Sound of the Underground: How New York's Litefeet Producers Are Making Sure It's Showtime in the City
Swizz Beatz, Diddy, and others are paying attention, but can the songs that New York's subway dancers move to become the next big thing out of the city?
Litefeet dancer Boy Aero / Photos by Julian Master
Time and space, according to the theories of Albert Einstein, are models by which we think—not conditions in which we live. But to the Bronx’s W.A.F.F.L.E. crew, things are more absolute: A little more time and a little more space can make a big difference, especially when it comes to their dance routine.
That’s the case on a warm midsummer night in the empty parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum. The crew has formed a circle, with each member taking turns shaking, sliding and swerving in the middle. W.A.F.F.L.E. (We Are Family For Life Entertainment) is one of ten or so crews in New York City that have become infamous for dancing within the confined space of its subway cars and making “it’s showtime!” two of the most polarizing words in the city. With more time and space to perform, W.A.F.F.L.E.’s members are able to fit in a barrage of acrobatic flips and turns amid their go-to moves, like the “Needle and Thread,” a foot-grabbing jolt that requires some serious flexibility, and the “Thunder Clap,” a classic dancehall two-step. More ideal conditions are not the only reason they’re pulling out all the stops; they’re putting a special amount of effort forth tonight because on one end of the circle stands legendary hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, who just finished DJing a set in the museum’s ballroom. After hearing about the crew and what they stood for, Beatz, who was also raised in the Bronx, agreed to meet them after the show.
“All my little brothers, that’s all they listen to,” he told me earlier backstage. “They dance to nothing but [those] instrumentals.”
Exclusive: Stream "Supernatural," from Hann's upcoming project Unknown Genre, below:
The “instrumentals” Swizz is referring to are the ones that are backing the dancers as they perform. They were created by two of the W.A.F.F.L.E. members themselves; unbeknownst to many, all the beats that the “showtime!” crews dance to are made in-house as part of a genre called litefeet. The genre, which can also be used to describe the culture of dancing and art its associated with, is built on a sound that’s evolved from decades of New York music, from the early bounce of hip-hop to the freneticism of Swizz’s own production in the 2000s. It uses a clap and kick that generations of Harlem or Bronx residents were raised around. It’s also, thanks to a new wave of young dancers and beatmakers, one of the most unique sounds coming out of the city right now. Just ask Diddy, whose new Pharrell-produced single, “Finna Get Loose,” shares many of its characteristics.
In fact, some of the dancers featured in the recently released “Get Loose” video are the same ones performing for Swizz Beatz in the parking lot. Being the showmen they are, the members of W.A.F.F.L.E.—most around the age of 18 and dressed head-to-toe in Adidas gear—plopped down a boom box and hit play almost immediately after introducing themselves to him. Their movements, captured in bright frames by cell phone flashes in the dark, seem to impress Swizz, but you can tell it’s the beat, based on a warped vocal sample belting “I be in the cut,” that has him aggressively dipping his head back and forth. He’s hearing something that he helped create—and a sound that could potentially become the next big thing out of his hometown.
“I like what I just heard,” he says. “People might not know it, but it’s definitely here.”
Litefeet dancer John O
Strangely, it’s been “here” for a little while. Back in the late 2000s, an early incarnation of the genre broke into the mainstream with songs like DJ Webstar’s “Chicken Noodle Soup” and Ron Browz’s “Pop Champagne,” which both started as neighborhood party jams in Harlem. While New York MCs like 50 Cent began to struggle at the time with the increasing popularity of dance music, Webstar and Browz were able to introduce a fresh take on the city’s sound to the radio. With its arrival in the mainstream, however, the music had reached a peak and quickly fell off soon after. A new generation of dancers and beatmakers are now putting their own touch on the genre, speeding up the tempo, adding thicker bass lines and creating more developed songs steeped in the litefeet sound. These evolutions, they believe, will help the genre reach a wider audience and once again rise to the top.
About a week after the performance in the Brooklyn Museum parking lot, I’m sitting in the Bed-Stuy apartment of the manager of Chris Designs and Lil’ Live, who together form the litefeet production duo Hann and were responsible for the beat that probably caused Swizz a minor neck injury. Both only 18 years old, Designs and Live are doing what you can usually find them doing: making beats. Projected on the apartment’s big-screen TV, their music-generating software of choice, Fruity Loops, comes off like a complicated game of Tetris. Designs, real name Chirstopher Garcia, sits in deep concentration as he snaps blocks of sounds—a kick, a bass line, a snare—together like Legos. He and Live, a.k.a. Dylan Skyler, are working on a song for an Adidas ad and using a warped sample of a classic Run-DMC track as its backbone.
