Review: Dj Earl – Open Your Eyes


DJ Earl is one of a number of producers trying to push the form of Chicago footwork further into strange new shapes, an aim which sees its most fully realised form in his new album Open Your Eyes; only the second release on Teklife's label arm following the posthumous DJ Rashad compilation Afterlife.

One of the key aspects of Teklife has always been its internal network of influence – and indeed, every track here is a collaboration with at least one other artist. Most of the names will be no surprise – footwork veterans like DJ Manny, Taso, and plenty of other Teklife members from Chicago and further afield.

However, there’s one name that stands out amongst these – Oneohtrix Point Never, aka Brooklyn musician Daniel Lopatin. We’re told he worked very closely on the project with Earl – in fact he’s featured on three of the tracks and also credited on mixing duties. It seems likely that Lopatin is partly responsible for the album's wide variety of synth textures. On 'Ratchett' alone they buzz, hum, whine and glisten.

Footwork has always been omnivorous in terms of its sample choices – everything from sun kissed soul and disco divas to internet memes and Kanye West. While Earl draws on this, his collaboration with Lopatin also brings a (largely) new palette to the table. Broadly speaking, footwork has undergone a transition from stripped-down battle tracks to stuff that’s more texturally fleshed-out, and Open Your Eyes continues this trend.

The format – 8 tracks in just under 30 minutes – works to the music’s strengths; long enough to explore a number of different ideas, but not too long as to suffer from repetition, a fate which has befallen many a footwork album. From the very beginning – the powerful cover art and the synth flurry that opens 'Smoking Reggie' – it's a capital-A artist project that also happens to work pretty damn well as a collection of club tracks. A glance at the tracklist confirms as much. ‘Smoke Dat Green’; ‘Lotta A$$’ – this is still party music at the core.

Occasionally this works to its detriment – as though it’s not really sure what type of footwork album it wants to be – but most of the time it results in adventurous, expressive music, albeit with a functional spine. That is to say – it still bangs, but it’s not exclusively or even primarily catering to battlers or even dancefloors.

In all honesty, some of the elements that first thrilled UK audiences when footwork started spreading out of Chicago are now a lot easier to take for granted. But a craftsman like Earl can still make them pop with energy – creative vocal chops, complex triplet patterns and dizzying speed reminding us why this music was such a breath of fresh air in the first place.

So what of the highlights? ‘Let’s Work’ layers a wonderfully treated vocal over late night jazz instrumentation, with a constantly shifting beat that keeps veering into 4/4. ‘Drumatic’ draws heavily on a selection of great brass motifs and demonstrates that footwork doesn’t always need to rely on vocal samples to add some colour, while ‘Smoke Dat Green’ is a supremely laid back head trip, floating along on celestial synth figures. For its concision and experimentation, Open Your Eyes takes its place as one of the strongest footwork projects to date.

Open Your Eyes is out now on Teklife, grab a copy right here.

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