Chicago's juke shows local music is alive
Among a litany of other charges, the internet has recently been accused of "killing local music scenes". That needn't be a bad thing; as Taylor McKnight of the high-profile music web portal Hype Machine told The Guardian in June: "Being stuck in a town with only one music scene would be depressing to me."
Yet the detonation of localism has serious implications for the future of music. When a musician's influences can come, via the internet, from any point in recorded music history, and any place on earth, then what will become of the concept of "scenius"? It's a rather silly-sounding word, but its proponents argue it applies to every great geographically specific cultural scene in history: from the Bloomsbury Group of artists, writers and intellectuals in London at the start of the 20th century to the Seattle grunge explosion that gave the world Nirvana, at the end of it. "Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene," Brian Eno wrote, when he coined the term. "It is the communal form of the concept of the genius."
The idea is that people create more when individual agency is not the only factor in making great art: that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when networks of approval, appreciation and collaboration are available. Scenius also emanates from unique geographical conditions, either via local socio-economic or micro-cultural experiences, or, in the case of music, through local instruments, languages, slang and musical history. The glory of music might often be found in those aspects of the human experience which are universal, but the conditions for describing such phenomena in song are often anything but.
If scenius is now dying at the hands of globalisation, then the sudden explosion of interest in one peculiar electronic dance genre from Chicago makes a lot of sense. "Juke" or "juke house" may be one of the last great examples of scenius in action. Now a decade old, juke is a fast, intense iteration of the "ghetto house" music which thrived in Chicago clubs throughout the 1990s, via prolific local record labels such as Dance Mania, which put out well over 200 12-inch vinyl house records in that period.
"Ghetto house became the soundtrack to many African-American social events in the city," the Chicago blogger Dave Quam writes. "As the music grew in popularity, its tempo also increased. The word 'juke', or 'jukin'' was coined to describe a great party, a phrase that happened to attached itself to a faster form of the sound of the time."
But juke has remained underground even in Chicago, in a sense: "It is the gum under the shoe of mainstream electronic music," Quam explains. "You won't hear it at popular clubs on the North Side [of Chicago], nor will you stumble upon it seeking through the airwaves of local urban radio". Instead, its home is "vacant warehouses, karate gyms, and YouTube". According to a US Census Bureau report on American cities 1980-2000, Chicago ranked fifth-worst in the country for racial segregation of African-Americans (behind Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, and Newark). The lack of cultural miscegenation in the city is reflected in juke's relative insularity, where it is the soundtrack for dance parties and "footwork" contests - a street dance style of jaw-dropping speed, fluidity and sophistication.
The etymology of "juke" betrays the same sense of self-containment, and is fascinating in itself: it originates with the word "joog" from the English creole Gullah, which was spoken in the American south prior to the abolition of slavery.
"Joog" meant rowdy, and its related term "jook/joog joint" was first defined in print in 1934, by the African-American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, in her essay Characteristics of Negro Expression: "Jook is a word for a Negro pleasure house. It may mean a bawdy house. It may mean the house set apart on public works where the men and women dance, drink and gamble. Often, it is a combination of all these." It was from this same root that the word 'jukebox' became commonplace, towards the end of the 1930s.
Like a modern parody of the ethnomusicologists who trawled the American South recording the fading echoes of traditional folk songs, the London-based label owner and producer Mike Paradinas discovered juke, and footwork, via YouTube. With commendable enthusiasm, he has recently signed up a swathe of Chicago's best juke producers for his label, Planet Mu, quickly releasing albums by DJ Roc and DJ Nate, an EP by DJ Rashad, and now a 25-track introductory compilation titled Bangs and Works Volume 1. It seems strange in the internet age that there should be the need for the careful cultivation, packaging and re-selling of an entire genre, especially when it developed in a gleaming megacity like Chicago. Nevertheless, Chicago: meet the rest of the world.
For the uninitiated, Bangs and Works is a superb place to start; a comprehensive primer featuring juke's most vital producers, from time-served veterans to new adventurers. It offers a remarkable landscape of varying influences and sounds, skipping comfortably from the sublime to the ridiculous without missing a beat - except when a beat is missed on purpose. Its third track, Jungle Juke by Tha Pope is the perfect exemplar of this genre's dazzlingly open-minded attitude to sampling: you would be hard-pushed to find many avant-garde dance artists willing to even consider using something as silly as The Lion Sleeps Tonight as a core sample. 'Jungle Juke' not only does so, it somehow makes a virtue of it. In a way it's the archetypal juke tune. The "eeee-eeee-eeeh-eeeh" keening that precedes the famous "awimbawe" chorus is spliced and diced, pitched up, then pitched down, made to sing along with and against itself, while sections of an amputated drum-roll drop in and out, ambushing each other, then coalescing into a grinding, sub-bass driven whole. It's hilarious, absurd, unsettling, and inspired.
The 20-year-old DJ Nate's eccentricity stretches to sampling Evanescence's Call Me When You're Sober on a track of the same name, jacking the hyper-emotional vocals to helium pitch and back, while superheated beats bubble furiously in the background. In fact, a mad scientist sensibility dominates a lot of juke productions, the willingness to experiment with musical ingredients only matched by the music's constant, restless changes of pace, structure and tempo. Meanwhile, Nate's quoting of the US rapper Lil Wayne's 3 Peat contains an apprropriately ambitious level of braggadocio: "You can't get on my level/You will need a space shuttle or a ladder that's forever".
There is also a dark side to this flamboyant party music. DJ Spinn's 2020 is little short of a gothic horror show. A slowly pulsing bass-line and B-movie atmospherics evoke a dystopian Chicago cityscape. DJ Yung Tellem's Freddy Vs Jason is even more explicit in its evocation of future-dread: "Welcome to my nightmare" intones a snatch of movie dialogue, while the jittery remainder of the track is punctured by gunshot percussion (a sonic reference that only increases in resonance when one learns that Chicago has the fifth-worst murder rate among major cities in the United States).
All this makes for fascinating home listening, but it is worth remembering the genre's physical functionality, its dancefloor origins. Corresponding with the breathtaking footwork videos on YouTube, juke's strength is rooted in its simple velocity. For example, see DJ Killa E's brilliant Star Wars, a UK grime track in all but name. Here all the congruent energy and avant-garde creativity of juke's global peers looms into view, like separate battalions coming over the top of the hill and converging on the battlefield. The superficialities of form and tempo may differentiate Chicago juke from, say, kuduro in Luanda, or baile funk in Rio, but their commonality of spirit is undeniable. Scenius is not confined by geographical limits, and it does not mark the death of grassroots music that disparate underground sounds can now seep up through the global soil.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.
Updated: November 19, 2010 04:00 AM