On Rhythmic Instabilities And Brand New Feelings: DJ Rashad’s “Feelin””

“The technology’s so on point now: we can sample almost anything now.”
– DJ Spinn

One of the talked about music releases of 2012 is DJ Rashad’s Teklife Vol.1: Welcome to the Chi. Rashad is a Chicago musician who makes music to accompany a dance style known as footwork. Footwork is characterized by its hyper fast foot movements, and footwork dancers often compete against one another in dance battles where they spin gliding moves that resemble tap and hip hop dancing sped way, way up. Footwork music is a sample-based idiom that supports this dancing through its fast and frenetic rhythms.

The first track on Rashad’s Teklife Vol. 1, “Feelin'”, is a case study in how to maintain musical interest through constant rhythmic intensity and instability. The track features crisp and TR-808 drum machine-ish snare, cross stick, and crash cymbal. Along with this percussion is a constantly snaking and wobbling sub bass line/detuned kick drum, a few Rhodes keyboard and wah-wah guitar samples, some horn lines, and snippets of a woman’s voice singing just two lines: “I just had a brand new feeling, yeah/until you came up on me in the night…” Tonally, “Feelin'” oscillates around a single pitch and feels like a pulsing and hyper drone.

Like a lot of footwork tracks, the tempo is fast–160 beats per minute fast. This lets us listeners (and those footwork dancers) feel the music as simultaneously fast and slow. The overriding rhythm of the piece reminds me a lot of a mechanical version of a popular West African bell pattern or timeline that goes like this (bell hits are on the bolded counts):

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2, etc.

But this rhythm is constantly undercut by Rashad’s varying all of the instrumental parts. There is one particularly striking passage from 1:48-2:24 in which the cross stick plays the most cutting of cross-rhythms against the fast 4/4 feel: it sounds like a kind of displaced six-against-four rhythm (six equally spaced cross stick hits in the time of four beats). I love this kind of instability because it keeps my ears engaged. You can still feel the 4/4 grid, but it’s pushed to the background. The vocal samples are also cut up, pitch-shifted, and displaced all over the place–individual words and phrases repeated to make melo-rhythmic lines that dovetail with the music.

As I listened and re-listened to “Feelin'” a number of times, I thought about how different musics invite different kinds of responses from us. For instance, you can’t really daydream to this track–it’s just too intense for that. But you can let yourself enjoy all the syncopations of its angular rhythmic flow. It’s an interesting track to listen first thing in the morning or late at night, if only just to jolt you awake. Actually, I’m doing that right now!

And speaking of jolting ourselves awake, it might be fun to transcribe and learn the changing rhythms for a piece of music like this. In their stuttering and shape-shifting instabilities, machine-made rhythms can sometimes teach us new ways to approach musical time. And this reminds me–jolted awake as I am–of Kodwo Eshun’s description of rhythm itself “as a kind of an abstract machine.”

Here, then, is “Feelin'”:

And here is a short documentary video about the footwork dance and music scene that features some other footwork DJs, including DJ Spinn and Traxman. There’s an interesting bit from 2:45 to 3:26 where Traxman describes his interest in the robotic aspect of German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

6 thoughts on “On Rhythmic Instabilities And Brand New Feelings: DJ Rashad’s “Feelin””

  1. Really interesting post, i never listened before to this music until i read this, and like you say it has something addictive in the rythm and in the aesthetic.
    It’s curious how the human finds the body expression to any kind of music, even if the music is robot made, we humans are going to do something to dance that musical expression.

    1. Yes: I think we are endlessly adaptable to the changing rhythms of our musics. Even fast musics like footwork can inspire in us fast kinds of dancing (and vice versa!). Thanks for reading.

  2. I’ve been thinking some more on this, and i started looking at modern music, all of the “popular” or music made for massive consumption has a body interpretation, but other genres of music, “ambient,noise,electroacoustic, idm” don’t have a body interpretation,at least i don’t know any kind of dance for ambient. After thinking in this i read your last post, the one about zadie smith, and i have arrived to the conclusion that this is because this genres are focused on a shift in listening and in some way the body expression gets displaced. This is just a hipothesis, and i just want to ask for your opinion on this… By the way… Happy new 2013!!

    1. Hi Alberto – I think your idea of the body being engaged directly in popular music and displaced in some more experimental genres like ambient and IDM has something to it. Different musics focus our attention on different things–from melody to groove. Also: there is a long history in western classical music especially of suspicion of the body. And since groove is often associated with the body, composers have long privileged melody and harmony over groove. Thanks for writing.

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