Chris Designs, left, and Lil' Live, right, of production duo Hann
This is a formula often used by litefeet producers: adding heavy claps and kicks around a repeating vocal sample that’s either been pitched up or down. From there, they add the “hype,” which usually takes the form of chants (for those who have seen litefeet on the subway, it’s the audio form of the “hey!” and “let’s go!” cries yelled by the dancers), either also sampled or added in by the producers themselves. The end result can come off chaotic, but there’s a finesse behind the energy. No one understands this more than Garcia and Skyler, who pride themselves on crafting a more “clean” sound than their counterparts.
“We want to take it to the next level,” Garcia says. “We’re trying to have different structures and create builds-up in between.”
Both Garcia, who was raised in the Bronx, and Skyler, from Long Island, have been involved in the culture of litefeet since they were in middle school. They got into it for the same reason most middle school kids get into anything: because the cool kids were doing it. It’s what everyone talked about in the hallways; dance battles would occur over the weekend, and come Monday everyone would be buzzing about the moves that were pulled. Garcia, who now speaks with an eager confidence that coincides with his flattop haircut and the gold charm hanging around his neck in the shape of an AK-47, started dancing to be a part of something, he says.
“It was hard to fit in a little bit growing up in the Bronx. When you make music and do litefeet, a lot of people look up to you.”
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The current popularity of litefeet is the result of the genre gaining its second wind. Its origins can be traced clear back to the days of Harlem block parties in the 1970s, when the DJ’s record would skip and the crowd would fill the silence with a clap-based chant that’s still prevalent in the genre today. But the sound that currently defines litefeet didn’t start taking shape until the 2000s. At that time, DJs and producers, mainly from uptown, were creating simple, drum-driven songs that were meant to showcase specific popular dances in the neighborhood, like the “Tone Wop” and “The Bad One.” These songs were essentially sped-up hip-hop instrumentals, drawing inspiration from songs that were being played in New York City clubs at the time, like Bad Boy artist G.Dep’s “Special Delivery” or Swizz Beatz’s “Money In The Bank.” One especially popular song, “No Music,” created by uptown legend AG The Voice of Harlem, included a line that told the listener to “get the light feet going.” Thus, the “Get Lite” movement was born.
Popular New York artists like Webstar and Browz then started noticing the trend and taking it on as their own, bringing it to the mainstream and cementing its legacy as a genre. As quickly as it ascended to the top, however, it quickly fell back below ground. Trailblazing artists like Lil’ SNS, an originator of the Get Lite sound, stopped publishing new songs, and for a couple years the culture seemingly lay stagnant. Then, around 2011, a new generation of dancers and beatmakers “hit the refresh button,” according to Garcia. He, Skyler and others had their own dances that needed a soundtrack, so they took the Get Lite trend and turned it into litefeet by upping the tempo (to 107 bpm to be exact) and adding more layers to the sound.
A dancer at the Christian Cultural Center in Canarsie, Brooklyn
“The thing about ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ is that it was just a dance,” says Randy Vargas, also known as litefeet producer Kid The Wiz. “We’re making dance music period.”
Vargas, who introduced Garcia to litefeet while they attended middle school together, is often credited as being one of the first to increase the genre’s energy by adding more vocal samples and chants to tracks, as well as incorporating samples from contemporary songs like Kanye West and Jay Z’s “Otis” rather than chops of older hip-hop songs. Like many of his peers, Vargas believes that crafting a more complete sound will allow the genre to reach new levels—and stay there, unlike the Get Lite songs of the 2000s.
“Back then, it was simple—the hypeness of a track wasn’t too much,” he says. “Even me, I don’t want to listen to none of my old stuff because it’s so [simple]. I changed it up.”
But before it can reach higher levels, litefeet songs first have to get approval from the dancers. To those who have been around since the beginning of the movement, the increased speed and depth of the sound bring opportunities for new and more difficult moves. The fact that litefeet seemingly has more energy built into it than its predecessor is also useful—especially when producers like Vargas turn their mixes all the way up, according to dancer Chrybaby Cozie, who runs a community outreach program for kids involving litefeet and has been involved in the culture since 2005, appearing in both the "Chicken Noodle Soup” and “Pop Champagne” videos.
“Litefeet music fucking blows your speakers out,” he says. “A litefeet song will make you think that the other song files on your phone are messed up ‘cause it’s so loud.”
Litefeet dancer Goofy of W.A.F.F.L.E.
No one can attest to that more than Garcia, who is constantly being warned by his manager to turn down the volume in his headphones at the risk of losing his hearing. As I watch him build the Run-DMC-sampled track, he turns up the volume on the song’s kicks to give them more oomph. Skyler, more quiet than his music partner but outspoken when he feels the need to be, watches from afar on the couch, voicing opinions every so often on where certain sounds should be placed. This is how the two have operated since they first met through a litefeet message board years ago. One will build the skeleton of a track and then send it to the other, who will then add more layers to it and send it back. It’s a collaborative process based on individual inspiration and experimentation.
