Inside the Circle of Teklife
Teklife is decades in the making. Now a movement with international reach, fans are footworking from Chicago to Japan. This collective took the Chicago dance music of their childhood and transformed it into a genre and a culture of its own. Speaking to DJ Spinn and Gant-man, two founding members and elders of Teklife, you are reminded that massive journeys have humble beginnings. Between these two artists, and the late genius DJ Rashad, the foundation of Teklife is something decades in the making.
Gant and DJ Rashad met as kids, and Spinn and Rashad as teenagers, all attracted to Chicago’s thriving dance and house scene. At age 11 Gant was DJing at a South Side station called WKC, as part of what was called the ‘Young People’s Radio Network’. “They were auditioning kids to be on the radio, whether they wanted to be an announcer, a board operator, a DJ. Pretty much, I had my own little mix show, the program director was allowing kids to come on and learn. Rashad happened to be one of the ones who was already interested in DJing...me and him were the two youngest guys.”
Spinn’s dad was a disco and funk DJ, and Spinn was getting exposed to house music at local roller rinks as a kid - every skating rink had a disco and “that was the pinacle right there”. The music was straight house, although Ghetto house was creeping in - “it wasn’t so much that you said, that’s Ghetto House, but you they had house tracks that was ghetto. As compared to the bright melodies of house, Gant lists off some examples - “‘Beat That Bitch With A Bat’, ‘Work That Motherfucker’, stripped down, not too much melody. More beat driven and samples. Keyboard packing, as I call it. Drum machine beats. ”
"This how we live. Almost every day, we gon’ be doing this. Livin’ the Teklife..."
The older generation had house and disco, but the the next wave of Chicago dance music was beginning to form. Gant explains the transition, that “the next phase, our phase, was the Ghetto House. It’s still house, but it’s even faster and more stripped down. Basically, we were working with what we got. We didn’t have a lot of equipment, we were brand new to this equipment so we’d get a drum machine, no manual, and figure it out on our own.” This was the soundtrack to their nightlife, even before it had a name.
That DIY aesthetic that appealed to fans was out of necessity. Their movement was and remains truly underground, existing off the airwaves outside of the occasional mix. Their music was so different that you had to find it at parties. Spinn looks back at this time and comments that "it was so underground, I even think I'm crazy for doing that shit at the time. We didn't care!" This pioneering mindset trickled down to how it was made. “Everything was working with what you got. Go to someone else’s crib, they gave you two hours. 10 people passing around one drum machine, and everyone got two days...it was poor man hustlin’, that’s the best way I can call it.” For Spinn, the means hardly mattered. “We just wanted to make some noise.”
Soon, Teklife had a name as well. Before they were Teklife, they went by ‘GhettoTeknicianz’, shortened to ‘Ghetto Tekz’. Ghetto Tekz came to be in 03-04, and they were playing Ghetto House / Juke, but the transition to footwork was beginning to take place. As footworking emerged, people needed music to dance to. Spinn clarifies that "Footwork...wasn't a genre at the time...me and Rashad come from dancing so we set the trend of being dancing DJ dudes. So that was it, we wanted to make music that made you do that....we wanted to make beat tracks, repetitive, crazy shit." Gant was focusing on Ghetto House still, but Rashad and Spinn were meeting new demand for music the dancers wanted.“A dancer would want to hear music that made them dance. Not just jump up and down and party”, said Gant. “Play this music that’s gonna make me zone out on the dance floor. I want you to take all my pain away on the dance floor, and I can’t do that unless you play this certain type of track. Spinn, Rashad, Clent, RP Boo, and Traxman. Those are the main 5 people that made tracks strictly for the dancers.” The sound that defines Teklife as we know them today was beginning to take hold.
In 2011 Teklife made the jump from Ghetto Tekz to Teklife. The change represented a few factors. First, practical - small-minded mentalities from the corporate community meant the Tekz feared losing opportunities from the word “Ghetto” in their name. But larger than that, their collective had become a culture, and they wanted a name reflecting that. The Life embodied how all-encompassing this had become for them. Says Gant, “The life - we call it the life. We all friends, we all do this music, we all do the same stuff.” Spinn adds on - “This how we live. Almost every day, we gon’ be doing this. Livin’ the Teklife, coming from Technicians.”
"I want you to take all my pain away on the dance floor, and I can’t do that unless you play this certain type of track."
The next step was their move overseas - as music became digital in the 2000’s, Teklife’s fanbase came to include people around the world. Chicago's House boom had already seen popularity in places like Europe, but it was incredible to see something as niche as footwork start booming internationally. “We got a whole ‘nother audience in 06-07. Now the world could cop some tracks.” Technology was changing distribution and creation - better equipment and more use of computers had Teklife exploring new sounds. Drum machines led to mpc, and now "you could sample the sounds the way you want it into the mpc. However you want to tweak the sounds beforehand...vocals, keyboard, whatever, everything was going to be off this mpc. That's where all the elevation of the tracks went...now you can tweak your creativity." From there, they gained the ability to time-stretch on CD-J's, and began exploring the use of computers in production. "The technology changed everything."
DJ Rashad passed away in 2014, a friend and brother gone too son. He was an irreplaceable mastermind, and yet the whole point of Teklife was always to be larger than any one member. So through the pain and loss, Teklife pushed through. “We never stopped. We never stopped. Started the label up, started putting releases out on the label, kept it going. Keep it going, the clothing, the music, the events. We’re just getting started.” So as younger members like Taye and Manny come up, the circle of Teklife revolves and expands, bringing more and more new fans into the fold. “That’s the plan, that’s what it’s all about. We all supposed to help each other work on music, help each other elevate to the next. It shouldn’t get smaller, it should get only bigger. The bigger he get, the bigger we get. That’s the beauty of it. The end goal is to help each other live. Life, Teklife.” L’s up indeed, and RIP Rashad.
Catch a rare group performance of Teklife tonight as part of Red Bull Music Presents: Peak Time with Vivian Host featuring Teklife Live on redbullradio.com at the Promontory at 8pm.
For anyone who won’t get to attend they can listen to the re-air of the livestream on Friday, July 20th at 11am CST at https://win.gs/teklifelive , or find the embed above.