Jlin recently said, “I can make time and space disappear.”
But as I listen to Jlin’s new album, Black Origami, time and space emerge more saliently than ever. Time unfolds as I measure beats and count measures to keep up with each track’s ornate, idiosyncratic formal construction—it’s no wonder Jlin’s background is in engineering and mathematics. In turn, my body responds; as Jlin morphs her music beyond footwork’s conventional limits, her beats challenge dancers to reimagine their bodies in physical space. Typically, footwork tracks consist of complex sets of simultaneous rhythms in duple and triple meter, organized in eight-bar structures; Black Origami overwhelms listeners with even denser layers of overlapping rhythms that shift more quickly. “Just like music and math are the same,” Jlin contends, “Fighting forms and dance are one and the same.”
These analogies ring true when listening to Jlin: dancing to Black Origami is a struggle that can feel like a skirmish with the self. Likewise, when the footwork-adjacent producer DJ Innes premiered the title track from his new album Spirit, first in New York and then in Los Angeles, the crowd and the dancers were nonplussed: “I remember people kind of just standing there not dancing to it. It was intense. But after my sets people were coming up to me going, ‘yo, what was that!?’” From its first note, “Spirit” is a devastating din, shrouding listeners in an ambitious sonic wash. In my email interview with Innes, he emphasized the unusual amount of labor that went into this track: “It took the span of a whole year to make, which is completely at odds with the timeline of how I usually make music. It seemed to take this big long alchemical process to form into what it was, and I put a lot of emotion and energy into it.”
Both Jlin and DJ Innes have roots in footwork music, but like most artists they reject genre pigeonholes. Put simply, Jlin says, “I’m not a footwork artist.” DJ Innes’s collective, TEKK DJZ, insist similarly that their music can’t be defined so easily: “We are not a footwork crew. We are a band of entertainers. We make music.” It’s a cliché of music criticism to describe artists as “boundary-shattering,” yet, on both Black Origami and Spirit, Jlin and DJ Innes convincingly demonstrate that they’ve earned the right to refuse the rigid epistemological boundaries that genre labels enforce. Too often we assume that music easily traverses the conceptual definitions we all (fans, critics, and fellow artists) draw from as second-nature. In the process, we lose sight of the hard work and imagination required to traverse these limitations. The notion of boundary-breaking music also assumes something more literal, as artists poach and borrow sounds across geographic borders. There’s good reason to consider these two models of the border—conventional and geographic—together; in both cases, borders regulate bodies and restrict flows of language, culture, and information. But at times, the celebration of artists whose work easily crosses borders intimates a latent privilege—it’s much easier for some to cross borders when they’ve been granted the right passport. Elsewhere, this idea supposes something like a “postmodern” approach to art: a cultural logic that, among other things, signals the death of style—the distinctive individual brushstroke—through the free use of pastiche and bricolage. But postmodernism often carries an insidious politics—the neoliberal fantasy of art freely circulating without consequences only ever benefits the artistic ruling class and erases critical differences.
Too often, we assume borders and boundaries to be imaginary, conceptual things. But as Etienne Balibar points out, borders are not merely theoretical. Borders have material, often life-or-death, consequences. Characterizing borders can be notoriously tricky; as borders delimit meaning, the act of defining the word “border” itself seems to replicate the effects of borderlines. Or, as Balibar put it, “The theorist who attempts to define what a border is is in danger of going round in circles, as the very representation of the border is the precondition for any definition.” But we can work out some basic features; based on its etymology, “border” indicates cut, split, or division. And yet, borders also identify commonalities within their boundaries and their practical application requires a “reduction of complexity” (in Balibar’s words).
Whether consciously or not, Jlin and DJ Innes wrestle with this problem: how can artists subvert boundary-policing while honoring the real musical differences of artists across borders? For both producers, collaboration offers a solution.
Jlin composes with the conviction that borders—geographic and epistemological—are invalid. Her music shatters the notion of boundary-shattering. “I think when people have a tendency not to understand things, they like to categorize it, they like to box it,” Jlin explains, “because now they have the control over it. They can say—aha, I’ve caught it, I can name it. But some things cannot be named.” Rather than seeking a way to break out of any box or category, Jlin rejects classification in the first place.
For example, Jlin described the incredulity she confronted regarding her collaboration with the experimental composer William Basinski on the track “Holy Child”: “That track was really hard for me, because a lot of people were like, ‘William makes this type of music, and you make that type of music.’” This difficulty arose precisely because of the epistemological borders that enforce a partition of artistic forms and styles. As Jlin argues, “The arts should never have been separated. I don’t know why they are.” In the case of “Holy Child,” “People are so fascinated about me and William Basinski working together. William is an artist, I’m an artist. He’s authentically him and I’m authentically me. And you have two authentic people coming together. But because society has separated and categorized and genred and subgenred everything—it’s like they can’t even imagine it.”
