depth of emotion that his public persona rarely let on, while listening to the blissed-out horror of 'Double Cup' finale piece 'I’m Too Hi' eerily foreshadows what was to come.
Few tracks, though, showed Rashad’s pain like his Gil Scott-Heron tribute 'I’m Gone'. In true footwork fashion, Rashad only sampled a few lines of jazz funk classic 'Home Is Where the Hatred Is':
I left three days ago
But no one seems to know I’m gone
Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain
Curiously, Rashad also sampled the same Scott-Heron song a year later, in his track 'On My Way'. An anomaly within Rashad’s music, it’s one of the only samples the producer used twice – the Chicago artist kept coming back to this specific song as if it was something that he'd left unfinished.
Gil Scott-Heron probably never heard DJ Rashad’s music, but he might well be the figure in black music history that Rashad’s legacy resembles the most. Both had a critical take on the problems in their communities, and yet neither of them seemed to be able to escape these same downfalls. Rashad fell into the pit-hole of almost all jazz legends, chasing a dragon he never seemed to find.
In the constant barrage of new music trends and genres, DJ Rashad’s music still feels as fresh as it ever did. 'Double Cup' is one of the strongest electronic albums in recent memory, and terms like juke and footwork are now permanently lodged in the vernacular of cutting edge production.
But what makes Rashad’s life and music so compelling is how much he changed people’s perceptions of Chicago’s urban environment. He never tried to downplay the city’s violence and crime, but he did give another option to the stereotype of it being an inner-city wasteland.
Media outlets are all too quick to jump on any statistic which supports the idea that Chicago is too damaged to save, but if there’s anything we can learn from DJ Rashad, it’s that genuine creativity still manages to thrive in the midst of chaos, and that these so-called 'dire situations' are all too often dotted with unrecognized positivity.
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Words: Jack Lowery