‘We’ve been that collective that’s wanted to reinvigorate footwork inside Chicago’ -A conversation with The Era Footwork Crew.

The Era footwork crew are a collective from Chicago, who by their own admission are, ‘taking footwork to the next level’. In an effortless coupling of music and dance, they have used their team strength and close affiliation with crews and collectives such as Teklife, to push a culture from its central birthplace to all corners of the world.

Fresh off the back of their recent “So·lo (z)” EP which saw Chief Manny, Steelo, Litebulb, P-Top and many more members cover a number of tracks produced by footwork pioneers – RP Boo, DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn as well as DJ Earl and Norwegian export, Slick Shoota. The release sees them embracing their roots via MC solo’s over five different tracks. In an ode to the footwork dance-offs the culture is built upon, it is equal parts aggressive as it is humble. The release sought to inform supporters of their unrelenting dedication to the culture, and though the release may be recent in its materialisation, it seems something that fits seamlessly into the ever expanding concept of footwork. It is a sound almost open to interpretation, with a multitude of producers all over the world now replicating the original 160bpm sound, whilst also creating their own variations, using the initial ghetto house principle as a template.

What exactly does The Era mean for Chicago? I caught up with head honcho Litebulb, Chief Manny, Steelo and P-Top to talk about unity, Chicago, influences, their principles moving forward and the huge international expansion that no one could have predicted. Footwork is a culture built upon footwork dance-offs on the Southside of Chicago and communities that often serve to steer the younger generation away from crime. Most notably, the culture is renowned for masses of music production; built upon layers of history and influences from a state so rich in its artistic foundation.

‘We’ve been that collective that’s wanted to reinvigorate footwork inside Chicago to new generations, and always keep that refresher thing going and doing something new with the culture so that people are reminded, and know what’s going on with them in their own culture that they bred and grew up in themselves.’ Co-founder of the ERA, Litebulb talks of the relevance of the collective in the community that birthed the footwork culture. ‘We’ve been all around the world ourselves but we’re based in Chicago so we want to bring Chicago with us as we go everywhere else. We have done a lot of different shows with DJ’s but none of our own, outside of Chicago. For us, it’s like we really want to be that driving force for that Chicago scene for footwork. When people think about footwork they’ve got to think about the Era. Through us they can see everyone else, through the Era you can see members of Teklife doing what they’re doing, members of Beatdown, members in Tekk DJ’s, you can see through us other collectives and what they’re doing. Because of our work ethic we’ve sort of become the face of footwork for Chicago in a sense. We want to be that positive look when people think about footwork they think about the Era, and what we’re producing and that we’re the new thing for footwork in where we are taking it to. We’re actually vital, if it wasn’t for us, footwork would be in a, I wouldn’t say bad or better, but it would be in a different state than it is in now. There would be no direction for it, people wouldn’t be able to predict where it might be in the next five or ten years, I don’t think people really can now, but the fact that we’re working hard we’re pushing it, people can sort of grasp what we see in the future of footwork’.

Despite being the home of footwork as well as its predecessors, ghetto house and ghetto tech, it almost seems as if the moment artists have peaked within their success, Chicago itself has been left behind. Litebulb and his team are striving to continue paying homage to Chicago as they move forward. There is a genuine sentiment to his voice as he discusses creating music as well as dance shows for the benefit of the city, ‘The fact that we can create music and work with these producers and tell these stories that have never been heard before, it just makes us more vital because now it gets people who’ve grown bored before a new way to enjoy and interpret it, understand it and be more inclusive and involved with it.’

There has been one huge collaborative push for expansion which has seen the development of footwork classes in the UK, Japan as well as production and shows all over the world – is this something you saw happening in the beginning?

