The next time you're at Lowe's, take a look at the person in the back unloading drywall. That guy could spend his off-hours as a musical pioneer.
It's true of RP Boo. He is the founder of footwork, the polyrhythmic electronic dance music style that's allowed DJs like Rashad and Slugo to build successful, internationally recognized careers. Until this year, though, the 41-year-old was unknown outside his hometown of Chicago, and working in receiving at the home-improvement retailer. With the May release of his album, Legacy, Boo is finally being recognized. It took almost two decades to happen, but he isn't bitter.
"Rashad is very versatile, very good," Boo says of footwork's most well-known practioner. He laughs. "If the people like Rashad, wait 'til RP comes over. Heâs gonna show you where it comes from.â
Boo introduced Chicago to footwork back in 1997, via the Ol' Dirty Bastard-sampling "Baby Come On." Though it shares some traits with the style known as juke—a boiling tempo around 160 beats per minute and the use of drum machines instead of drum samples, namely—footwork takes everything else to the next level. Juke's slightly off-kilter house beats become a stammering collection of drums barely qualifying as a rhythm, and where juke also uses repetitive hip-hop samples, footwork pitch-shifts and filters them. In short, it sounds like house music having a seizure.
As with many musical phenomenons, Boo created footwork largely by accident. He'd been moving feet in the Windy City underground since 1991, with just a pair of turntables. "I was playing what the radio would play, so hip-hop and R&B," he says. "It was hard for me to get house music. I didn't know the history of it." As he was exposed to more of Chicago's vaunted music scene, including house, Boo became interested in not just playing songs but producing them. He saved money and bought a display copy of a Roland R-70 drum machine—one that came without an instruction manual. He improvised a cumbersome, imperfect method for copying drum patterns, and began making beats based around hectic, stuttering rhythms only the best dancers could detect. Footwork was born.
The title of Boo's new album is ironic: Other than Legacy, a few compilation appearances and double-copied cassettes passed around Chicago, Boo doesn't have any official releases to his name. He claims to have upward of 800 unreleased tracks, showcasing both his versatility and just how far ahead of the game he's been. "I can take two years off and come back and play a track that's 10 years old and people will think itâs two days old, or they swear someone else made it,â he says.
In 2010, the English label Planet Mu—which also issued Legacy—put out a compilation titled Bangs & Works Vol. 1, featuring two Boo songs, "Total Darkness" and "Eraser," which proved instrumental in opening ears outside Chicago to footwork in general and Boo specifically. Since then, footwork has taken off, especially in continental Europe. Boo, however, has never toured there—or at all, for that matter. His upcoming show in Portland will be his first on the West Coast. He's not reveling in his newfound worldwide stardom, though, even after going for two decades with his talent unnoticed. Nor does he seem overly concerned with being underappreciated in the past. He just seems grateful for the opportunity to bring his creation to a larger audience.
"The mentors that I had are the ones I have today—that's the crowd of people that's enjoying the music," Boo says. "I feed off what they do." The Portland show probably won't have many warp-speed dancers footworking to his music, but Boo doesn't mind. "I don't care if people know how to footwork," he says. "I'm gonna tell you what you do: Be yourself. That's the most beautiful thing. If you movinâ, I got you.â
SEE IT: RP Boo plays Yale Union, 800 SE 10th Ave., with DJ Manny and Massacooramaan, on Friday, Oct. 11. 10 pm. $12. All ages.