Jlin’s approach to collaboration expresses a presupposition that flouts the legitimacy of borders. Her collaboration with Holly Herndon, on the track “1%” arose from a seemingly casual, hands-off interaction: “Right before I left her house when I was in Berlin, she’s like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna send you those stems!’ And I’m like, ‘OK!’ And she’s like, ‘OK!’” Basinski describes their working relationship similarly: “I just sent her this potion and, you know, she made the magic.” His only imperative was to allow the music to “breathe.” If we take Jlin’s artistic practice as evidence of how she positions herself in relation to the pervasive borders she’s critiqued, then the ease with which she navigates her collaborations reveals a radical insouciance to normative barriers.
Yet, borders nonetheless impose their material effects upon Jlin’s music. With Herndon, Jlin exudes the sense that “everything is kind of on the fly with us,” but this relaxed attitude only works because the two artists share a meticulous approach to sound that translates into cooperative trust. Otherwise, Jlin admits, “It would be a lot easier if I lived in Europe, wouldn’t it?” And before Basinski handed Jlin the potion in the first place, he mined the track’s alchemical elements from a sample of Baltic folk singers. Borders may not matter much to Jlin, but the Baltic folk singers who make up a constitutive part of the track’s magic remain anonymous—Jlin and Basinski alone claim authorship.
Much has been written about Jlin’s origins in the Chicago-adjacent city of Gary, Indiana, and its effects on the producer’s sound. The homologies between Jlin’s “Rust Belt modernism” and Gary’s declining steel industry are obvious. But little has been said about the effects of the border that separates Chicago and Gary. Despite her proximity to Chicago, Jlin wasn’t going to clubs or footwork battles when she began making footwork music. Rather, Jlin first heard footwork as an outsider, sharing tracks and techniques through Myspace with the late footwork doyen DJ Rashad. (“Holy Child” is a tribute to Rashad, who passed away in 2014).
DJ Innes, palpably knows and feels the limitations of these geographic borders. Originally from London and currently based in Melbourne, DJ Innes has been making and releasing music since 1998. Innes’s music bears traces of London’s jungle scene in the 1990s as well as the city’s rich history of experimental improvisation (he was once a member of the group Unknown Devices, headed by David Toop). Innes is from a Sami and Scottish background, but his family—father, uncle, and grandfather—are all musicians with a history performing Black British music—jazz, funk, and reggae—going as far back as the 1930s. So for DJ Innes, musical collaborations cohere only through the tireless effort necessary to bridge across material boundaries. For Innes, these musical partnerships are an ethical imperative: “Respect the originators. If you like the music, talk to the people that make the music.” Like Jlin, DJ Innes seems to see material borders as an impediment upon his ability to stretch and manipulate sounds. DJ Innes knows the true difficulty of breaking boundaries, and instead treats the musicians across these borders with the dignity and respect that’s so often lacking in “boundary-shattering” music.
In 2013, DJ Innes started to produce footwork tracks and literally crossed the globe, sharing knowledge and technique with musicians to study the culture. Innes spent two months in footwork’s homeland, Chicago—he not only learned his way around the MPC (one of the most important instruments in Chicago footwork) from OG’s Traxman and Boylan, he established a close working relationship with Traxman who became an all-around mentor and guru to the young musician. In Innes’s words, “[Traxman] instilled in me a lot of knowledge and history of Chicago music and track structure, and the feeling, the spirit.”
On the track “Spirit,” Innes collaborates with the Chicago Teklife producer DJ Phil, blending styles to shocking effects. The two producers began the track nose-to-nose in Chicago, but completed it bit by bit via Facetime over the course of several months: “A lot got poured into that track—love, sadness, and all the rest. . . Phil’s percussive heaviness is really in there too, it’s our energy and friendship in there for sure.” Whereas Jlin’s approach to collaboration was relatively hands-off—sharing tracks and trusting the other to do their part—DJ Innes thrives when he works closely with his collaborators, “digging through a lot of music together and just vibing off whatever we were feeling at the time.”
Critics often remark that it’s (difficult to discern) (who performed what) on any given footwork collaboration. The idea of musical collaboration usually indexes a sense of “feel” that arises from something like mutual improvisation, “jamming,” or at least a clearly defined division of labor—one lays the beat, the other rocks the mic. The unexpected methods that Jlin and DJ Innes employ belie the lasting artifacts of earlier generations who viewed electronic music as “inauthentic”—inhuman, machine-produced sounds, a solitary producer locked alone in a room, staring at waveforms on their monitor, and what are those DJs doing up there anyway? Instead, these musicians, reimagine what it means to find that “feel,” at and across the borders of footwork and the globe.