SteeloYes, since the creation of footwork, it has been a big push to get it across the globe. Of course, before us, footwork was being pushed or trying to be pushed at a higher platform but I don’t think they had the resources or the opportunities that came about with time. Me myself, coming up with footworking I started out in high school, I saw it as a young’un but started out in high school. It was just for the fun, I didn’t really see it exploding, like really exploding before our eyes like it has, because it is literally almost everywhere. Or trying to get everybody to love it because it’s just something you’ve got to love. But I didn’t see it expanding, to see it doing that is crazy, it’s kind of a slap in the face to, because other places, cities and countries might take it and not pay homage to Chicago and what real footwork is. The music and the dance because it goes together hand in hand together no doubt. But I can say as time went on and we started to travel and the music started to travel even faster than the dance, I could tell that it was about to happen. It could possibly be a footwork crew in every state or every country, and that’s a good feeling to know that you can go somewhere and really get a real battle in. Whether Chicago footwork, or from Japan to New York.

The nature of footwork is that there is so much influence to draw from, in a culture where the music is traditionally sample-based. What prompted this new vocal direction within your ‘In The Wurkz FM’ Mixtape and more recent live vocal release, So·lo (z)?

Chief Manny – Alright so “In The Wurkz”, was our first music project and that came out around the same time as our stage show which is entitled “In The Wurkz 2”. We kind of came to the music direction by being on stage and performing and sometimes being asked to perform for fourty minutes at a time, that can be a very long time for footworking. It came to the point when we were like, ‘we’re doing a 40-minute performance we need to get on the microphone and say our peace and speak and tell our stories’. It was a natural transition to be able to tell our story on top of music and really give a full show so you can understand our story and feel our struggles through that. With our So·lo (z) project that was kind of like a different direction to “In The Wurkz” because on that release, the majority of us was on every song. “So·lo (z)” was like our individual personality on every track and then we got a song together. The concept for that was influenced by the dance culture and the city. At a dance down, a competition, dance groups would come together and do their dance piece. At the end of each piece there’d be a footwork routine, and at the end of their routine everyone would have their solos. Each individual got to show their different moves and skills through dancing – through footworking. At one point we kind of came up with freestyles, so a solo for footworking, and we were like you know let’s just make this whole project a concept about like a freestyle instead of a song, and call it solo’ing or “So·lo (z)” from the original idea of a solo during a competition.

Steelo – You can definitely expect us to continue telling our stories over footwork and beats. Whether it’s through another producer or a full out song. We’re definitely going to continue to push music and dance together as one. As you can see our follow up project was entitled “So·lo (z)”, so a solo piece from each one of us and it also kind of was a play on how back in the day we used to solo after a dance routine. So, it’s a completely different concept, we’ve got our own tracks to express how we feel individually. So I think you can expect us to make sure we’ve got space to kind of create on our own as well, we have ways to make music as a group. We’ve got DJ Jody digital who makes tracks so that’s another lane for expressing ourselves as well. You can definitely expect more music projects, not even just where we’re rapping but even a dance music video like in the ‘All Day’ video which was a music and dance project as well.

One of the key factors in the success story so far is unity, it is important to highlight its relevance in both club and work capacities for the future of footwork, both at the central birthplace and all over the world. Speaking on the subject, Litebulb highlights precisely how vital it is in order for footwork to succeed, ‘I think unity is probably one of the most vital keys inside of footworking that nobody actually pays attention to. I think it’s more so regurgitated than actually worked towards. I encourage everybody to listen and really work towards unity instead of just saying, ‘let’s be unified’. Unity within the culture is very vital, if you look at Hip Hop one point in time it really propelled the whole entire culture in New York all around the world in a sense. All of the different crews, they all banded together, worked together and produced a product that the whole world wanted to be a part of. There’s a lot of reasons why it hasn’t happened like that in footwork, and for the most part it’s because of ego. For the future I think the ego thing is really starting to leave the culture, it hasn’t completely left as everybody has an ego but the more we work towards ridding ourselves of our egos or controlling our egos, the unity thing can happen. Footwork by its own definition is a competitive concept, but moving forward it seems contradictory not to move past a point of ‘beef and bickering’ in order to progress and continue to expand. It is something which The Era are relentlessly and unapologetically trying to push past to influence more inclusivity and openness within the culture. ‘It’s holding everyone back, that’s our heartbeat, the unity we’re supposed to have, everybody that’s ever been in the footwork culture would have wanted it. Whether it’s DJ Rashad or Jeremiah – we all need unity, and that’s the only way we’re gonna be able to survive and move past the point of this underground culture that everybody loves but just can’t seem to make it into the mainstream. It’ll make it there if we use unity as our key, our weapon if need be. Let’s continue to work and put everything aside, don’t just be silent, if you see somebody online pushing footwork, people are entitled to push footwork the way they want to push it, just keep the roots intact.’

