“Doov, doov, doov, doov. You know that sound? We grew up on that sound,” says Jasson Perez, beat-boxing a juke beat. He is sitting next to fellow band members Michael “Illekt”, Rich “Epic,” and DJ Esquire in the basement of the University of Chicago’s Reynolds Club, where they are waiting to perform at the UofC’s Festival of the Arts. Collectively the Chicago natives form “Bin Laden Blowin’ Up,” better known by the acronym BBU.
The group’s surprise hit “Chi Don’t Dance” pays homage to both juke music and the dance form that has evolved with it–an equally fast-paced combination of steps and upper body shaking. This is footwork, often referred to by Chicago natives as juking. Footwork isn’t new to Chicago, but thanks to recent exposure by BBU and other Chicago talent, juke culture could soon be getting mainstream attention. At the forefront of this will be a generation of high schoolers, who are bringing fresh energy to the music and steps.
The table that BBU is sitting around is littered with open bottles of Andre, half-finished cans of Red Bull, and cups of coffee. When first asked to define juke music, the group lobs the question back and forth before suddenly the caffeine seems to kick in, and they’re all talking at once. “We all know what juke is,” Perez finally concludes. “It’s from Chicago, from the South Side. It’s like a derivative, it came off of house. It’s basically sped-up house beats with more bass and more claps on it.”
With a tempo that hovers around 160 beats per minute, speed is probably the most noticeable characteristic of both juke music and footwork dancing. As footworkers keep time, there are moments when they barely seem to be touching the ground. The dancers transfer their weight rapidly through the balls of their feet, one moment floating on their toes, suspended on their heels the next. Intricate crossovers and weight-shifts are balanced by sudden jumps or suspensions. Through it all their torsos stay rigid, shoulders popping and arms swinging or hitting angles to accent their steps. Footwork has attracted some attention recently, thanks to an appearance by Chicago dance group The FootworKINGZ on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” and a brief footworking segment in Missy Elliot’s “Lose Control” video.
But according to Rich, juke and footwork have a much deeper history. “Juke goes all the way back to Africa. I mean, if you look at the tribal African dances, and then you listen to the drum patterns, they’re similar, extremely similar. It’s like tribal music in Africa.” “It’s just like hyphy or Bmore,” Perez chimes in, referring to dance styles from the Bay Area and Baltimore, which have recently been taken up into the mainstream. “All of those styles are really regional to an area. You see how folks dance to it, and that’s what has the strongest connection to African dances, and African influence. Juking is Chicago’s version of whatever that holding onto Africa is.”
Juke culture hasn’t seen the same surge in popularity as hyphy or Bmore. But as far as BBU is concerned, that’s where they come in. Like a host of other Chicago music makers, including DJ Slugo, DJ Gant Man, Mic Terror, and Kid Sister, the group aims to put juke dance and music in the public eye and ear. Jasson says the group will stay true to the sound because, to them, it is Chicago. “Eventually, you got to use where you’re from, you know?” he shrugs. In the lightning-fast beat, the aggressive steps, the Windy City is manifest in music and movement. “Well,” Michael interjects, “it’s inspired by your surroundings.” “Yeah,” Jasson continues, “At BBU we’re committed to that, and I think that if we keep it to that, it’s gonna go far.”
On the far South Side, the next generation of jukers is no less committed. Christian Fenger High School, located at 136th Street and Wallace Avenue, has been infamous since September 2009, when honor student Derrion Albert was beaten to death after walking through a gang fight. Thanks to the Juke Institute, however, some of the students at Fenger have a new claim to fame. Co-founded and directed by Columbia College student Quiana Edmond and DePaul graduate Ryan Willis, the Institute is an after-school program that teaches footwork to Fenger students. While it might seem paradoxical to pilot a program like this at a school with a reputation for gang violence, Quiana actually describes Albert’s death as a major impetus for the program. “Students who aren’t involved in anything cause trouble,” Quiana says. “Footwork isn’t the cure for everybody’s problems, but we tend to attract the most at-risk students.”
The kids practice after school on Wednesdays and Fridays, where they are split into two teams. On Saturdays, the high schoolers teach footwork to younger students from Songhai Elementary. In addition to devoting part of their weekend to footworking, the students are obligated to keep their grades up or risk suspension from the Juke Institute. Quiana says that such responsibilities have clear positive effects: in addition to boosted GPAs, she also notes that her students have developed leadership skills, confidence, and stronger work ethics.
In order to support their students, Quiana, Ryan, and Avery, a third instructor, make themselves available constantly. The entire group does homework together before practice starts, and the instructors can be reached via cell phones or e-mail long after practice ends. “We’ve got kids calling us at all hours of the night,” Quiana laughs. Her level of commitment is clear: one month ago she quit her day job so that she could spend more time on the project. Now she works at night and directs the Institute during the day–all while balancing her courses at Columbia. She acknowledges that it’s hard work, but knows that it’s worth it. “Seeing them perform,” she says, “is nothing short of amazing.”
On the Friday after BBU’s performance, the Juke Institute is showing downtown Chicago just how amazing they are. At Manifest, Columbia College’s end of the year celebration, the lineup is talented but unsurprising. Twenty-something rap artists and acoustic guitarists have cycled across the outdoor stage. When the speakers began to pulse with a juke beat, the atmosphere changes. The two Fenger teams face off across a square of concrete, dressed in red and green track suits with their school name and Titan logo emblazoned across the back. In twos and threes, they dance seamlessly into the space in front of the stage. After a while, the music changes to a custom mixed juke song, and choreographed footwork is traded for freestyle. The battle is on. Alternating between red and green teams, the students move one by one across the space. Their faces are deadly serious–aggressive even–as they body up against members of the opposite team, egging them into competition. From time to time, a particularly intricate piece of footwork or a flashy upper-body maneuver elicits a cheer from the crowd, and the dancers’ faces break into cocksure smiles.
According to Ryan, aggression is all part of the style. He explains that footwork originally allowed gangs to battle one another at parties without running the risk of getting kicked out. “Being in Chicago in general, we have a gang culture,” Quiana explains. “The battle cliques are sort of like gangs, but you’re not out there selling drugs.” Jessica, a senior at Fenger, echoes a similar sentiment. She says that footworking is another way to express herself, adding, “It keeps us off the streets.”
Even if some of the Fenger footworkers still have gang associations, the Institute keeps them occupied and out of trouble. More importantly, the students say that it provides them with a sense of family and belonging. “We’re going to all roll out together,” Quiana says. “More than being in a gang, these kids need something they can pledge allegiance to.”
Finally, the Fenger students finish dancing and gather around Quiana, Ryan, and Avery. The aggression has faded and the opponents high-five, and imitate steps that they liked. “Can you believe that these guys are just in high school?” the announcer asks the appreciative crowd. “Damn,” says one girl, “they can break it down.”
In the next couple of years, the Juke Institute hopes to nurture talent at public schools citywide. Like the members of BBU, Quiana believes in juke music and footwork steps as quintessential expressions of Chicago. The instructors at the Institute are trying to motivate the next generation of footworkers, and if enough young talent can be channeled, the chorus of BBU’s hit song might become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Chi don’t dance no more. All we do is juke.”