The duo’s unconventional workflow has led to a fair amount of success thus far in their young career. In litefeet, dance squads take on certain beatmakers as sponsors, only using their music for performances. The W.A.F.F.L.E., Team Rocket, and Breakfast Club crews have all chosen Hann as their go-to beatmakers. Garcia and Skyler are working on a demo for at least one label that has shown interest, and they are releasing an EP of original litefeet productions next week. The group’s manager, Brandon Robinson, believes that the record will not only show the range of the duo, but also the genre of litefeet as a whole.
Lil' Live, left, Chris Designs, center, and Kid the Wiz, right, in the studio
“There’s now this global underground circuit where [dance genres like] footwork can live… and also there’s the mainstream format,” he says. “Litefeet has this duality of being these two things that other genres haven’t really been able to tap into.”
Other litefeet artists, like Vargas, M-Live (not to be confused with Lil’ Live), and Arnstar, the brother of New York hip-hop artist Lil’ Mama, have also been steadily releasing tracks and pushing the genre to its limits. Vargas and Arnstar specifically are adding a new element to things by rapping over the high-tempo tracks, further blending the lines of where hip-hop ends and litefeet begins. The addition of vocals, they say, will be key in increasing the genre’s popularity.
If it were to become widely successful, the genre could fulfill a broader purpose of quieting the critics questioning where the originality is in New York music today. This is true in the rock world, where the concept of a “New York band” is glorified and sought after even when sometimes there simply isn’t one. And it’s even truer in hip-hop, which celebrates New York as the birthplace of the genre and criticizes any native MC who doesn’t use the classic “golden-era” sound. Critics would have to recognize that litefeet is deeply rooted in the city’s history and is what a significant portion of its youth listen to today. Go to a house party uptown, and chances are you’ll hear at least one litefeet track.
“You’ll always hear one or two,” says producer M-Live, who originally taught Skyler how to make beats. “I’ve been to a hood party before with guys with their shirts off, pants sagging and designer belts, and they were playing [it].”
Of course, for those within litefeet, the New York naysayers fall on deaf ears. They couldn’t care less. All that matters to them is crafting something true to both the culture and themselves. With each beat they make, Garcia and Skyler want to challenge their dancing brethren. Often, the beats come from challenges they face themselves.
Dancers at the Christian Cultural Center in Canarsie, Brooklyn
“A lot of times our expressions live through our music,” Skyler says. “If I’m feeling some type of way, that’s how our music is going to sound.”
A few weeks after meeting Garcia and Skyler in their studio, I’m riding the L train to nearly its end in deep Brooklyn with Garcia, Skyler, and a photographer. We’re on our way to a dance battle in a church and running more than an hour late because the guys and the rest of the W.A.F.F.L.E. crew spent all day shooting a beat-making video with Red Bull in MixPak ‘s Greenpoint studio. Somehow, they show no signs of fatigue and plan to DJ the battle. It’s their first-ever gig.
The church has the look of a rural megachurch, and when we step into its packed lobby, there’s a crowd of all ages. Even though they’ve come to watch the battle, the crowd members are dancing themselves, including a row of elderly women who are breaking out a slow and smooth version of the two-step. Inside the competition circle, the moves being displayed are less about acrobatics and more about hand movements, almost more interpretive dance than anything. Regardless, with each move, the crowd cheers along enthusiastically, giving the room a vibe of positivity and excitement. Unfortunately for Garcia and Skyler, who have slid in behind the judges table and onto a laptop hooked up to the sound system, the speakers have already been blown to bits, drenching each song that comes out in a coat of static. They also seem a little nervous, accidentally cutting off songs before they finish and taking noticeable time to pick what’s played next. In all, they play a pretty uneventful 20 or so minutes before the battle ends.
The unevenness of their first gig doesn’t seem to faze them as we make our way home, however. On our walk to the train, Skyler jokes that we can’t take the L because “Meek Mill already did,” in reference to the war of words going on between the Philly rapper and Drake. We also pass a group of dancers, who playfully heckle Garcia about giving them some tracks, to which he simply smiles and shakes his head. Evidently, the duo has held off on supplying beats to crews lately in order to work on their new EP—a consequence of creating a litefeet project where the music stands on its own. But as we get on the train, which fills to the brim with those who attended the battle, it becomes obvious that nothing in litefeet really stands on its own—that’s against the point. Instead, it’s about preserving a culture, similar to the early days of hip-hop. To that notion, Garcia views litefeet as a platform.
“I want to be able to broadcast litefeet and then broadcast my own style of music,” he says. “I see myself everywhere. I just want to show the world.”
Reed Jackson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter.
Julian Master is a photographer living in New York. Follow him on Instagram.