In the late 1990s, footwork — a new style of dance music — erupted across Chicago’s black neighborhoods. Footwork’s hectic tempo and fragmented sampling was the soundtrack for a unique dance style, performed in competitive dance battles. This is the music Jlin (aka Jerilynn Patton) grew up with in Gary, Indiana. After a brief stint at Purdue University, she returned to Gary to work in a steel mill and work on music. She never was a direct participant in footwork circle events, but followed it closely on the Internet.
Footwork grew initially out of ghetto house — the raw, profane style promoted by the Dancemania record label. Early footwork sounded like ghetto tracks sped up to a frenetic 160 beats per minute, to accompany footwork dance battles. Cheap computers and cheap music software allowed producers all over Chicago to branch out and innovate constantly. Since the first footwork records came out around 1998, the hot action was on MySpace and later Soundcloud; producers, DJs and dancers could trade tracks without record labels or pressing plants.
When I spoke with Jlin via Skype in September, one of the first things she said was, “I am not a footwork artist.” When you talk to Jlin about her music, she speaks in metaphors, not the nuts and bolts of tempo and sample choice. Her album titles, Dark Energy and the upcoming Black Origami, speak to things hidden, obscured. She told Dummy magazine last year, “I have experienced some of the most beautiful things from darkness and blackness.”
Jlin connected with other music producers digitally: “Rashad, I met him when I was 19; I hit him on MySpace ’cause MySpace was really big as far as like if you wanted to hear exclusive tracks, because people were uploading music constantly. Rashad had done a track with Kanye West, a remix of ‘Flashlight.’ I hit him up. I said, ‘Yo, I love this track and I wondered if you can give me some pointers about music.’ By this time I was like, ‘OK, I definitely wanna try my hand at footwork.’ And I hit him up and asked him about it and he told me to call him. He was working a day job and he told me to call him on his lunch break, and we talked for his whole lunch break.”
While she still builds her tracks with samples, she’s moved away from the sped up R&B vocal hooks that are a footwork trademark. Her tracks have a 3/4 time, compared to the almost universal 4/4 of footwork. Vocal samples, usually women’s voices (Cate Blanchett shouting, “I am the Queen!,” Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford telling her daughter, “No Wire Hangers!”) feed into the mood, but are secondary to the crackling energy of her sequenced percussion.
Her songs vary restlessly from bar to bar, leaving behind the looped rhythms of other dance music.
When I asked about the years it took to find her own musical style, she said, “That was less music related and more getting in tune with myself.” Of her upcoming album, she said, “Black Origami is — that’s just me naked and vulnerable all the way. When people don’t like your work, that’s a good thing, when people do like your [work], that’s a good thing, but when people have no idea how to feel about your work, that’s an even better thing.”
Since Jlin’s debut album was released, she’s had an increasingly busy schedule of live performances all over the world. “I love it,” she said of touring. “The only thing that’s tiring is flying into different time zones. Other than that, this is what I do. I love what I do. I meet new people [who] appreciate my work because it’s very vulnerable. I’m vulnerable every time I perform.”
She’s more likely to perform at festivals or art museums (like New York’s PS1 and LA’s Broad) than in bars or dance clubs. She garnered wider notice when she adapted her song “Erotic Heat” for a Rick Owens fashion show, and she recently announced a musical collaboration with noted British choreographer Wayne McGregor.
Jlin’s positive reviews and growing fan base may be a result of her relentless self-critical attitude towards her own work. She said, “If my music is not honest, and it’s not vulnerable and it’s not naked, it’s not real. To me, just burn it, destroy it. It should be be demolished.”
She’ll bring her original and mysterious music to Gabe’s on Saturday, Nov. 5, for a midnight show following Jack Lion and Rhys Chatham, closing out the second annual Witching Hour festival. Individual tickets for the show are $10. Festival passes are $30 for one day or $50 for both Friday and Saturday.
Kent Williams spends his days contemplating chilling visions of things to come. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 208.