Review: Teklife – On Life
Last month, with absolutely no warning, Chicago’s Teklife label just dropped a massive 23-track compilation. As a compendium of active footwork producers, On Life is nigh-on unbeatable, boasting contributions from almost all major Teklife members and affiliates.
Unusually for a Teklife release, which usually revel in the dizzying power of collaboration, the majority of tracks here are actually solo cuts. This provides us with an interesting opportunity to compare the assembled producers’ styles and appreciate their individual contributions to footwork. With a collection this large, diving in at the top can be a little intimidating, so let me guide you straight to some of the highlights.
My favourite track is ‘Kant Fuk Wit Us’, a collaboration between Mel G and Sirr TMO that starts off a really solid mid-album run. Constantly pivoting throughout its runtime, at times its high-pitched synths and sheer velocity feel like a flirtation with trance. DJ Spinn’s ‘On Deck’ is another instant winner – it drifts along with screwed down vocals over gaseous synths, until this massive phaser bass comes in and derails the whole thing (in a good way, duh).
Moscow producer A.Fruit’s ‘Took a While’ is hugely soulful and expressive. Whether the hook “Took a while but I found my spot/squad” is about a wavy night out or a wider sense of belonging depends on how it catches you in the moment, but it’s a wonderful example of a footwork producer taking a phrase and mining it for all its emotive potential. As a contrast, Taso – flying high off last year’s New Start – brings a raucous club banger in the form of ‘Step the Fuck Back’.
Of the collaborations, perhaps the most interesting is '3 Fine Hoez'; a team-up between Boylan and the legendary DJ Deeon. Unsurprisingly, there’s a real ghetto house swagger to it. Filthy sex chat is hardly a rarity for a Teklife release, but here’s it’s given a nursery rhyme twist by a master of the form. Elsewhere, some of the best tracks are ones without vocals, where the producers can focus more heavily on mood and texture. True to its name, Gant-Man’s ‘Altitude’ starts off in the gutter but then just seems to rise higher and higher. Durban’s ‘Mercury’ is a cautious affair that conjures up a surprisingly hypnotic atmosphere.
Stylistically, perhaps the most notable trend is a particular attention to sound design – see the gurgling acid bass of ‘L’s Up For Rashad’ or the excellent synth work of ‘Lifehouse’ – with producers perhaps aiming to reach the heights set by DJ Earl’s excellent Open Your Eyes album from last year. Heavee’s ‘Panic Attack’ takes a rave-y approach, pairing horn stabs and divebomb synths with much chunkier drum sounds than we’re used to in footwork.
Having said that, there’s also plenty of classic sample-heavy tracks, with Slick Shoota’s anxious ‘Get U Some’ probably the best of these. Some producers make hay with a clever sonic concept, such as DJ Taye’s use of video game sounds as the building blocks for ‘Nu Pacman’. DJ Paypal’s ‘Volume’ is even better, with the Berlin-based producer sampling his MacBook volume key and using it as percussion(!) while also fading the track in and out at various points.
While it’s fun to focus on the highlights, it must be said that On Life isn’t a stellar compilation. There’s plenty to enjoy, but few producers bring their true A-game and too many of the tracks do little to stand out. As such, it fails to hit the heights of earlier footwork compilations such as Bangs & Works or Next Life, which might be a better place to start if you’re approaching this thrilling and vital music for the first time. Having said that, there’s more than enough good material here to make it worth the entry price – so get stuck in and discover your own favourites.
On Life is out now on Teklife.