DJ Taye: The Teklife dojo's heir

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DJ Taye

It started with a Snapchat.

DJ Taye dismissed a 10-second snap of mentor and long-time friend DJ Rashad. Thinking nothing of another smoking selfie with goofy captioning, he was sitting in a Detroit booker’s house, making sure everything was all set before the show they were playing together in a few hours. Eager to show him the new stuff he was working on, young Taye started to get impatient, wondering what exactly Rashad’s “I’m on my way” meant. Ten minutes? An hour? Three?

“And then Boylan calls and he’s all like ‘Are you sitting down?’” Taye lets out a big breath, as he shakes his head. “And he just came out with it. And I’m like he’s supposed to be here in five minutes. This has got to be a big troll.”

The pioneer and arguable patriarch of Chicago’s footwork scene, there was no way Rashad Harden could be dead. Not right now. Not while Taye’s literally waiting on him. Laughing it off, he hung up, determined not to believe until close friend and collaborator DJ Earl called.

“He’s crying, so I knew it was real,” he slumped into his chair. “He was all hysterical. I just threw my phone and sat down, I didn’t know what to do.”

It’s a fortuitous day to meet up with Taye. Sandwiched in between South Loop skyscrapers and the CTA Red Line, we sit restless outside a quiet coffee shop franchise on a set of stern, plastic chairs, smoking cigarettes as faint thuds from the Frankie Knuckles tribute show float down Wabash Street. It’s a sombering reminder that Chicago’s electronic music community was still in a state of shock and grief, as Rashad’s death happened less than a month after Knuckles’s, the “godfather of house” and whose music makes up the fundamentals of footwork.

And the significance of meeting today isn’t lost on Taye, who knows he has big shoes to fill as the youngest member and mentee of Teklife, the legendary Chicago-based crew formed by the late Rashad.

It’s just a coincidence that his first digital release TEK x TAR Vol. 3 also came out earlier that morning, which made it a very busy day indeed for the Teklife torch-bearer.The alias of footwork upstart Dante Sanders, Taye is just shy of 20 (hence the coffee date), but has been making music since his pre-teen years. Starting off with hip-hop and slowly getting on the ghettotech grind thanks to a few friends in the know, 15-year-old Taye caught the attention of Rashad himself after he started throwing down in battles against men almost twice his age.

“It was fun,” he said. The side of his mouth curls into a small smirk as he rebukes any semblance of teenage insecurity with a sly, “I just knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Taye radiates a quiet confidence, something that’s rare to come by in someone so young. Especially someone who should ostensibly still be in the “finding themselves” phase. And it means he’s not easily intimidated. After all, just the week before, he was back in Detroit playing Movement Festival pre-parties and kicking back with Hyperdub overlord Kode9, the sonic curator behind the upcoming Hyperdub/Teklife digital releases. Introduced by Rashad, who was working on a series of collaborations before his passing, Taye sent over some songs, allowing Kode9 to pick and choose as he pleased.

“Things were getting set up,” he said. “Rashad put in a word, Kode already knew my music. I just sent him some tracks.”

Filled with minimal, pared down lines and sped-up beats, Taye has a talent for taking a whole mess of elements and somehow making them seem intimately interwoven yet counterintuitively orderly. It’s a delicate balance that many producers have yet to master, even though it’s definitely caught the ears of other crew members close to his production.

DJ Earl has known Taye since almost the beginning of his Teklife tenure and says his style has really progressed and become more complex over time.

“Back then it was really aggressive and really, really raw,” Earl said. “He’s more controlled now. It’s much more organized. There’s a focus on a bigger, more jazzier sound.”

And while he may now be taking a more nuanced approach, his music still remains innovative and instinctual. Which is evident when he doesn’t really know how to respond to the standard “influences” question most emerging artists are forced to field. Instead he humbly brushes off my compliments with a definitive, “I make weird music,” refusing to classify his music within any strict genre boundaries.

“I have concept albums. Like Radikal was a cutting-edge, hardcore sound… but my style is so weird, I don’t know who to compare it to.”

TEK x TAR Vol. 3 definitely fits (or defies) this album model. “Compilation” is probably a more apt term though, as the release ranges from the wobbly jello beats of “Fuck ‘Em”, to the warpy wonk of “Turn Up” and the unflagging “RollDatShitUp”.

