Charlie Frame reports from The Exchange in Bristol

Photo by Lorna Rider

There is energy in the air tonight, the kind that jostles particles and pricks the hair. It is potent, breath-bating, not unlike the moment between flash and thunder roll. Invisible, palpable, but not groundless. The vibrations that carry between between bodies and walls are very real. Something incredible is about to happen and somehow we know it.

In a 2011 review of the groundbreaking Planet-Mu compilation, Bangs & Works II, I hypothesised about the possibility of footwork ever ‘doing a dubstep’. Could this burgeoning but once highly-localised Chicago dance genre ever blow up big enough to gain significant mainstream traction? Was there scope enough within its erratic rhythms and rough-cut samples to become a household term, even entering the commercial charts just as dubstep did around the turn of the last decade? 

Reactions to this question were mixed. Many people opined that footwork, for all its innovations, could never breach the purview of those without a specialist interest in exotic, underground beats. "Too weird, too frenetic, too unpolished" was the consensus. But let’s not forget that with the example of dubstep, the early stuff was also pretty darn weird. Even a track like Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’, long since immortalised in the dance music canon, didn’t exactly foretell the kind of mainstream success he and many of his peers would enjoy in years to come. 

For a little while at least, the rise of footwork was hard to ignore. DJs Rashad, Spinn, Traxman and RP Boo released high-profile records and embarked on tours across America and Europe. Tastemakers like Kode9 and Om Unit explored crossovers between footwork and UK bass music. There was even a kind of slash-genre which fused the styles of jungle and footwork together, spawning increased interest and breaking footwork to bigger and bigger audiences.

Then one day in April 2014, DJ Rashad was found dead in his Chicago apartment. Tributes ran throughout the music media; an outpouring of grief at the tragedy of a true talent cut off at the peak of his powers. Without its key exponent to lead the charge, it seemed footwork was in danger of retreating back into obscurity.

But time, as they say, is a healer. In December 2015, a release from earlier that year by one of footwork’s relative outsiders hit number one in the Album Of The Year lists of both the Quietus and Wire magazine. What was remarkable wasn’t just that this challenging and supposedly specialised genre was now back on top of the underground music menu. Nor was it to do with the fact that the artist in question came from Gary, Indiana as opposed to Chicago, 25 miles away. It wasn’t even to do with her operating as a woman in an almost entirely male-dominated scene. 

Jlin’s Dark Energy was remarkable because it achieved the tricky balancing act of sticking rigidly to the footwork template while completely revolutionising the form. Whereas previously, artists like Rashad would have found diversity through the sampling of hip hop and drum & bass, Jlin’s style was more like a distillation of footwork at its most pure and potent. Instead of the hastily-chopped rap sampling that typified the average footwork joint, these were carefully composed pieces drawing from a palette of found sounds, movie dialogue and expertly-crafted kicks, hats and bass drops. The sound design alone was unprecedented with each breathless moment teetering over the fulcrum of elegance and menace. 

No sooner have the final waves of Roly Porter’s set (the perfect foil for tonight in all its super-saturated noise-sculpting glory) died down than the infamous hurlement from Mommy Dearest rings out over the Exchange: "I am NOT one of your FAAAAANS". And just like that, the static pressure that’s been building up around the room is released. 

Bristol, the UK’s surrogate capital of bassweight, can’t quite believe what’s hit it. The roar is almighty as a whirlwind of beats is unleashed on the crowd. Samurai swords swish and slash over throat-grabbing bass throbs. Tom drums collapse in on themselves like falling buildings. Tiny eddies open up in the throng as some of the more brazen dancers attempt to recreate the frantic footwork moves from YouTube dance-offs, like Riverdancers on speed. 

And at the eye of this storm stands Jlin herself, here tonight on the auspices of her first UK performance. Rarely standing still, she is a superconductor channelling all the enthusiasm in the room and sending it back out in an unrelenting stream of energy. The sound truly never lets up: a masterclass in what can be done with the 160bpm format, always morphing, shifting and blind-siding her audience. 

In this context we’re aware of two things that might not be apparent when listening at home or on headphones. Firstly, this music is incredibly fun to dance to. It’s impossible not to move, whether one attempts to footwork or just casually bop along to the rhythms. Secondly, Jlin’s attention to detail – to her sound design – is transcendent. While traditional footwork and juke was designed to be fast, functional and therefore extremely rough-cut, Jlin has also found a fanbase in avant-electronic circles thanks to her unique approach. The signature "duh-duhduh duh-duhdu" canter on ‘Expand’, her collaboration with Holly Herndon, sounds particularly impressive over the Exchange’s PA system. This is a dish best served loud, and I find myself regretting having never heard Jlin’s music on anything bigger than my home stereo up until now. 

As she tears through the material on Dark Energy and its accompanying EP, Free Fall, other tracks from the footwork nebula are segued into the mix. Ending with Traxman’s incendiary ‘Blow Your Whistle’, the set stops as abruptly as it starts, and the response is unanimous. 

Something special happened tonight, and as we pick our minds off the floor it feels as though some sort of milestone has been reached. In the space of around an hour, the future has been flung into the faces of an unsuspecting but hugely appreciative Bristol crowd. Jlin walks away from her equipment looking exhausted, emotional and grinning ear-to-ear, as if every joule of energy has been spent willingly on her audience. 

Whether this is the start of something new, something big, something world-shattering, it’s hard to say. These things work in the strangest of ways and it would be foolish to try and predict whether tonight’s proceedings and the following dates on Jlin’s European tour might have any sort of knock-on impact on the state of dance music to come. All I can say is that this is the most intricate, futuristic and most-of-all fun sound being played out in the world today, bearing all the hallmarks of accessibility while still remaining as confrontational and undumbed-down as ever. It would therefore be even more foolish to try and ignore the inexorable rise of Jlin’s dark energy.

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