Digging From The Inside: An Interview With Jlin

With her debut album Dark Energy finding the Indiana producer pushing footwork's sound forward, she tells Christian Eede about finding value in failure and why she's put a bar on creating from a "happy place"

Photograph courtesy of Will Glasspiegel

With the help of UK labels Hyperdub and Planet Mu, footwork has become something of a world concern over the course of the last few years, its founding voices taking the sound far beyond its Chicago home. Collectives such as Teklife and producers such as DJ Spinn and RP Boo, among many others, have toured multiple continents taking their rapid-fire, mutating sonics to places they had never been able to travel to before, reaching new audiences along the way.

Mike Paradinas, head of Planet Mu, played a key role in making people pay attention to this intense, gripping sound, following up a smattering of footwork releases on the label from the likes of DJ Nate, DJ Roc and the late DJ Rashad with 2010’s Bangs & Works Vol. 1, on which he compiled just a small collection of tracks from the impressive work rate of Chicago’s main and upcoming players. One year on, Paradinas was again using his label to shine a light on this local scene with the second volume in the series, bringing back some of those names, and featuring them alongside even more talented, unknown producers. Skip to the second track and you find the first of two contributions from one of those then-unknowns, Jlin. ‘Erotic Heat’ is a captivating realisation of her technicality working within the genre and a track that last year saw her team up with designer Rick Owens, producing an extended 14-minute marathon of the track to soundtrack his winter 2014 launch.

Fast-forward four years from Bangs & Works Vol. 2 and ‘Erotic Heat’ is now forming a part of Jlin’s debut album, Dark Energy, a collection of tracks that took her whole life to make, she tells me from her base of Gary, Indiana. Located around 20 miles outside of Chicago, she juggles work in the small city’s steel mills with a speedy ascent that is seeing her establish herself as one of footwork’s most exciting and unique technicians. Rejecting the samples that make up a large volume of the genre’s output – following the early question of her mother: "What do you sound like?" – Jlin has set about crafting an album characterised by a militant, intense vibrancy, offering the kind of body workouts that will appease the dancers that make up such a pivotal part of the music, while also proposing an all-important forward-step for the genre. It is a sound birthed by her refusal to give in to comfort blankets, branding creation from a "happy place" as no-go territory. As she so bluntly puts it, "happy is not challenging at all", and on Dark Energy, she yields the results of that observation.

A lot of people may have discovered your work through the Bangs & Works Vol. 2 compilation, but since then footwork has been firmly thrust into the public consciousness, so how has it been for you to see it become such a worldwide movement?

Jlin: I kind of knew it would happen and saw it as it was happening, so it wasn’t a surprise to me of any sort because it was already massively growing. It was just a matter of time before it exploded and it’s gonna get bigger even still.

Is it important then though that people don’t just jump on a bandwagon, and instead ensure they’re paying respect to the originators?

J: Not even just paying respect. I want the people making this music to stick to what they know in terms of ensuring that they remain true to that and the authenticity. Don’t be afraid to be original and explore of course, but don’t necessarily abandon certain standards in order to try to appeal to other people.

Listening through the album, I noticed that particular tracks, like ‘Erotic Heat’ for example, have been floating around in various forms for a while now, so has this album and a project as large as this been a long process in the making for you?

J: Yeah, I’d say that because this is my first album, it took me my whole life, because it wasn’t a case of me saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make an album now’. It was put together over a long time with me accumulating all the things that I’d done. It’s a process and with that comes progress. There’s a lot of failing. Failure to me is a lot more important than success because the learning from it is so important. You have to be willing to fail, to step outside of yourself and you can’t have a comfort zone. I had to learn that and I’m still learning that.

What would you consider your comfort zone?

J: My comfort zone musically, I wouldn’t necessarily say I have one now. But, when I did have one, I can definitely identify that it was sampling. I had to identify it honestly as sampling because I started to become dependent on using samples in order to make a track rather than being dependent on myself to make the track because I maybe didn’t trust myself enough then.

I wanted to touch on that because having read you speaking in the past, this idea of sampling has cropped up before, where you said you used samples as sparingly as possibly. Do you think that active aim to restrict yourself from using samples has made your work harder in any way or a longer process?