And even though it’s been less than a day since the initial drop, Taye says everything was pretty positive so far.

“I wasn’t really expecting this much of a response,” he pauses for a second, hesitant. “I don’t want to say I didn’t put work into it, but I wasn’t like ‘I’m going to make the dopest EP.’ I mean it’s just natural. When I’m in the studio, I make a lot of dope music and I try to put it together so that people can hear it and they can understand the music.”

With aspirations of an audio engineering degree from Columbia College (hopefully bankrolled by the dates he’ll eventually be booking) and a summer tour that could potentially take him outside of the country for the first time, he may be young, but he’s accomplished a great deal. He’s also intrepid enough to go even further, and it’s this ambition that’s already landed him on multiple people’s radars.

We talk about future plans and he sparkles a little when he mentions going to London one day to work with the various Planet Mu and Hyperdub collaborators who’ve been receptive to his work thusfar. After all, it’s the city that gave birth to the jungle and drum n’ bass Taye’s been trying to gradually ease into his weird, new take on footwork.

“Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot,” he said when prompted about what he’s been experimenting with for future recordings. “Lots of Lemon D, Dillinja. I’m just trying to incorporate rap style and more jungle into footwork.”

It’s a change in direction first explored by Rashad, who worked with London-based Valve Recordings to make more connections between the two notorious, breakbeat-embracing genres. It also helps that both styles have a rich history of sound system culture, just further emphasized by a mutual admiration for each other’s work across the Atlantic.

It’s things like this that make the absence of Rashad even more poignant. The driving force behind the creative direction of Teklife and a father-like, guiding figure to all of them, Taye and the rest of the crew were left stunned and somewhat unsure of what to do after news of his death hit airwaves.

“It just happened so fast,” he lamented. “I don’t know. It feels just like yesterday. It’s weird.”

We continue talking about their relationship and remembering the good times, like backstage at last year’s Pitchfork Festival or playing Primary Nightclub. Shaking his head at the mention of the mini-documentary on DJ Spinn and Rashad’s trip to Monterrey, Mexico, which premiered earlier that day on, he looked down, his fingers fiddling idly with the headphones wrapped around his phone.

“I really, really liked it,” he smiled sadly. “It felt like I was there with them. Just through the laugh and the ‘oof’ and just the different way we say ’shi-eet.’ Just the little things he was saying, like no one else would do that. It was just very nice to watch.”

And while it’s now been a little over a month since Rashad’s passing, they’ve settled on an ethos of keeping busy to keep the grief at bay.

“We just gonna keep pushing, everyone we going to keep killing it,” he says several times. “Everyone’s pretty much on top of their game right now.”

To keep going, some members like Earl are setting up on live shows and Spinn is on a full- blown tour, but for now Taye’s more focused on putting out a few more releases.

“It’s like we got to keep Rashad alive. We’re doing it for the family,” he stresses the word “family,” his syllables harsh and poignant. “We’re doing it for the music.”

And to honor Rashad and continue said legacy, Taye says Hyperdub is planning on re- releasing all three of his EPs, the Double Cup album, as well as a possible Teklife-assembled compilation.

But an album isn’t necessary, as his impact on Taye’s work is already quite evident. Take his homage to Double Cup’s “We On 1” in the form of 3Lab5’s chopped up remix of “Promethazine”, the call and response cuts, the chop-and-screw style. Rashad is everywhere in his work. From his rumbly basslines to his warpy, warbly melodies, his mentor’s touch can be felt among the breakneck speeds Taye races against on the regular. And that’s the beauty of the entire Teklife experience. Because even while Rashad or other big members like Spinn and Traxman were out of town, other members of the collective would step up and help him out, all of them influenced to some degree by the group’s choppy, static-charged aesthetic. Influenced by “whoever’s around, since we always just teach each other,” they’re a family who truly shares a very similar set of musical DNA.

And Taye plays the part of the wacky, little brother well, continuing an innovative legacy rife with pulsating noise, reverberating beats and hypnotic vocal loops. As Earl put it, the two are not just close collaborators, but unrelated brothers. Fearless, just like his predecessors, he’s re-shaping what Rashad already made waves razing and rebuilding. Next in line to continue Teklife’s legendary legacy, expect big things from this deceptively quiet upstart.

DJ Taye's Tek x Tar Vol. 3 is out now on TAR.