Former footwork wunderkind DJ Nate resurfaces in Chicago's rap scene | Bleader

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Former footwork wunderkind DJ Nate resurfaces in Chicago's rap scene

Posted By on 05.01.13 at 01:07 PM

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It's a pretty busy week for Chicago rap, with loads of locals rolling out mixtapes left and right. Vic Spencer released The Catalog Don on Monday, the same day MMG's Rockie Fresh tossed The Birthday Tape online, and Drake-cosigned rapper Lil Herb is set to drop a best-of compilation of cuts he made with Lil Bibby called Heir Apparents. But the thing on everyone's mind yesterday was Acid Rap, the second mixtape from Chicago phenom and recent B Side cover star Chancelor Bennett, aka Chance the Rapper. The anticipation for Acid Rap leading up to its release was infectious, at times almost inescapable, and quite overwhelming. Fake Shore Drive crashed shortly after founder Andrew Barber posted the mixtape Tuesday afternoon.

There's a lot to love about Acid Rap, too much to properly tackle and unpack after one listen or even half a dozen plays; the songs are so finely detailed that I still find new things in tracks he let loose months ago. But it's quite clear from a cursory listen that Chance really lays everything bare, discussing subjects from his fear of death to his nostalgia for bygone days with remarkable insight. Sharing these kinds of intimate details isn't new for Chance, and it's long been part of the reason he's such a relatable MC, but he digs deeper on Acid Rap and embeds his vulnerabilities in the fabric of his music—quite literally in the case of closer "Everything's Good (Good Ass Outro)," which begins with a recording of a private phone conversation between Chance and his father, Ken Williams-Bennett.

Acid Rap is rife with references to Chicago life and culture. Of the many subtle hat tips sprinkled throughout the mixtape, one caught my ear particularly early, just after Chance name-drops the Reader on "Pusha Man": "Shouts out to Nate / I jackball and I bop I flex." The line is a reference to "Gucci Gogglez," a regional hit by DJ Nate, whose name should sound pretty familiar to fans of juke and footwork.

For a little while during the last decade, DJ Nate (aka Nathan Clark) was posited as one of the heavy hitters in the local juke scene. He'd pile up hyperactive syncopated beats that rattle away at more than 140 beats per minute, eerie and simple synths, and pitch-shifted pop vocal samples and repeat them like a broken record—one that's meant to be listened to at 33 revolutions per minute played at an RPM of 78—creating an unusually woozy and spellbinding set of songs. Clark's eccentric take on footwork earned him accolades outside of the local scene,* and in 2010 London label Planet Mu released a compilation of 25 DJ Nate songs called Da Trak Genious.

And then Clark disappeared into the ether—at least to some footwork fans. He kept making music, but went back to what he says is his first love: R&B. "I started actually doing R&B music when I was eight years old," Clark says. He began by singing on his grandparents' karaoke machine as a kid, and really took to music after his grandmother died. But R&B took a backseat when he went to high school on Chicago's north side. "When I was in high school I was around the people who made footwork," he says. The way Clark explains it, the decision to make footwork was natural—it made sense in his surroundings. It also made sense to drop footwork as soon as he moved from school. "There wasn't really any point," Clark says.

These days Clark's interest in R&B is enmeshed in a strain of the drill sound—he says it's party music that captures the feel of Chicago. Last summer Clark released a mixtape under the name DJ Nate Aka Baka Da Flexxbabii called Flexx Washington; it included "Gucci Gogglez," which Clark released a video for in September. The clip has amassed close to 300,000 views in nearly seven months, and it garnered Clark a high-profile fan early on—Chief Keef.

"The same day that I dropped the video, he [Keef] called me," Clark says. "[He] asked me could he get on it." That day Clark went to a professional studio to record a more polished version of the tune and left the second verse out for Keef. In recent weeks Keef has dropped a hint about the new version of "Gucci Gogglez" on Twitter, and artwork for the song has started circulating online.

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The original "Gucci Gogglez" is still gaining traction; Clark says local hip-hop station Power 92 has been playing it for weeks. The newfound airplay may explain why Clark decided to toss a version of the song edited for radio on his brand-new mixtape, 13, which appeared on DatPiff last Friday, two days after Clark turned 23. On parts of 13 Clark cloaks his voice with so much Auto-Tune that it's sometimes hard to tell when he breaks from rapping to singing and vice versa, and his sultry mechanized vocals have the power to cut through both hard and cold drill beats. Stream 13 below, and prepare for DJ Nate to become more of a presence in the local rap scene.

* I first heard of DJ Nate during my senior year at Brandeis University in a class taught by Wayne Marshall, onetime subject of a Sharp Darts column by Miles Raymer. When Marshall played his "May Be Sum Day," it took me by surprise and kept me interested in the producer for years. (Full disclosure: Marshall wrote letters of recommendation on my behalf when I applied to graduate school some time ago.)

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.

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