J: It makes it a long process because I have to dig from myself versus digging from something that I like. Digging from something you like is easy whereas from your inside, it’s a totally different ballgame altogether. That’s not a matter between picking red and blue, it’s not like that. It’s a decision, it’s a choice and, like I’ve said in the past, it’s like jumping off a cliff and hoping you survive the jump.

So how long would you say it takes you to make tracks in light of not using samples?

J: It took me eight months just to make ‘Guantanamo’ to give you an idea. But then, it took me two weeks to make the second version of ‘Erotic Heat’, the extended mix that I did for Rick Owens. But, I like to think I work well under pressure because I had a deadline then.

You mentioned ‘Guantanamo’ there which is a title that obviously stands out. I suppose it could be said that the sonics of the music itself are reflected in that name, but what made you come to that, taking that specific example?

J: Well, that particular track, I’d quite like for my listeners to decide and think what it means to them when they hear it. The track specifically, every artist has secrets…

An element of secrecy is important then?

J: I suppose I like to give people something to talk and think about. I can just be the person that kind of put a message in the bottle to see where it ends up [laughs].

Thinking of footwork as a genre built with dancers in mind, was Dark Energy produced in light of that?

J: If I had to take a track that I think best fits the dancers it would be ‘Black Ballet’. But, when I think about dance, I think very broadly and not just footwork. Dance is such a broad word and such an expressive one since it’s a physical act, so there are some tracks – and ‘Black Ballet’ in particular – that I would say suit that environment. But then if you take a track like ‘Abnormal Restriction’, you might be like, ‘err… what’s that about?’, you know. It depends not necessarily on how I’m feeling, but for me, impact is more important than sound because it’s so easy to say that something sounds good, but when you impact on something, that’s a totally different field. Impact for me is everything, because if I can, say, make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, then I’ve really done something right.

This is your first full-length project, so did the idea of working on something so extensive seem daunting at all?

J: It was in-between, because there were, of course, some tracks that I had already been working on, like ‘Expand’ – me and Holly [Herndon] had done that, maybe, like two or three years ago so that was already done – and then tracks like ‘Black Ballet’ and ‘Ra’, those came into play after the idea of putting an album together had been put forward and while the process was going on. Some things were just added on as time went along, so I was always creating.

You mentioned Holly Herndon and she’s the only featured artist on this album, so how did that come together?

J: I had just recently put out the first version of ‘Erotic Heat’ on Bangs & Works Vol. 2 and she contacted me. She heard it and loved it, and was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna send you some stems and you do what you please with them’. She sent the stems and, prior to that, I had never heard any of Holly’s work, so when she sent me them, I was kind of lost at first because I didn’t really know what to do. But I love to be challenged. I like to be in places where I don’t have easy ways out; it’s either I do it or I don’t and, in my mind, I don’t really have the option of don’t. Her music was like something I had never experienced before with the levels of vocal manipulation and reverb, so I was like, ‘OK, how can I incorporate this in my work?’ I set about trying to make it work, so I finished it, sent it back and she loved it. We just put it out there and when the idea of this album came about, Mike Paradinas was like, ‘We should put this track on there’, so I said, ‘Sure, as long as Holly says that’s OK’.

You mentioned your work for Rick Owens a little earlier where you contributed an extended version of ‘Erotic Heat’ to soundtrack a fashion show of his. It’s quite some time on from that now, so do you think, looking back, you’ve taken anything significant from that experience, whether it be musically or personally?

J: I learned a lot. It was nice working with somebody who I felt understood me. He and the people around him are just really nice people. The average person, who might not be used to that work and what he creates, might call it extreme or eccentric, but I like somebody I can consider edgy, because, I also find that when people see me; the first thing they might think about me, musically, is that I rap or make beats, in the sense of trap or hip-hop or whatever, and when they hear what I actually create, they’ll often be like, ‘Wait a minute, I wasn’t expecting this’. His personality and his work totally reflect that and it was nice working with somebody like that. It was a nice feeling to bring different forms of art together which I think is really important.

Just pausing briefly on that, you said people make assumptions about you when they first see you, so has that been an all-too-frequent problem?