‘We need unity as far as radio, videos, whatever we’re doing – its key. We can still battle and compete, but let’s just put some unity behind that too and that will benefit the culture and everybody inside of it. Start liking start sharing, supporting, coming out. Start buying tickets and merch, start really supporting how you support these other large artists in larger cultures. Just like me, whenever J Cole drops something I’m copping it, Kendrick, anyone I’m looking for it. It should be the same way. I try and replicate that and support in my own culture, I’m not just talking to be talking, artists that I like put out something in footworking, you best believe I’m listening, I’m supporting, I’m talking, I’m engaging. Lets just replicate that within the culture and I think we’ll be able to survive forever, honestly.’

You are forever honouring the legacy of DJ Rashad who unfortunately passed away in April of 2014 – in a movement where the history is just as important as the future, what’s your most important principles going forward as a group whilst remaining true to your roots?

Chief MannySo for us I can say that definitely drawing inspiration from the past and learning about the culture is one of the core principles we like to teach. We also like to teach to be able to edge on creativity, don’t do exactly how we or the next person is doing it, just draw off what they’re doing as a source of inspiration. Like you said, DJ Rashad, his history is always important to us and our people. Clent, DJ Spinn, Traxman all of their history and what they did and how they kind of led the way and influenced the game is always important to us . When we teaching people, its like okay look, ‘If y’all respect what we’re doing and y’all learning what we’re doing, also learn more, because if we were able to learn from the people that paved the way for us, you all should be able to take this inspiration aswell and use it the way you want.’ That way you’re inspired by us but you’re also inspired by the people that inspired us which is a different source of inspiration, more inspiration. That’s definitely one thing that I feel is a core principle going forward for us.

If there is one thing your audience/ fans are taking forward from your work as a crew, what would you hope it to be? 

P Top – So, the one thing we want our audience and supporters to take from us, is to know that you can do anything you want in this world. You’ve just got to have a team and push it forward and be on the same page. If you want to make the team your everyday career and the everyday thing you love to do then why not do it? We want dancers to know that they have options, they don’t always have to be in the background, and back up dancers don’t have to be in the shadows. They can be headlining, or one of the voices of the dancers.  When we dance, coming up in creativity, stage shows, videos, music we’re giving the voice to dancers. The music industry and the dance industry are two different things. A lot of people will see dancers in a music video and they wont even know their names, or who they are. We’re trying to give the big credit to dancers – period. Giving them the credit that they deserve. People would love to know who a dude is, doing this move and that move, and thats one thing we changed about dance. Other than that, our culture that we’re pushing – Chicago footwork is not this hobby, it’s a lifestyle at the and of the day. We were born to do this, we grew to love this, and we’re trying to make it our everyday life. We wake up, footwork. Food footwork, breathe footwork. And at night we want our supporters to know that you can work a 9-5 and get paid a good salary, but would you be happy? Are you really satisfied? Are you doing what you really love to do? If you’re not – get up and you’ve got to grind, hustle, do what you’ve got to do to get your dreams going to get your business on another level. Not just you seeing it, try and get the world to see it .

By @rhimarilou
Photo Credit // The Era Footwork Crew.

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