J: Well, when you think music-wise, and if you hang with me or you see me or whatever, the average person will be like ‘oh yeah, she probably raps’. This is that stereotype and then I do what I do, so they’re more like ‘oh, I wasn’t expecting this whatsoever’. This especially links with the idea of being a woman in this kind of work and within the footwork genre. With it, of course, being male-dominated, people hearing my music but not knowing my background, will likely naturally assume that I’m a guy.

Is that a regular problem with people writing about you and your music, perhaps if they haven’t looked properly into your background?

J: I wouldn’t really say that because this was happening even before all of this attention and the work with Planet Mu. It’s simply because this scene is male-dominated. Now, I’ve personally not experienced the whole ‘you’re good for a girl’ thing, but I know people who have.

That’s an important point, of course, because often people might dismiss a problem since they’ve not experienced it, but we should always learn from other people’s experiences.

J: Exactly. It’s definitely a problem, and ultimately, what does my gender have to do with my craft and my work? They shouldn’t have to reflect that whatsoever, because if I’m good at something, I’m good at something, and if I’m bad at something, I’m just bad at something. Gender shouldn’t have anything to do with any of my work or anything I produce or create.

Coming back to working with somebody in the fashion industry, was it important when the approach was made for your music to feature in Rick Owens’ show that you knew, for sure, that he understood your work and that some kind of friendship was formed?

J: I think I’d mostly say that about somebody I work with on the regular, like RP Boo. With Rick Owens, we went to dinner one night and he kind of asked me that question but not in the exact words. I just told him that I have to hear the way you see. So, what he saw in his vision, I had to hear it in the same way. That’s what I meant when I spoke about the different art forms coming together where there’s a visionary and musical aspect joining together. It was his show and I had to study his work as well at the same time. I took a month to do that, just studying his fashion shows and seeing what I could draw from that, then seeing what I could do. It was funny though because he knew exactly what he was looking for in me when he first asked and I, on the other hand, was questioning myself in the process, like ‘is he sure?’ [laughs]. It took my mother to say he knew exactly what he was looking for and once she told me that, everything came into play and it started working for me and we were both very satisfied with the result.

It’s interesting that you spent time with his past work studying it, because often you might find that these kinds of collaborations can be less of a considered effort, and more just people putting in little work, merely for the attention it might receive.

J: Exactly, I think that’s important. It’s like, say you’re a dancer and you’ve been studying modern dance your whole life so you’re used to a certain aesthetic of music or motivation or influence, if I send you something that you’re totally not used to or don’t understand, rarely does that work. On the average, you’re not gonna feel that and it won’t be you. You have to be in there. So, it was important for me to study and understand his work. Even still, I got lost in the process because I was really hesitant, so it wasn’t a case of, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got this’.

The accompanying text with the album said that it took your entire life to make, as you said earlier, so are you using this album as a platform to vent or let go of certain aspects of your life from the past?

J: Absolutely, anytime I create, that’s what it is. I always tell people that my creativity lies in the belly of the beast and that’s exactly what it is. A lot of people think that ‘dark’ is a bad concept, but I think it’s a beautiful thing because that’s mostly where your best work comes from. You can say it’s dark, but you splash so much colour on it from what’s inside you. Everybody always puts negative connotations on the idea of darkness.

Following on from that, there’s also the quote that you can’t create from a happy place, so why is that?

J: Happy is already a state, so if you create something that’s happy… OK, wonderful… but when you’re in a place of distress or trauma, there are so many more directions that can go in to me. Something that’s happy can only truly go in one direction, whereas with something like distress, anger, trauma, there are so many more interesting possibilities that those emotions can create.

This all ties in with what I see as quite a militant dynamic running throughout the whole of Dark Energy. Do you want people to view your work as ‘statement music’?

J: Every artist, to me, should know why they’re doing what they’re doing. You shouldn’t create simply because it sounds good to you. That’s not a real response to me. If somebody asks me why I made something, I won’t just reply: ‘Well, it sounded good, so I went with it’. I might have told you something like that when I was first creating, but I definitely wouldn’t say that now. If you create something, it really should mean something more than that to you. I had to grow into all of this though, through a learning process. I didn’t wake up one day and just say, ‘Yeah, that’s Jlin, there it is’. That’s why I said it took my entire life to make this album and it comes back to having that comfort zone – if you don’t have one, the more progress you make and the more creative you become over time.

Dark Energy is out now on Planet Mu

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